A Woman of the Land: Beauty and Wilderness in Powell and Pressburger’s “Gone to Earth”

We first meet Hazel Woodus, played by Jennifer Jones, among the rolling hills of the English countryside. She is a force among the elements. A proto-Kate Bush or a Catherine Earnshaw, wild and desperate, running along the moors. She is one in a lineage of literary women who find solace in the land, a woman for whom the landscape has become a symbol of her passion and inner turmoil. Hazel lives with the spirits of these women, whom society has doomed and nature has rescued. Her very soul is as wild as the country in which she resides. Hazel derives her power and conviction from the earth around her, from it’s beauty, superstition, and folklore. Her eyes sparkle with defiance. They are filled with dreams of the land, they hold her hatred of society, riches, and convention; the things that hurt her beloved land, her beloved animals. When we first see her, she is barefoot, her clothes are tattered, and her hair is windswept and tangled. We hear the sounds of a hunt and are shown various animals running to hide as their world quickly descends into hell. Hazel runs determinedly along the steep and craggy hills. She has rescued a fox who becomes her constant companion. We have been shown the thing that differentiates Hazel from the rest of the community. We have been shown the ways in which humans have forced nature to yield to their own wasteful enthusiasms, but Hazel is here to preserve and treasure what she can.

The central struggles of Gone to Earth, released in 1950, are the dichotomies of nature and civilization, of society and wilderness, of the superficial and the essential. Time and again, Hazel finds herself up against the strictures of society and, noting their cruelty, she refuses to participate in them. She follows her intuition, she follows beauty, and, while the community whispers about her follies and derides her wantonness, the men find her captivating. And here, again, we are met with the “civilizing” influences; the men who attempt to tame her, who mention beating her into submission, who attempt to give her religion or beautiful dresses, as if taming her were a form of love, as if altering her appearance and her conception of the world were love, as if slowly drawing her away from the land, the thing that has formed her and fed her, was love. She is a woman who derives power from nature, from superstition, from Foxy, her feral counterpart. These men, in attempting to separate her from this power, effectively kill her.

Made in England by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, the film’s lush and menacing depictions of nature, with oversaturated and beautiful color, make for a particularly evocative film. It is with their direction that the land and Jones begin to fuse. They are growing out of one another. She is among the broken and rattling trees, among the steep rocks and hills, she becomes a part of them so completely, she is the landscape. In less imaginative hands, the depiction of this connection would most certainly have fallen short.

     Gone to Earth is the story of Hazel as she moves through the world, from her father’s house to her marriage with the minister to her brief adultery with a country squire. It is the story of a small town, with all it’s manufactured intrigue and gossip. It is the story of nature and desire and nineteenth century mores. It is the story of abandon. Hazel is a woman who doesn’t quite fit into this world or into this time. She is a woman of conviction, whose every belief and superstition is played out, even to her detriment. Hazel feels at times like a clarion call for the untamed woman. She is unburdened by society’s conventions, preferring the fierce, unsteady, and darkly beautiful land. She feels deeply, her acknowledgement of her own interiority, derided by the community, gives her strength, as does their derision. It is once she tries to leave this behind, that the trouble begins, because, ultimately, she belongs to the earth and the earth, the film appears to say, cannot be controlled.

Hollywood: F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Last American Dream

When, on December 21, 1940, F. Scott Fitzgerald took his last breath, he left behind a college-aged daughter, an intermittently institutionalized wife, a failed career as a screenwriter, and an unfinished novelization of his time in Hollywood, in addition to his better known work. His final novel, The Love of the Last Tycoon: A Western, is a thinly veiled account of the studio system based on his time as a screenwriter. It is a fragmented novel. But it still holds that prescient Fitzgerald wisdom, that ability to capture so exquisitely the mores and style specific to an era and a place with language so sparse and yet so sharp and insightful. It is a novel eternally in progress, but it is as scathing as any account of a cynical and superficial ecosystem.

