“I have done battle every single day of my life.”
Review by Ken Burke
Glenn Close offers an Oscar-worthy performance as a woman passing for a man in late 19th century Ireland, heartbreaking in its details and sympathetically presented.
The Iron Lady
Meryl Streep is even more Oscar-worthy in this biography of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, seen in retrospective flashback from her declining dementia of today.
A simple story powerfully told of a lesbian girl in poor socioeconomic conditions trying to find anyone, family or friend, who will accept and love her for who she is.
Here’s a triple-play review that focuses on three of the outstanding demonstrations of high quality acting from 2011, two of which have earned Oscar nominations for Best Actress (Glenn Close, Meryl Streep) and the other a powerful debut of a rising talent (Adepero Oduye). The common thread is social acceptance for some aspect of gender identity as desired by the protagonists despite the resistance from their respective societies, with hopes at best in all three films that the women achieved what they sought or at least made enough headway to give second thoughts to those with whom they shared their lives.
I’ll go through them chronologically in terms of the films’ presented time periods, beginning with Albert Nobbs, essentially a Dickensian tale transplanted to Ireland and with more overt explorations of sex roles in the very late 19th century than Dickens would have been allowed to publish in this restrictive era, even if events such as those depicted were more common than we’ve been led to believe (although the other films also operate within their own types of restrictions even in more contemporary times as we’ll see along the way). Albert is played in effectively heartbreaking fashion by Glenn Close, a long-time presence on the screen and stage with several previous Oscar nominations for her work (The World According to Garp [George Roy Hill, 1982], Best Supporting Actress; The Big Chill [Lawrence Kasdan, 1983], Best Actress; The Natural [Barry Levinson, 1984], Supporting; Fatal Attraction [Adrian Lyne, 1987], Actress; Dangerous Liaisons [Stephen Frears, 1988], Actress—along with two Emmys in 2008 and 2009 as Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series for Damages and lots of other Emmy, Golden Globe, etc. nominations) but so far no permanent date with the bald, gold guy so we’ll see if director Rodrigo García’s production fares better for her at red carpet time this year.
As presented so well by Close, Albert is a woman who’s been living as a man for so long that he (better choice for pronoun in this case) either can’t remember or has no connection to his former name and would prefer to not remember most of a rotten childhood, beginning with an illegitimate birth, a limited life with Mother in a convent, homelessness after her mother’s death and—apparently—a 5-guy gang-rape at age 14. Soon after that assault, drifter “Albert” decided that life would be safer as a rather anonymous man and such a public persona would be acceptable for an available butler position, so with the help of covered binding garments, formal attire, closely cropped hair, and facial expressions devoid of any hint of feminine charm (or masculine charm for that matter as we see later in the story) a new persona emerged that served Albert well for decades before several challenges emerged to his constructed identity. First, Albert’s sacred isolation is shattered when the owner of the hotel where he works decides that the temporary house painter, Hubert Page (Janet McTeer, also nominated here for an Oscar as Best Supporting Actress, a strong contender were it not for Octavia Spencer’s almost sure win as Minnie the maid in The Help [Tate Taylor]), can bunk with Albert. Despite his desperate attempts to sleep clothed or on the floor soon the secret is revealed, but Page has practice at keeping quiet about personal affairs because “he” soon gives a quickly flamboyant open-shirted demonstration that there are big breasts under his clothes as well (bigger than Albert’s) but as a worker he can dress more comfortably in loose garments to hide “his” true identity (a better pronoun here also).
