A Nerdy Venn Diagram.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) is arguably the most famous mental institution-based movie ever made. Directed by Milos Forman, the film was nominated for a plethora of Academy Awards; best picture, best actor, best actress, best director and the award for adapted screenplay. It’s one of those films with a special little aura around it; it is at least trying to say something profound.
The film is about R.P. McMurphy, who is sent to Oregon State Hospital because, in his words, “I fight and f*ck too much.” Over the course of the story, McMurphy rages against the hospital’s regime and attempts to bring some sort of disordered sanity into the lives of his new friends. As much as it addresses the darkness which those suffering from genuine mental illnesses can experience, it still feels sanitised in some way – if only by hammering home a feel-good, if bittersweet ending.
Girl, Interrupted (1999), directed by James Mangold, was made much later but is set within the same decade. Though taken from the writings of Susanna Keyson and based on her real life experiences after her diagnosis of borderline personality disorder; Girl, Interrupted seems to deliberately try and replicate the feel of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. It certainly feels as if certain set pieces and character types are borrowed from the former in order to hopefully emulate its success. Girl, Interrupted did manage to win a Golden Globe, an Academy Award and a Screen Actors Guild Award, but all were awarded to Angela Jolie for her supporting role as Lisa. While these awards rightly celebrate Jolie’s performance (which far outshines that of the frankly overrated Winona Ryder), this doesn’t quite compare to the same level of recognition received by its predecessor. In short, I find it difficult not to watch Girl, Interrupted as a female remake of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
Both boast noteworthy cast lists; Cuckoo’s Nest especially has a cast list of now infamous actors all at the start of their careers, barely recognisable by virtue of their youth. Jack Nicholson takes the lead as R.P. McMurphy, Christopher Lloyd plays Taber, Danny DeVito is Martini and Brad Dourif is introduced as Billy Bibbit. Likewise, Girl, Interrupted boasts Whoopie Goldberg as Valerie, Clea DuVall as Georgina, the late Brittany Murphy as Daisy, Angelia Jolie as Lisa and Winona Ryder as the lead character, Susanna Keyson.
One of the most archetypal ’mental institution film’ scenes occur in day rooms, where patients passively sit and, in the case of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, are relentlessly questioned to the accompaniment of long, lingering shots of hands passing over pained faces and men dejectedly dragging on cigarettes. These scenes point to the film’s origins; Dale Wasserman’s play version of Ken Kesey’s novel, and certainly feel very play-like. Conversely, the women of Girl, Interrupted seem to reply more on the day room TV, most notably the heart-rending sight of Georgina’s (Clea DuVall) tear streaked face as she turns from The Wizard of Oz to share her enjoyment of the film’s finale with the other women around her. The men, meanwhile, are not even allowed to have their day room television on, and McMurphy must imagine a baseball game up for his companions.
There is a sequence in both films where the institution’s occupants escape into the real world. In the case of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, the anarchic fishing-trip-cum-prison-break organised by McMurphy is clearly supposed to be a welcome break for his fellow patients, however it becomes clear that many of the basic activities inherent in this trip seem overwhelming to them. The girls of Girl, Interrupted, however, are taken out by Nurse Valerie for ice cream (curious during very snowy weather… who are the inmates here?) The atmosphere during this scene is particularly claustrophobic; Susanna has seen the wife of the man she slept with before trying to hurt herself and being hospitalised in Claymoore. Frustratingly for Susanna, though, the other women are drawing a lot of attention to themselves and the girl’s version of being publically deviant is mainly depicted as sexualised. When Susanna is later cornered by the woman however, the others leap to her aid and show some sisterly solidarity. Both outings are equally disastrous in their own way.
There are also other scenes of transgression; in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, McMurphy organises a going away party; in Girl, Interrupted, they sneak into their doctor’s office and wander around the basement. In both, the patients gain access to their files. The girls in Girl, Interrupted sit with their records, study them and read them aloud, seeing themselves through the perspective of the establishment. The men in Cuckoo’s Nest mainly stare at their records, dumbfounded and perplexed. During these scenes of transgression, there are also sexual experiences; poor Billy Bibbit manages to lose his virginity and Lisa must use her feminine whiles against an orderly in order to get access to their records. In both films, the women are presented as fairly sexualised creatures, aside from the women in power. In Girl, Interrupted, Vanessa Redgrave plays a calm, motherly Dr Wick, who is a far cry from Cuckoo’s Nest’s Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher, who I’m afraid I mainly dislike just because of the Exorcist II movie). Ratched is scary because she doesn’t seem to know she is being cruel and vindictive, she has become programmed by the institution to believe that she is acting in everyone’s best interests.
