Sure, I knew she'd won an Oscar for it, but it's so ingeniously under-the-radar- so truly "supporting" even as it take a dozen viewings to see how she's overflown those borders. As a kid, seeing it I was usually busy rolling my eyes at Leigh's drag queen Scarlett O'Hara impersonator (Blanche is really Scarlett after she becomes a full blown alcoholic - she was already on the way in Gone with the Wind, though--as Rhett points out--she's pretty good about hiding it), or (in later views) drooling in awe at the rippling back muscles of Brando's Kowalski under Harry Stradling's glistening cinematography (now perfectly transferred into the digital age so every sweaty sinew shines like a limestone stalactite under centuries of constant slow cavern drip). But Kim's who really hung me this latest time. As I watched her straddle between Stanley's savage magnetism and Blanche's delusional Southern Gothic narcissist swoon, I found myself thinking back to her in other roles, and realized, almost despite myself, she'd become a kind of positive ideal for me --not the elusive anima but the obtainable girl - a heart-on-her-sleeve romantic of the sort shy guys love, for they tend to play the courtship game very badly, to show their cards right away and tell us they like us far too soon, so that dating them becomes stress-free; we can skip all the tedious date small talk, not even bother pretending we enjoy rock climbing or bungee jumping --go right to the colored lights portion, sex and laying around in a post-coital cocoon all day, drinking whiskey and ginger ale on the rocks, watching the James Bond marathon on TNT or listening to Columbia era Sinatra until the wee wee hours.
There were only ever a few such actresses who could convey all that with the shy open courage of Kim Hunter --nowadays there are none. Heather Graham had it for awhile and wound up subjected to the casting equivalent of Dogville. Now there are are only hotties who lazy directors think can pass as 'plain' by putting them in a pair of glasses and a nerdy sweater, and girls who are strictly comic relief. In the forties we had Frances Dee in I Walk with a Zombie (watch it sometime and note the way she unreservedly invades Tom Conway's personal space, or blurts out "I love Fort Holland"). And we have Kim Hunter in everything - women who--in keeping with the tenor of wartime and, later, noir, talked softly, so as not to arouse some sleeping Axis neighbor. These girlswore their hair in smart naturally colored curls so as not to get tangled in whatever factory or WAC job they were doing. Their beauty was subservient not to men or childbirth but to their own desires and smarts; they didn't work inordinately towards looking good (1) but just saw what she could do to look pleasant with minimal effort and did it. A man could fall in love with one easily, but he'd had have to be looking close, for a while; she wasn't out there turning heads and exploding milk bottles as she passed by on the street. A man in love with her wouldn't have to be jealous every time she went out, like he would with, say, Marilyn Monroe on his arm, or wincing like he would with Shelly Winters. Girls like Kim Hunter were never bigger than life-size, and felt no need to stand out from the shadows. And so, in their way, provided the right shoulder to lean on - not a pushover but not weak, sympathetic to a man's woes but not dumb enough to fall for a hustler nor maudlin enough to indulge any wussy tantrum of despair. Soldiers saw the type all the time in field hospitals, opiates giving their nurse's white a special halo-like glow, against the darkening mist of their frail mortality these were angels, but on another level down to earth enough you weren't even embarrassed during your sponge bath.
Hunter, in short, is that rarest of actresses, one minted by the Second World War, projecting an ineffable decency (a cool, whispering decency, not a square Tom Hanks-style 'plain folk' decency) that made her a fixed point of gravity, anchoring all the rotations in a film's constellation like a combination planet Earth and warm-handed amateur juggler. Thus we believe in A Matter of Life and Death that someone could fall in love with her over the radio, simply because she's 'life' and they're 'leaving her' but also --on our end--because of the rosy colors of her radio room that mirror the plane's orange flames. She's so touching you believe that love would stick even in person, without any question of a catfish rejection; and you believe the local doctor with a mild crush on her wouldn't bat an eye in transferring his affection purely to being just a friend and medical advisor when she brings home this new fallen poet. In 7th Victim she can even gently spurn the pathetic advances of another frail tumbling 'poet', refuse the smugly proffered milk at a diner, and impress a Mephistophelean ladykiller shrink while refusing his advances all in the same hour.
