Under the weather for a couple of days, and discovering that I had omitted to schedule my Netflix program to accommodate this contingency — Netflix timing is something of an art form — I turned lemons into lemonade. Thatâ€™s right, I took to my bed and absorbed, with a few bowls of sesame noodles, about 6,542 20th century Hollywood movies on the Turner Classic Movie channel. So that I could kid myself that this was an appropriate use of my valuable spinster aunt time, I took notes, in the interest of patriarchy blaming, on the sexist, misogynist themes that continue to rage unchecked in popular culture today.
Imagine my delight when TCM turned out to be â€˜celebrating the birthdayâ€™ of original Continental gigolover Louis Jourdan with a marathon of his most misogynist films. All the titles revolve around vulnerable women who are exploited in various rapey ways, not just by Jourdanâ€™s stereotypical dashing rake character, but by nearly every other male who stumbles into the shot. Taken as a group, the films describe a nightmarish dystopia in which white dudes  roam the earth partaking of lifeâ€™s sumptuous pageant while women subsist as a subclass of passive sex minions for male use and abuse. Too bad they describe the real world, too.
Spoilers, of course, ensue, so if you have been wildly anticipating your own Louis Jourdan retrospective, avert your eyes now.
My bedridden screenings commenced with Madame Bovary (Vincente Minnelli, 1949), which film reduces Flaubertâ€™s fairly virtuosic bit of writing to a melodrama about a scheming, unfaithful wife. That this film should have completely missed the mark is evidenced by its tagline, â€œWhatever it is that French women have, Madame Bovary has more of it!â€ Oo la la! To make Emmaâ€™s infidelities appear more reprehensible, Charles Bovary is portrayed as a nice guy with a heart-o-gold rather than a stupid, bumbling clod; Minnelli even gives him a spine when he morphs the famous scene in which Bovary botches the operation on Hippolyteâ€™s club foot to one in which he nobly refuses to perform a surgery for which he is unqualified.
Curiously, Minnelliâ€™s Madame Bovary opens with the famous obscenity trial in a scene where James Mason as Gustav Flaubert explains to mid-century moviegoers why they should be sympathetic to such a loose-moraled heroine. He falls a bit short of a feminist statement when he argues, essentially, that he blames society (what Betty Friedan would later call â€˜the feminine mystiqueâ€™) for the real-life existence of thousands of Emma Bovarys, but these remarks reveal that it apparently did not elude even Judy Garlandâ€™s mascara-wearing ex-husband that women are the recipients of, on the whole, a pretty bum deal.
Next up was Julie (1956): Doris Day is a naive trophy wife stalked by her jealous psychokiller/ brilliant concert pianist husband (Jourdan). Relentlessly pursued through the streets of San Francisco by the murderously raging Jourdan, Doris is from start to finish a helpless prey animal whose fate rests entirely in the hands of an assortment of male authority figures. On the upside, the film presents an accurate picture of the minimal legal recourse available to American women who are stalked by homicidal French playboys. But this is canceled out by the final scenes, where Doris, a stewardess, has to land the plane (Louis Jourdan has shot all the pilots, naturally). The extraordinarily long â€˜No no, I couldnâ€™t possibly!â€™ â€˜But you must!â€™ exchange reassures the audience that, even though sheâ€™s about to do something heroic, Doris is sufficiently possessed of womanly debility. The (male) air traffic controllers, using Doris â€˜as just another instrumentâ€™, guide the phlying phallus into the airfield and call her â€˜honey.â€™
The final shot is a close-up in which Doris emotes both shock and blandness. Also amusing is the scene where she has about 13 seconds to get away from Louis, but stops to pack a bag first.
This was a truly terrible movie, and I performed a joyous re-fluffing-of-the-pillows to celebrate its conclusion. Little did I know that the worst was yet to come.
In the utterly worthless romantic comedy The Swan (1956), Grace Kelly is a princess who has to marry royal asshole Alec Guinness (hot virgin teen paired off with experienced old dude? Check.) but uh oh she is secretly in love with Louis Jourdan, playing against type as an intellectual commoner.
