Women Pre-1970: Adam's Rib, Bonnie & Clyde, Citizen Kane

Friday, April 16, 2010 12:14 PM By Simon

(Okay, I'm not going to start in on the stereotypes of hysterical, feinting dames in blonde wigs)

Women were, back in the days, only as good as the one next to them, I think. For every strong, badass chick, there was a screaming, emotional wreck of a baby basket. For every wisened wife, there was an immature mistress. For every lawyer, there was a crying defendent. That's shit, yeah? But it was there. Might as well get it out of the way.

(forgive the shaughty formatting)

Adam's Rib
Here, we are presented with two principle women. There's, of course, Katherine Hepburn as Amanda Bonner, the smart, saracastic lawyer, wife of city prosecuter Adam Bonner (Spencer Tracy). She is presented with the case of a woman, Doris Attinger, played by Judy Holliday, who has shot her abusive, neglectful, and unfaithful husband upon finding him with his mistress. Doris, with a quivering, child-like voice and poised back, appears to be the perfect wife and mother, completely dedicated to her children and husband. That, naturally, makes her husband, Rom Ewell's Warren, seem that more lecherous, oafish, and disgusting.

Hepburn's character, an equal to her husband in every way, wears pantsuits, has a huge paycheck, and never loses a case. Imagine how controversial this might've been in 1949, not just due to attitudes towards women, but for Hepburn's rising reputation as a (ahem) transgressive actress. Holliday (a role considered her audition for her Oscar film, Born Yesterday), might've been made in the atypical fashion of women in the period, but was still a bold decision, as she (well, the lovely screenwriter Ruth Gordon and husband) used the gender politics that has held her back--her 'female hysteria'--and turned it into a defense. She wasn't out to kill her husband, she was out to protect her home. Yet, only do we get a real breakthough when Amanda begs the audience to look at the three in the center of the case--Doris, Warren, and Warren's trashy girlfriend Beryl Caighn (Jean Hagen)--and picture their genders reversed. Here is the example of tough tomboy and conservative housewife on the same side.

Bonnie & Clyde
Here's a different story entirely. Bonnie Parker, played by Faye Dunaway (duh), is the mac to Clyde's cheese (ahem). Without her, he wouldn't be the legend he is, and he damn well knows it. She, being the surprisingly quick-witted farmgirl, he being the ex-convict, they rule the Great Depression with (...) handguns at their hips. Then comes Clyde's brother, Buck (Gene Hackman) and his new wife, Blanche, played by Estelle Parsons.

For Dunaways cool, seductive composure, there's Parson, who is openly the film's comic relief. Here, Blanche is a fairly old, uptight, shrill, hysterical, and stiff churchlady without the church. Though you do get humanization for her in some choice scenes--the drive home with CW (Michael J. Pollard), where she smokes and talks of how she used to be, her traumatized recanting of the whole gory affair after a shootout with police leaves her blind and her husband dead--she remains, first, a crying buffoon who contributes nothing to the gang but pouting and waiting in the car.

Citizen Kane
Charles Foster Kane, to start, arrives home from vacation with a mustache and a fiancee, Emily, a relatively bit part played by Ruth Warrick. They marry, and as time goes on (an artful montage featuring the descent of their breakfast conversations), you see Emily, daughter of a president, make the subtle changes into weary middle-age, the price that comes with being the wife of the increasingly curt, moody, and controlling Kane. She has his child, but gets little to no affection from him.

This will soon be contrasted with the arrival of Susan Alexander (Dorothy Comingore), a character who's demeaner is similar to Doris of Adam's Rib--young, blonde, the shaky voice of a teenage girl, but younger, more immature. She's a teenager, really. When he gets splashed with water by a speeding car on the sidewalk, she starts giggling, prompting his furious confrontation, and her invitation to come to her apartment and dry off. There is no apparent sexay-times, but then, that shit wouldn't go down back then, would it?

Anyway, the differences between these two women are most apparent during their confrontation. It is the end of Kane's big presidential-candidate speech, and after sending their ten-year-old son home, she gets into a car, telling Kane she is going to an address she found, and he can come if he wants. It's pretty fucking obvious she knows, and is giving Kane the option to defend himself when she goes to confirm. So, the two of them arrive at Alexander's apartment, where Kane's rival Getty is already shaking her down. The ultimate result, with Kane and Alexander screaming at Getty and Emily, or rather, Kane and Getty screaming while Alexander scuttles around nervously, yelling every so often, and Emily calmly says her piece, before she and Getty leave. It is highlighted, Alexander's immaturity and childishness (...) versus Emily's rationalness, the maturity of a woman long since used to dealing with Kane, and is at her silent breaking point.

Emily Kane and her son Charles Jr., or course, get an unceremonious, car accident demise, as mentioned briefly in the intro summary of Kane's life. Susan, meanwhile, goes the opposite direction of her predecessor, becoming a shrill, bratty wife who, too, grows sick of Kane's distance, isolation, and selfishness. Nobody gets to be happy around this guy, honestly.

Okay. So, that's it. Carry on.


Luke said...

This is a great piece, Simon. I love your breakdown of Adam's Rib. It's an amazingly surprising experience to watch that film and consider the time period. Katharine Hepburn simply transcends stereotypes.

April 17, 2010 at 10:13 AM
Alex said...

This is an awesome shake-down of these three movies. Good observations about the polar opposite female roles in each one! This is also making me realize that I don't remember BONNIE AND CLYDE at all, since I saw it when I was a kid. Should re-watch it soon...

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