January 14, 2013

"The Train to Reno and Back: The Women as Rite of Passage" by Tanya Larkin

There was a four or five month stretch there in the wake of my marriage when I would get up early, go to bed early, and in between those two titanic events, watch every classic movie ever made. I passed through many phases of recovery but this obsession with seeing every classic movie fell squarely in the phase when all I really wanted was routine; there had been so little of it in my marriage. Most of the day it was a relief to be alone and disentangled from the emergencies of real-life drama, but dinner was hard, not the making of it, but the eating of it. I had learned any routine can be heightened into ritual if you paid enough attention to it, even measuring out rice and pouring it into a cooker, and so I easily turned the making of dinner into ceremony. I never managed to make the eating of it anything more than lonely. I could imagine slowly chewing and deeply enjoying wonderful tastes, but I didn’t want to do it because I knew it would make me cry. Beauty sometimes has that effect when you’re alone. There’s no one to whom you can look immediately and say, “Isn’t this good?” or “Look how pretty,” and somehow that makes one’s loneliness ring out in painful, boomeranging reverb.

Don’t get me wrong. There are plenty of advantages to being single. As Mary Haines’s mother tells her daughter in The Women, “Living alone has its compensations. Heaven knows it’s marvelous to be able to spread out in bed like a swastika!” But eating alone isn’t one of them. Better to be distracted. So every night, I waited for darkness to completely descend before I turned on the TV and sat down to eat. Life had become too precious for even PBS—after all, I had just survived a doozy of a storm, (dare-I-say a tsunami of a marriage)—so it was classic movies I rented. What does one do when one’s life has fallen apart at such a terrific speed but sit there stunned in front of a screen, watching and waiting for the feelings to settle in? 

The Women, Anita Loos’ film adaptation of the play by Clare Boothe Luce, was particularly therapeutic. It teemed with women, providing a ready cadre of rich female friends with cool clothes when I didn’t want to be alone but also didn’t want to see any actual person. (It had become a drag to tell my story, but I couldn’t figure out a way of spending time with anyone without vomiting it forth.) Also, it was about divorce—practically an instruction manual fallen from ancient Hollywood skies into my lap. And best of all possible worlds, about remarriage too. While taking notes from all the divorcees in the film on just how to do it with aplomb and humor, just as the protagonist Mary Haines does in the bar car on the train to Reno, I could simultaneously and whole-heartedly indulge in the fantasy of re-marriage with a wistful longing reserved only for the impossible. (This fantasy quite possibly doesn’t go entirely away when the marriage ends before the love does. But just to be clear. I didn’t want to get back together with my ex, just as a woman with a rape fantasy doesn’t want actually to be raped.) In The Women, nearly every woman (and there are only women in it—apparently, George Cukor, the openly gay director, bragged that everyone on set was a bitch, including all the dogs, of which there are several throughout yapping and licking in imitation of their owners) gets a divorce, no matter her class or position, and so divorce becomes not something to be ashamed of, but a rite of passage. You come out the other side with just enough distance from your life to maintain a steady, inviolable happiness. The sheer number of female types that crowd the screen is astounding—from the tough-as-nails, working class mistress and the softer, rich equanimous wife, whose relationship with her husband is the foundation of her marriage (in other words, her kid hasn’t cornered her affection) to the wide-eyed young wife besotted with love for her new husband (“Oh darling, are you? Oh darling, do you? Oh darling, so do I.”), the goofy, meddlesome clown for whom nothing is so sacred as the next piece of gossip, the androgynous, childless, family-less, truth-telling writer (ahem!), and the oft-divorced, rich, old Countess who touts the thrills of l’Amour (“That means love in French.”) It’s hard not to identify with nearly all them, which tends to make a joke of identification. To which character do you owe allegiance? Like Sylvia Fowler, the incorrigible gossip, we are confused as to whom we should bet on. First we’re in one woman’s camp and then in another’s.

