The Complications of Fremenies: Thoughts on the “Women’s Film” OLD ACQUAINTANCE

21 April 2013

Melodramas, sometimes known as “women’s films,” were a popular genre of film from the onset of “talkies” to the 1950s.  Melodrama films typically focus on a female protagonist(s) and, because of gendered expectations on women, melodramas often center in the domestic realm and emphasize emotional struggles and turmoil within relationships.  In fact, melodramas do not simply emphasize emotion they exaggerate it for entertainment’s sake; the melodrama’s calling card is heighten sentiments building to the climactic breaking point.

The 1940s are a particularly rich period for melodramas, and many popular American leading ladies of that time were known for their melodramatic performances.  Barbara Stanwyck, Greta Garbo, Katharine Hepburn, and Joan Crawford are among the most recognized actresses to turn in stellar melodramatic performances.  But, perhaps no actress has performed in more melodramas than Better Davis, and one model example is Old Acquaintance.

Vincent Sherman’s Old Acquaintance (1943) takes place over several decades and captures the intersecting lives of two childhood friends, Millie (Miriam Hopkins) and Katherine “Kit” (Bette Davis).  Both women and writers, Millie of popular romance novels and Kit of less popular but more respected fiction.  Millie is an ostentatious and jealous person who often cuts on those around, including Kit.  Conversely, Kit is a quite woman who balances Millie’s volatile temper with unfaltering emotional stability.  Millie’s husband, Preston (John Loder), eventually tires of Millie’s antics and leaves her, hoping to be with the woman he truly loves, Kit.  However, Kit refuses Preston because of her loyalty to Millie.  Ten years pass and Preston reemerges.  Thinking she can win him back, Millie tries seducing Preston only to learn the woman he actually wanted was Kit.  Enraged, Millie confronts Kit, who, by this time has finally found happiness with someone new, Rudd (Gig Young).  Unfortunately, feelings bloom between Rudd and Millie’s (now grown) daughter, Deidre (Dolores Moran), which ends the relationship between Rudd and Kit.  In the end, Kit and Millie make up, and the two toast to being each other’s old acquaintance.

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Because melodramas are about women, most argue the genre targets women (hence “women’s films”).  Simply theory suggests films about women will be attractive to women; more complicated theory attempts to discover why that attraction takes place.  However, a foundational premise is that female audiences look at female characters as perfected versions of themselves; thus, women on-screen represent and ideal woman, one that female audiences find themselves in and admire.

So, what happens when a melodrama depicts women in a negative light?  Do women still want to see a film that mocks the idolized woman and presents oppressed female characters?  Put another way, can women connect with female characters who do not exemplify attributes they desire for themselves?   When looked at through a narrowed lens, it seems these questions can be asked of Old Acquaintance.

There are two leading ladies in Old Acquaintance: Kit and Millie.  Kit is the protagonist and Millie the antagonist.  Therefore, between the two women captured, Kit is the logical female character for the melodrama’s audience to connect with.  And, on the surface, this connection is quite easy to understand.  Kit is successful, smart, and independent.  And, perhaps most importantly, she has strong values.  For example, Kit never gets involved with Preston because he was her best friend’s husband.  Regardless of the deep love Kit and Preston have for each other Kit refuses to compromise her principles on loyalty, friendship, and, perhaps, trust between women.  Thus, beyond her financial success, hardworking spirit, and independence, Kit can easily connect with the audience because of her strong moral compass and steadily grounded principles; female audiences see qualities they admire within this character.

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Yet, these positive attributes are only the surface layer to Kit; below that surface is a woman with minimal self-worth.  The most overt example of this can be seen in Kit’s relationship with Millie.  From start to finish Millie judges, berates, and attacks her so-called best friend.  While this exemplifies Millie’s role as antagonist in the story, it also highlights Kit’s unexplainable tolerance of this deplorable treatment.  Demoralized, she accepts this behavior from Millie; Kit never fires back, defends herself, or separates herself from this unhealthy and volatile relationship.  Based on her conversations with Preston, it seems Kit recognizes Millie’s petulant and spiteful attitude, but she does not seem to think enough of herself to confront Millie or remove this negative relationship from her life.

Furthermore, Kit defends Millie’s obnoxious behavior, initially encouraging Preston to return to Millie after he leaves her, suggesting Preston is at fault for the breakdown of the marriage because he chose to leave.  Kit’s actions suggest, not only does she feel she deserves Millie’s abuse, she also feels that anyone who loves her, namely Preston, also warrants Millie’s torture.  There is a deep layer of self-loathing and, perhaps, masochism in Kit and this may complicate how relatable her character is with the targeted female audience.

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In addition, Kit takes the role of sacrificial woman to the next level.  After raising Deidre, Millie’s daughter, as her own, and always stepping in for the absent or self-involved Millie, Deidre steals Kit’s fiancé, Rudd.  One might think Kit would be upset with Rudd’s unfaithfulness or offended by Deidre’s betrayal, but that would not be Kit.  Instead, Kit graciously accepts Rudd and Deidre’s romance and quietly steps aside so the two can be together.  Not only does Kit sacrifice her true happiness with Preston for Millie, but she even sacrifices her companionship Rudd (which was less passionate, but still tender) for Deidre.  Again, Kit’s passivity and shattered self-respect shine through, making her a difficult character for women to connect with.

Finally, Kit is a static character in Old Acquaintance, and flat characters are rarely relatable to audiences.  From start to finish, Kit never changes, evolves, or develops.  Sure, she may go from novelist to playwright or from blazers to fur coats, but Kit’s character remains exactly the same.  After years of enduring Millie’s abuse, and after a ten-year separation from Preston, the man she loves, Kit still does not find her voice or seek her own happiness.  She turns down Preston in the film’s beginning and does not end up with him in the conclusion.  She stays by Millie’s side in the beginning and that is exactly where she is in the end, clinking glasses, toasting not only to a friendship, but also solidifying an unspoken agreement between the two to remain stunted in this negative, flat friendship.

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When looking at Kit through this lens, it is surprising Bette Davis plays the role.  Davis is known for being dynamic, bold, and outspoken, but none of attributes fit Kit.  Sure Kit may seem like a role model for 1940s women; she has a career, her own money, she is independent, and she is talented.  Yet, below these surface appearances, Kit lacks self-worth.  Old Acquaintance certainly falls in the category of melodrama, but, when looking at the film from this perspective, its unflattering representation of women leaves this viewer wondering how this “women’s film” could possibly entertain its target audience.  In a movie for women and about women, is Kit the woman women are assumed to identify with?  More pointedly, why would women want to identify with her?

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~ by Kate Bellmore on 21/04/2013.

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