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Saturday, March 3, 2012

Women’s Work at the Oscars: The Iron Lady, The Help, and Albert Nobbs (2012)

Originally published on Political Film Blog on Saturday, March 3, 2012. 

By Jennifer Epps
This Oscar season a pair of period films about the British Isles, The Iron Lady and Albert Nobbs, were nominated for their tour-de-force performances by two of America’s most established and acclaimed actresses. Meryl Streep has now won the Best Actress Oscar for her sincere and uncannily precise mimicry of Britain’s Margaret Thatcher. But Streep and Glenn Close both delivered dexterous physical performances with distinctive internal rhythms – Close as the cross-dressing, timid ‘girly man’ Albert Nobbs; Streep as the unshakably determined prime minister whom the Soviets dubbed ‘The Iron Lady.’ Added to the mix of women’s work at the Oscars this year was The Help, and Viola Davis’ Best Actress nomination for her dignified and emotionally full performance as a mistreated maid in racially segregated Mississippi in the 1960’s.
The Iron Lady and Albert Nobbs take diametrically opposed stances on the British/Irish class system, and this is no insignificant thing with a system that has served as a centuries-long organizing principle of oppression. The legacy of the British class system, which believed unquestioningly that some people were superior and others were inferior simply because of who they were born to, has left lasting, subtle scars over generations and has had a huge impact on the economic and cultural fabric of that society. The same thing, of course, could be said about the stateside system at the centre of The Help, which joined class oppression with racial subjugation and manifested in even more vicious forms and even deeper scars. Furthermore, all three films are very tied up with themes of gender politics, in ways we don’t often get to see on screen. The commonality of themes makes these three movies and their lead-actress performances interesting to discuss as a trio.
Albert Nobbs (2011)
The drama Albert Nobbs (in theatres now) is like a cross between Boys Don’t Cry and The Remains of the Day. If you thought it was impossible for any server to be more uptight than Anthony Hopkins’ head butler in the latter film, Glenn Close’s hotel waiter “Albert Nobbs” has a surprise for you. Hopkins’ butler certainly did suppress a lot of himself, but at least he was open about his gender. Nobbs is actually a woman in 19th century Ireland, but she has been passing as a man for years because the employment opportunities in the service industry are better that way. Although women dressing as men in literature often find new levels of independence, in Nobbs’ case, it has led to a life of rigidity and self-effacement. Terrified of being discovered, she has squashed down anything that could give her away, and obsessively plays by the rules. (She glowers when other hotel staff stray from them.) This has gone on for so long, she comes across to her co-workers as lacking a core self; all they really know about her is that they can’t figure her out.
Albert Nobbs features an all-round great cast full of familiar, mostly British or Irish, faces. Mia Wasikowska, Brendan Gleeson, Pauline Collins, Phyllida Law, and Jonathan Rhys Meyers bring to life the tensions between the ‘upstairs’ and ‘downstairs’ worlds of the residential hotel. The filmmakers are especially interested in the lively downstairs atmosphere, and those characters are much fuller. The soul of the movie, however, belongs to Close’s eccentric performance as a delicate misfit uncertain about her place in the world, and to the solid, steady-eyed work of co-star Janet McTeer as a housepainter who also cross-dresses as a man — but is secure about her strategy and her perceptions.
Based on a novella by Irish author George Moore, this film’s origins as literature can be felt in the ironic and somewhat detached tone, in the elusiveness and ambiguity of the scenes, and in the preferences for long looks between the characters as they ponder and scrutinize each other. Though a small film, it has an enormous amount on its mind. Lesbianism, gender roles, marriage as an economic contract, the class system, selfishness, kindness, loneliness, and love are all themes that bubble up as the tale unfolds.
This is not mere British miserabilism. There is plenty of humor and light-hearted moments, and certainly warm ones: the lively conversations and mischievousness among the staff; the example McTeer and Bronagh Gallagher set as the happy lesbian couple of “Hubert Page” and Cathleen; Hubert’s patient mentoring of Albert; even the compassion the director Rodrigo García lets us feels for the young servants Helen (Wasikowska) and Joe (Aaron Johnson) at the same time as we are sickened by their cruelty to Nobbs. It is a non-judgmental story of the differences in how people try to make their way in the world.
It is part of the film’s worthy mission to unveil the universes swirling behind the most placid exteriors. Early in the film, for instance, a heartless patrician gets a young hotel footman fired. The footman (Johnson) glares at the aristocrat with a coiled look reminiscent of the furious gladiator in Kubrick’s Spartacus, right before he strikes at Laurence Olivier. We get to know this employee, and his energy, resourcefulness and dreams quite well. And yet it turns out he doesn’t know how to translate any of that into the kind of life he wants.
