Two Woodfall films and an American equivalent
Yes, I am yoking three reviews and three films together, but bear with me, and we can ride on this makeshift oxcart together. It’s not just that two of them are from the BFI’s Woodfall collection, a recent boxed set of British New Wave classics; or that all three are BFI re-releases of films from the early ‘60s by auteur directors with a penchant for adapting daring and difficult literature for the screen. No, it’s that central to each film is an unconventional relationship between two people who find themselves harassed by the prejudicial eyes and suspicious minds of those around them.
First there’s Tony Richardson’s adaptation of Shelagh Delaney’s debut play A Taste of Honey, the title of which, if it refers to nothing else, attests to the film’s essential sweetness. On first glance it seems consistent with Woodfall’s previous ‘kitchen sink’ dramas, from its unwanted pregnancy and disapproving working-class parents to its grim surroundings spiced up by a lively, irrepressible lead character. It feels like a significant evolution, though, not just because the main character and writer are women, but because the lightness of tone shines through even in Jo’s (Rita Tushingham) most fraught encounters with her alcoholic mother.
Visiting Blackpool pier with her mother and potential stepfather, sulky Jo comes across, however sympathetically, as a buzzkill. But her fears about her mother’s new, younger man prove true; and besides, all of Jo’s rebellions are driven by her adventurous playfulness and desire to subvert her mother’s petty, hypocritical values. Shelagh Delaney wrote the kind of heroine she wanted to see not just treading the boards but trampling over them. First she has a delightful, flirtatious affair with a (significant in the plot, and in the film’s era) black ship’s cook, briefly docked near her mother’s rented Salford abode. Then, visibly pregnant, estranged from her domineering mother, and having left school to work in a shoe shop, she elicits the sympathy of Geoffrey, a young gay textile design student. He, in turn, is a tad homeless, and so they support each other with every means at their disposal.
It’s a fierce friendship; they live like kings, and they live like students. Geoffrey cooks, cleans and frets, mothering Jo while offering to wife her for her sake. It’s a touching relationship, played affectionately by Tushingham but also Murray Melvin as Geoffrey, the only member of the play’s cast who was deemed indispensable once the film version came around. Rumour has it that Delaney was moved to write her first and best-known work after seeing a Terence Rattigan play, objecting, among other things, to that writer’s coy and fussy presentation of homosexuality: A Taste of Honey isn’t a groundbreaking response, and it softens some of Geoffrey’s edges in order to confine him to the domestic sphere, but to object too much would be misguided.
After all, what was ‘kitchen sink’ if not a derogatory attempted takedown by critics of the close-to-home, highly relevant concerns of a new generation of socially conscious writers? Geoffrey might be happily confining himself to the role of gay best friend, but it’s not as if he’s Jo’s shallow, materialistic life coach. Rejected by those who are meant to support them, the pair defiantly become everything to each other. The film questions how much parents ‘deserve’ the privilege of being close to their children. Geoffrey and Jo form a queer, familial relationship based on solidarity and kindness, only to find their bond threatened by Jo’s mother, who returns to claim her not-so-rightful place at her pregnant daughter’s side.
‘Kitchen sink’, in common parlance, has another meaning, as in the phrase ‘everything but the…’.
Two years after A Taste of Honey, Tony Richardson would, for the first time, dig up a much older literary source and pilot Woodfall Films to their greatest, though perhaps not most enduring, success. Tom Jones is a ‘kitchen sink’ film in that it is bawdy, relentless, packed with disjointed incidents and episodes, shot through with discordant and cine-literate style, covered in strata of irony that would befuddle any archaeologist trying to draw an accurate cross-section. But beneath it all, there’s the same strand of class-conscious critique, tied up as ever with Richardson’s macho fascination with the kind of sexual freedom that liberates men at the expense of women.
What is a picaresque novel? Put simply, before novelists knew that they had invented a new, legitimate literary form, they were conscious of the disdain towards supposedly frivolous prose fiction, so they steered into the skid. Picaresque novels are trivial, messy, scandalous, subversive recycled burlesques of existing literature, whether diary, history, philosophy, allegory or whatever else can be stewed in the melting pot. Their characters reflect this scrappy, witty, insouciant spirit, being equally obsessed with justifying themselves and their often underhanded deeds as they are with climbing the social ladder towards legitimacy. You might be familiar with the genre through Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, a dour, reserved and abstracted reworking of an eclectic, political, pugnacious rags-to-riches story. Richardson has no such reserve, and as a consequence Tom Jones is much truer to the spirit of picaresque, and much funnier as a consequence.
The story begins with a silent cinema homage, using intertitles and sped-up film to narrate the partially-true story of the birth of Tom Jones, a lower-class woman’s bastard child raised and adopted by the local landowner. Albert Finney, in the fourth-wall breaking, appetite-indulging, voraciously sexy title role of the adult Tom, found perhaps his greatest role (and inspiration for a certain singer’s pseudonym), freed from the constraints of social realism’s penchant for ‘authenticity’. A standout scene involves he and the woman he’s about to bed indulging in a meal that grows exponentially in size and scope with each course. In a shot-reverse-shot pattern, each character staring hungrily into the camera, they eat at each other as if locked in sexually-charged combat.