Albert is astounded at Hubert, not so much because he’s actually another cross-dressing woman but more because he’s comfortable in his ruse, so much so that he’s actually married to Cathleen (Bronagh Gallagher), a woman who’s delighted to be his mate. As some societies (including ours, in some quarters) have come to better understand the complexities of gender identities we now realize that it’s not always a case of simple identifiers to show distinctions between straight and lesbian women (or straight and gay men for that matter; I found out after the fact that I was once assumed in Texas by my students to be gay [not that there's anything wrong with that, and, depending on the circumstances, it can be a nice compliment] just because I was in my early 30's, had a male roommate, and no one had seen me with a girlfriend despite having one at the time, as did my roommate, just as I was later assumed by a woman in San Francisco to be gay just because I showed sensitivity to people's problems, which I consider to be a compliment for anyone, no matter how they understand themselves). Hubert, like Albert, has taken on the role of a man in order to get along better in a church-and-male-dominated society, but Hubert seems to me to have always been a woman attracted to other women, a life his wife is happy to share in what might be (a clueless hetero’s understanding of) a more traditional lesbian identity (as if I, as a straight white male, really even know what I’m talking about here and maybe even less with Pariah, except to empathize with universal situations of rejection and desired acceptance). As I understand these characters (and all that really matters is to understand their goals for themselves, not what the motivations for their individual lifestyles are because that's for them to live out, not for us to judge or pontificate about), Hubert has acted like a man so long that his natural female homosexual biology has picked up the socially conditioned traits of a hetero male as well, making him a complex soul but well adjusted to the hidden life he leads in his entrenched culture, so much so that he just naturally retains his male “costume” in the privacy of his home because he’s now truly Hubert as well as a woman who cares deeply for one specific other woman and shows great sympathy to Albert and his intended female lover as well.
“Lover” might not be the ideal word to describe Albert’s hoped-for fiancée, Helen (Mia Wasikowska, who might be getting used to these stories of being the odd “straight” “man” out [unpack that triple entendre], in that she also marvelously played Joni, daughter of lesbian parents by way of a sperm donor in The Kids Are Alright [Lisa Cholodenko, 2010]), because he exhibits more of a social-expectation-of-needing-a-wife-but-still-cares-for-her-in-a-platonic-protective-and-maybe-a-bit-extra attraction for Helen than anything resembling romance or passion, but he’s devoted to her nonetheless, even though she’s already bedding hunky hotel worker Joe Mackins (Aaron Johnson) who wants to exploit Albert’s interest in Helen for whatever material gain it can get them in trying to find the resources to escape to America. If only they knew about the money that Albert has slowly stashed away under a loose bedroom floorboard in hopes of one day opening a tobacco shop, thereby becoming a free merchant in his society instead of being mentally imprisoned in his almost-silent butler identity, although he has become so conditioned to his acquired gender identity that he has no thought of ever giving that up (besides, a woman tobacconist in this era would be just as unacceptable as a woman butler, so if Albert wants a mercantile career it will have to be as a man). His only consternation seems to be about when he should tell Helen the truth, not because she might reject him for it but more because he doesn’t want her to get hysterical on their wedding night and call the police, which would likely end up with harsh jail time for both of them. I don’t think that Albert ever was a lesbian in any traditional sense of the word, but after masquerading as a man for three decades or so I think he’s come to see himself as at least occupying a male identity in public life, even if it doesn’t lead to a natural inclination to approach Helen at first as anything more than a willing partner in a business venture. Eventually Albert demonstrates to her than he’s more loving and interested in her welfare than Joe, who becomes argumentative and abusive when he learns she’s pregnant by him, even to the point of final sacrifice as Albert attempts to get between the battling lovers in a brawl one night, becoming fatally injured in the process.