There are also suicides. Having seen Scum (1979) only a short amount of time before I watched One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest for the first time, I originally watched Billy Bibbit’s death as a rip-off of Davis’ suicide. Having allowed the memory of British Borstal-based Scum to fade (which I didn’t enjoy all that much anyway), I have come to appreciate the acting and directing of the scenes surrounding Billy’s frustrating and heart-breaking demise. Brad Dourif really should have got the Oscar for best supporting actor in this film. Five words: “Please don’t tell my mother.”
Daisy’s suicide in Girl, Interrupted is eerie, if no less easy to see coming. Susanna gradually realises that something is wrong and creeps closer to the bathroom door to the sounds of Skeeter Davis’ End of the World on constant replay. Susanna’s reaction is shocked grief, whereas Lisa is more callous and calculating; she goes through Daisy’s pockets as she is hanging there in the bathroom. The other men on the ward in One flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest don’t seem to know what to think. Only McMurphy acts; an act which will seal his fate for good.
What happens when you watch this particularly niche genre of film is that, despite yourself, you start to try and play detective and try to diagnose the characters, to work out what sort of mental trauma ails each of them. Both films also go to that ‘striving for an Academy Award’ place of ugliness and degradation, but still keep it glossy enough to appeal to a mainstream audience. The men are for the most part depicted as a mixture of brooding and child-like. The women are stoic; their tears are silent and they seem more detached from their endless suffering.
The use of flashbacks in Girl, Interrupted gives more of a sense that there is hope and life outside of the institution, whereas in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, we must piece back-stories together and the outside world; the real pasts of these characters, their real futures, seem like more of an abstract concept.
In the end, both main characters make their escape. Susanna is allowed to leave, but Lisa, after a total breakdown, must remain behind. R.P. McMurphy is lobotomised (oop… sorry, spoiler alert) and the Chief’s ‘merciful’ suffocation of him is dealt with in the film as its own form of escape. The Chief (Will Sampson) then makes his own physical escape from the institution, and the men woken by his noisy getaway seem to almost escape vicariously by watching him go (as seen by Christopher Lloyd’s violently satisfied facial expressions at the film’s close).
I think that both of these films are very well made and very watchable and despite myself I also enjoy some of the more sugar-coated aspects. These can also been seen in a film such as K-Pax (2001) where ‘is-he-isn’t-he-an-alien ‘Prot (Kevin Spacey) attempts to teach patients to ‘cure themselves’ by looking for signs such as the ‘bluebird of happiness’. These films create miniature ‘journey’ stories for individual patients, who go through great mental trauma but come out stronger and ultimately unscathed; so rarely is this really the case. It’s Kind of a Funny Story (2010) also takes on this sort of it’ll-all-come-right-in-the-end ethos (in which Zach Galifianakis’s character Bobby also steals a phrase which McMurphy delivers to Billy Bibbit about “bird-doggin’ chicks.” ) A film such as Manic (2001,the same year as K-Pax) gives a more realistic if less encouraging picture, where change is slow, hard and rarely permanent.
It is difficult to avoid the cliché when making these types of films; and it’s worth nothing that in most cases the original books manage to do a much better job of doing so. As an example, the ending of the film version of Girl, Interrupted (emphatically not the same as the book) “Was I ever crazy? Maybe. Or maybe life is.” Oh please, like we didn’t figure out that one on our own.
In this week’s blog I’m really zooming in on my area of focus; to two specific musical numbers. Both are from hugely popular musicals released in their movie form in 1968 and both feature more than just catchy songs with fantastic choreography (although they offer that, too). These songs advance plot, they advance character, and they’re full of hidden undercurrents. I can’t choose between them; they’re both too wonderful, but perhaps you have a favourite?
Oliver! (1968) directed by Carol Reed
Oom-Pah-Pah, music and lyrics by Lionel Bart. Performed by Shani Wallis.
