Looking at Audrey Hepburn and “The Devil”

Last night while making dinner I watched the musical “Funny Face” (1957), starring Audrey Hepburn and Fred Astaire.  Not being a fan of Astaire – which amounts to heresy in some quarters – I had always avoided it.  Being a fan of Hepburn’s however, I decided to at least give it a chance.

I was struck from the first by how much the recent film “The Devil Wears Prada” (2006) took many of its cues from this earlier film.  In a way it’s not surprising, since Hollywood has been pushing Anne Hathaway as the new Audrey Hepburn for some time now.  Admittedly, this is a comparison somewhat unfair to both actresses.

Yet notice how Maggie Prescott (Kay Thompson) in “Funny Face” comes charging into her domain as editor of a prestigious fashion magazine, past a pair of secretaries, to the terror of all around her.  Her sanctum sanctorum looks almost exactly like that of another “M.P”,” Miranda Priestly (Meryl Streep) in “Prada”, complete with almost the same view of Midtown Manhattan.  There’s a discussion in both films about how important the choice of a particular color can be for world commerce.  There’s even a scene where Jo Stockton (Hepburn) runs away to hide in the darkroom of Dick Avery (Astaire), not unlike a similar scene in “Prada” between Andy Sachs (Hathaway) and Nigel (Stanley Tucci).

Does this mean that “The Devil Wears Prada” is merely a rip-off? Well, no: and actually, I found “Funny Face” to be a pretty boring film.  “Prada” on the whole is a better-acted movie, and has a more compelling storyline.  There again however, the comparison is somewhat unfair, because there’s a big difference between a fluffy old Hollywood musical, and a contemporary dramedy.  Yet the fact that one can even make such a comparison, between the classic and the contemporary in cinema, is important.

If we are to understand where our culture comes from, we need to continually be educating ourselves on how to perceive the roots of the past in the fruits of the present.  Contemporary musicians like Chris Thile and Alison Krauss for example, look back to Bach or the Civil War era, even as they work with modern artists from different genres like Justin Timberlake or Robert Plant.   The modern-day city of Washington, D.C. features monumental buildings and urban planning elements that reference England, France, Ancient Greece, and Rome, four cultures which had a significant philosophical impact on the Founders.  Even the “Star Wars” saga would not have been possible without George Lucas being very much aware of the medieval legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table.

Thus, even if “Funny Face” in the end isn’t a particularly good movie, the lesson here is a good one.  When we can perceive how one film references another, then we can begin to understand how not just movies, but all of Western culture – from art to music, literature to architecture – is often doing the same thing.  A vibrant culture is an inventive one, that doesn’t slavishly copy the past. At the same time, it should also acknowledge the contributions of the past, to maintain that sense of where we come from.  Training our eyes to look for these types of connections then, will make us better-appreciate the richness of the world around us.

Audrey Hepburn in a scene from "Funny Face" (1957)

Audrey Hepburn in a scene from “Funny Face” (1957)

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They’re Just Two Little Girls from Little Rock

The other night the classic 1953 film version of “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” was on; I’ve seen it many times, as it’s one of my mom’s favorite musicals.  When the movie came out in Spain, she and her friends obtained a recording of “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” from the soundtrack, and would loudly sing along to it in their schoolgirl English.  This apparently horrified my grandmother, who had a better grasp of the subtleties of English, and therefore of what the gold-digging Lorelei Lee – played by Marilyn Monroe in the film – was singing about.

I mentioned to an elderly neighbor that I had caught the movie on TV, and he recalled being a graduate student in Paris in the 1950’s, and seeing it premiere at a cinema on the Champs-Elysees.  As he recalled, back then Europe was still in poverty and recovering from World War II, even though over here in America, we were filling our homes with the products of the first wave of middle-class consumerism.  So people flocked to see upbeat, colorful American movie musicals like this one, because their own lives were often so harsh, unhappy, and colorless.

It’s funny that back then, people like my grandmother looked at this film and found it scandalous.  True, it’s about two women performing a musical more suited to a so-called “gentleman’s club” than the Broadway stage.  Yet when you watch the movie now, in light of what we see not only on the big screen but the small screen on a regular basis these days, you realize how far we’ve fallen as a culture since that time.

The racy jokes in “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” are definitely still racy, but they’re not insulting.  The women are clearly objectified by the men, from their suitors, to the policemen in the courtroom, to the entire U.S. Olympic Team, but at the same time, the women are in complete control of the situation.  They insist on being treated with respect.  They like to look beautiful, go dancing, drink cocktails, and have beautiful things.  They work hard at what they do, and they’re pretty happy with who they are.

