Sunday, April 03, 2011

Great 70's Dads: Will Varner (Orson Welles) in THE LONG HOT SUMMER

"I love life, Minnie."

He may be made-up to resemble some expressionist Apache War Chief, but Orson Welles is in fine sparkly, robust form as Will Varner in 1961's THE LONG, HOT SUMMER (1961) and in fact I love this character even more than his Hank Quinlan. And when one considers with Welles all the great films Welles could have done and didn't due to his heroically self-indulgent arrogance, such as deciding to play the dopey romantic lead instead of the slimy self-loathing lawyer he'd likely written for himself in LADY FROM SHANGHAI, ore realizes great roles like this should be cherished. Director Martin Ritt keeps Orson on a short leash, for his own protection, but he's still allowed to bark.

So often Welles became his own worst enemy; no one wanted to work with him because he couldn't stop suggesting things, and then eventually suggesting so many things he tried to take over the picture. He did best when a good director and rest of cast was able to at least hold their own and not let his portly ego capsize the vessel. This might be the reason John Huston didn't cast him as Ahab in MOBY DICK, for example, but gave him one long sermon to cut loose in (as the preacher) then left him on the dock.

But we were talking about Will Varner. He's acidemic in the way no other Welles character is, aside from himself in F FOR FAKE, naturally. Good-natured if bossy, robust and over-the-top, witty but devious; fearless but frail (the movie starts as he comes home from the hospital, high on HOT TIN roofies). A drinker unafraid of trashing his aging constitution, Will Varner is a living force to be reckoned with -- until he dies, that is, which he may do soon. The closest thing the film has to a 'villain,' it's more like he's a father who teaches by bullying and bellowing; he's a Great Santini without the military drive. He forces his weak-willed son Jody (Anthony Fanciosa) to desperate measures for letting himself get outfoxed by old Ben Quick (Paul Newman) while all but chaining Quick to his dow-ta's baid.

Best of all is the way he calls out the coded momma's boy (TV's Oscar Madison) for wasting the fertile years of said brainy, ill-banged (in both senses) daughter, played by Joanne Woodward. The DVD extras tell that Newman and Woodward were hot, crazy lovers at the time and spent their weekends driving off to luxury hotels to shack up for marathon lovemaking sessions, which probably explains why Woodward's character comes off as the most comfortable-in-her-own-skin 21-year old virgin in cinema. We also learn from the extras that Welles re-wrote his scenes and no one could understand a word he said.

Why is he a great 1970's dad for all that? You can't understand most of what 1970's dads say either. Another reason is encoded in how Woodward's belle triumphs over the manipulations of father and suitor through perseverance and wiles. She doesn't do what her dad wants, or let the handsome stranger seduce her though her whole body, mind, and soul clearly responds to him. That's the sign of a loving patriarch who--for all his assertive grandson-craving bellowing and turf-stomping--clearly hasn't cowed his kids. There's no indication of physical abuse in their faces, no ominous chords in the score indicating he might slap someone at any moment. His tantrums and demonstrations of force preclude all resorts to mundane physical or mental abuse to get his way (unless you count hollerin' - but since Woodward's not at all cowed by it, you shouldn't). I'm sure some students of feminism and the male gaze would object to Will Varner's sheer ungainly macho manner, and maybe they're the reasons so many movie, TV, commercial fathers all talk in these high, wimpy little voices. Varner's proof that it's far better to have a strong dad to rebel against rather than a 'friend' who tries to appease your every need, his whole sense of self hinging on your happiness and regard for his parenting.

Also true to great 1970s dad form, Varner's comfortable in his sense of sexual mastery, making only the feint-inest attempt at discretion when driving over to his mistress's. Larger than life, committed to his see-gars, Varner demonstrates his excellent child-rearing not in his outrageous procreative demands but in the way he indirectly rewards his children for rebelling against him, which mirrors in turn the way he rebels against society at large, even if he is, in effect, society itself (at least in that town). He'd rather have his kids fight him every step of the way than have them be type of children who cling to their cribs too long, the way Oscar Madison does.  He even recognizes progress in his spoiled simpleton son Jody, not because Jody tried to burn him to death but because he changed his mind, and rushed to rescue him at the last minute. That he could have this profound realization of forgiveness makes him a top flight 1970's dad!! And through it all, Welle's Will stays true to his oversize, deep-bellowing way of life and outrageous expressionistic Apache make-up. Will Varner loves life, Minnie, and I love Will Varner!

1 comment:

  1. When I was little my dad always said to me that I shouldn't be afraid to stand up to anyone. After I stood up to him a few times he said "I didn't mean stand up to me!". This reminds me of that. Good post.


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