The novel follows producer Monroe Stahr, a fictionalized Irving Thalberg, as he maneuvers through the daily difficulties of running a studio. Stahr is a hero, a moral man with convictions, pride, and a generous helping of ego, a man whose scruples run the studio just as much as he does. Fitzgerald struggled in Hollywood and his experiences with producers were not wholly positive, but in Stahr he created the ideal, the heroic success story. The whole world is at Stahr’s beck and call, but to him, love and genuine human connection is elusive. It is with the subtitle of the novel, A Western, that we first become aware of Fitzgerald’s conception of Stahr. With just such a wording, Fitzgerald is able to harness the iconography of the trailblazer, the myth of the lone genius, of a wilderness just waiting to be tamed by some resourceful man, by someone, it becomes clear, that is like Stahr. Hollywood is our last great American myth and Fitzgerald is here to expose and celebrate it as such. Early on, we are taken on a tour of the studio, in which we are shown the duties of a producer, as well as a glimpse behind the beauty and glamour. We are shown a world in which a starlet is not an untouchable and elevated deity, but a mere woman in “a low gown which displayed the bright eczema of her chest and back. Before each take the blemished surface was plastered over with an emollient, which was removed immediately after the take. Her hair was of the color and viscosity of drying blood but there was starlight that actually photographed in her eyes” (50). The glamour is disrupted, the ideal is shattered, but the underlying power of the myth of stardom remains partially intact.

Fitzgerald’s experiences in Hollywood are background throughout the novel; a dull but persistent whisper in which we are shown a more comprehensive view of the author in later life. Fitzgerald’s issues stemmed from his inability to grasp the conventions of script writing. He dedicated himself to learning; screening movies and keeping copious notes about the medium, but he was ultimately unable to transfer these into a cohesive script. His dialogue was too wordy and pretentious, too literary in scope and failed to capture the natural rhythms of speech that are so necessary in film. Often, his work was rewritten by producers to make it more manageable. Ultimately, he was shuttled between studios because his work was unusable. But during this time, Fitzgerald was becoming more aware of the system in which he worked. This knowledge served him as he began his novel. It is clear that Fitzgerald understands Hollywood and the studio system and speaks of it with an unguarded intimacy. It is a world of appearances and hearsay, a world guided by beauty and populated with gossip. As with his most famous protagonist, Nick Carraway, Fitzgerald is positioned on the outside, forced to be merely a spectator amid the opulence, the facade of decadence and glamour, and he is able to see the small human dramas that pervade the studio; the life behind the screen.

Throughout this novel, we see two of America’s most enduring legends, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Hollywood, brought together and laid bare. We are shown these legends, both emblematic of America’s greatest conflicts, decadences, foibles, and beauty, and we are forced to contend with the reality of their existences. We are given a privileged glimpse into private worlds and handed shattered illusions by the man who knew best how to shatter the illusions we hold most dear, the illusions of ourselves, our society, and of the beauty that we mistakenly believe has no cost. Despite the fact that the novel is unfinished, this is clear: Fitzgerald populates every character, every word, and every syllable of The Love of the Last Tycoon and The Love of the Last Tycoon encompasses all Fitzgerald was and all he worked for.

Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Love of the Last Tycoon: A Western. Edited by Matthew J. Bruccoli. New York: Scribner Paperback Fiction, 1993.

Unlikely Icon: The Honesty, Vulnerability, and Strength of Margot Kidder

To watch Margot Kidder is to be charmed by Margot Kidder. She is equal parts shy, brash, and, at times, so frank as to be bordering on lewd. I recently saw her on an episode of The Dick Cavett Show, which aired on August 3, 1970.  After being introduced, she saunters onto the stage in an exquisite empire waist dress with a Juliet sleeve that looks as if it was found in a thrift shop. She takes her place next to Cavett and his other guests, Janis Joplin and Gloria Swanson. Almost immediately, she pulls her legs up onto her chair and into her body, and we see that she is barefoot. It is this small movement that signals to me her sense of her own body. There is a self-consciousness in the gesture, an awareness of herself in space, and it was this that I was drawn to. It is a normal, but deeply intimate movement, a testament to her own interiority. Throughout the show, she is quiet but persistent in her commentary, prompting a conversation about women’s lingerie in which Swanson takes credit for inventing the panty girdle. Cavett blushes and, through all of this, Margot giggles, surveying the awkwardness with glee. She is not completely self-assured, but she is present, never evasive. She is vulnerable, but what exactly makes her vulnerable is a mystery. She seems almost ethereal, but her motions are those borne of insecurity and awareness.

In the wake of this interview, Margot appeared in some of her most memorable roles, in films such as Brian De Palma’s Sisters (1972), Black Christmas (1974), The Amityville Horror (1979), and, in the film she is most remembered for, Superman (1978). Margot Kidder is an exquisite actress. She has a control and a vulnerability that is incredible. She imbues her characters with the same relatability that can be seen in her interviews, and it was this relatability that was such a large part of her public persona. She seemed to be accessible and completely human, not solely an aspirational figure of glamour, the kind that stars are traditionally made to become. The reality was darker than that. There were struggles that we, her audience, could not even fathom, but she was always willing to give so much of herself to demand what was right.