Nobbs, the main character, is harmless, but her life has become so constricted (both figuratively and literally, with daily chest-binding) that she has devolved into a naïve, childlike daydreamer. She can’t fathom how it is that “Hubert” has been able to create such a fulfilled life while bucking the system. Nobbs is methodical and disciplined, but following steps precisely just won’t apply to such fundamentals.
Moore was pretty far ahead of his time to be writing about women masquerading as men — without the standard reassurances that it’s just a lark and gender roles are still unchangeable. In so many performances of Shakespearean comedies, for instance, the cross-dressing heroine is too scared to sword-fight, and a man – believing she’s a guy – punches her jokingly on the arm, and it hurts her. At the end of these plays, the women are restored to skirts and rewarded with husbands. In Albert Nobbs, however, Albert and Hubert take a break from their usual man garb and don some old dresses. Though Close and McTeer have both played very sexy hetero women in other films, in this scene they manage to look completely out of their elements, as if they’ve lost the ability to wear women’s clothes. Unlike the Shakespearean masquerades, this film seems to be saying that gender roles are not set in stone but are to a large extent social constructs.
Albert Nobbs is squarely on the side of the disenfranchised, and on resistance. The script, co-written with Close by Gabriella Prekop and John Banville from István Szabó’s story, is very astute about survival (physical, financial, and emotional) and the different ways people go about it. Pauline Collins’ hotel-owner is certainly no role model, but the film shows a Dickensian understanding of her determination to do what she thinks is necessary to survive. In the society of this film, stratified by class, gender, and sexual orientation, the meek do not inherit the earth.
Other titles in author Moore’s literary oeuvre include “Celibates,” “In Single Strictness,” “The Untilled Field,” and “Memoirs of My Dead Life,” all of which hint at the kind of poetry of the unlived life that emanates from this film. Perhaps the main subject of Albert Nobbs is a troubling question neither sociologists nor psychologists yet seem able to solve: What makes some people resilient in the face of adversity while others fail to thrive? Or as the hotel’s resident doctor (Gleeson) mutters in frustration: “I don’t know why people lead such miserable lives.”
The Help (2011)
The Help (now out on DVD) is certainly, predominantly, a film about racism, and a tribute to generations who withstood it and carved out meaningful lives in the midst of it. It is also about mothering (both good and bad), women’s friendships (between blacks, between whites, and between blacks and whites), and women’s liberation. Writer-director Tate Taylor doesn’t aim for a naturalistic tone in any of these areas – at times the film is so broad, it seems to be more comedy than drama. But it’s obvious from the moment tomboyish wannabe journalist Skeeter (Emma Stone) swears she has no interest in marriage that this film aims to be an empowering crowd-pleaser, not an exposé.
It’s true that the reality of racial violence in Mississippi remains discreetly in the background of The Help, but this is a movie that re-imagines the period with a different outcome, like when we go back to sleep after waking from a dream that has turned bad — and we change it. This movie is a fantasy about fighting back: not unlike Nine to Five, though with domestic staff rather than secretaries. The revenge is carried out by way of humiliating pranks and blackmail, and the empowerment is achieved by speaking truth to power, which the maids Aibileen (Viola Davis) and Minny (Octavia Spencer) do when they go public with their stories – via a book Skeeter writes based on interviews with them. The smart, rebellious Skeeter is one of two liberal whites in the film who never considers African-Americans as anything but equals; the other is Celia (Jessica Chastain), a sweet, sheltered newlywed who is excluded from the cut-throat society of the town’s white housewives, and therefore hasn’t learned their prejudices.
Though a feel-good movie like this adaptation of Kathryn Stockett’s wildly popular debut novel may go easy on the audience, there is something to be said — if your aim is to spread peace, love and understanding — for making a movie that people will watch. Aibileen has trauma in her past, daily humiliation in her present, and heartbreak on a recurring basis, as she bonds tightly with the children she takes care of only to have them wrenched away from her on an employer’s whim. Certainly there’s nothing very radical or new in that, and Taylor makes sure to surround the sadness with uplift and frequent allusions to the power of friendship and love. With a pretty uncontroversial message, is The Help unnecessary? Sadly not; we’ve seen from reactions to Obama’s presidency that things have not progressed nearly as far as we had hoped. Though Americans should already know Aibileen’s story and others like it, they need reminders.