Yet, when the wounded Albert retires to his room and locks the door so that even Helen can’t come to him after she reluctantly sends Joe away and realizes that she’d be better off with the odd little butler after all, he smiles and lays down to die as seen from straight above in an overhead shot (reminding me in an oblique but somehow relevant way of a line from Willie Nelson’s “Blue Rock, Montana/Red Headed Stranger” song [Red Headed Stranger album], about a clergyman who finds his wife in an affair and kills both his sweetheart and her lover: “But he found them that evenin’ in a tavern in town, In a quiet little out of the way place. An’ they smiled at each other when he walked through the door. And they died with the smiles on their faces.”) Albert’s entire life has been mostly a tragedy or a lie, but at the end he finally seems resolved: that he’s been true to himself in his chosen identity (even though he and Hubert indulge themselves just once after Cathleen’s tragic death from typhoid fever with memories of their public female identities in a day at the beach wearing her dresses) and even convinced a woman that he is loving and capable of being loved as a man, that he has made a difference in the life of someone he cares about which is so different from the isolation that he has endured (with only a little photo of his mother to remind him of the one good thing from his past), and that even in his injured state he has control of his situation so that rather than having Helen witness the direct tragedy of his death he can keep her a bit removed from it, possibly knowing that Hubert will take her and her child in, to help fill the gap of losing Cathleen (and maybe it will be more than just caretaking when the inevitable revelation of Hubert’s true identity comes about; this film, to its credit, leaves much to speculation rather than trying to answer every issue that's been raised).
One way to perhaps better explain what I sense is lacking with Albert Nobbs is to compare it to the other lead-acting-Oscar-nominated film of these three, The Iron Lady, which really surprised me, not because of Streep’s amazing performance (with 17 Oscar nominations, 2 previous wins [Kramer vs. Kramer (Robert Benton, 1979) for Supporting, Sophie’s Choice (Alan J. Pakula, 1982) for Actress], and numerous other awards and nominations from other organizations I never doubt that I’ll see a worthy screen appearance from Streep, especially for me in Stephen Daldry‘s 2002 The Hours and Hector Babenco’s 1987 Ironweed) but because I went into the theatre with no appreciation for Reagan-buddy Margaret Thatcher, former Prime Minister of Great Britain, and came away with a great deal of sympathy for her and the decisions she felt forced to make (not that I disagree any less with the decisions, but I no longer feel quite as hostile toward her for making them). Any film that can pull me that effectively out of my ideological comfort zone is truly succeeding in my eyes as an emotional experience if not a cognitive one, which is what I find with Phyllida Lloyd’s presentation of The Iron Lady. (Lloyd also was Streep’s director in Mamma Mia! , a film that makes her 1 of only 6 women helmspersons in the current list of U.S. 250 top-grossing films [the others in order from the top with the films that got them there are Jennifer Yuh Nelson (Kung Fu Panda , Kung Fu Panda 2 ), Betty Thomas (Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakuel , Dr. Doolittle ), Catherine Hardwick (Twilight ), Nancy Myers (What Women Want ), and Anne Fletcher (The Proposal )]—Lloyd just made the list with Momma at #241.) Now if someone could construct a film that allowed me to appreciate Richard Nixon’s point of view as well as Lloyd did with Thatcher I’d have to give it 5 stars rather than the mere 4 I’ve allotted to The Iron Lady because that would be a masterfully persuasive task indeed (which is not what I experienced nor do I think it was what was intended with Nixon [Oliver Stone, 1995] or Frost/Nixon [Ron Howard, 2008], both of which show aspects of Tricky Dick’s motivations but not with any convincing justifications of them except to placate his ego) because I’ve yet to see a Nixon film that compels me to see his perspective on history as I did feel compelled about Thatcher’s career in The Iron Lady.
Rest assured, there are plenty of events peppered throughout this film to help give a non-Brit or a less-than-stellar history buff an account of why Thatcher merits a biographical film in the first place, from the early days working in her dad’s grocery during World War II, to her first election to Parliament in 1959, to her eventual leadership of the Conservative Party and office of Prime Minister from 1979 to 1990 (when she wants to “shake off the shadow of socialism” from her Labour Party predecessors), along with her fall from grace and power because of the opposition within her party responding to the opposition of citizenry who rejected (violently at times, including one horrifying bomb attack directly on her and Denis) her austerity measures after Britain suffered the same weak economy in the 1970s that eventually destabilized Presidents Ford and Carter in this country, leading to our own Reagan-led conservative revolution (although, ironically, we boosted our well-being with tax increases and deficit spending, policies which are heresy for today’s Republicans railing against our current catastrophic economic situation). Along the way to her rise to the top, Thatcher had the further handicap of being a woman in a male-dominated profession, one in England that seemingly has a take-no-prisoners code of operation during legislative debates where screaming insults at the opposition provides a workplace atmosphere not for the feint of heart so she literally has to remake herself into a more deliberately-spoken, hard-hearted (and hard-headed in her later time in office) tyrant in order to ward off the constant distrust and undermining attitudes of her colleagues, let alone her actual opponents in the Labour Party.