At first listen, ‘Oom-Pah-Pah’ is a stirring imitation of a traditional music hall song; nothing more or less, full of bawdy and innuendo. The line, “They all suppose what they want to suppose/When they hear Oom-Pah-Pah” tells the listener that the ‘Oom-Pah-Pah’ of the title has a double meaning; the other verses reveal that ‘Oom-Pah-Pah’ could refer to excessive quantities of drink or sexual misadventures. In addition to this, this suggestion in the lyrics that “they all suppose what they want to suppose” also introduces the idea of seeing or noticing only what you want or expect to see. Originally, in the stage show, this song was used as a crowd pleaser, to open the second act with a good old knees-up. It didn’t take on the crucial role that it now has in the film.
For context; Oliver (Mark Lester) has been abducted from his uncle by Bill Sikes (Nancy’s terrifying and violent criminal boyfriend, played by Oliver Reed) and Bill is now using him as a handy, pocket-sized accomplice in his robberies. At The Three Cripples Pub, Bill is deep in conversation with the leader of a gang of child pick-pockets, Fagin (Ron Moody) as they try to work out their next move. Bullseye, Sikes’ bull terrier, is guarding Oliver.
Nancy, played so well by Shani Wallis, has told Oliver’s uncle, Brownlow, that she will bring the boy to him at London Bridge on the stroke of midnight. It is clear that she dearly wants to get Oliver away from the criminal underworld and back to the family where he belongs, and with these concerns she takes on for the audience the role of a surrogate mother to the orphaned Oliver. Ultimately, it turns out; she sacrifices everything for the boy.
The sequence begins with a mid-length shot of Nancy looking around nervously, her bright red dress and deep purple petticoats offsetting the dark and grainy look of the film. Nancy surveys her surroundings and hears the first few bars of ‘Oom-Pah-Pah’ being sung by revellers in the pub. Slowly, a thought dawns on her; Nancy shares a look with her friend and accomplice Bet (Shelia White) and as the director cuts to a closer shot of her face, she begins to hum along, then starts to sing with growing confidence.
At first, she ruffles Bill’s hair, singing at him and Fagin as they continue on with their conversation. It’s apparent that they’re not paying her a blind bit of notice, so she carries on with her plan. Nancy moves to several tables of drunken miseries and you can begin to see the desperation as she tries and fails to literally drag the men into her dance/diversion.
Bet rushes to help and together, they gradually recruit other pub-goers into their song and dance. All the while, Nancy keeps checking on Oliver, noting his and her positioning in order to choreograph and co-ordinate the ideal escape for them. The way in which Wallis energetically sweeps her arms in an effort stir everyone in the pub to join in the dance clearly captures Nancy’s determination. Additionally, Shani Wallis’ brassy vocals are in moving contrast to the lyrics, as she sings, “She was from the country, but now she’s up a gumtree/She let a fellow beat her, and lead her along/What’s the use of cryin’, she made her bed to lie in/She’s glad to bring a coin in, and join in this song.” We can’t help but be reminded of Nancy’s obvious physical fear of her boyfriend, Bill Sikes. Her character is portrayed as so animated that it is simply tragic to see her brutally laid low only minutes after the end of this sequence.
The counterpoint kicks in, the verse and chorus are sung in unison and the two melodies run in parallel; perhaps further demonstrating the duplicity of Nancy’s act. The “Oom-Pah-Pah’s” climb in pitch and as she leads the line past Oliver, Nancy manages smuggles him out, frantically leading him away from the public house. However, all has been in vain – Bullseye stats barking and Fagin and Sikes look up to realise that Oliver has disappeared.
As the song is ending (coming in at about four and a half minutes of perfection), Sikes’ rage is palpable and he is already running into the gorgeous street set. We hear Fagin begging him, “Careful, Bill, please, no violence.” When Sikes catches Nancy trying to push Oliver up the stairs to run to his Uncle, Bill grabs her and fatally bludgeons her out of view of the audience at the foot of the steps. It’s the act that marks the beginning of the end of the film; Bill is on the run from the police and he now has nothing to lose.
Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968) directed by Ken Hughes
Doll on a Music Box/Truly Scrumptious, music and lyrics by the Robert B. Sherman and Richard M. Sherman (The Sherman Brothers)
Performed by Dick Van Dyke and Sally Ann Howes
The music and lyrics of this fantasy classic mark the Sherman brothers’ first non-Disney film project. It might seem most apt to compare ‘Oom-Pah-Pah’ to ‘Me Ol Bamboo’ – after all, they’re both pastiches of Cockney music hall songs. However, it doesn’t advance the story (or get my heart a-flutter!) in quite the same way as ‘Doll on a Music Box’.