Besides, by focusing its portrait of racism on rich white women, rather than the blood-and-guts style of their KKK cousins, The Help actually increases its relevance to today. It trains us to look for the milder manifestations of racism under a veneer of cordiality. It also highlights the hypocrisy of double standards. These well-coiffed housewives hysterically enforce racial segregation of bathrooms in their homes because they think their maids carry disease, but they’re happy to eat the maids’ cooking and blithely hand their children over to those same maids to do all the mothering – which, as is demonstrated for us early in the film, includes potty training. (Plus if anyone should be worried about disease it ought to be the maids themselves – they’re the ones who have to scrub the families’ commodes).
Toilets, incidentally, are even more central a motif in The Help than in a Danny Boyle film, though with less work for the props department. I do have to say the toilet motif here is eventually integrated into the plot in such an extended and ridiculous way that it destroys credibility. But as an initial idea, the bathroom segregation theme is a very real and down-to-earth way to demonstrate the tangible effects of racism on the most everyday human behaviors.
The Caucasian society-ladies in The Help also happen to be terrible mothers. These upper-class wives don’t just hate blacks, they hate their own children – they have kids because that’s what is expected of them, but take very little interest in them. Children are noisy and inconvenient, totally contrary to the values of the class. Without Aibileen and others like her, these children would have no one on their sides. I don’t think sympathy for a privileged white toddler diminishes the pain and suffering African-Americans underwent in 1963 Mississippi. It just shows the intersection of prejudices.
Besides hating blacks and children, these matrons hate women too. The young married clique led by Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard) meets for bridge and ladies’ auxiliary meetings, but they still behave like they’re in high school. They’re bitchy and gossipy – and we see how their cattiness is a sublimation for lives that are empty shadows to their husbands’. By contrast, Skeeter rejects both Hilly’s attempts to make her a segregationist and her own mother’s attempts to fuss over and prep her for the marriage market. Skeeter’s independence in one area feeds her independence in the other.
Incidentally, because The Help is a film devotedly focused on female constellations – men are mere background figures –when Skeeter embarks on a romantic subplot, we know it’s of secondary interest to what’s going on between the women.
Though the story does bleed into cartoon territory, it also returns to the subtleties of prejudice in some astute ways. The racism depicted in The Help is not one-size-fits-all – there are chinks in it. These white women are not confident enough to risk being scorned by their social circle if they’re ‘soft’ on the help. They perpetuate the system because they don’t want to be deviants, even when sometimes this goes against their own better judgment. Like the participants in the 1961 Milgram experiment at Yale on blind obedience to authority – participants who administered simulated electric shocks (thinking they were real) to subjects, simply because they were told to — most of the white women in The Help go along with the program despite its cruelty. Director Taylor takes the time, with two mothers in two different dismissal scenes, to show their realization that what they are doing is wrong. He stays on their conflicted faces as they sacrifice the black women who have served them faithfully, along with their own children’s happiness, simply because they are afraid to rock the boat. These astute moments reveal the power of peer pressure – and suggest that the antidote is individual conscience.
To the movie’s credit, Skeeter and her conscience are not the core of The Help. Although an ensemble cast fills out the picture, the protagonist is clearly Aibileen – hence Viola Davis’ Oscar nomination for Best Actress in a Leading Role (as well as her SAG Award and Critics’ Choice Award wins in that category). What she does in telling her personal story to Skeeter, and in reaching out to other maids to develop the whole research project, is the true act of courage in the movie. Aibileen’s individual conscience and her sense of responsibility to other black women as well as the future are the true focus of the film. Fittingly, The Help ends with a shot of her turning heartbreaking injustice to independence as she strides away defiantly, ready to take on the world.
The Iron Lady (2011)
Meryl Streep’s Oscar-winning rendition of British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady (in theatres now) is so impeccable it often feels like newsreel footage. Still, a movie is not just about great acting. It is hard to believe that the timing of The Iron Lady is pure coincidence, when Britain is once again racked by austerity measures and street protests. While Streep’s performance undoubtedly deserves high accolades (and has indeed received them), we would do well to separate the actress from the film, and to question the movie’s message.
Viewers intimate with the details of Thatcher’s 11-year rule might suspect the fix is in when the biopic begins with the doddery ex-P.M. buying a pint of milk at a corner store and tsk-tsking over the price. At home, over the tea table, she brings up the price again to her husband, though he turns out to be a hallucination. Yes, the fact that he’s not real is a good punchline to the scene. But what’s not so funny is how the movie forgets to mention that as Secretary of State for Education and Science, she slashed government milk programs for school-kids and earned the sobriquet “Thatcher Milk-snatcher.” It’s more than a little ironic that the filmmakers should start out by using milk to redeem her — it’s dishonest.