Speaking of camp: it is the campiness with which these women play their roles that draws attention to the fact that these women are doing just that, playing roles that are constructed. They delight in the artifice of their respective identities. Of identity, period. See wicked stepmother Joan Crawford in the ugliest tub you will ever want to own screech “I’m so BORED!” at the maid as she throws a sponge the size of her own brain at her. (“One more thing,” says the stepdaughter, “I think this bathroom is perfectly ridiculous.”) Or the sweet catfight at the ranch in Reno between Sylvia Fowler, played by comic genius Ros Russell, and Miriam (Paulette Goddard), the woman who is ending her own marriage to be with Sylvia’s husband. It’s much more fun to play a woman than actually be one. Oh wait, they’re the same thing—isn’t that one of the lessons of camp. 

For me, the campiness of the movie had instant appeal: I was already interested in bringing consciousness to even a bunch of rice, and camp, with its tendency toward exaggeration and a life lived in quotes, as it is described by Sontag in her essay on camp, requires a surfeit of consciousness. So it too can be described as ceremony, albeit a ridiculous sort. I am reminded of the pope fashion show in Fellini’s Roma (Incidentally, The Women sports its own fashion show, a very sumptuous, self-referential ((“campy”)) technicolor one that erupts in the middle of this otherwise black and white movie: 

In The Women, the ridiculous ceremony of camp made a plaything of the sorrows of divorce and allowed me to take myself and my role as wife/ex-wife less seriously. Camp, is often dismissed for being so prodigal with feelings that it makes them insignificant, rendering the work of art largely insignificant. It does make them insignificant—in a way. Camp permits you to feel your feelings so far and deep that you feel the feeling right out of them. The campiness ofThe Women invited me to accept (and keep on keeping on accepting) feelings I would have rather avoided. But sadness, it’s just another feeling; it’s just Feeling, period. Are you prejudiced against the rain, the snow, tsunamis? Why? At one point, Mary Haines picks up The Prophet (yes, this movie contains a Technicolor fashion and show and a reference to The Prophet) and reads: “But if you would seek only love’s pleasure then it is better for you to pass out of love’s domain where you shall laugh not all of your laughter and weep not all of your tears.” I wrote this down in my diary like a school girl. Wisdom! Camp is not simply play. It destabilizes the idea of fixed, permanent identity and the feelings that an impermanent self feels. In this movie, it also provides perfect counterpoint for the very dramatic plot. Without camp and other sorts of humor, the feelings in the drama would seem unmanageable. Any sane person would shy away from them and stay in denial. 

At the center of the drama is Mary Haines, the unimpeachable tomboyish nature girl, who fishes and rides horses. She of course acts naturally and is the only woman in the movie who does not camp up her role. But she more than any of the women understands the fungibility of female identity. She enjoys ten years of “so really happy” marriage and then finds out from her gossipy friends that her big-wig Park Ave husband has been having an affair with working-class, perfume-counter floozy Crystal Allen (Joan Crawford). From happy to devastated, there she blows in an instant. Then, because she’s “too busy nursing her two-bit pride,” she and her husband divorce, and he marries the diabolical Crystal Allen. Mary learns of the quick marriage at the most inopportune time—right after she is persuaded by a new “sister” in Reno to take him back because “Love ain’t ashamed of nothing.” Much has been made of how badly the women in this film treat each other. They are savage even when they are being nice— (“Chin up”… “That’s right, both of them!”). And, as signaled by their blood red nails, they tear each other apart and relish all the schadenfreude they can get. But they are also equally supportive, especially at the divorce ranch, where all the women meet the same fate. 

When she gets the news of her husband’s quick marriage on the telephone (directly from her fresh ex), Mary’s eyes well up with tears and her voice shakes. In fact, this is how she handles her sorrow throughout most of the film. She doesn’t fall into a rage and break stuff, or yell at strangers when they commit the smallest infractions, or even curl up in her luxuriously draped bed, alternately keening and feeling sorry for herself. She just wishes her husband the greatest happiness with his new wife and doesn’t stop wishing that for years until she discovers he is miserable and has proof he is being betrayed by his new wife. It was a lesson I could easily follow having already raged and keened and lashed out at strangers. 