In the process of researching Kidder’s life, it was, once again, an interview of sorts that caught my attention. In 1976, Kidder posed for Playboy. Her agreement to appear in the magazine was contingent on being able to write the article that appeared alongside the photographs. In this article, she railed against the magazine and its effects on women, especially young, impressionable women. She recounts the time when, at 14 years old, she first became aware of the magazine. She speaks of the way it caused her to analyze every inch of her body, how she was made to feel inadequate as she looked at the women who were the supposed images of perfection, and how, trying to fashion herself after these women, she had always found herself lacking. Her goal in doing this was to shatter the illusion that the magazine cultivated. She wanted to show what a real body looked like, to expose the real toll that these images have on women, and to restore some power to women whose lives are, from a young age, dictated by magazines such as these. She states, “Hopefully, these pictures are of a real honest-to-God, in-the-flesh, fucked-up-like-everybody-else human being. At first, I said no to Playboy, pleading male chauvinism. Finally, I said yes in a fit of missionary zeal. I’ll show them what a real body looks like, I thought to myself. I’ll be brave and outrageous and get the photographer to show me in all my imperfect glory… But maybe I chickened out. When the contact sheets came back from the lab, I put huge Xs through the pictures that I thought made me look lumpy. However, halfway is better than nothing. If you’re 14 and reading this, take solace: You probably look a lot better than you think. And nobody looks like Miss January.” With these words, she alters the discussion. She has refused to be passively consumed. She has allowed women into a discussion about their own bodies, one that had, for so long, been dominated by men. Kidder ends the piece with a critique of her own vanity and selfishness when faced with her image. But in this, she unfairly maligns herself, for, with this article, she has done a rare thing within the pages of Playboy; she has managed to wrest power from the men who have wielded it for decades and has given it to the women who were most impacted by the images the magazine propagated. She has opened the magazine up to the impact it has. For this alone, she is a legend.

It is this insistence on honesty, this frankness, this willingness to be vulnerable and uncomfortable that is so appealing in Margot Kidder. This is what makes her stand out in a sea of performers, many of whom were more prolific during the 1970s and 80s. She was aware of the forces that had impacted her life, the standards and the powers that had hurt her and many others and she strove to expose them, to render them false and rob them of their power. She was not required to do this, it would probably have been more acceptable for her to refrain, but she did it because it was necessary. It is this challenge that I believe is inherent to Kidder. You see it present throughout her whole life; this desire to hold power accountable in any way and with any platform she has at her disposal. This was a woman who lived her convictions and her power was immense.

Brosnahan, Chris. “Margot Kidder: Playboy 1976,” Medium. May 15, 2018. https://medium.com/@ChrisBrosnahan/margot-kidder-playboy-1976-e532241cc56.

Jayne Mansfield and the Shaming of a Sex Symbol

It is impossible, or, at the very least, irresponsible to look at a creative output or filmography and not look at the time in which it was created. This is true of anyone’s work, but it is especially true in regards to sex symbols. Through their work they tell us about social mores, the boundaries of propriety, and what femininity is composed of in a particular era. Personally, when I see the performances of women who are considered sex symbols, I am filled with a subtle but distinct thrill, a feeling of joy in response to what I see as the transgressive nature of their work. These are women who delight in overstepping the boundaries that society has built, whose very personas and existences are built to shock. These are women who refuse the mid-century notion that womanhood is domesticity and matronly care. That is, I believe, the essence of their longevity; this ability to harness symbols and mores of femininity and twist them into something so extravagant and irrational that they become a kind of retaliation against the status quo. Thus, their images still seem fresh and exciting even today. These women, Jayne Mansfield included, use depictions of femininity that are reductive or based on the tropes of mid-century womanhood and in taking them to an illogical extreme, are able to turn the image against their audience, the very men who desire them. It is in this that I see a very meticulously cultivated and potentially transgressive image.

