Academic feminist film criticism has brought some attention to the woman's film as a genre, but most widely-known woman's films gained their cultural prominence through the attention of men – gay men, who made a cult of Garbo and Dietrich, Hepburn and Stanwyck, and especially Crawford and Davis. It's an oddity of the history of Hollywood film reception that straight men hero-worship the male directors they've nominated as “auteurs” while gay men diva-worship the female stars. Moreover, to judge from the type of directors likely to be embraced as important auteurs by either the French New Wave critics or their American followers you might assume that the great American cinematic subject is “men being violent” (although sometimes this subject is under scrutiny, as in the films of Nicholas Ray and Paul Thomas Anderson). Perhaps the only prominent male critic to write about the woman's picture is Stanley Cavell in the 90s, and I have never seen this work cited by other critics, whereas I see his work on screwball comedy cited all the time. Douglas Sirk (taken seriously since the championing of Fassbinder in the 70s) is the single fashionable auteur who directed woman's pictures.
The “machismo” of the American film canon is all the odder when you consider that the gynocentric side of the war between Fieldingites and Richardsonians in academic criticism of the English novel triumphed over the androcentric side long before the advent of academic feminism, with F. R. Leavis's The Great Tradition (1948) a pivotal salvo in the battle. Harold Bloom has often spoken of the “lines” of Richardson and Fielding and their separate supporters; Leavis wasn't fond of either, but his favouring of Austen, Lawrence, and honourary English novelist helped to put heroines at the centre of the English lit canon. But this is the English novel. American Romanticism and the odd “novel” that it produced is, as Leslie Fiedler pointed out, often conspicuously and purposefully devoid of women, although one must also contend with Hawthorne and that cultural misfit, his admirer, James.
I am not so much pleading for criticism of American films to adopt a more gynocentric approach as I am pointing out the arbitrary elements of canon formation, which in this case reflected the way that both American and French male critics (and Pauline Kael) thought about what it means to be “American.” Likewise, the gynocentric slant of criticism of the English novel reflects what critics came to think the novel should be about, namely interiority; although with Modernism an even more highly developed interiority is instead attached to the autobiographical protagonist, who will now be male when the author is male (as he usually is).
Given the present state of the American film canon, however, a corrective may be in order. With the field divided between a macho auteurism that favours movies in which women, if present at all to a significance degree, are relegated to the sidelines and traditional roles (however feisty they may be in them, as in the Ford and Hawks Westerns), and the seemingly endless fascination with film noir, a genre in which women are represented by the femme fatale, it can't hurt to bring more attention to the woman's picture and to the many interesting directors (such as Frank Borzage, William Dieterle, and frequent woman's picture director King Vidor) who have never become fashionable auteurs perhaps in part because they were not especially interested in masculinity as a subject.
A film critic friend of mine once told me that noir was the only genre of which it can be said that every member was interesting, and while I agree with him about the inherent interest of noir, I think the same can be said for the woman's picture if it can be considered a genre. Does a Hollywood movie become a woman's picture just because it stars a woman – meaning that women will watch movies starring men but not vice versa? It can sometimes seem so, although women can also be the stars of horror films (or, today, action films*) and the co-stars of romantic comedies and dramas. In the woman's picture, however, men are usually love interests or secondary characters. A woman's picture can star a man, however, like Sirk's There's Always Tomorrow, which puts Fred MacMurray in the same trapped middle-class position as Jane Wyman in All That Heaven Allows; just as a woman can be the protagonist of a noir (e.g. Ophuls's The Reckless Moment), although noirs with female protagonists are usually considered noir/woman's picture hybrids, which by rights should be the most interesting genre of all – and it's true. There is also a sub-genre of woman's picture, or woman's picture/noir, in which the male protagonist falls in love with a woman he's never seen in the flesh, who does not appear for the first stretch of the film (e.g. Preminger's 1944 Laura and Dieterle's 1945 Love Letters), which shows the influence of the Gothic on both genres and serves as a bridge between Wilkie Collins's 1859 The Woman in White and Alfred Hitchcock's 1958 Vertigo.