Once Mary is morally in the clear and poised to win back her man, she jumps out of bed and pounces. In a close-up, she curls her fingers into claws and brandishes her nails declaring, “I’ve had two years to grow claws, mother. Jungle Red!” She is ready to cast aside her goody-goody ways and join the pack of bitches who have been wearing Jungle Red nail polish from the start. The nature girl is finally ready for artifice, performance—action! This is not the first time the theme of woman as beast appears. It’s introduced as soon as the opening credits start to roll, where the forthcoming characters are lampooned as animals in a menagerie. Mary Haines is the innocent doe, Crystal Allen, the predatory cheetah (very punny…), the mother, the owl, etc. It’s only when Mary brandishes her new nails, however, that the theme is fully developed. Mary’s Jungle Red claws not only symbolize her willingness to fight dirty to get back her man; they also suggest she has become an animal in a more fundamental way. She has decided to reclaim her sexuality which had faded as her years of happy marriage settled into a chaste brother/sister relationship and made her husband vulnerable to shop girls. In the next scene we see her sparking a match in a gold-lame gown, a fuller version of the lingerie her husband’s mistress wore in the dressing room scene where she confronted her husband’s mistress. After Crystal Allen tells the sales lady to put yet another luxury item on Mr. Haines’s bill, Mary Haines strides into Crawford’s dressing room and gives her a handsome dressing down. She assures Crawford the affair she is having with her husband is only temporary. In fact, she pities her because she will never have the deep and complex feelings she and her husband have developed and shared over many years of marriage. Her parting shot: find a negligee less obvious. My Steven doesn’t go in for such trash. Crawford’s stinging reply: “Thanks for the tip! But when anything I wear doesn’t please Steven, I take it off!” 

By the end of the movie, Mary has moved from scorned wife to sexy, husband-stealing mistress. The husband she is about to steal is her own. It’s awesome! It’s only a matter of timing and a little trick of fate before the scorned wife becomes the hot, single vixen. As they say in New England and probably lots of other places too, “Don’t like the weather. Wait fifteen minutes.” Also, beware of the reverse, which is implied: Nice weather? Enjoy it but don’t get too used to it…kiss that joy as it flies. 

Because one female role can so easily turn into another, the screenwriters don’t leave one character completely disempowered. From the looks of it, divorce makes you wise and witty, but then so does enduring an affair and continuing to be married, and so does being a mistress who has renounced the deeper ties of family for gin-soaked solitude and straight-up luxury. When Crystal Allen the perfume counter floozy plans to make dinner for Mr. Haines because it’s about time he found out she was a home girl, her colleague guffaws, “Home girl! Get a load of her. Why don’t you borrow the quintuplets for the evening?!” “Because I’m all the baby he wants,” Crystal Allen responds. She who has ears, let her hear. Mary Haines, somewhere offstage at this point, certainly does. 

The tag line that accompanies The Women, (It’s all about men!) is a bit of false advertising. Mostly, this movie is about women’s relationships to themselves and to other women. One of this movie’s underlying messages: stand by your women. They are sisters in sorrow caused by men. If you don’t, you will end up a fool like Sylvia Fowler, locked in a closet at swanky parties at night, and by day paying double to drool at a shrink who is secretly laughing at you through his beard. It’s another extension of what must be one of the most common tropes of chick flicks: Men come and go, but your girlfriends will always be there. This one comes with a twist. Humble yourselves on the altar of fate, and treat your fellow ladies right; some day you will probably end up in their shoes. And if you’re lucky, their clothes, too. Cue the fashion show—it ends with a woman with doorknobs on her gloves. Those are doorknobs, right?

Tanya Larkin is the author of My Scarlet Ways (Saturnalia Books) and the chapbook Hothouse Orphan (Convulsive Editions). Her most recent poems have appeared in Ping Pong and The Boston Review. She lives in Somerville, Massachusetts, where she fronts the band Waves in Detroit.

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