Her corner-store shopping trip matters because she has snuck out unescorted by staff, a no-no due to her apparent senility. (This mental state becomes the framework for the movie, which unfolds as a series of memories.) But Thatcher’s disapproving of inflation is also the tool with which screenwriter Abi Morgan and director Phyllida Lloyd (who also directed Streep in Mamma Mia) bathe this politician in middle-class thrift and self-discipline. Similarly, flashbacks show Margaret as a teen laboring in her father’s small grocery, missing out on good times because she has to sweep up. And when she enters politics as a young woman, her drive stems from a burning sense of morality and a work ethic instilled in her by her father — a preacher and local civil servant as well as a greengrocer.
Thatcher’s stellar career climbs steadily, intermixed with domestic scenes to humanize her – she’s stubborn and stalwart in politics, but puts down her pen and goes to bed when her husband tells her it’s late. Her stubbornness continues over into her implementation of her pet policies as Prime Minister, despite strong public opposition – at times so intense (in 1980 she had the lowest approval rating of any prime minister in British history) the filmmakers have to show it (albeit fleetingly). But she also had moments of great popularity, especially after she made war on Argentina over the Falklands, so Morgan’s script is able to balance the two poles. These come across as the ups and downs of political office, and allow The Iron Lady to place its main emphases on Thatcher juggling family with career, and breaking into an all-male political club.
What’s missing is any real examination of Thatcherism. She was intent on peeling back the safety net and other reforms towards a more equitable society which lawmakers from the Labor Party and so on had established not long before. She gutted basic social services, privatized government industries and cut subsidies, and pushed for deregulation, especially of the financial sector. (One would think it would be especially relevant for the latter to be included at this moment, but it might have proven hard to win sympathy for her if it were.) She re-organized public housing — helping speculators and raising property costs in the process. She also instituted a flat tax, redistributing wealth from the poor to the rich. This was met with vitriolic protests, including massive protests in London in 1990; the movie inserts chaotic newsreel footage of bloody street fighting (and Streep staring stoically ahead as she is driven through angry crowds pounding on her car) but doesn’t make any sense of it for the viewer. We’re left lumping the British public together with the male chauvinists who scoffed at her; democratic protest becomes just another obstacle to be overcome.
The Iron Lady makes the most notable aspect of Thatcherism her determination, not her beliefs. Whether her policies were right or wrong is somehow miraculously excluded from discussion. Lloyd and Morgan seem much more interested in how Thatcher fought male politicians and snobbish conservatives who saw her as an upstart. As one might guess from the title, her willpower is the central subject of the film.
By focusing intently on Thatcher’s personal story – with a lot of time spent on her, in retirement, shuffling around her bedroom – the film makes her policies appear to stem from a deep-seated set of values. (It’s an old line of propaganda: equating conservatism with ‘moral character’.) Lloyd and Morgan take her statements about her principles at face value. They do not seem to suspect, for instance, that her fiscal policies could come from anything except an old-fashioned code of restraint and responsibility.
Perhaps they are unaware of transactions mentioned by feminist scholar Germaine Greer, who notes that Thatcher used the foreign aid budget to hire British contractors who gave to the Conservative Party, and also that the Iron Lady arranged for U.K. funding of a $65 million hydroelectric dam project in Malaysia in return for some under-the-counter arms sales: an illegal deal but one which became a scandal only after she had left office.
Neither does the film question Thatcher’s support for tiered schooling in Britain, which for decades had segregated students — by way of a monolithic exam at the still-unformed age of 11 — into entirely different school systems. This exam decided their fate by either giving them a sound academic education (and a chance at a professional career) or sending them to inferior schools which only trained them for the trades (and perhaps a place in the same blue-collar unions this P.M. was later to fight). Those who’ve seen The Up Series, an ongoing British documentary which re-joins a group of Brits from different classes every 7 years to find out how their lives are going, may remember that the upper-class boys knew their entire academic futures at age 7, but others from the working-class didn’t even know the word “university”. Thatcher herself benefited from the tiered system because she got the choicest education, a grammar school, which helped prepare her for Oxford University and after that work as a research chemist — which she followed with a law degree, election as a Member of Parliament, and so on. Ironically, despite the luck of her own middle-class head start, she made so many cuts to higher education once she got into power that even her swanky alma mater turned on her: a student petition was circulated against her at Oxford, and consequently the governing assembly voted overwhelmingly to refuse the P.M. an honorary doctorate.