For the generation that enjoys soul-sickening programs like “Girls” and other such societal take-downs of women disguised as entertainment, I imagine it’s difficult to”get” movies like this.  Not to mention the fact that I’m sure Lena Dunham would recoil in horror at learning that the film’s other star, Jane Russell, became an outspoken pro-life activist, one of the few in Hollywood.  Yet if you strip away all the cheap basement rumpus room plywood veneer that’s been foisted on us over the past 40 years about what men and women are supposed to be like, you can just enjoy being in the presence of two beautiful women who enjoy having a good time, coming close to the line but never crossing over it.  They’re just two little girls from Little Rock, after all.

Marilyn Monroe ad Jane Russell in a scene from "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes"

Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell in a scene from “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” (1953)

 

 

 

 

 

 

Picking at the Scabs of Self-Hatred

Probably many of my readers have seen the classic 1943 film, “The Song of Bernadette”, but if you have not, I would like to recommend it to you – even if you are not Catholic.  The older I get, the more I “get” the film, and the more its meaning changes for me.  Oftentimes viewers are so caught up in the miraculous visions, or the pressures put on Bernadette to recant what she reported to have seen, that they forget Bernadette had a different life once the visions ended, and she left Lourdes forever.  And it is there, I think, that what might otherwise have been just a pious, respectable film takes on a bit of greatness, when it comes to examining the human condition.

The character of Sister Vauzous – played by the great English actress Gladys Cooper, who received a Best Supporting Actress nomination at the Oscars for her performance  – is something of a parallel to the older brother of the Prodigal Son in Jesus’ parable.  Like him, Sister Vauzous does not go out to seek fame and fortune, nor does she want to live in depravity, sexual hedonism, and dissipation.  In fact she does everything she is told to do and more, with copious amounts of fasting, prayer, lack of sleep, and so on.

However she has done none of this for the right reasons. One gets the distinct impression that she has spent all these years living in a form of perpetual penance not out of love for God, but rather out of self-hate.  And self-hatred is a very dangerous road to travel.

As the character tells us in the scene where she finally confronts Bernadette, informing her about how much she has suffered compared to the peasant girl, she expresses what is obviously a deep-seated sense of jealousy, yes, but also of self-hatred.  This little nobody from Lourdes, whom she knew years before, gets the opportunity to see the Mother of Jesus, while she herself is denied any such gift.  That seems to Sister Vauzous fundamentally unfair.

Of course the real person Sister Vauzous is upset with is not Bernadette, but God. Why, she asks herself, do you bless that one and not me, with such consolations?  The root of that anger is self-hatred: we are unhappy because X has something we wish we had, which seems better than what we have.  Sister Vauzous is so unhappy with her own life, that she has rather childishly deluded herself into believing that she is ascetic penitent, when in truth she is a self-righteous Pharisee.

So often reviewers of this film focus on the character’s doubt and skepticism of Bernadette’s story as the wellspring of her harshness, but truthfully it is Sister Vauzous’ hatred of herself that is the real issue.  She has run away to the convent not to serve God, but to add to her own sorrows, and pick at them like scabs until they bleed, over and over again.  She is a figure of morbid self-pity, who cannot see beyond her own unhappiness to do anything out of love for anyone else.

In the Gospel parable, the father tells the older brother of the Prodigal Son that he must come rejoice that his brother has come alive again and returned to them, but Jesus does not tell us what happened next; He leaves it to our imagination to decide whether the older brother did change in his heart or not.  In “The Song of Bernadette” however, we actually see the complete redemption of Sister Vauzous.  Not only does she seek forgiveness after Bernadette reveals how horribly she has been quietly suffering for years, but she herself changes: she becomes Bernadette’s greatest friend in the convent.  So much so, that she literally carries Bernadette around when the girl becomes so ill that she can no longer walk.

I suspect that many of my Christian readers would like to think that they are more like Bernadette than Sister Vauzous.  The truth is that we can very easily fall into the same traps as the latter.  We can be so rigid with our formulae on how we are supposed to live our Christian lives, that we forget the whole point is to act in imitation of Christ.  And one of the common complaints about Jesus from His contemporaries was that He went about chatting and dining with people whom the supposedly religiously upright of his day categorically saw as sinners, instead of basking in the glow of the religious authorities’ high opinions of themselves.  What they did not understand, and I suspect oftentimes we all forget this as well, myself included, is that it is not only possible, but necessary, to try one’s best to follow and witness to God’s law, without simultaneously causing others to completely lose heart in the process.

Today being the Feast of Our Lady of Lourdes, when Catholics recall the first apparition to St. Bernadette at Lourdes on February 11, 1858, if you have seen “The Song of Bernadette” before, go back and watch it again, in light of this reflection.  If you have not, then find it online and take a look at it.  And have the honesty to ask yourself, which of these two nuns am I more like, right now?  The answer may surprise you, but the real benefit will be what you do with that realization.

Sister Vazou (Gladys Cooper) reacts in "The Song of Bernadette" (1943)

Sister Vazou (Gladys Cooper) reacts in “The Song of Bernadette” (1943)