Our final film is about another type of oppression, because the struggling protagonist Alike (Adepero Oduye)—pronounced Ah-LEE-kay (she's clearly not "alike" because she's not like much of anyone she knows, which is the source of her ongoing difficulties)—in Dee Rees’ feature debut as writer-director of her autobiographically-inspired Pariah isn’t hassled because she’s black or female or disguising herself as a man but because she’s lesbian and wants to be out about it, despite the hostile denials from her parents. If Aibileen is a slightly later version of Rosa Parks, riding her own bus to greater freedom (although she misses the bus at one point in The Help and must walk a long way home after working all day already because she’s allowed “Skeeter” Phelan [Emma Stone, who didn’t get a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for this film but her co-star Jessica Chastain did, for her role as the white outcast Celia Foote] to talk to her too long at the bus stop about testifying for the exposé book that “Skeeter” wants to write on behalf of the maids), then Alike is a completely contemporary young woman who literally rides the bus around Brooklyn a lot in this film, symbolically trying to flee from her confining parents who can’t fathom that their offspring could be such an “abomination” to their expectations of a teenage daughter. Her mother, Audrey (Kim Wayans), is well aware of Alike’s (or Lee as she often calls herself, especially at school where she changes her wardrobe from how she left home in order to look more like a boy; we see this through a crack in the restroom stall door, voyeuristically learning the secrets of a young woman who’s still in the midst of learning about herself) emerging identity and is in religion-inspired horror at the intended outcome; her father, Arthur (Charles Parnell), spends most of the film in complete denial, simply because he can’t conceive mentally that the girl he did conceive physically could be so opposite of the identity that his child simply must be, as evidenced by his younger “normal” daughter, Sharonda (Sahra Mellesse) who’s already showing proper adolescent lust for the proper opposite sex, at least in Dad's opinion so he's sure that Alike will come around as soon as the right guy appears.
Alike knows what she must be, however, because she knows what she is by natural birthright and has no intention of denying it to those she can trust (in an early bus ride her presence is accompanied by “I’m gonna keep on doin’ my thing” on the soundtrack) but she doesn’t know how to express it except to her out and proud friend, Laura (Pernell Walker) who’s disgusted at the haters in her community. Laura’s not romantically interested in Alike but wants to push her to fully embrace the real person beneath the public façade, even to the point of encouraging her to wear a dildo which Laura summons up the courage to buy for Alike but which she is unable to feel comfortable with, either physically or emotionally. Alike’s not comfortable with much in home or school life, hiding her true needs from her parents in the former (denying to her dad that she knows about the “women’s club” in their neighborhood even though she frequents it every chance that she gets) and mostly hiding her scholastic abilities in the latter (not letting her classmates see the high A on her science test) except in her poetry class where she begins to let her feelings, if not her personal needs, find more vocal expression (and where, oddly enough, she switches back to her girl clothes). Alike’s life is surrounding by fears, frustrations, and lies, though, so she’s different only in kind but not degree with the personal traumas that are driving her to her own type of insanity. (And not slowly but surely as with Albert Nobbs who lived with his deceptions or Margaret Thatcher who lived with her overt opponents for decades but, for Alike, in a typically compressed teenage manner where every unresolved day is one step short of unbearable crisis.)
