Tuesday, January 04, 2011

love nineteenth century american-style

I've been on a Jennifer Jason Leigh kick lately. I recently watched Washington Square, based on the short novel by Henry James. I had been on a Henry James novel-reading kick a few years ago (I go on a lot of kicks), but hadn't gotten around to reading Washington Square. Luckily Google Books has a free download, so I could skim a few important scenes to see how the film's interpretation compared to the original text. I'll be reading it in it's entirety later, I'm sure, probably on the iPad. Ah, modernity.

Modernity is an element absent from the novel, which is strictly Victorian—American-style, in its telling of the ill-fated romance of New Yorkers Catherine Sloper and Morris Townsend. The filmmaker Agnieszka Holland has, without greatly altering the original novel's text, allowed her heroine to become a nascent feminist by the story's conclusion. The film is a more faithful rendition than the B&W movie The Heiress, which starred Olivia de Haviland and Montgomery Clift that I caught on late-night t.v. many years ago. The Heiress, based on a stage play version of Washington Square, is also a great film. The two versions are different enough to be enjoyed differently. The Heiress plays at times like a mystery, with Clift's motives more ambiguous, and de Havilland's Catherine a harder character than Leigh's, exacting revenge on Clift at the end:
Catherine Sloper: He's grown greedier over the years. Before he only wanted my money; now he wants my love as well. Well, he came to the wrong house—and he came twice. I shall see that he does not come a third time.
The [playwrights were] asked to make Morris less of a villain than he was in their play and the original novel in deference to the studio's desire to capitalize on Montgomery Clift's reputation as a romantic leading man.—Wikipedia
Olivia de Havilland and Montgomery Clift, from TCM

The essence of the plot—and be warned, I'm pretty much giving it all away here—is that a young woman, heiress to her father's substantial fortune, is pursued by a very handsome young man who has no money of his own. Her father suspects that he is a gold digger and tries to prevent the match, threatening to disinherit his daughter. The young man eventually breaks it off, presumably because the girl, although still rich, will not be filthy rich. Years later, after the father has died, he comes to reconcile with her, but she sends him packing. Depending on how you read the scene, in book and both films, you can interpret Morris's intentions towards Catherine as purely mercenary, or maybe not always. The story is basically an actor's paradise, as it is full of opportunities to play both repressed and exuberant emotions.

In Washington Square Jennifer Jason Leigh's Catherine Sloper is practically housebound. In an early scene she is a bird in a cage, as she sits by the window watching the world go by, waiting each day for her father, an eminent doctor, played by Albert Finney, to return from work. Dr. Sloper still mourns his wife who died having his only daughter. If he possessed the imagination to view his daughter as a bird, she would be a dull common sparrow in his eyes. He is a man who doesn't really care for his only child much, who is embarrassed by her awkward physicality and over-affectionate nature. He is also, at times, an utter shit to her.

The film has some nice visual touches. The Sloper's house is beautiful—full of polished surfaces and gleaming objects—but it's just an address, with no soul, no love inside. Catherine's love of music, her desire to perform but accompanied by her horrible stage fright—hint at suppressed passion yearning for an opportunity, an outlet. She is inexpertly watched and taught during the day by her aunt and companion, Lavinia Penniman, played brilliantly by Maggie Smith. Ignored by her father and other relatives she is just aching for someone to teach her a bit about life. Enter Morris Townsend.

Both women fall almost immediately in love with Morris, played by Ben Chaplin, with tousled hair and sensual mouth. It's easy to see why Catherine literally goes weak in the knees in his presence, before, during and after he kisses her. The poor girl never had a chance. Ah, but men can be such a disappointment sometimes. Both Morris and her father let her down. Morris may break her heart by not wanting to marry a merely rich girl, but it is her father who treats her most cruelly. He does everything in his power to end her relationship, never taking a moment to sympathize or try to understand how deeply her feeling go, how torn she is between her new-found feelings of passion and her love and loyalty towards her father. He is insulting about her attributes to anyone who will listen.

