Tuesday, January 27, 2009
The Cooler Younger Sister Effect #2: Diane Baker in MARNIE
Before she had her nipples toughened feeding "roomy" daughter Katherine in SILENCE OF THE LAMBS (and stole my heart as one officially hot post-MILF powerbroker), Diane Baker managed to sneak into a Hitchcock movie and steal it right out from under Tippi Hedren, nipples perked and alert under burgundy turtleneck as she sits on a green couch. As widower Sean Connery's young sister-in-law, Baker instantly sizes up the shady but classy Marnie (Hedren) as a fraud, and suffuses the tense psychodrama with drollery and acid bon mots all while staying airy, savvy, sexy and gloriously "amoral." And a good thing too, since by then in the narrative things have become somewhat dreary. Feminists who've lost their sense of humor should study this character: she flourishes in the midst of oppressive patriarchy by playing on its weaknesses. She's a true, fun, cool, sexy trickster.
I've always found the elements of Marnie pleading for love from her mom rather drab and distasteful, not "lived in" - it's as if this is the third or fourth time Marnie and her mom have met; and mom's a liability. I presume Hitchcock was already beginning to fall into the latter stage of his career, when certain scenes and parts of his films begin to interest him more than the films as a whole, so he leaves chunks of MARNIE under-nourished and fluffs up other parts (such as all the suspense surrounding Marnie's routine of seduction - job- trust- safe combination acquisition - theft - disappearance - hair color change - horseback riding) and part of the trouble seems to be with Hedren herself. I recall reading that Hitchcock wanted her to stay icy, but she kept wanting "to act"-- thus her face wrinkles and pinches and her eyes roll around. It's disconcerting! Better she stayed icy!
But whatever stuffy airlessness the film might generate is dispelled instantly when we open up the door to "dad's" study and see Lil (Baker) posed languidly on a dark green couch in the burgundy sweater. This is one of my favorite color combinations in all of cinema, and Lil seems to know it, luxuriating under my masculine gaze... I'm always rooting for her to trash Marnie and take the Scotsman for herself. Alas...
While Hitch's alpha blondes carry the brunt of his coded misogyny, the "second female" characters quite often get to escape - flitting and flirting free of the pressures of adult sexuality. Such is the case with Lil who is clearly in love with her big moneybags brother-in-law, though he steadfastly refuses to acknowledge it, but she's able to sublimate her desire into concern for his happiness. She's not even really over-jealous of Marnie, just mischievous, spying and so forth to help him figure her out. She offers her services to Mark, assuring him she has "no scruples" and is willing to be his guerrilla in espionage. A girl after my own heart! She's even able to let Mark's condescension and insults roll off her back, recognizing the psychological insecurity beneath. When she tries to tip off Mark that Marnie's mom is alive he belittles her savagely, "She was having you on, Lil." It's a classic moment in feminist studies in that Connery brings all his James Bond male authority to bear on this desperate retort, a last ditch patriarchal effort to reclaim his superior stature against the lying of Marnie and the sleuthing of Lil (who finds out more in a few minutes than Mark's coterie of [male] detectives find after weeks of research). A close reading shows neither Marnie or Lil have any delusion that Mark knows what the hell he's doing, and Connery expertly mixes his tone of authority with passing waves of doubt and insecurity rolling across his eyes.
My problems with MARNIE as a film stem from the long scenes of Tippi freaking out and acting frigid, squirming under Mark's attempts to help her and/or seduce her. It might be good melodrama, but it's rather shrill and unpleasant. Hedren and Hitch seem to forget why cinema exists, that we go to the movies to get away from tantrums and unpleasant behavior. The trick of a great actor isn't realism or sex goddesshood, but both - can you be believable as someone trying to be as unsexy as possible and STILL be sexy? Hedren cannot and thus her ice queens are always outsexed by the less iced-up chicks (Baker here, Suzanne Pleshette in The Birds). Baker's stealth sexiness benefits from purposely playing off Marnie's weaknesses; Lil is very comfortable in her skin, and around men--as with Emmy Kockenlocker, there's something very cool about a girl who can luxuriate in the close proximity of her fearsome dad, the way Naomi Watts luxuriates in Kong's paw, if you will.
Presuming we're not supposed to find Lil's rich girl guerrilla espionage that much sexier than Marnie's blonde ice-cum-warm dirty puddle queen, one wonders if Baker just ran with the ball here, while Hedren got held up by Hithcock's control freakishness, as all through this film I'm always thinking "Jesus, Sean, dump her already and grab that little sister-in-law" Ah well, the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence, the screen, or the hair color divide.
P.S. Just to disclose my personal prejudices: it's hard for me to relate calmly to this movie, since Hedren looks a lot like my dear friend and co-guerrilla-in-espionage, Lucy, and my mom looks a little like Marnie's mom (Louise Latham), and as for me, let me jest say "Senator, love your suit."
(Note: Special thanks to the amazing site, 1000 Frames of Hitchcock.)