As with Nancy’s performance in Oliver! The ‘Doll on a Music Box’ sequence is written into the plot as a distraction against the story’s villains. Truly Scrumptious, played by Sally Ann Howes and Caractacus Potts, played by Dick Van Dyke, have managed to smuggle themselves into the castle as entertainment for the birthday of Baron Bomburst (portrayed by Gert Frobe of Goldfinger fame).
It’s time to set the scene; Truly and Caractacus are dressed as toys, because the child-like Baron is amused only by toys. Benny Hill – in an engagingly understated performance – plays the toy maker, pretending that he is presenting his new creations to the Baron for his entertainment. Truly and Caractacus must keep up the pretence of being toys in front of the Baron’s court of violet-and-black -clad Vulgarians (typical Roald Dahl creations – the co-writer of the screenplay) while making sure that by the end of the song, they are in a position to a) imprison the Baron and his wife b) storm the castle and c) free Caractacus’ stolen children. Easy.
Truly’s doll is introduced first, encased by mirrors and following prescriptive movements. She sings lyrics which make links between Truly’s upper class upbringing and domineering father, and her doll persona, exclaiming, “What do you see, you people gazing at me? You see a doll on a music box that’s wound by a key.” However she also discloses in her lyrics how she is “yearning… yearning… while I’m turning around and around… Waiting for love’s first kiss.”
Then the container containing Caractacus’ doll persona falls open, and Dick Van Dyke performs a typically admirable set of movements as a sans-strings, marionette-like figure. All the time sporting jokey, over the top facial expressions, he mimes discovery of the ‘Truly’ doll. After a failed attempt to wind her up and get her going (nudge-nudge, wink-wink), he kick-starts her music box. As she starts moving, the glee on his face his apparent and he begins to sing ‘Truly Scrumptious’. Their melodies instantly complement and counterpoint each other. Caractacus’ doll proclaims, “Honest, Truly, you’re the answer to my wishes” while she keeps batting him away with her choreographed movements. The Truly-doll is seemingly unaware of his presence, as if they are not in the same world (or class) as one another. As Truly vacantly looks around, it seems as if she is singing about “waiting for love” without seeing that it is right in front of her all the time, trying to get her attention.
Dick Van Dyke’s loose, fluid movements during this sequence as he lays his hands on his chest in deference to Truly and runs around in an effort to get her attention are charming and in complete contrast to the staccato way in which Howes moves. Likewise, their singing styles are respectively flowing (for Dick Van Dyke) and clipped (for Truly). These performances, along with the Shermans’ very clever lyrics, stir ideas about not only class differences but also perceptions of gender.
As a character, Caractacus is keen to please his audience and makes a show of being pushed around by Truly, however at one point, he is distracted by his own reflection in the mirror and stops singing, staring at himself as if he realises what he looks like and breaks character. With a group of Vulgarians almost right on top of them and leering at their show – guffawing and adjusting their monocles -Truly, fearful that Caractacus will give the game away, shoves him from behind. After hitting his head and seemingly coming to his senses, he resumes his performance.
As the song draws to a close, the Caractacus doll leans in to kiss Truly’s hand and she pulls her arm away from his kiss at the last second. When he looks up, surprised, her face softens. Coming in at less than three minutes, this sequence is far, far too short for my liking, but the fact that it leaves you wanting so much more is probably part of its longevity. You can watch this sequence again and again because you keep wishing there was more of it.
It’s worth remembering that half of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang doesn’t even really happen within the reality of the film; the Vulgarian section takes place only as part of a story which Caractacus is telling Truly and his children during a trip to the beach. I have always found the fantasy section of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang much more satisfying than the real-world narrative which frames it. However, the stories run parallel; Caractacus is telling the embedded story and it would be nice to think that his character is aware of his use of metaphors, using it perhaps as a part of an elaborate chat-up attempt to woo Truly.
It is difficult to find anything original to say about The Princess Bride (1987). It already, deservedly, has cult status, and fond fantasy fans wax lyrical about it on a regular basis. Obviously I’m a fan – I named my blog after it.
