Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception since 1967

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.)

9 comments:

  1. Thank you for writing this. I watched this film about two years ago and could not get over how awful the acting was, especially the fake Southern accents. And the plot was just--ugh. But the sister-in-law was awesome, I agree, and "trickster" nails it.

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  2. I like Marnie a lot more than you, although I'm with you that the ending, the scene with Marnie's mom, is kind of ridiculous and unsatisfying. But I think part of the film's point is that Mark's obsession with Marnie is unhealthy and bizarre, motivated not so much by real love as by a certain masculine control freak streak in him; when she says he views her as an animal he's trapped, she's right. Yeah, he'd be better off with Lil, who steals the film in every scene she's in, but we're not really supposed to be rooting for Mark, I don't think -- he's not a very likable character and the sexy, playful Lil is much too good for him.

    The film is often "unpleasant," but I finds its scenes of queasy psychodrama really compelling, with these two very unsympathetic characters sparring, and Mark seeming to alternate between noble and prurient motives in his attempts to "reform" Marnie. At this point in his career, Hitchcock seems less concerned than ever with the pleasure of his audiences, and more concerned with creating interesting emotional and psychological effects. I can see why it'd be offputting, but I think the film is a near-masterpiece despite the not-insignificant flaws running through it.

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  3. Queasy melodrama is right - compelling but... Ugh, as Paula so aptly puts it.

    I've seen this film before and really loved it, so I think it's the sort of film that is either great or aggravating according to your mood and sugar levels.

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  4. Even at a fairly young age I found Diane Baker more interesting than Tippi. Great stuff here man. Thanks.

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  5. It's the irritating quality that adds to its appeal, at least intellectually. So many of the easy answers to Marnie are thrown aside; Mark is almost as much a mess as Marnie and his motivations are presented as questionable from the git-go; Marnie keeps acting as if she knows best when she clearly doesn't and needs help (but correctly as she says, not necessarily from him). If you've ever dealt with someone who has mental problems, you'll probably recognize some of that same irritation that the film presents.

    If Mark turned ultimately to Lil, he'd also be taking a turn that could be satisfying to the audience, but it would end up with Marnie a mystery and ultimately leave a movie that was much more shallow.

    It's one of the great "battle of the sexes" movies. Naturally it would end up being either irritating or dishonest.

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  6. Great Review! Well written and quite descriptive as well.. If any item or topic comes out then you should be the one releasing it to the public and make it known! The way you describe it is very intriguing and feels like candy to my ears, if that really makes any sense :) but you catch my drift.. In one of my classes, we were given a paper with instructions of how to build a swan made of aluminum foil and we had to explain to our group verbally how to construct the swan.. It was difficult! But, manageable and we came second in place, but it was tasky :) Nevertheless if you post anything else up I will most definitely check it out! Great review!

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  7. wytchcroft16 May, 2009

    i enjoyed reading your article very much!

    ...but i have to say i disagree completely.
    i don't think the reasons you state for going to the cinema are viable as a rule for films and filmmakers.
    Simply put; your reason for watching a movie is not the same as mine.

    i have loved Marnie since the first time i saw it countles years ago - i consider it a masterpiece in every regard and the only Hitchcock movie that for me ranks up there with Vertigo.

    but don't get me wrong - movie watcihng is subjective so i don't claim my view is one that anyone else must share.

    On the other hand the comments here on the acting seem odd to me - since i can'timagine the movie acting any other way and by anyone else.

    Thanks again for the post and i gottasay, i love Lil!:)))

    you also 90 million points for quoting In a Lonely Place on your profile:)

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  8. Although this was posted over a year ago, I just have to add my two cents. I LOVE Diane Baker. I have always thought Mark should have ended up with Lil, Marnie is soooo annoying.
    That's why this film always fails for me (but since it's chock full of visual goodness it's one of my favourite Hitchcock films)

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