- FROM REVERENCE TO RAPE
- TheTreatment of Women in the Movies by Molly Haskell (1973)
- Copyright © Molly Haskell, 1973, 1974
Molly Haskell was born and grew up in Richmond, Virginia, and was educated at Sweet Briar College. A sharp observer of the movies that have shaped attitudes toward women. Ms. Haskell has written for New York, The Village Voice, Ms., Vogue, Film Comment, Saturday Review, Mademoiselle, and other publications. She is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.
In many ways, the vessels of purity played by Lillian Gish and Mae Marsh, Griffith’s rearguard heroines, experienced more sexual mishap and took more sexual abuse (always of course rebounding in the end) than those brazen shockers, the flapper and the party girl. It is the sexual chastity of Bow rather than of Gish that we understand today, because it is hidden beneath the bravado of a woman of the world.
Alongside Lillian Gish, and expressing different registers of the idealized woman, Dorothy Gish, Mae Marsh, Blanche Sweet, and Bessie Love were all chiseled from the same stone—pure-white alabaster.
But for an overbearing, interfering father, Mary Astor might have found herself cast in the same mold. In A Life on Film, she tells the story of doing a screen test for him at the kind arrangement of Lillian Gish. The two women were friends in the early days in New York, when Griffith’s stock company in Mamaroneck was the dream of every serious movie actor.
Lillian Gish, the least modern of Griffith’s heroines, is in many ways the most emotionally resourceful and intense. She is flowerlike and naive, delicate as a figurine but durable as an ox, and her fascination arises from a contradiction between the two, between her daintiness and the ferocity with which she maintains it. Her movements—her agitated gestures and flutteriness—can be more erotic than the explicit semaphore of the vamp, since they suggest the energy of pent-up sexuality engaged in its own suppression. And yet she is more often tragic than gay. As the miserable waif of Broken Blossoms, she must use her hands to force her lips into a smile. The images in Way Down East of a young mother cradling her dead baby in her arms and later seeking destruction on the ice-covered river are as primal as anything in our film consciousness; they are expressions of a life-and- death force that is both greater than man or womankind, yet altogether female.
Mae Marsh is already several degrees more sophisticated, more “grown up,” more urban. She looks at the world with a candor and sense of humor lacking in the sublimely chaste Gish. She is closer to being a “working woman ’ and is the halfway heroine between Gish and Carol Dempster, the leading lady of Griffith’s later films, done at a time when the vestal virgin was in box-office decline and he had to make his bid to keep up with the fashions.
Dempster, more modern and self-sufficient than Gish, is a heroine most people feel more comfortable with today. She is the driving force that keeps a poverty-stricken family alive in Isn’t Life Wonderful? In Sorrows of Satan, she is actually an authoress, living in rags in a garret and writing away by candlelight. And yet, it is not always the “working ’ women who have, simply by definition, the greatest character and sense of self. Dempster is a working girl, but her vivacity and initiative seem willed into being—probably because Griffith himself isn’t convinced. Gish’s old-fashioned resilience, on the other hand, springs from a character more subtle and rounded, more complete within herself. Similarly, in the thirties, Loretta Young’s and Ruth Chatterton’s politicians and executives would be less genuinely forceful than stronger actresses in less exalted positions—Barbara Stanwyck’s housewife or Jean Arthur’s secretary or Carole Lombard’s lowly but spirited manicurist. The mistake is, first, to assume that only in “male” roles can women fulfill themselves, and, second, to take labels and conventions at face value. Although professions and plot synopses are important, they convey little of the sense of identity transmitted through personality.
So often the artist who idealizes woman—whether he be filmmaker or poet—is re-creating her in an image that will do honor to him, to his exquisite sensibility. The focus, in Chaplin, or even Truffaut, is on the anguished worship of the protagonist, the artist or artist-surrogate. But with Griffith, the emphasis is on the woman herself. Yes, she is the Holy Grail, but not just as an abstract principle for which man journeys forth, but as a living being, with her own life, to whom he can return.
For all his vaunted Victorianism, Griffith dealt more explicitly with sex than any other director of the period. Although the emphasis was on their suffering rather than on their sensuality, his women did become pregnant and have babies, even out of wedlock. The usual practice, even in the more rakish melodramas, was to redeem any indiscretion with the revelation that the straying couple had actually been married all along. Even in the heavy-breathing romances—the Valentino sagas, for example—the affair was consummated with no more than a kiss, and the audience was left to complete the picture in its own fantasies, or satisfy itself that the kiss was all there was to it. Griffith catered to no such fill-in-the-blank wish fulfillments. He created an artistically whole universe, where the impulse to degrade his Galateas was inseparable from the impulse to elevate them.
Implicit in the conventions of Victorian melodrama that appealed to both Griffith and Mary Pickford, but in different ways, are the fears and fantasies of a child’s world: the violent vicissitudes of family relationships, the fear of being orphaned, or of being an adopted rather than a natural child, magnified into the nightmare of inheriting a wicked stepfather or stepmother; the drama of instant wealth or poverty; the impulse to run away from home and be on one’s own, and the conflicting sense of dependency. Griffith projected these primitive feelings into an adult arena, where they acquired their peculiar erotic and universal dimension. With Mary Pickford, on the other hand, they remained in the asexual world of a child, in a little girl’s self-glorifying day dreams.
If Lillian Gish was the prototype and most gifted incarnation of the diminutive child-woman created by Griffith, Mary Pickford, “America’s Sweetheart,” was the most beloved, as cheerful as a month of Sundays. Although there is more saccharine and fluorescence than sweetness.