What sort of father tells people that no one will ever be in love with his daughter? It is actually her father's callous treatment which sends Catherine on her first steps away from him and towards independence, from any man's telling her how to lead her life. It is so ironic, her father trying to convince her how awful it would be for Catherine to marry a man who didn't love her—she had spent her life up to that point with a man who didn't love her ... There is an amazing confrontation between Leigh and Finney on an alp in Europe, with Catherine's scarf blowing away along with all of her illusions about her father's love for her. When she finally accepts how her father thinks and feels about her, Catherine resolves to do as she pleases and marry Morris.

Jennifer Jason Leigh and Albert Finney, from cinema.de

Unfortunately for Catherine, Morris is not eager to elope. When she realizes that Morris won't be happy without her father's approval and all its accompanying wealth, she is finally able to make a life for herself. Some might interpret that by turning down some other very decent marriage proposals that come her way shows that she is still carrying a torch for Morris. Possibly she has been so badly burned that she shies away from love. But I think that Catherine has chosen to do as she pleases with the money her mother left her. She is no longer dependent on her father, a posthumous jerk, who even tried to control her life beyond the grave by disinheriting her. If she had married Morris or any other man, she would have remained in the very similar subservient role that she played with her father, just with a new master. Dr. Sloper actually did her a back-handed favor, although that was certainly not his intention, by setting her free to make her own way in the world. Catherine is not a person to be pitied, because she realizes her father's brutality as an opportunity and goes forward. Jennifer Jason's Leigh's happiness in her new life, her evident comfort in her own skin, is lovely to see.

When Morris comes to visit her at the end of the film, abetted by her always meddling Aunt Lavinia,

The film adds an additional verbal confrontation:
Catherine Sloper: Say it!
Morris Townsend: Say what? That I wanted you with your money? Is that so immoral? Would you want me without my attributes? You have money, I have ... I have "this." It was a fair exchange.
It was impossible for me, hearing Morris's words to not see his point. I also couldn't help but think of another film's penultimate bit of dialogue spoken by Marilyn Monroe's Lorelei Lee, from one of my favorite movies, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes:
Lorelei Lee: Don't you know that a man being rich is like a girl being pretty? You wouldn't marry a girl just because she's pretty, but my goodness, doesn't it help?
You could almost look at Gentlemen Prefer Blondes as Washington Square from the other side, from gold digger Morris's angle:
Esmond Sr.: Have you got the nerve to tell me you don't want to marry my son for his money?
Lorelei Lee: It's true.
Esmond Sr.: Then what do you want to marry him for?
Lorelei Lee: I want to marry him for YOUR money.
It is abundantly clear at the end of Washington Square that Catherine is not just content (as in the book), but happy with her life. Whether Morris or Aunt Lavinia will ever understand how that could be possible we shall never know. But it's also impossible not to wonder what would have happened if Catherine had gone ahead and married Morris. Was Morris really "wronging" her in any way? She experienced romance and passion with him. She knew what she brought to the table as much as what she wanted from Morris. Marriage, then and now, after all is first and foremost a contract.

The only person who seems to have devalued Catherine and done her a great injustice was her father. Not for being "right" about Morris, but for thinking his daughter too stupid to understand who Morris truly was and still want him. For using his money as a threat to his daughter and an enticement to her suitor. For trying to control her life and not letting her experience love and the inevitable pain that always accompanies it on her own. As Catherine's other aunt Elizabeth points out to Dr. Sloper, why shouldn't Morris make a good husband? How can he know they won't be happy? Not to mention that the not-so-good doctor had no money when he married Catherine's mother—she was the heiress then.

Life's little tragedies are full of such hypocrisies.

Washington Square, from Google Books
Quotes from imdb, Washington Square, The Heiress and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes
Enhanced by Zemanta


Post a Comment