BARKIN'S PERSONAL BEST

There’s little doubt Ellen Barkin gives the performance of her career in the based-on-fact Before Women Had Wings. So raw a portrayal that at times you can’t watch her—you’re afraid of the flood of memories from your own battered childhood. How many lives have been affected by the belt? One of the facets of Barkin’s embittered boozed Glory Marie, a young penniless widow with two girls, is that she comes out of an American era of parental despotism—when fathers and mothers, via the silence of the government and courts, believed they had the unquestioned authority to punish their children even to the point of severe physical abuse, absent concern for corporal and emotional damage. It’s a shared shame: few, even close family members or friends, intervened to save children from the wrath of bad parenting. (More often than not, the exacerbating response was, “What did you do to deserve it?”) Watching Before Women, you not only feel your own deep-rooted resentments churn, you also feel the collective childhood of many generations becoming agitated; this movie could unleash dangerous eruption—it took some forty years before my mother received payback for perpetrating violence to please her longtime lover—and therein is the power of Barkin’s blowouts. She excavates the terrain of Glory Marie and uncovers the long-avoided falsity of the late 50s-early 60s sitcom morality and images of Harriet Nelson and June Cleaver. She’s a mother bitch fully aware that she can’t abide her daughters’ needs, afraid to admit they’re her own; her booze-saturated refusals to allow the girls moments of pleasure and friendship are attempts to insulate her from her own anguish, from the dread of knowing that while not responsible for her husband’s suicide, she didn’t do much to acquit herself as wife, or mother. Knowing she’s a sick mess doesn’t prevent her from springing into the promise to beat her youngest; even with shaky hands barely containing her ever-present cig or drinking glass, Glory Marie is Johnny-on-the-spot to slap faces or grab for the weapon of choice. This thrashing is the catalyst that brings forth Oprah Winfrey’s angelesque Ethel Waters intervention. It’s possibly the movie’s one weakness—as most kids in these kinds of situations rarely ever get this lucky—but you know why she’s there: to provide huge relief for the audience. She’s one hellofva magnanimous healer. Playing the abused daughters, Julia Stiles and Tina Majorino are irreproachable. Directed by Lloyd Kramer.

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