January 25, 2013

"Peyton Place" by Jeffery Berg

Sometimes when I think of Christmas, I think of a scene in Peyton Place where Lana Turner takes off her coat and reveals her black leather gloves and a crimson dress.  Snow falls outside the window as she tells her lover about her sordid past and then remarks, “You want the truth but when you get it, you’re just like everyone else, you want anything but the truth.” On this viewing of the film I found Turner and her character particularly compelling.  Widowed Constance MacKenzie runs the town dress shop and spends much of her days and nights in solitude, reading magazines and books, going to the movies alone, smoking cigarettes, and avoiding relationships within the community—afraid of scandal, afraid of gossip, and love.  Her daughter Allison (Diane Varsi) is illegitimate but she lies to her about her dead father.  Constance recognizes, resents, and fears for her maturing daughter. Turner herself endured abuse and several unhappy relationships including one with a man who was killed by her daughter – an incident that eerily mirrors events in the movie.

Besides being a film of historical significance for its audacious handling of then taboo subject matter, Peyton Place is interesting for its aesthetics: shot in glossy Cinemascope but rife with unhappiness and bottled emotions (an impossible bottle figures in a montage), Director Mark Robson sometimes belies widescreen and focuses in on the anguished faces of the characters. Set in 1940s New England, the film looks like Rockwell.  But there is skinny-dipping, low lit spiked-punch teen birthday parties and also abuse, murder, suicide, and abortion.  Much of the strife is caused by the adults in the story rather than the restless teens.  At times, the movie is a bit creaky and old-fashioned, but as puritanical views of sex and threats against women’s reproductive rights persist, some of its topical issues remain pertinent to our times.

The source material is a much racier and controversial best-selling novel by Grace Metalious.  Metalious lived a difficult life and died in debt at 39 from liver cirrhosis. Though the novel is oft referred to as a potboiler it has gained some respect.  Professor Emily Toth of Louisiana State notes, “It’s a breakthrough for freedom of expression.  It set new parameters for what you could say in a book—especially about women.”  The film is a bit tamer in comparison but was still a shocker in its day.

As a kid, I identified with Allison MacKenzie and her dreamy ambitions of escaping her small town and becoming a writer.  As Allison, Diane Varsi often has a distant, glazed-over look and over the course of the film believably morphs from a chipper, eager teen to a colder, wiser young woman in a navy skirt suit with a cinched-waist.  Now I think I have a newfound appreciation for Varsi herself.  The actress ended up rejecting being dolled up by Hollywood and went to study poetry at Bennington College in Vermont with Ben Belitt.  She has said, "The very thing that led me to want to act was very mysterious, even to me. I thought there was a whole communal feeling in film. That the idea of film was to be a service of humanity, a means of communication. But the spirit was power.”  While I understand how the exploration of any art form can cause one to feel jaded at times, there are some movies like Peyton Place that come out of Hollywood that I think are “a service of humanity,” even if viewed as a melodramatic product.

Peyton Place | Lana Turner | Mark Robson | Hope Lange | Movie TrailerReview

Jeffery Berg
has poems forthcoming in Court Green and Swink.  He lives in New York and blogs about pop culture and various obsessions at jdbrecords.


Mike in Bed-Stuy said...

Great post, Jeffery.

Bon Appégeechee said...

Fantastic, Jeff! As a fan of "Classic Movies", I always find myself moving closer to the screen when writers address scandal and sensitive topics. This movie has it all! I saw Peyton Place for the first time this past Holiday Season. I meet you at the last sentence of this post, and couldn't agree with you more!

Dan said...

Excellent post, Jeffery! I've had a couple of ex-girlfriends (and quite a few female friends) who were (and are) fans of Peyton Place, mostly due to the perennial issues of women's rights and gender identity you cited. Remarkable how a work of art from over 55 years ago is as prescient now as it was then.

Karen said...

I remember my grandmother dabbing her forehead with a white handkerchief with pink piping and "tsk-tsking" as she read "Peyton Place" for the first time when I was little. Even then I suppose it was too much for her conservative views. This was a precious walk down memory lane. Lovely write up JDB.