Monsters’ Ball

Should we stop inviting Hollywood’s worst to the party?

Monsters’ Ball

We’re hitting the edge of the year and, if there’s one thing 2017 will be known for, it’s disgraceful men. The year was kicked off by the inauguration and subsequent protest of a man many found reprehensible, and concluded with the long-deserved tarring, feathering, and firing of a number of sexual predators.

Not a few of those monsters reside in Hollywood and, in that spirit, I enlisted the help of my movie crew to discuss movies we once loved but aren’t so sure about anymore. Unfortunately, Radha Vatsal was unable to participate, but I was pleased to be joined once again by Scott Adlerberg and Dr. Marguerite Rippy.

And I want to kick things off with a film I once found highly influential, Neil LaBute’s controversial debut, “In the Company of Men.”

“In the Company of Men” caused fights. Mainly released in arthouse and independent theaters in 1997, the movie received a moment of national attention when journalists and reviewers touched on the heated debate between couples after they saw the movie. Women, they wrote, were incensed; men often embarrassed and apologetic.

The movie was designed to draw heat. The plot centers around two young businessmen (Matt Malloy, and a stunning debut by Aaron Eckhart) who decide to court and then ruthlessly dump a female coworker as a way of righting their grievances against all women. The coworker (a similarly outstanding performance by Stacey Edwards) happens to be deaf, a handicap that ends up adding both visually and metaphorically to the men’s cruel plan.

LaBute’s movie changed everything for me. It provided insights into masculinity I’d long witnessed but never understood. Yes, it was absolutely and unrepentantly vicious, but deservedly so in its honesty…at least, I thought at the time. Years later, reflecting on the film, I wondered if its misogyny was actually gleeful. Did it delight in its bigotry while merely pretending to condemn it, in the same way I long suspected that television shows like “All in the Family” and “Married…with Children” did?

Upon re-watching the film, I was relieved to find that “In the Company of Men” kept its head above water. For 2017, there really is no better film than this one made 20 years ago to show what some men are truly like behind closed doors. If women are outraged by the movie, it’s perhaps in part because the empathy they’ll feel with Edwards’ heartbreaking performance, and the raw bitterness in the men’s emotions. And for men, any discomfort is likely because this form of masculinity is one we’ve long participated in or quietly witnessed, and it’s since led to a deserved reckoning.

Dr. Marguerite Rippy

First, a disclaimer: It’s essential to study objectionable art in order to understand it. D.W. Griffith’s 1915 “Birth of a Nation” is both a milestone in technique and a failure of national moral vision. If we don’t study it, we are doomed to reproduce it. That said, not all art merits preservation, and “Tootsie” (1982) increasingly rings false.

When “Tootsie” was first released, it was hailed as a progressive challenge to gendered stereotypes. As a teenager, I was charmed by Dustin Hoffman’s portrayal of Michael Dorsey/Dorothy Michaels. Now, of course, “Tootsie” comes across as another male-conceived, misdirected vision of women that observes rather than embodies women.

As Michael, Hoffman lies to and sleeps with his best female friend (played by Teri Garr) just to protect his ambition; as Dorothy, he sexually pursues a coworker (played by Jessica Lange) under the pretense of friendship; as both characters, he misunderstands everything about workplace harassment and male-female friendship. Hoffman later argued unconvincingly that the role led to his own enlightenment. To add insult to injury, it’s a hopelessly whitewashed film with almost no speaking roles for actors of color.

Nevertheless, you can watch “Tootsie” against the grain — Garr’s performance is a comic revelation of anger and frustration, and Doris Belack’s portrayal of a powerful woman in the industry rings true. But given the current option of watching strong, diverse women’s comedies like “Bridesmaids” and “Girls Trip,” it’s hard to justify wading through the ignorance of this film for small glimpses of truth.

Dr. Marguerite Rippy focuses on 20th-century film and drama, particularly the work of filmmaker/actor Orson Welles, and adaptations of Shakespeare, race, and performance. Her research has been published in the collection Weyward Macbeth; in her own book, Orson Welles and the Unfinished RKO Projects; in the co-authored Welles, Kurosawa, Kozintsev, Zeffirelli; and in numerous journals. She also serves on the American Film Institute's screening committee for AFI Docs.

Scott Adlerberg

In recent years, Alfred Hitchcock’s image has darkened with the revelation about how he treated Tippi Hedren. He cast her in “The Birds” (1963), and by the time they made “Marnie” (1964), he had become sexually obsessed with her. He tried to force a kiss upon her, asked her to touch him, and told her his fantasies about her. Rebuffed, Hitchcock threatened to destroy her career, and for the rest of the “Marnie” shoot, says Hedren, he never once spoke to her directly.

“Marnie” is about a kleptomaniac who has an aversion to sex (rooted in childhood trauma). It’s a film about secrets and sexual dysfunction, and, to me, it remains a brilliant psychological portrait of a damaged person. But is that person — twisted and ugly inside but smooth outside — Marnie alone, or Hitchcock, as well?

A wedding-consummation scene becomes a husband’s rape of his wife, a scene quite disturbing, not least because in the way it’s filmed and acted — Hedren and Sean Connery — Hitchcock implicates the viewer in Marnie’s violation but also locks in on her point of view. Marnie freezes and becomes impassive during the act, then tries to kill herself. The swing from lack of affect to extreme emotion in Marnie throughout the film perfectly conveys her severe neuroses, but I wonder now, as I watch the movie, how much of the torment Hedren puts forth is her acting and how much is a reflection of what she went through with her director.

I love Hitchcock the artist, but having learned more about the man, I watch his films more psychoanalytically than I used to. I ask myself what this filmmaking master, and peerless entertainer, was revealing in his films about himself.

Scott Adlerberg hosts the Word for Word Reel Talks film-commentary series in Manhattan. His new novel, Graveyard Love, a psychological thriller, is out now from Broken River Books.

(Author’s note: As an FYI, payment for this column has been matched and donated to Young Storytellers, a nonprofit dedicated to teaching low-income students about writing and producing their stories.)

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