Only When I Laugh
by Elouise Bell

Reel Goddesses

 [p.28]Film and film images are as important to us today (though not consciously so) as religion was to many of our ancestors in past centuries. They are important because they shape the way we think, hence the way we feel, and thus the way we act. They are as powerfully formative as any religious ceremony.

Molly Haskill, the film critic, writes: “Whatever their roles . . . the women in the movies had a mystical, quasi-religious connection with the public…. they were real goddesses.”

We in the Nineties may not idolize our film stars as American movie-goers of the Thirties and Forties did, but the power of the silver screen remains mystical. Whatever our backgrounds, I would guess that most of us have spent more hours paying attention to the messages of movies than to sermons and Sunday school lessons in church or synagogue. We may be hazy on our Apostles’ Creed, our Articles of Faith, our catechism, but we are razor-sharp on the teachings of Hollywood. Biblical scriptures may be dim in our minds, but who doesn’t know the following lines to live by:

“If you want anything, just whistle.”

[p.29]“This is bigger than both of us.”

“I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore, Toto.”

“Come up and see me sometime.” (And that even more memorable Mae West line, when an admiring ingenue said, “Goodness, those are wonderful pearls!”—“Goodness had nothing to do with it!”)

“Ah, sweet mystery of life!” (Jeanette MacDonald rendition, Madeline Kahn rendition.)

“I had an orgasm once, but my shrink said it was the wrong kind.”

“You Jane, me Tarzan.

“If you want monogamy, marry a swan.”

My premise here (certainly not original) is that what we see on film affects in a hundred ways our behavior and our concept of ourselves as women and men, whether any of us realize the full influence or not. Thinking from time to time about what Hollywood and TV are preaching can help us make more conscious life choices.

For purpose of analysis, I’d like to use the archetypal concept of the triple goddess as a way of looking at Hollywood’s portrayal of women. Traditionally, the myths speak of Woman in three phases: Maiden, Mother, and Crone.

Films have always focused primarily on Maidens—young, beautiful, nubile—from the days when Mary Pickford dressed and performed as America’s pinafored Sweetheart (even though she was married and an astute businesswoman at the time) to these days of Brooke Shields and Jodie Foster and Mariel Hemingway and the young women of the Brat Pack—Molly Ringwald, Ally Sheedy, the Pretty-in-Pink, Sixteen Candles starlets.  There is a great deal to be said about Woman as Maiden, about the female role in romance. The essential point here is that the Maiden is young, beautiful, inexperienced (emotionally if not technically a virgin), and she gains her significance in terms of a relationship with a man. She is still Snow White, waiting for her Prince. And she becomes the model for a million daydreams.

            Though Woman as Mother has not been a central role in Hollywood movies, it is exactly Woman as Mother who has changed the most in Hollywood’s depiction. For decades, Mother meant Anne Revere or Fay Bainter or Spring Byington—sweetfaced, grey-haired, aproned—standing by a window, waiting [p.30]and worrying. Just as no flesh-and-blood mother can live up to the Mothers Day hype, no real mother, sitting in the darkened theater watching the martyr parade go by, could avoid waves of guilt and self-condemnation. Today in movies, we have vastly more realistic Mothers, more fully human, fully female. Think of all the single mothers we have seen. Remember Sally Field in Norma Rae, a tough-talking, hard-working mother of three (each by a different father). Or Sally Field in Places in the Heart, the young widow saving the cotton crop. Or Sally Field in Murphy’s Romance, the young divorcee finding romance with a sixty-year old who admits he’s sixty (finally). And that’s just Gidget grown up. What about Shirley MacLaine as the mother in Terms of Endearment, or Cher’s wonderful role in Mask?

And what about Woman as Crone? Now wait: don’t flinch at the word. Forget wrinkled, raddled, and rejected. In real life, it never has meant any of that, but for many years Hollywood focused on that perception of the mature woman. And we bought the Tinseltown doctrine that Geritol begins at thirty. Today, against great odds, we are shifting the spotlight to other, more realistic roles of that woman in her prime. (Let’s all remember and keep quoting Gloria Steinem’s great line at her fiftieth birthday party. Whenever anyone said to her, “You don’t look fifty,” she reminded them, “This is what fifty looks like.” Well, maybe all Fifties don’t look like Steinem, but we don’t all look like Grandma Moses, either.)

Just what is the Crone? Go back to myth and legend. The Crone was a wise woman. One writer says, “The Crone was Wisdom herself. . . anciently dwelling in caves, walking the highways, standing at the crossroads, and making love on the vast seas.”

Another historian speaks of Artemis as Crone, whose job was “To assist people who are no longer where they were and not yet where they hope to go.” The Crone was also viewed as a seeker, a person in a time of introversion and spiritual search.