|Hunter as Zora|
Face 1- Stella Dubois-Kowalski for the wild animal Stanley
A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE
(1951) Dir Elia Kazan / W- Tennessee Williams
Maybe it's really a film about Oscar Jaffe going violently into the good night, raging against the dying of the light as Kazan's Actor's Studio kitchen sink Freudian realism jackboots over Jaffe's overly mannered style of Southern Gothic theater (I keep thinking of Blanche's youth as being excactly like that of Lilly Garland [Mildred Plotka] in TWENTIETH CENTURY, 'ding-a-ling'ing into the chalk line), the exhilarating immediacy of Brando's Stanley, who comes home from work covered in sweat and machine oil, still loud and coiled vs. the fading southern belle airs of Vivien Leigh, robbed of Tara, patriarchal support structure (no Rhett or Kennedy to patiently swoop in and pay the carpetbagger taxes and so forth). Without such a support structure, Blanche falls apart. The well of kind strangers dries up. Though some lewd understanding seems to exist between them, Brando and Leigh grind up against each other like opposing centuries, where one's schizophrenia is another's inheritance of the earth. Brando's terrifying working class sanity is the new way forward in American acting (and very Marxist for all that, shhhh), operating on the same electric ripple that Clark Gable made in RED DUST in 1932, blowing all the soft-handed 'juvenile' leads (like Gene Raymond) clear back into the category of easily out-gunned naive rivals, the type who bring their hot wives down to savage countries where native drums and monsoons enflame the blood to the point their husband's run away to their separate room in fear of combustion, leaving the way open for men already burning.
In the midst of this crisis of acting schools and class and alcohol, is the only one who can believably adapt to both the mint julep vapors and the cold beer shouting, Kim Hunter as Stella. She can have a blast at the bowling alley on Tuesdays and make it to the hoity toity jubilee on Saturday; more earthy than Blanche, more mannered than Stanley; wild about Stanley's animal magnetism, a reflection of the awe she once had for the sophistication of older sister Blanche, used to helping her get tarted up for her ballroom coming-out parties, a kind of divine inheritance that changing circumstances or attractiveness levels, kept Stella from living with the same airy entitlement --except vicariously.
This latest viewing I noticed other interesting termite touches, like the way Brando's "Stella!" shout becomes a musical refrain carried in the far-off music, some singer practicing out his window or selling flores por los muertos. Clearly Stella is right, considering she's a guest in a place paid for by the husband's job, it is out of place, and for all her airs, her snobbery betrays Blanche's provincialism, her lack of nobless oblige. For, as rich snob puts it at the local cantina in Mesa of Lost Women, "the ability to adapt oneself to any situation is the mark of the true sophisticate."
We see the result of clinging to the past and judging and trying to escape while being unable to leave - not living on the 'realistic level' - a common theme in Williams' work (as in Night of the Iguana), that the fantasy life cannot survive in the real world without creating a kind of insane destructive frisson. Consider Blanche in comparison with the Rev. Lawrence T. Shannon in Night of the Iguana
At the end of Iguana, Shannon winds up in the arms of the Stanley equivalent (Maxine - the rough earth mother) rather than taking the long swim (the only way left for remaining in the fantastic level). He's lucky that it's Ava Gardner, and the genders are reversed, because the reverse of his acceptance is the refusal of Blanche -she has taken the long swim; if you're a woman instead of a man, the long swim might be barred by arms less nurturing than Maxine's; if you don't stay voluntarily, they will force you to the realistic level and if you still resist, you'll wind up with a lobotomy (like Mrs. Venable wants to give Katherine in Suddenly Last Summer) permanently shattered, and though no one will force you to the realistic level, your dependence on the kindness of strangers will leave you fluttering in the wind once you no longer have access to a single new face.
That's why Hunter's Stella is such a reassuring character, contextualizing the monstrousness of Stanley into something human (she's the cub lolling in the arms of the king of beasts), and grounding her schizo sister as best she can. She's the 'acceptance' - what ideally Shannon will be like in a few days once he adjusts to the rhythms of hammock living and being shacked up with a horny Mexican broad pushing forty with two maraca-playing cabana boys at her beck and call. It's Hunter's resilience that is the ultimate moral in Streetcar, especially if you ignore the tacked-on ending when she runs upstairs vowing to leave Stanley forever (at least she doesn't think twice about leaving the baby in the carriage unattended outside in the street / courtyard before then - so all who pass may gaze upon it, confident that it won't be swiped - the whole of the neighborhood now the loving tarantula arms of the king of beasts).
