OTI Online
Winter 1998

The Women of Henry James
Film Review by Molly Haskell

ABOVE (clockwise from top left): Helena Bonham Carter (at right) plays Kate Croy in Wings of the Dove along with Alex Jennings as Lord Mark, Allison Elliott as Millie Thiele, Charlotte Rampling as Aunt Maude and Linus Roache as Merton Densher

BELOW (left to right): In Washington Square, Jennifer Jason Leigh plays Catherine Sloper, a young heiress in love with the penniless Morris Townsend played by Ben Chaplin. Maggie Smith is the sympathetic Aunt Lavinia

Back in the seventies, I wrote an appreciation of Henry James' The Bostonians, that classic tale of feminism versus male supremacy set in nineteenth-century bluestocking Boston. At stake was the heart and mind of pliable, pearly-voiced Verena; battling to possess her were the spinster suffragette (and man-hater) Olive Chancellor and the charmingly paternalistic Southern gentleman Basil Ransom. In this mortal showdown between pinched but passionate female righteousness and male gallantry seething with violence, James' novel eerily foreshadowed some of the tensions within the twentieth-century women's movement. In response to the piece I received an angry letter from a prominent feminist novelist, who didn't so much object to my take on the book as to my enthusiasm for James himself, whom she found irrelevant, apolitical, and too restricted in his choice of subjects.

James can hardly be accused of ivory-tower elitism: he was a keen observer of social strata and manners, and could be overtly "political" when he wanted to be (The Princess Cassamassima, about revolutionary politics, the occult, fanaticism and radical chic in London, is as immersed in issues and -isms as anything in Dreiser or Zola). In The American Scene, James poked restlessly around the immigrant quarters of New York and Ellis Island. In almost all of his novels, and specifically in Washington Square and The Wings of the Dove, which have been made into splendid new movies, there are excursions into the seedier sections of New York and London respectively, and into the lives of characters either perched perilously on the last rungs of respectability or fallen off the ladder altogether. I think what my letter writer meant was that James wasn't a radical reformer, wasn't a polemicist for equal rights, as she herself was. At that time of maximum fervor, you were either at the barricades or you were branded as an enemy.

It seemed hard, to me, that James should be accused of political inadequacy given the fact that there have been few writers, male or female, who took such a consuming interest in women, or gave themselves over so thoroughly to probing the minute workings and psychological breadth of a woman's sensibility. His view of women was conflicted, to be sure, and he possessed some of the condescension toward the "weaker sex" with which he invests Austin Sloper, father of Catherine, in Washington Square. That small jewel of a book, first made into a stage play, The Heiress (1947), by Ruth and Augustus Goetz, then a memorable movie (1949) of the same name directed by William Wyler and starring Olivia de Havilland, has been brought vividly, and with some striking differences, to the screen by Polish director Agnieska Holland (Europa, Europa and My Secret Garden). At the heart of both productions is the struggle between the father and his daughter over whether the latter will or will not marry the handsome Morris Townsend, a fortune hunter whose intentions are apparent to all but the simple and besotted Catherine. But it is precisely Sloper's underestimation of his daughter, and all women, that is confounded in the end. James, though a creature of his times and an inheritor of his father's very traditional views of women, has managed to get underneath the smug veneer of the patriarchy (here shown, as in The Bostonians, in its most appealing form), and to subvert it through the moral heroism of a lonely and unprepossessing woman.

The astonishing thing is just how unprepossessing Catherine is, as if James had accepted a dare to create a character wholly without charms, without beauty, without compensating wit or intelligence, without even cultural curiosity, a little loud in her dress, too physically robust to be alluring in the prescribed feminine way...and then bring us round, making us not only respect Catherine but love her.

Olivia de Havilland in the Wyler version, and Cherry Jones in the recent Broadway revival, played Catherine as plain but strikingly self-possessed, statuesque in her pride, a figure who rises fairly rapidly to defeat both father and suitor in a feminist revenge play.

Jennifer Jason Leigh, on the other hand, in Holland's riskier and sometimes farcical version, is roly-poly and a stumblebum from the beginning, panting for her father's affection and only dimly aware of his disdain. In one questionable scene, a fat child actress, dressed garishly, plays a young Catherine who embarrasses herself, excruciatingly, by peeing on the floor when asked to sing at a birthday party.