In her work, Jayne Mansfield and the American Fifties, Martha Saxton offers us a different interpretation of the role of the sex symbol in American society. Saxton chronicles the life and  rise of Mansfield as a cultural juggernaut whose image was integral to a post-war sense of fecundity and wealth. She assesses, with precise detail, the notions of femininity, womanhood, and sex that were so pervasive in this era as to give rise to Mansfield and many other bombshells. It was, after all, the era of the bombshell. Saxton is adept at describing American society in the 1950s, with all its double standards based in purity and conformity. She relates this to Mansfield and her persona, exposing her as an outgrowth specific to that era and its preoccupations. She works to expose the fraud of 1950s womanhood, but manages to damn Mansfield for pushing against these very strictures. I see her analysis of Mansfield’s life and work as particularly reductive. Saxton characterizes Mansfield as fickle and not particularly interested in anything or anyone unless it had monetary or concrete value in terms of her career. Where one could interpret Mansfield’s approach as an example of her business savvy, Saxton reduces Mansfield’s actions to that of an insatiable exhibitionist, whose endless exploitation of others and cold calculations are the legacy of her work. In this, Mansfield’s intelligence is undermined. The book was as exhaustive in its appraisal of societal norms and conventions as it was short sighted in its assessment of Mansfield and her ability to cultivate a persona that was a force within mid-century America.

One of second wave feminism’s blind spots in relation to femininity and its construction has to do with bombshells. As with Saxton’s work, many scholars fail to acknowledge the hard work and ingenuity of the women who work within this mode. They are able to take the tropes of femininity, often degrading, and take them to their most absurd. In this, they expose the construction. They render it, and by extension society, ridiculous. These women are often underappreciated masters of comedic timing and manipulation of mores, especially the hypocritical ones, the ones that showcase a simultaneous revulsion and preoccupation with sex and its every manifestation. Rather than completely writing off these creations, can’t we also see them as potentially subversive, as images that take control of the narrative, that masterfully wrest control of the image away from the traditional image-makers, men?

Saxton’s book often refers to Mansfield’s shameless need to promote herself. Mansfield was known for constantly using gimmicks to get the media’s attention. Saxton finds this disgusting, trashy, and abhorrent. But why do we never reframe this narrative? She is an actress. She is an actress whose worth is tied up in her appearance, as an actress’s worth often is. She thus has a finite amount of time in which to achieve the success she desires. She understands this. She takes action to maximize the time she has, capitalizing on her beauty and allure. Every actor does this. So why do we hate and antagonize her for it? She got the media’s attention and she did it largely on her own. By those terms, we should be praising her for her savvy handling of media and audience expectations. But we don’t. We decide to find this display, when coming from Jayne Mansfield, pathetic.  It is a double standard that is stifling, one in which Mansfield could never win. Typecast as the dumb blonde, all of her actions were interpreted to uphold this narrative. The construction of her own persona and the savvy with which she handled the media is rarely mentioned in conversations about Jayne and it should be because the dominant narrative of Mansfield, the dumb blonde, and the creation and handling of her career, much of which she did herself, do not add up. But what it boils down to, in this case, and in many others like it, is that here is a woman so brazen, so unapologetic in her rush to fame, so openly desirous of success, that we, as a society, object. We don’t like to see anyone, especially women, plainly lusting after the fame and adoration of millions. We don’t like to see a woman’s longing as fully and obviously as all that. If a woman has aspirations, they should be hidden, not brazenly bandied about in a bikini. Mansfield’s goals were as obvious as anything. It is transparent in all her publicity and even by today’s standards, that transparency is shocking. It is a woman working hard and demanding the things she desires from a society that would rather not pay her desires any mind, a society that would rather restore Mansfield to the role of desired. This blatant aspiration is not particularly acceptable, there is too much obvious want there, it is too plain. Better, as a woman, to be quietly dissatisfied, than to be openly desirous of anything.

By the end of her work, Saxton has begun to acknowledge Jayne’s drive for fame and the difficulties inherent in sculpting just such a persona. Saxton is able to acknowledge Jayne’s hard work and the astuteness which contributed to her success, but it is too little too late. Saxton has spent the whole book denigrating Jayne’s contributions to film and to the public discourse on fame and sex. It is not a wholly positive contribution, but it should be acknowledged that a woman saw the mores, took them, manipulated them, twisted them to extremes, and was able to take a subjugation and turn it into a position of power. Saxton derides her for her choices, chastises her for stupidity, real and feigned. But really, if we are talking about Mansfield, we are talking about a woman who saw a system that privileges men and was able to take it and manipulate it so it worked for her. That should not go unnoticed or unrecognized. That takes intelligence. We should not conflate a persona with a person and we should not shame the person for the damnable strictures put upon them by society. That is, after all, the work of a sex symbol. Women like Mansfield and Monroe took something they recognized as artificial, namely the way that womanhood and femininity are conceived of, and exposed its artificiality by taking it to its most absurd conclusion. To not see a kind of power there is to wholly miss the point.

Saxton, Martha. Jayne Mansfield and the American Fifties. Boston, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1975.