Face 2: June for the Plummeting Poet Peter D. Carter
A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH
(1946) Dir. Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger
If the love between Stella and Stanley is earthy and even lower than earth (the fiery furnace), the WW2 love between Hunter's June--a Bomber Command radio operator-- and RAF bombardier Peter D. Carter (David Niven) is literally airborne, high up in clouds, and fog so thick one might fall to the sea and not even get hurt, merely bounce to shore right into June's bike path, their chemistry the radio waves as strong as any ocean's, their magnetism drawing them together inevitably through the fog of war.
Well, through some miracle not easily explained by the 'is it all in his imagination?' angle, is this heaven, or some in between holding pattern -- he lives, and they wind up in each other's arms, on that beach. And they both know better than to abandon that love--made when just voices under heavy duress-- to the elements, to throw it back, as it were, into the sea. They both know it's what save him, even if they don't know why or how. This isn't one of those films, thank god, where things get awkward in person. It's not Catfish and Kim Hunter isn't some aloof anima figure like Dietrich nor some soapy martyr like Joan Crawford, but real solid 'girlfriend' material, the sort who won't throw love away on some silly point of honor, like their life/death status or their separate classes or nationalities, or that they barely know each other. She just met him but she's willing to die for him - and it seems perfectly natural. As I wrote in Men Who Are Frozen, in wartime there is no room for waffling and being coy. When love strikes, the victims don't wait to give it their whole selves, confessing their love in great spasms of each-breath-may-be-your-last intensity. Then they're off to the front, maybe to never return. What could be more intimate that total commitment, intensified by the thought of impending immolation? This is love in wartime --there may not be a second date--for anyone, anywhere, ever--so there is no time for taking it slow. If it clicks, you hold on like a life preserver in a stormy sea. If you happen to stumble on a still walking preacher in a still-standing church, you take it as a sign to get married. Your regiment leaves at dawn, so you better not hesitate when you get your handful of hours in the honeymoon suite.
There's only one thing Carter needs to know on that night on the radio: "are you pretty?"
"Not bad" - she answers, with a kind of shrug. If she was prettier she might be offended, less pretty she might feel bad about lying. But she's Kim Hunter, and she's the working definition of 'the Goldilocks zone' (2), i.e. she's "not bad." You can introduce her to the family and the guys round the pub and they'll all like her, without either trying to hit on her, or wincing. She's a keeper. Just hanging out with her and Roger Livesy for tea time - while some other girls rehearse a Midsummer Night's Dream amateur production behind them, all bathed in that delicious Technicolor - is a kind of perfect paradise, one they're even able to appreciate, since they can feel its impermanence.
Strange Love 3 - Mary Gibson for her sister's husband
THE 7th VICTIM
(1943) Dir Mark Robson, Producer - Val Lewton
Gregory is clearly more worldly than Jason, and this is the big city yet all these people already know each other, including Dr. Judd, Gregory, Jason - all of them, maybe clustered around Jacqueline -though we can't really imagine why, except that they're all in desperate need of a fixed warm homey point to orbit around, a light in this Missing Person's Bureau wartime universe. But Jacqueline's light has almost gone out (it's hard to believe it was ever on, she's so glum and defeated), and no one even is looking for her fuse box until Mary comes along and pushes them down to the basement. That Mary would still be the only strong character in all of the city, the only one able to offer any kind of sane, emotional support to all these supposedly mature males, speaks quiet volumes about the decayed state of the country as the best masculinity America had to offer was all overseas. Only the tenderfoots remain, those whose life is so sad they think Jacqueline is vivacious, but she's a dying star. She's imploding and the best they can do is gravitate over to Mary. To exhibit any decisive power of their own orbit might mean a draft notice in their mailbox, as if the war, some giant Molloch industrial god of death, could sense their readiness to enter maturity.
