One of the pleasures coming from writing about movies is reading material you might have otherwise avoided. Doubt if I’d have ever gone back to Henry James’ The Bostonians. Probably because I’ve always been a bit scared of his psychological complexity, his deep sleepiness. How wrong I’d remain if I hadn’t. The novel’s a most circumspective yet arguably ardent read; I laughed out loud repeatedly, rereading again and again some of James’ loaded, precisioned sentences for their pungent sexual observations. We think of “equal rights” as contemporary, which it certainly is not. Serialized for a magazine in 1885, later published as book, The Bostonians asks the question Can women ever hope to achieve equal rights if men believe the power of the penis is being usurped? James imparts the answer through the novel’s center—Olive Chancellor, a “tragic, visibly morbid” lesbian. The derision of Olive, unfailing throughout, is sexist enough to turn satire into mock. (James gentlemanly equates women liberationists the way current redneckers ungentlemanly do—with dykes.) While the book gets more ruinously funny as it goes along, I often felt guilt for my sex: it’s unfair to put lesbianism at the core of “the woman question,” as James calls equal rights, because it maligns the issue. Both biting and amazing, James’ tone about his novel’s women suggests what we often hear many women say about themselves now—they’re their own worst enemies. Of course, had James made Olive straight, the book wouldn’t have been the powerful comic-thriller-battle of sexual possession. In the fight for Verena, the young, red-haired feminist speaker, Olive is pitted against her own cousin, the “fine headed, magnificent eyed” Mississippi chauvinist Basil Ransom. Bursting with recognition, rage, provocation, egotism, it’s a glorious battle. The movie, however, is a mortician’s dream of embalmed babble. Such a darkie Chicago critic Don Selle wrote, “It’s the lights-out method of shooting.” Before Forster saved them from near obscurity, director James Ivory and screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala were never considered exciting collaborators, and with James, they seem even more insistently unexciting. They’re courteous, formal but thoroughly intimidated; they’re afraid of James. Why else would they rob us of the novel’s deliberately unsettled ending? We’re led to believe it will all work out. James didn’t say that, or even suggest it; he left the war of “the woman question” on the battle field, but not without a sexist victory in at least one duel. They’ve also robbed us of the novel’s incisive humor, which is badly needed to get passed the intolerably mopey performance by Vanessa Redgrave as Olive. And Christopher Reeve, as Basil, might have scored more successfully had he not an impossible-to-get-passed hairdo. James’ prose is a flame, igniting many different kinds of fires in one’s social consciousness; sympathetic to feminism, I’m also a realist and part of one’s manumission is preparing for the worst.
Text COPYRIGHT © 2007 RALPH BENNER All Rights Reserved.