I can well understand the global fascination for Grace Kelly. She is the patriarchal ideal of womanhood: a consummate cipher. She possesses the immaculate beauty of a perfume model, her depths could be plumbed with a toadâ€™s eyelash, and her perennial limpid virginity makes her appealingly vulnerable to fantasies of conquest.
Even if you ignore its vapid, misogynist fairy tale premise, The Swan contains no philosophic value whatsoever; I bother to mention it only because of the occasional comedic contributions from 60â€™s TV scene-stealer Estelle Winwood as the dotty old aunt, and because of some truly hideous rococo interiors. Next!
Iâ€™d seen the mind-numbingly awful The V.I.P.s (1963) before, so youâ€™d think Iâ€™d have had the presence of mind to switch to Wheel of Fortune or something when the titles started rolling. But an imp of the perverse compelled me to press on: a blustercluck of stars headlined by Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton are stuck overnight in an airport hotel; slices of life ensue. Taylor is leaving her possessive, self-absorbed, gun-wielding zillionaire husband (Burton) for a penniless international playboy (Jourdan). In the pivotal scene, Burton smashes Taylor into a door and snarls â€œnow you know how much I love you!â€ Bleeding profusely, Taylor looks gratefully into his eyes, and nods when he asks if she forgives him. Their repulsive relationship blossoms anew when Burton gets shitfaced and threatens to commit suicide; poor Louis Jourdan is left at the gate, a non-starter.
Mercifully I snoozed through most of Gigi (1958), but not, alas, before hearing pervy old gasbag Maurice Chevalier grunt through his repellent theme song â€œThank Heaven for Little Girls.â€ Gigi, of course, is another of those stupid stories in which a worldly, handsome stud gives up his sexually lucrative, envied-by-all bachelorhood to marry a vivacious teen virgin who has blossomed before his eyes into â€˜a womanâ€™. At one point in this lighthearted musical, leering pedophile Chevalier congratulates Jourdan on having inspired, for the first time in his mackdaddy career, a woman to commit suicide. â€œMay it be the first of many, ha ha ha!â€
Another romantic comedy, Made In Paris (1964) tickles the funnybone right off the bat when Ann-Margret fends off date-rapist Chad Everett by clocking him with a large kidney-shaped ceramic ashtray. It goes downhill from there. Despite the hilarious attempted rape, Ann-Margret loves Chad Everett — his forehead now comically adorned with a large Band-Aid — and spends the rest of the movie trying to protect her virtue, which is always in question despite her innocence, from international playboy Louis Jourdan and a really creepy Richard Crenna, who drugs her with absinthe. This is 1966, so there is much macho Hefnerizing about womenâ€™s â€˜measurementsâ€™, and plenty of fashion models creeping down runways with a bizarre hunchbacked, pelvis-out, tippy-toe gait.
In the end, Ann-Margret falls for this speech by Chad: â€œI lose my temper and Iâ€™m jealous. All I have to offer is a station wagon, a couple of sheepdogs, and maybe a couple of kids. Apparently thatâ€™s not enough for you.â€ Au contraire, Chad! She instantly ditches her promising career as a Paris fashion buyer to marry him and begin her exciting new life as a domestic.
In every one of these films, the female leads are hapless pawns upon which the dudes act. The women are variously terrorized, owned, used, patronized, dominated, manipulated, and humiliated. The tone is universally unapologetic and unsympathetic; clearly, the submissive characterizations, morals, and behaviors depicted — i.e., that women exist only in terms of men — are considered to be consistent with the essential nature of women. The astonishing thing is that this shit continues, in 2007, to be presented with a straight face as perfectly acceptable expressions of popular sentiment, rather than as curious relics of bigotry and sexism. But of course Hollywood always has been, and continues to be, patriarchyâ€™s communications department.
1. Honkys are the default humans in Hollywood; the only people of color to be broadcast on TCM for 12 straight hours yesterday were a few grinning jazz musicians in one lone Paris nightclub scene.