Alike’s neighborhood is obviously working class (clearly a different section of Brooklyn from the upper-class world of bickering, empty-souled parents in the current Carnage [Roman Polanski]), Laura is intermittently studying for her GED while living with her sister with both very short of cash (and even when she finishes the degree her angry mother still won’t talk to her because of her “unnatural” gender expression), Alike’s father is a cop with the inherent stress of that job but a manufacturer of more stress for himself by carrying on a clandestine affair, and her mother, like Laura’s, remains in a constant state of distress over her own daughter’s “lifestyle choice” never wanting to acknowledge that there is no choice for Alike, whose gender directions may be determined by nature but are still unacceptable to a parent who mistakenly thinks her child is just going through some sort of antagonizing rebellion which she could reject.
In the aftermath of the Bina disaster, Alike goes to stay with Laura (for comfort, not a relationship; this film is about real heartbreak among multi-dimensional characters, not some jerk’s misguided wet dream that all lesbians just want to have sex with each other [for the jerk’s perverted pleasure]), Alike’s mother essentially disowns her and throws away all memories of her daughter, and her dad finally overcomes his hostility in order to admit that she’s still his loving daughter even if he can’t make sense of her newly-public persona. Through a narratively-convenient (but not totally implausible) ending plot twist Alike’s powerful poetry gets her into an early college program in Berkeley so that she can advance herself away from the conflicts and expectations of her family and childhood community, move to a new location where her gender identity isn’t such an automatic point of dispute, and hopefully find herself released from the cycle of hate and rejection that has constrained her life thus far (not unlike the geographic release that Tre [Cuba Gooding Jr.] and Brandi [Nia Long] find at the end of Boyz N the Hood [John Singleton, 1991] when they escape their violent South Central Los Angeles neighborhood in order to start a new life in college at Morehouse and Spelman in Atlanta, a reminder that not all areas of supposedly-tolerant California are necessarily escape routes [just as the Joads learned long ago in The Grapes of Wrath (John Ford, 1940)] but sometimes a major relocation can be a salvation, just as we assume or hope it will be for Alike in her coast-to-coast journey). Once again Alike’s on a bus, now cross-country instead of cross-town, with her “Broken” poem from the film’s trailer to express her acceptance that being broken doesn’t mean being defeated, it means being opened from her previous confinement, an unexpected form of freedom that comes from the pain of escaping the limits of her former vicious circles into the blank pages of a new chapter in her autobiography of self-discovery.
Adepero Oduye also has a long journey ahead to reach the performance heights of Glenn Close and Meryl Streep but she certainly has the talent to carry her on that road so we can only hope that her career will find the opportunities for expression that her companions in this review have had in achieving their long-established status as two of the most respected actors in the film industry (or “actresses” as our awards ceremonies continue to remind us, with their separation structures as if male and female performers can’t compete directly). All three of these actual women have presented powerful depictions of fictional or fictionalized women struggling to find their places in a male-dominated society with its heterosexual expectations and punishments awaiting those who defy any of our hegemonic assumptions. These characters varied in the magnitude of the success of their defiance but all of them gave every bit of their personhood for their own betterment in eras and situations that should have demolished their ambitions but instead found them refusing to accept their expected defeat. One of these older actresses—or Viola Davis, as noted above—will very likely take home 2011’s Best Actress Oscar (and Oduye certainly has the potential to be in that race in years to come, although we can only hope that films such as these will continue to be produced given the scant returns on their investments so far: The Iron Lady leads the pack at this point with a mere $17.5 million while Albert Nobbs has taken in drastically far less, only about $750,000 and Pariah trails them both with a miserly $570,000, in an extended holiday and January season that saw Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol [Brad Bird] topping $202 million, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows [Guy Ritchie] at over $182 million, and even the animated Puss in Boots [Chris Miller] at more than $148 million—but all of these overshadowed by The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn—Part I [Bill Condon] at about $280.5 million; with such competition it’s a wonder that serious dramas even get produced), but all of these portrayed characters won something even more vital than awards or box office returns for their own understandings of what it takes to be able to look in the mirror and not flinch away in embarrassment or shame. There’s no shame here at all with these women, whatever their societies might try to say otherwise.
If you want to explore Albert Nobbs further here are some suggested links:
If you want to explore The Iron Lady further here are some suggested links:
If you want to explore Pariah further here are some suggested links:
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