June 20, 2010 1 Comment
Remember when you wrote about musicals and how you don’t quite trust someone who doesn’t like them? Yesterday my mother (who loves musicals, and taught me to love them too) said this to me over lunch:
“I just saw Wicked. And I have changed my mind about witches.”
(The change, it turned out, was far-reaching. She had a whole new perspective on the witch Agatha in the Little Lulu comic books she read as a child. She didn’t dislike Glinda now, not exactly, but she saw her for what she really was: a pretty little rich girl who just wanted to be popular. )
I was charmed by this, and I just now saw Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and have been thinking over that Glinda figure, the ditzy blonde. As my mom talked, I was surprised at the viciousness of my feelings toward Glinda, who I only know from the Wicked soundtrack which my little sister adores, and which I consequently know fairly well. Why all the anger? I realized I’d made her an evil conniving sorority girl in my head. Despite the movies efforts to convince me otherwise, I’ve resisted the Elle Woods and the House Bunnies and even some perfectly amiable students because of a deep-seated mistrust of blondes. (I except you, of course.)
But not anymore! Musicals can cure bias! Being my mother’s daughter, I hereby declare that Gentlemen Prefer Blondes has changed my mind about blondes.
I have to read the book because the movie was so supernally delightful and has me longing for the days before HD, when sequins glittered on the big screen like otherworldly twinklefires instead of sad little tinsel disks that come off when you move.
Sequins. They seem like a perfect metaphor for this movie: the illusion is so gorgeous, and the mechanics are tawdry and come apart if you move too violently. It’s about COSTUMES(!!!) and how they produce fantasy and look a little monochromatic when you look at them up close. (Mr. Millicent pointed out the unrelenting greyness of the backstage area, and I’m sold on the idea that Hawks wanted to emphasize the colors of the costumes against the bleak backdrop that makes them possible.)
I don’t mean that anyone is anything other than perfect-looking in this movie. The choreography is visually orgasmic in a way that nothing I’ve seen in a music video approaches. (Maybe Michael Jackson. But he is the exception to everything.) The point, though, is that the entire film is about choreography that looks back at you—a point Andrew Sidea makes pretty nicely. As perfect as every image is, it’s equally true that it isn’t a “natural” image or an “innocent” image—it’s an image that has made absolutely sure its fingernails and lipstick match because it is going to get you alone for five minutes and talk you into giving it all your money. And you will do it willingly, even though it knows what it’s doing, and you know what you’re doing. For a movie rife with amiable unvirtues, it’s a beautiful form of consent.
My favorite part (other than the opening sequence in the red dresses, the “Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend” set piece that everybody loves, and the mind-bending naked swimmers Jane Russell drools over): when Jane Russell performs Monroe (complete with wig!). It’s dazzling to see the transformation, it’s uncomfortable to realize how absolutely fake the entire blond package is, and how completely we’ve been taken in by Monroe’s Lorelei into believing this could in any universe be a real person. It’s jarring to see Dorothy’s body flail where Monroe’s voluptuated, jarring to see Dorothy’s sharp sassy accents go all breathy and soft, jarring to see her eyes get dreamy and heavy-lidded so you can believe they don’t really see you. For someone who constantly channels herself as an object of penetration, the real Lorelei—unlike Dorothy, whose smarts we see—remains impenetrable.
It’s so smart!!! It’s so amazingly smart! And the end! Where they’re both wearing the EXACT SAME WEDDING DRESS! Because however different they are in life and in friendship (and they’re foils for each other, total opposites), their stagecraft and choreography is always identical. In life, they’re all difference, while their twinness is never not a performance. So the fact that they’re both dressed identically at the end and winking at each other is the obvious prelude to the number they’re about to do. They are oh-so-clearly in costume.
The fact that a film back then could recognize two totally different brands of female physical comedy and sexuality and show them as conscious of the effects they produce makes me grateful that shows like The Book Group manage to work in similar distortions of expected types (the WAGs) and sad that this awesome film that in no way condescends to its blonde or its brunette has had to be remade into the clunkfest that is Legally Blonde: the story of a blonde who isn’t dumb as a post but is really nice too. Nothing against Elle Woods, who has her moments, but the whole strategy reminds me of Gob’s advertising campaign on Arrested Development: “The Banana Shack: A frozen banana that won’t make you sick and kill you.” If you’re insisting so hard that girls who like pink fluffy things aren’t total idiots, you’re running a pretty good campaign for the opposition.
So: I clink my grapefruit half to Monroe and Russell, whose nuptials are the perfect kooky antidote to Jane and Elizabeth’s double-wedding in the BBC Pride and Prejudice (which has to be a nod to GPB, right? Down to the shared look?). And salute the lipstick in that production, which did stellar work. While I’m in ceremonial mode, I owe Wicked‘s Glinda a mental apology for not watching her show and automatically ascribing to her all the sins of her badly-constructed sisters. All I remember is her perky song about being po-o-pular, and I suppose that ain’t always a bad thing.