I was prompted to reflect on these things after seeing a couple of interesting forgotten classical Hollywood, Nicholas Ray's A Woman's Secret (1949), with a screenplay by Herman (of Citizen Kane authorship controversy) Mankiewicz, and People Will Talk (1951), written for the screen and directed by the other Mankiewicz brother, Joseph. Joseph Mankiewicz is not a fashionable auteur even though as a writer-director and sometimes writer-director-producer he is an auteur a la lettre. Is this because he was so often associated with woman's pictures, such as his most famous movie, All About Eve? People Will Talk, released the year after All About Eve (and with its same producer, Darryl F. Zanuck), is a remarkable comedy-drama in which Cary Grant's eccentric, progressive, cultured, and magically benevolent Dr. Praetorius (that's correct) becomes romantically involved with a woman who's become pregnant out of wedlock (that's correct), for which she is neither shamed nor punished. It's evident that attacks on 50s conformism started early in the movies – a lot earlier than Sirk's 1956 All That Heaven Allows (a movie kindred in spirit), maybe as early as the great Mildred Pierce (1945). The tension between conformism and individualism in American culture is American culture, of course, and People Will Talk sometimes reminded me of a Mr. Deeds Goes to Town if the latter were populated by atheist intellectuals instead of small-town innocents.
Jeanne Craine is not as much of a feminist in this film as she first appears... but Cary Grant is.
As for A Woman's Secret, it seems to have slipped through the cracks of the canon because it made no impact at the time and does not fit in with the auteurist-friendly subject of many of Ray's later films, starting with the success of Rebel Without a Cause on: aforementioned masculinity. It's easy to see why A Woman's Secret did not set the world on fire at the time of release, and it's for the same reasons that it's so delightfully charming now. It is absolutely a screenwriter's picture, and Mankiewicz has no interest in any of the genres that it dabbles in, from woman's picture to murder mystery. The murder plot in fact makes no sense psychologically, and the two women it involves (played by Maureen O'Hara and Gloria Grahame) are shoved into the background and flashbacks while Melvyn Douglas takes centre stage as a world-weary author avatar.
Drat... I just had that rug cleaned!
The Svengali melodrama in which O'Hara and Grahame are embroiled could be a lot of fun, as it is in the Cukor-directed Gothic melodrama A Woman's Face (1945), starring Douglas, Joan Crawford, and Conrad Veidt. Mankiewicz, however, gives it perfunctory treatment, instead developing the comedic characters of the long-suffering elderly police inspector and his exceedingly eccentric, mystery novel-reading, amateur-detective wife, who finally, semi-inadvertently, provides the key (literally) to the mystery. The sharp-edged interaction between these characters, played by Mary Philips and Jay C. Flippen, is delightful; while Philips's character is a patented “batty woman,” it's evident that she chafes at her husband's mild/gruff, but withal complacent, patriarchal authority, and Philips gives her line readings just the right note of off-kilter menace to be laugh-out-loud funny, especially when she seizes an opportunity to declare, “I could have you committed, you know,” soon after missing his coffee cup and dumping a spoonful of sugar into his lap.
As an ill-educated but strong-willed floozy, Gloria Grahame also delivers line readings that tease out the absurdism in Mankiewicz's literate and whimsical dialogue. Douglas is the flippant playboy from Ninotchka, but even more dissipated ten years on, with a touch of Oscar Levant about his piano-playing wisecracker – if Levant could ever be imagined as conducting an affair with a woman or as giving up his bachelor ways in the final moments. The Douglas-O'Hara extra-wedlock affair is another one slipped past the censors, suggested by a reference to her jealousy of Grahame and confirmed by his louche body language with her in a later scene. Blink and you'll spend most of the movie thinking he's her gay best friend.
Speaking of American non-conformists, it struck me on a recent viewing of the 1934 Anne of Green Gables that one of the greatest of them in literature isn't a citizen of the United States at all. In Canada, beginning with my generation it's been a rite of passage to grow up with the mid-80s made-for-TV movie starring Megan Follows, and it seems evident that the later adaptation's casting of Marilla and Matthew and especially Anne herself owe a lot to the 30s film. The latter, however, adds a romantic plot to the episodic novel, focusing in fan fiction style on Anne's relationship with Gilbert Blyth. The movie's Gilbert Blyth himself departs from the studious young man of the book with whom Anne intellectually competes to become a sort of teenage proto-John Garfield type; especially hilarious if one was a fan of the 80s movie's daringly effeminate Gilbert.
Jonathan Crombie's "daringly effeminate" Gilbert Blythe... Candrogyny strikes again?
But although the 30s movie doesn't stick to Montgomery's vision of the clash between Anne's imaginative and impulsive ways and the town's demand for decorum and propriety (brokered by Marilla, who appreciates both Anne's ways and the town's), there's an early scene in which Anne elaborates on her preferred way of praying, as opposed to the way she's been taught, that's shocking in its frank portrayal of the young adolescent's “pagan” animism and antidoctrinalism. Exalted by her Romantic imagination (Elinor Dashwood would never approve), Anne is in some ways more of a Transcendentalist even than Jo March, in a line of Protestant heroines that descends from Jane Austen and ends up in two superb woman's pictures that explicitly grapple with philosophical subjects in a Transcendentalist context, the great Bette Davis vehicle Now, Voyager and Douglas Sirks's All That Heaven Allows.
