In the movie pantheon in my head, the one that continually admits new entries and dispatches some old ones, few films have held such exalted status as His Girl Friday and Annie Hall. Considered to be two of the greatest comedies ever made, they have been touchstones, and in some ways, templates. To me, they have offered an admittedly idealized view of rose-and-thorn relationships between men and women. I have encouraged girlfriends to watch them––and eagerly surveyed their reactions. I have looked to them for cues in how to navigate the give and take of love and romance, and at times, how to find humor in heartbreak.
That likely sounds ridiculous. For one thing, pal, they’re just movies, and people need better guidebooks to life than those. Although, honestly, that objection doesn’t trouble me much. I have been looking to film to penetrate some of life’s opacity for a long time and likely will continue to do so, despite its patent limitations.
The larger issue is where these particular films now stand with regard to culturally fraught moment we find ourselves in, where the conduct of men is being given a new scrutiny and where past indiscretions cannot be waved away as a product of the times. With that has come a debate whether classic films should be re-examined using more modern standards with regard to gender equality and representation. Even before the Harvey Weinstein reports surfaced, a passionate argument had been playing out whether the venerable Gone With The Wind, which still remains ranked at the top of America’s most-loved films, is simply too retrograde to deserve consideration now as anything but a misstep in the country’s march toward progress.
So it was with some trepidation that I listened to one of my favorite film podcasts (The Canon, check it out) which devoted an episode to an analysis of His Girl Friday, even bringing in a guest from National Public Radio so as to ensure that the workover would be as 2017-y as possible. Read one way (the way I’ve always viewed it), Friday is a rapid-fire machine gun of a workplace comedy, where two obviously in-sync––and perhaps warped––souls find that they mainly can only express their love through their jobs as journalists. Cary Grant’s Walter Burns and Rosalind Russell’s Hildy Johnson are the only two who can keep up with each other, and in this reading, the film treats them essentially as equals, something that was a little transgressive for 1940.
But there was another view expressed on the show: That Grant’s Walter Burns is controlling in his determination not to let Hildy walk out of his life. That he acts as if he owns Hildy. That he bullies poor Ralph Bellamy. That the film’s romantic ending is a cheat, one that serves Hildy poorly. She should have chucked both Grant and Bellamy out of her life and gone to work for the rival paper down the block.
Few movies released 75 years ago are going to be immune to charges of sexism. But His Girl Friday would seem to merit them less than many of its contemporaries. It was famously reconceived as a comedy of remarriage by Howard Hawks after the original story, The Front Page, featured a man as Hildy. But although Hildy’s gender changed, the character didn’t, and so with some exceptions, was basically written as a man of the time. (She even disdainfully refers to a male colleague as specializing in “sob sister” tales.) Hildy is the paper’s best reporter, and she’s superior to the male hacks she competes against. There’s never any suggestion that she doesn’t belong in that world, and she is never patronized, not even by Walter. If there is any character that doesn’t quite get her, it’s Bruce, her fiance, played by Bellamy. And it’s Hildy herself who seems to struggle the most with reconciling her professional self with what the expectations were at the time of how a woman is supposed to live and behave.
But I am no position to serve as some sort of a cultural gatekeeper for this or any other film, especially given that I am a member of the suspect demographic. So, I’m not going to go all Breitbart and sound the alarm over criticism of cherished films such His Girl Friday and It’s a Wonderful Life. The debate is healthy––and perhaps will even stimulate interest in older films at a time when that has become increasingly difficult.
At the same time, it’s nearly impossible to strip works of art entirely from their historical context, whether they are films or books or music. (Many of the Rolling Stones’ lyrics, for instance, would not fly today.) There is a danger in reflexively tuning out culture that is considered to be, at first glance, at wrong angles to the zeitgeist. To do so in Friday’s case would be to miss out on the nearly incessant back-and-forth between the characters. The dialogue unspools at a much faster pace than today’s films to the point where the movie demands multiple viewings just to make sure you haven’t missed something.I also understand that that is quite the easy thing for someone like me to say. Beyond questions of gender, this is a film, after all, that calls African-Americans “coloreds.” So it’s understandable if someone else’s mileage may vary.