Holland's choices, which make the story more physical, more palpable, may not please purists, but they assuage some of the pain through humor, or express it in convulsions of violence: Catherine's beloved mother dying in childbirth, leaving husband and child bereft and isolated; the adult Catherine falling to the ground in a paroxysm of grief over the departing Morris. Jennifer Jason Leigh, whose career threatened to run aground in mannerisms of dysfunction, gives the performance of a lifetime. Her gradual transformation, first through passion for Morris, then disillusionment with her father, is both heroic and inward, a magical feat.

Albert Finney, florid and pleased with himself as Austin Sloper, the clever and popular society doctor, is a very different sort of actor than Ralph Richardson. But Finney is majestic, a physically imposing figure, sanguine where Richardson was dry, and with a sense of superiority that is implicit in everything he does. No less superb is Maggie Smith as the fatuous Lavinia, Sloper's widowed sister who has taken it upon herself to foster a match between Catherine and Morris. Her meddling need for secondhand titillation and intrigue is as pernicious in one way as Sloper's authoritarian need to control Catherine is in another.

And Ben Chaplin, handsome, desperate, even self-loathing, brings an emotional intensity to the role of Morris Townsend, where Montgomery Clift was pure passive beauty.

Catherine's discovery of her father's indifference is the climax of the story: it changes her life in the way that rejection can both devastate a woman and free her from enslavement, radically reorienting her in the world. Her father's rejection, when he realizes her passion for Morris is stronger than her desire to please him, is the tragedy that gives her back to herself. He dies in a hideous quandary of uncertainty, while she has the last glorious laugh. If the movie draws conclusions about her life after finishing with men -- as a fairly contented spinster, adored maiden aunt to her many small relatives -- isn't this a fate we no longer see as worse than death, offering the stars of contentedness (to quote another great spinster movie) versus the moon of romance.

Morris refused to settle for Catherine's rather generous ten thousand pounds from her mother; he wanted her father's share too, and that was the sticking point. Money is the important ingredient in the equation as it is for many of James' heroines. It doesn't buy happiness, often the opposite, but it allows them to make choices beyond the scope of most women's lives, and such freedom of movement is what interested James.

Isabel Archer, as played by Nicole Kidman in Jane Campion's idiosyncratic modernization of Portrait of a Lady in 1996, comes into money and chooses unwisely, yet in her arrogance and spirited play of mind, she is one of the great heroines of fiction. We watch her -- more attentively in the book than the movie -- as a freethinking new woman, not entrenched in any social world. An orphan, given further independence by a large bequest, she is so determined not to fall into the arms of a man of entitlement (the titled Lord Warburton or the brash American pursuer Caspar Goodwood) that she falls into the hands of an utterly hollow aesthete and his ex-mistress.

People use each other, almost inevitably: one person's strength comes with the wasting of another's. But to set out to manipulate and possess is, in James, the cardinal crime.Whether or not Catherlne Sloper's marriage to Morris Townsend would be doomed, she has a right to make her own mistakes, rather than have her life decided for her by a presumptuous father. Kate Croy and Merton Densher in The Wings of the Dove, like their prototypes in Portrait of a Lady, are Europeans soiled by greed, who in Machiavellian fashion set their caps for an unprotected American heiress. Only in The Wings of the Dove, a more complex novel and film, the characters are less black and white, the lines of sympathy subtle and endlessly shifting.

This gorgeously acted adaptation of James' dense late masterpiece has been subjected to simplifications and occasional oversimplifications, but the emerging story of a fairy-tale heiress with a fatal illness who is set upon by two well-meaning predators shines brilliantly all the same, a robust character study in a season of cartoon-like adventures.

Like the book, the movie revolves around a woman who could have been a virtuous bore: the heiress Millie Theale, who is the fictional reincarnation of Minny Temple, the fearless, life-affirming friend of James' youth, who died tragically young.

Writing to his older brother William after her death, he said (as quoted in Leon Edel's biography), "I can't put away the thought that just as I am beginning life, she has ended it." Thus the themes of role reversal and living at the expense of another appear early in James' life, and his guilt toward Minny, whom he could never quite address as a lover, or as man to woman, is repaid in his transmutation of her life and death into art.

Alison Eliot at first seems a plausible but rather nondescript Millie, a rich naive tourist, hungry for experience, but as she nears death, she grows and expands, battening on the love, both sacrifice and trap, offered by her treacherous friends. Kate, played by a beautifully calculating Helena Bonham Carter, is an extraordinary character, far more earthbound and materialistic than the ethereal Minnie, ready to move mountains or risk everything to get the money so she can marry the penniless Merton Densher and keep her place in society. Linus Roache, in the most difficult part of the journalist, makes her desire wholly persuasive: he must be -- and is -- both passive and appealingly virile.