The main plot questions the very notion of authenticity, in familial and private relationships. Tom and his main love interest Sophie, divided by class, turn out not to be such an unwise match after all, and their elders abruptly become approving of their engagement. That’s 18th century humour— what if the most scandalous sexual debasement of a high-born woman was, by a series of coincidences, actually no different from a respectable bourgeois marriage? How arbitrary and ridiculous do society’s values and norms seem as a result? Tom Jones is a womanising romp with cheekily seditious (dare I say queer?) undertones.
How poor this week’s American offering, William Wyler’s 1961 adaptation of Lillian Hellman’s play The Children’s Hour, seems by comparison to these rebellious bursts of life and energy. Wyler adapted the play before, as 1936’s These Three, but he’d been forced to change the film’s central conceit: the destructive rumours of a lesbian relationship that a young girl starts about her two teachers became, in that earlier film, whispers of an adulterous heterosexual love triangle. Even the second time around, it feels as if there are freedoms still denied to Wyler, meaning that some crucial details of the story, such as how the girl knew what kinds of sexual detail to supply in order to stoke her rumours (she’s found some sort of illicit reading material) are only implied.
The film’s best moment is also its most damning of the film’s muzzled strategies: desperately wanting answers as to why parents are withdrawing their children from the school in droves, Shirley MacLaine and Audrey Hepburn keep pressing until one father admits that ‘it’s not the kind of thing I want to talk about’. The sequence that follows, in which one woman watches him spill the truth to the other through a glass door, out of the audience’s earshot, speaks volumes: but what it says so much about is Hollywood, and the film’s, own reticence to even admit the existence of real homosexual relationships, let alone treat them as anything other than an indiscriminately polluting, unspeakable taboo.
Then there’s the matter of the film’s main villain being a bossy, entitled, naughty little girl, a demonising monster-child caricature of the kind that always makes me mistrust the filmmakers’ motives. This one is no exception, although as an allegory for the then-recent spectre of McCarthyism and its trials-by-hearsay, it’s not bad: America as a doted on little white child who gets away with anything, forms bad habits that are hard to correct, will never face consequences, and exploits the insane overprotection afforded to her and all the supposed precious, free innocence that she has. All she needs to do succeed is to bully the weaker children and cry to her closest kin, her grandmother, also America, the elegant non-entity who won’t say anything about anyone because she can’t say anything unpleasant unless by innuendo and aspersion; who cries civility while the worst savagery is done in her name under her nose. And to an extent the film is much more real than allegory, America’s ‘red scare’ having been accompanied and bolstered by an attendant wave of ‘pink scare’ fear mongering that gay people posed a security threat to the country and could be recruited or blackmailed by nefarious communist agents.
But to re-iterate: it’s a tone-deaf melodrama. The strife between the child characters inadvertently Bugsy Malones the adult psychodrama happening around it, and Wilder’s taut direction is so precisely mapped out that there’s little opportunity for adventure and discovery on the viewer’s part. The insulting ‘twist’, on its surface, is that the MacLaine character has harboured feelings for her fellow teacher all along; any queer viewer is at least three steps ahead by this point, and has read more-than-platonic feeling into every interaction between both main characters from minute 1. It’s Hollywood, so unlike A Taste of Honey, which has a more authentically heart-breaking departure at its end, someone is going to have to hang for this terrible, unthinkable non-crime. I know to expect this kind of thing from old movies, but my exasperation is not just a result of The Children’s Hour being behind the times, but far behind most viewer’s understanding of, and desire for, queerness in drama. And it’s a little embarrassing that this was Wyler’s second stab at being faithful to the material; I haven’t read Hellman’s play, but based on just the film’s plot, it seems as if it wasn’t worth even the first try.
However, the fact that such rumours take down two people who never actually consummated any kind of sexual relationship does neatly wrap up this three-part review: in each film, the central relationship isn’t conventionally homosexual, but in three different ways, each couple defy the standards and the expectations of their society and find themselves in a somewhat queer situation, either by aping and mocking heterosexual marriage like Jo and Geoffrey, by arriving at ‘legitimate’ marriage through scandal like Tom and Sophie, or, as in The Children’s Hour, by delaying or shunning marriage in favour of a sexless joint guardianship of some schoolgirl charges. MacLaine despairs, after the rumours and subsequent failed lawsuit have destroyed the school she built, that ‘every word has a new meaning— child, love, friend, woman… there aren’t many safe words anymore. Even marriage has a new meaning’. A great speech, it’s just a shame that the American film couldn’t join in the New Wave spirit and celebrate, rather than bristle in horror, upon discovering that the world was on the verge of a revolution in both semantics and sexual politics.