When it comes to film and what you might call their extratextual context, there is little more troubling at the moment than the case of Woody Allen. (Unless you believe viewers should retroactively boycott Miramax for all eternity.) I spent years defending Allen’s work, not so much the man but the output. As I stated above, Annie Hall was a major influence in my life, the first film, by my reckoning, that exposed me to the mysterious world of adult relationships, but which did so with an ample dose of neurotic humor, then my own stock-in-trade. Looking back, I have to wonder why I asked women I was dating at the time to watch it with me, considering it has (spoiler alert) such a bittersweet ending. For me, the film was summed up in Allen’s observation that relationships are messy and difficult, but we “need the eggs.”
I have since met women who refuse to watch a Woody Allen film––and I have always retreated to the argument that you can, indeed you should, separate the art from the artist. (Largely because even more than Annie Hall, it would be difficult for me to never watch Roman Polanski’s Chinatown ever again.) But this is the era of #MeToo, when accusers receive the benefit of the doubt, and it has become a reasonable question to ask why Allen has somehow dodged the same kind of scrutiny that other men in the entertainment industry have fallen under. And it’s more than reasonable to understand why some people would reject his work out of hand.
Allen’s relationship with his current wife has always been a little troubling, and of course, was famously accused of molesting his now-grown adopted daughter, Dylan Farrow, when she was young. It has never been proven and the industry, largely, has sided with Allen, as witnessed by the top-flight actresses such as Kristen Stewart, Emma Stone, and Kate Winslet who have recently worked with him. There has also been, admittedly, a strain of ickiness involving girls that has run through some of Allen’s work, as documented by New Yorker film writer Richard Brody––most indelibly in Manhattan, a luminous film but one that also featured then 44-year-old Allen in a relationship with a 17-year-old played by Mariel Hemingway. The film was released in 1979 and perhaps, yes, those were different days in terms of social mores, but even then it was discomfiting. In the current culture, it’s close to indefensible.
More interesting to me about Annie Hall and Manhattan, however, is how Allen’s character in both films seems to have a much more difficult time dealing with headstrong women than Cary Grant did in His Girl Friday. In both cases that woman is played by Diane Keaton, and in both cases, Allen seems flummoxed by her. Annie Hall’s Annie is all tics and nervous energy, and Manhattan’s Mary swings between being neurotic and overbearing.
Annie’s main complaint (rightfully) is that Allen doesn’t take her seriously, and that he consistently patronizes her. That’s also the complaint of 17-year-old Tracy in Manhattan, who believes Allen dismisses her as a person, preferring to see her as a object. At the same time, Keaton’s Mary accuses Allen of not being able to handle the complexities of an adult relationship, preferring to spend his time with a high school student.
As a filmmaker, Allen is adept enough to show that it his his own insecurities about women that are his undoing––and that ultimately, he drives Annie and Tracy away, while Mary never truly comes on board. (Allen would say, of course he isn’t Cary Grant. That’s the point. He made a whole movie, Play It Again Sam, about how he wished he could be more like Bogart.) But watch Allen in both films and even amidst the schtick, he’s controlling and possessive––and yes, sexist—–in a way that Walter Burns never is in Friday. Allen’s neediness and his fear drive his actions. He is, in fact, quite the desperate character. And perhaps the films have value, even for Allen-haters, for how they lay bare the fragility of the male ego.
A one-time ardent fan, I actually, like many, lost most of my interest in Allen a long time ago, after a tremendous run of films that ended in 1989 with Crimes and Misdemeanors. I think now his greatest work may the woman-centric Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), which would make his legacy even more complicated. I have caught some of his more recent output, particularly Match Point, Midnight in Paris, and Blue Jasmine, but even as fine as some of those films have been, they never seemed to recapture the same spirit of his early works. Any many of the plots of his later films seem stuck in the same rut, works about nebbishy men and difficult women.
Or maybe I moved on to other things and he stayed the same. In many ways, women have always seemed to be mysterious, distant aliens to Allen, who never seemed to figure out how normal relationships work, either in his art or in his life. That might have been appealing to me in college, but it’s deeply troubling now. I would like to think at some point we figure it out––maybe not with the ease and grace of Cary Grant, but we do make some sort of progress. — James Oliphant