Director Iain Softley and screenwriter Hossein Amini have shifted the action from the novel's 1903 to 1910, an era they felt was more modern, fraught with both choice and confusion. These greater social and sexual freedoms are in fact James'concern in the novel; there is even a scene, rare for James, in which Kate, asked by Merton to give some sign of her commitment, finally gives the pledge of her body. But this unique moment has been expanded into an emphasis on the carnal aspects of the relationship which seems both unnecessary and intrusive. Like the other distractions -- orchestral swells, children gamboling in a park, gliding gondolas and masked dances -- these effects that presumably cater to contemporary audience taste also suggest a lack of confidence in the characters.

James is more about renunciation than consummation, the anguish of awareness, the drama of gradually unfolding consequences. It is a testament to the brilliance of the film that so much of this is captured. By the end, Kate has outsmarted herself. The dead girl, without even trying, has won. Yet in our minds, they have both won, for James created not some either/or opposition, not a good woman and a bad woman along the old virgin-whore axis, but two remarkable and rounded originals. Both are fascinating, one is almost impossibly good; the other desperate and reprehensible, but too clever to acquiesce to a life of mediocrity.

James has been raked over the academic coals for the last 20 years, his sexual proclivities and famed reserve dissected, their impact on his writing analyzed. He certainly had homoerotic crushes, but he was squeamish about sex generally, and socially conservative -- an attitude not particularly conducive to wild homosexual love affairs or bohemian rebellion against prevailing mores. The "homosexual panic" traced by Eve Sedgwick, reigning doyenne of queer studies, is certainly there; but no less central are the advance and retreat with women, the passionate friendships, the guilty love of the dying Minny Temple, the long furtive relationship with Constance Fenimore Woolson. These (along with his abiding sense of his mother and father's reversal of roles, his relationship with his ailing, sidelined sister Alice, and the powerful ambivalence of his rivalry with older brother William) are the emotional and creative sources of his work, the constants that feed his theme of seesawing power.

I fell in love with James at the age of 21 and have never wavered in my devotion. Leon Edel cites a forgotten writer named Mr. Nadal as to James' attractiveness to women. He "possessed an inscrutability," but more importantly he discerned in women the qualities they saw in themselves. "Women looked at women as persons; men looked at them as women. The quality of sex in women, which is their first and chief attraction to most men, was not their chief attraction to James. This is what enabled him to draw them in his fiction with both detachment and intimacy."

It was no doubt for this very sensitivity that James was for a long time out of fashion in the academy. He lacked the apparent robustness of the virile writers and the social consciousness of the "realists." But James' concerns have proved more "real," his anatomy of consciousness more enduring, than the writers who temporarily eclipsed him in the canon. For him, the struggles of women to free themselves from the boundaries of tradition were as exciting, and as perilous, as the more obvious adventures of male heroes in the wider world. We are lucky to have two glorious adaptations which should not only captivate you for a couple of hours, but drive you back to James himself, to read or reread the originals.

As a postscript, I want to urge anyone interested in that rarely occurring phenomenon -- the appearance of meaty roles for adult women -- to rush off to see A Thousand Acres before it disappears. Never has a film been so meanly and undeservedly massacred by reviews. Critics who murmur not a word about the implausibility of Face-Off or Air Force One object on realistic grounds to this midwestern version of King Lear where three daughters have been variously seduced and mistreated by a patriarchal father. Reviewers who wax ecstatic over edgy, unsympathetic performances like Robert de Niro's in Taxi Driver and Raging Bull complain that in A Thousand Acres there's "no one to like." A double standard, maybe? Jessica Lange as the elder daughter with the cheerful facade and the repressed memory and Michelle Pfeiffer as the perpetually enraged middle sister with cancer are wonderful as they gradually come to terms with past and present. But perhaps their willingness to be unlovable as a price for freedom and self-respect is an affront to critics who prefer their women to be, and remain, good sports and ingratiating icons.

The fact that director Jocelyn Moorehouse has disavowed the film privately and badmouthed the Disney cut doesn't help. But ignore the scuttlebutt and see for yourself.

Molly Haskell is the author of Holding My Own in No Man's Land (Oxford University Press), and From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies (University of Chicago Press).

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