It doesn't matter, let the men be how they are. After all, we're watching the movies and not out playing softball like our mom keeps nagging us to since it's a beautiful day. We the asthmatic hay fever suffering indoor viewers love Mary, too. She might get scared there on the elevated platform, but she doesn't panic; she doesn't cry, give up, or lose hope or faith in humanity. Even with no life experience beyond an all-girls' school, she can easily, but calmly tell Gregory off when he condescendingly tries to get her to drink milk rather than taking her concerns seriously (milk being the ultimate echo of Victorian condescension in cinematic parlance - feel my and Anna Christie's rage here).
But the same problem Mary has with milk is what I have with the "Poet" who feels it's his duty to somehow shepherd these people towards his lame insight; I also have a problem with buying Jean Brooks as the 'stunning and vivacious' Jacqueline. She's far too glum looking for any of the Rebecca-Laura-style hype that precedes her character's sudden entrance. Sweeping around the stairwells in a black fur coat (Irina's?) and Cleopatra wig, she's more like a nice older secretary turned cranky from being stuck too long at her desk. If she was even half as beautiful as the hype, it wouldn't matter if she was so dour, and vice versa; we can imagine the role really belonging to cat eyes Lewton regular Elizabeth Russell, an actress who could be dour as you like but still classically gorgeous. Was Russell's part stolen by the "this is the girl" machinations of some Illuminati old power broker with a yen for Brooks, and Russell relegated to the 'beachcomber' role?
At any rate, she is Mary's sister, after all, and has the same older sister authority to take over the narrative that Blanche did once she's found. Thus the Victim shifts focus from Mary and her nocturnal search and the friends she accrues, to Jacqueline grouchy in her easy chair with the poison and the cult - their prayers to the dark lord reduced to a literary salon with some old German reading from 'the literature' and Jacqueline's refusing to take poison. "No!" she keeps saying - they won't let her sleep. "No!" They keep trying to drive her to it for killing her is against their religion - it has to be her own hand. Like the roulette in Deer Hunter, it's a rather impractical metaphor for suicidal ideation (if you've ever been in the subway and just imagined putting a gun to your head, over and over, as if hitting the button on your opiate drip in post-op, then you know what Lewton's getting at.)
|7th Victim - this is what|
what being a white knuckle alcoholic is like
Knowing they've been stopping her from getting sleep can explain her pissiness, but things can always be worse. Poor Elisabeth Russell shows up at the very end, going out on the town for the last time, even if it kills her, and we want to go with her, away from Brooks and her dour sleepless despair. Both run to death and death meets them as fast, but one is running to the pleasures that are like yesterday, and one is running neither forward, no back, but up, onto the chair above the rope.
But we needn't despair when there's still Kim Hunter's Mary, ready to step in and pick up the pieces left by her crazy older sister. Mary lives on, presumably, to teach kindergarten and marry that nice lawyer and bank her steady fire against the ever-rushing darkness of the Lewton-verse, the war, even the loud boorish ambience of New Orleans. Though she's always willing to let someone else have the spotlight, would any of these three films be the cherished classics they are without her quiet anchoring grace? We can see why these men in all three films, from rising beasts to falling poets (literally in Peter D. Carter's case, figuratively in Jason's) curve their arcs to orbits from the steady force of her gravity.
She curves ours too. Watching these films again and again, safe in the darkness of our personal space, she's a warm star in the night, a campfire in the empty desert visible from space, curbing our lost soul drifts. Most of all, personally, I curve towards Death because Cardiff's blazing Technicolor--like cool hand hand on my fevered tombstone brow. When I'm wigging out on a panic attack, Hunter's voice in Death meets me as fast as the flush of whiskey used to meet my dusty stomach. In our modern age of internet and phone romance -- where we fall in love with voices and words before we meet the object of our night's affections, there, in that Technicolor Cardiff-crafted warmth - a flame worth being reincarnated in, even if--in the end--it's all just them colored lights.
It's more than fair.
1. Bette Davis and Joan Crawford don't count, of course, they might not be conventionally hot, but they're never not larger than life - and besides. Brooks, alas, is smaller
1. Bette Davis and Joan Crawford don't count, of course, they might not be conventionally hot, but they're never not larger than life - and besides. Brooks, alas, is smaller