The filmmakers also exercise a perverse discretion in how they portray Thatcher’s relationship with her son Mark. They don’t show Mark on-screen, just Margaret’s lonely long-distance phone call with him; but they also don’t show how she used her influence to win a construction deal in Oman for the company he worked for. They also leave out, according to Germaine Greer, the charges and investigations against him for loan-sharking, racketeering, andinvolvement in a coup attempt in Equatorial Guinea.
Like some other conservative leaders we could name, she was adept at making strong statements and at putting blinkers on to ‘stay the course’, ignoring such things as whether her decisions were actually working. Her reaction towards the hunger strike of Bobby Sands and other Irish prisoners was the epithet “Crime is crime is crime” — while she stuck to her sound bites, terrorism in Northern Ireland increased. Herself a near victim of a terrorist attack as Prime Minister, the film has her weigh in on the coordinated attack in London during the war on Iraq. She of course responds with courage and firmness, with the usual tenacity about tenacity itself — as if terrorism had no context of any kind, and the only consideration was the need to condemn it strongly and fight it ferociously.
Thatcher is on record for declaring that the Soviets “put guns before butter, while we put just about everything before guns” though she herself presided over both a catalogue of cuts to things like ‘butter’ and an upsurge in the arms race, including the establishment of cruise missiles (from her friend Ronald Reagan) on U.K.’s soil. She also allowed Reagan’s mission to take off from British bases to bomb Libya in 1986. Like Reagan, she talked a good talk about freedom and democracy, but she aided vicious dictators and mass murderers, like Indonesia’s Suharto, Chile’s Pinochet, and the Khmer Rouge.
It’s hard to justify a script streamlining Thatcherism down to a story about her inner strength, how it helped her rise and, perhaps even, in excess, led to her fall. Though that may be a very dramaturgically correct way to write a biopic, the end result is whitewashing. (Which doesn’t mean screenwriter Abi Morgan’s streamlining ability is not an enormous asset – it works beautifully in her other 2011 screen credit, the achingly concise film she co-wrote with Steve McQueen: Shame.) In The Iron Lady, however, the masses spend much of their time striking and rioting in the streets, while Thatcher doggedly earns every victory through tireless work and determination. This doesn’t just seem concise; it strengthens the view that success is entirely based on merit, while the poor bring misery on themselves.
Thatcher pronounces coolly from a government office that “the patient must take his medicine”, but no doctor would want Thatcher’s stats. First of all, a key part of her agenda was clearly to break the unions. When two-thirds of the country’s miners went on strike in 1984 over proposed mine closures, she called them “the enemy within” and “more dangerous to liberty” than the enemy Britain had just fought in the Falklands War. Her union-busting dream eventually came true: by the time she resigned, Britain’s unions had plummeted from 13.2 million members to only 9.8 million. Other results of her reign are quantifiable: in 1979, the poverty rate was 13%. At the end of her rule, it was 22%. This accompanied a rise in inequality: British society was one-quarter unequal when she took office; it had gone up to one-third by the time she left.
To be fair, Lloyd and Morgan may have only wanted to make a feminist film, to pay tribute to the first woman elected to lead the British Empire. Indeed, honoring women as leaders is of course necessary to encourage women to pursue these goals in real life, and Prime Minister is certainly the highest professional achievement of the five roles nominated for Best Actress at this year’s Oscars. Of the five examples of women’s work enacted by the nominees, two play serving staff, one a movie star celebrated for her sensuality, and the other a private investigator and hacker (I have analyzed the feminism of the Lisbeth Salander role here.)
Undoubtedly, Streep did deliver a scrupulous, note-perfect performance, but it is also significant that she won the Best Actress Oscar for playing a national leader because it is still a very uncommon thing — and the other female leader roles in Oscar history tend to be born to it, like Helen Mirren’s Elizabeth II in The Queen and Katherine Hepburn’s Queen Eleanor in The Lion in Winter.
But the glass ceiling isn’t the only women’s issue. Decimating the labor movement is also a women’s issue. Stripping the poorest families of their housing is a women’s issue. Cutting milk programs for kids and undermining their educational opportunities is a women’s issue. All of these things hurt girls and women and families. And arms races, wars of aggression, and support for dictators not only hurt girls and women and families — they kill them. Thatcherism, both her domestic and foreign policies, were examples of paternalism at an extreme. A woman being at the helm doesn’t make paternalism less paternalistic. If Margaret Thatcher and The Iron Lady are models of feminism, then feminism is only skin-deep – and I had always thought looking past surface appearances was supposed to be at the core of feminism.

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