More than anything else, the Crone was, and is, in the words of writer Vickie Noble, “A woman whole in herself.”

This is what the fullness of mythology and history and anthropology says about the Crone. But what has Hollywood shown us? Two kinds of Crones, I think. First, the powerful Crones who are evil, menacing, in short, witches. Judith Anderson made a career out of Crones, highlighted by the controlling, devious, [p.31]and deadly Mrs. Danvers in Rebecca. (She played a similar though smaller role as Memnot in The Ten Commandments.) Lining up behind Anderson are a whole host of mean housekeepers, governesses, school-teachers, prison matrons, nurses, and so forth.

Again, as Anderson’s Mrs. Danvers became mythic in its own right, Louise Fletcher’s Big Nurse in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest assumed archetypal dimensions. Cloris Leachman parodies these Crones in at least two roles—Nurse Diesel in High Anxiety and Frau Blucher in Young Frankenstein.

But powerful Crones are too fearsome for Hollywood generally. Film makers have preferred the ineffectual Crone, either sympathetic and powerless—the widow, the aged invalid-or silly and powerless—the sisters in Arsenic and Old Lace (reborn as the sisters guarding the Recipe in The Waltons), Joyce Grenfell as the daffy school-mistress hopelessly outwitted by the girls of St. Trinian’s—you’ve seen them.

Despite the determination of script-writers and directors not to give powerful, positive Crones a central role in film, we in fact have had many memorable Crones. The reasons are several: first, even a small part for a powerful, autonomous woman stands out by comparison with weaker female characters. Mrs. Danvers haunts us; we have to stop and think to remember the nameless narrator (played by Joan Fontaine) in the same film.  Whenever Maureen Stapleton shows up in a picture, even for a cameo role, she seems more alive, more real, more human than anyone else in the cast. Moreover, many film actresses have projected such strong, self-contained images that almost in spite of the scripts, they have given us mature, positive portraits.

Has Hepburn ever been anything but her own woman, even when cast as the Maiden (as in Philadelphia Story)? Hepburn turned every stereotyped “old maid” role into a three-dimensional character of dignity and power. (Think of Rainmaker, Summertime, The African Queen, The Corn Is Green, Grace Quigley.)

Think of women who seemed too powerful, somehow out of place, in Maiden roles, only to assume full stature after forty. Joanne Woodward, with a couple of exceptions (Three Faces of Eve, The Long Hot Summer), had to wait for her roles, and did one of her greatest turns as the “old maid” in Rachel, Rachel. Jane Alexander has come to prominence in her Crone roles—Eleanor and Franklin, Dear Liar, etc. Glenda Jackson made [p.32]her mark on the American audience playing that quintessential Crone, Elizabeth R, and has become stronger and stronger as she leaves the farcical Maiden roles behind to do Turtle Diary and similar works. A look at the film Julia is revealing—Fonda is the Maiden in that picture and pretty much in the work she’s doing even now; Redgrave, by contrast, has always been a Crone figure.  (She was miscast, though regally, in Camelot. Can we doubt that she should have ended up running, or reforming, the Abbey at film’s end?) The list of strong actresses who were almost never given roles to match their power until later in life goes on: Geraldine Page (think of all those neurotic Tennessee Williams roles), Kim Stanley, Julie Harris, Anne Bancroft, Colleen Dewhurst (whom Pauline Kael labels “that giant force of nature”). Was Simone Signoret ever as wonderful as a Maiden as she was as a Crone (Room at the Top, Ship of Fools, Madame Rosa, Le Chat)? European directors seem to know better what to do with mature women, the likes of Melina Mercouri, Irene Papas, Anna Magnanni; it’s America that has the obsession with youth.

Maybe, I keep thinking. Maybe when American women refuse any longer to buy into the youth cult, when we don’t giggle or lie or hesitate about our ages, when we claim our own power, use it freely and confidently, to heal and to grow, maybe then we will get scripts and movies that do justice to the Crone, especially if, along with all these achievements, we have more women writing, directing, producing. And if we get films glorifying the American Crone (to paraphrase Ziegfeld in a way he would bellow about), then maybe we will celebrate the Crones in our own lives, beginning with ourselves.

I am not, I insist you note, advocating an eclipse of the Maidens’ place in the sun. Tragedy, comedy, irony, and romance—each of these, but especially Romance, has a place for the Maiden. But each also has a place for the Crone. All I’m calling for is a little affirmative action in films, a little readjustment of the imbalance. I dream of Things As They Can Be.

A final note to remind us of Things As They Are: Marilyn Monroe, proclaimed by many as the No. I Goddess, died more than twenty-five years ago. She is more acclaimed, more written and read about now than ever before. I think that tells us how our culture at the present wants its goddesses—on a pedestal and silent. Dead is no drawback.