The Anglo-American noncomformist spirit has often been represented by heroines presumably because women have traditionally had to do so little to not conform to their social role**; because being female is already to not conform to the male-determined “norm” (hence the emphasis in the initial chapters of Anne of Green Gables on the mistake of ordering her instead of a boy); because women are encouraged to develop their imaginations and middle-class women traditionally had the (double-edged, as the non-Anglo-American example of Madame Bovary emphasizes) leisure in which to do so; because women are not encouraged to challenge their circumstances or environment, which makes it all the more dramatic when they do. See also the heroines of Theodor Dreyer, an auteur very much concerned with both spirituality and nonconformism. Another good example from cinematic history is Powell and Pressburger's Gone to Earth (1950), in which Jennifer Jones plays a peasant woman who identifies with her dead mother's paganism, who cannot find happiness with either the Baptist minister who thinks she's an innocent child of nature or the swaggering squire who satisfies her body but threatens her soul, and who scandalizes her community in her attempt to achieve fulfilment (compare Dreyer's Day of Wrath).
Since seeing Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master I've wanted to compare it to Now, Voyager: both are “therapy” movies that use sea voyages as metaphors for spiritual journeys, and in both cases the protagonist must work out their relationship to male authority, represented by a guru/mentor. Since Now, Voyager, with its overt reference to Whitman, is about the process of becoming an individual (and shows how Transcendentalism might have special application for women, who historically have not been encouraged to think their own thoughts and lead their own lives), Davis resolves her relationship with male authority with relative ease (her mommy issues are another matter); in contrast, in The Master, Joaquin Phoenix seems to be offered charismatic authority as a solution to his “male” anger and alienation, and a finally unacceptable one. (His mommy issues, too, are another story, and one that, along with the central performances by brothers who ape James Dean's persona in remarkably different ways, makes The Master a fascinating companion to Gus Van Sant's My Own Private Idaho, which, come to think about it, is also about the search for/escape from a problematic male guru as much as about longing for the mother.)
*I can't comment on “chick flicks,” the contemporary equivalent to the studio-era “woman's picture,” since I have seen very few of them. They do often appear to indulge in gender essentialism, but whether that's also true of studio-era woman's pictures and I simply overlook it because of their cultural context, or whether the few hundred woman's pictures that have any reputation are exceptions that challenged that context, is something I haven't studied. I know that some feminist film critics have embraced blockbusters with female appeal like James Cameron's Titanic, but that's further than I'm capable of going even though I'm willing to admit that theoretically Cameron's dopey, historically dodgy, and impeccably pop-feminist blockbuster could be the true heir to Gone With the Wind.
**Nowadays, on the other hand, it's probably easier for a boy or man to fail to conform to his gender role than it is for a girl or woman. This kind of nonconformism, however, has not yet been absorbed into our narrative consciousness. At the same time, it's hardly the case that women have total freedom to ignore conventional gender self-presentation. It's interesting to see self-declared feminist Janelle Monae – sporting Bette Davis's pompadour from Now, Voyager – bring female androgyny to a pop arena in which female bodily display and conventional attractiveness remain mandatory (hence the abuse Amy Winehouse took). Even in indie, where conventional sexiness is met with disapproval (hence the abuse that Lana Del Rey gets), there's a weird emphasis on long, flowing Pre-Raphaelite hair (Kate Bush, Neko Case, Florence Welch... heck, even Courtney Love in recent years... that's totally enough for a thing). Camille Paglia may have been right that Madonna was the most important feminist of the 1980s because she proved that sexiness and power were not mutual contradictory, but once the lesson of Madonna was absorbed by a new generation of women in pop that message became muddled: no one doubts that Beyonce, for example, is powerful (i.e. she's famous, wealthy, and in charge of her career), but unlike Madonna, she does not project an image of power (not even when she specifically manufactures one in the form of Sasha Fierce). Should she? What were the goals of feminism again? For women to be self-determining and financially successful or for women to be a threat to the status quo, a.k.a. scare the bejesus out of heterosexual men? And what do we make of the fact that despite the continued insistence on women's sexual self-display in pop music, most of Madonna and Beyonce's male fans are gay? It's a crazy world out there, kids....
"Mother... I'm not afraid!"