I went through a bit of a personal panic about the film when I was old enough to realise suddenly that it was a comedy. This sounds like a silly comment; I always found the characters funny, but it wasn’t until later that I really understood the concept of a parody. This worried me; if The Princess Bride was essentially a p*ss take, laughing at the heroic fantasy genre, then surely the characters, their love and losses, hopes and dreams, were all also being laughed at, too?
I realised eventually that this wasn’t true. The Princess Bride isn’t mocking anything; it is full of affection for the genre. You are supposed to feel for the characters, to feel that same affection for them as for the genre as a whole. Comedy films only work when they take themselves seriously. The minute the characters know they’re in a funny film; it’s all over. There’s nothing more inane than that blank look on an actor’s face when they’re clearly not even trying to emote with their character, they’re just thinking about how amusing they must sound saying the character’s lines.
Not everyone will agree with me, but I feel that Your Highness (2011) also takes itself seriously. True, the humour is a tad bawdier. For example; the paedophilic wise wizard and his “playful secrets”, the colossal slain minotaur penis that McBride’s character, Thadeous insists on wearing around his neck and a prophecy based around an event known as “the f*ckening”. I still maintain, however, that these characters do not know they’re in a comedy. They’re perhaps a few baby steps closer to knowing; but as in The Princess Bride, they are driven by a quest of colossal importance and forge genuine relationships with one another. Like The Princess Bride, it’s a script written for the love of the genre, with a disproportionate chunk of gross-out stoner movie thrown in for good measure. The crude jokes and the rather ripe language could be said to break the reality of the film, but in real life, people are especially funny when they’re scared and they do make jokes to make themselves feel better. Frankly, I feel that The Lord of the Rings Trilogy is missing a few well-placed swears. I would swear if a Balrog of Morgoth had me by the ankle.
Yes, Your Highness has a dark sense of humour and is fairly warped, but let’s not forget that The Princess Bride is often cut when it’s shown on television before the Watershed. Wesley is, after all, tortured to death and Inigo’s parting line to Count Rugen, “I want my father back, you son of a b*tch” is often, to my frustration, edited out of tea-time viewing slots. To me, the target audience of both films is the same set of people; Your Highness just catches that same group when they grow up. In the UK; The Princess Bride is a PG and Your Highness is a 15.
The Princess Bride features the glorious Mandy Patinkin playing a role which is almost even more beloved than the film itself. Inigo Montoya’s quest is also one of love; he says he wants to avenge his father but really he just wants him back. Patinkin drew on the loss of his father for this role, bringing almost Hamlet-like depths to his performance. The child-avenging trope also appears in Your Highness; as Isabel (Natalie Portman) states, “I know how you’re feeling inside. As if you can’t rest until you destroy those who harmed your family. You want to skin them alive, and then wear their flesh as a cape as you dance around their convulsing corpses.” The other leads, Robin Wood [Penn] who plays Princess Buttercup, would go on to do great work in Forrest Gump as Jenny, and as the wife Audrey in Unbreakable. Carey Elwes would later saw off his own foot in… you guessed it… Saw.
The Princess Bride also features characters who are arguably wackier and more caricaturised than in Your Highness. There’s the kooky Miracle Max (Billy Crystal) and Valerie (Carol Kane), Mel Smith as The Albino, a role he always said he never watched back and Peter Cook as the Impressive Clergyman. I know for a fact that the phrase, “Mawidge is what bwings us togeva…” have featured in more than a few alternative wedding ceremonies and after parties. As well as this is a frame story encapsulating the strong relationship between a sick little boy and his grandfather, played enchantingly by Peter Falk.
Your Highness was written by Danny McBride and Ben Best, two men who clearly grew up loving the more family-friendly fantasy films of the seventies and eighties. Although apparently much of the dialogue in the film was improvised (which would account for lines such as “It is my legacy to stop anyone who wants to f*ck to make dragons”) the film is still full of engaging little character details. The way the characters tend to say exactly what’s on their minds can often lead to remarks which are endearing in their childishness, “No! Never triangle face! I hate triangle face, it scares me”. I also enjoy the ‘complicated’ relationship dynamic between Franco’s Fabious and Damien Lewis as Boromont. There’s also Justin Theroux’s truly irksome Leezar and two strong females (Natalie Portman as Isabel and Zooey Deschanel as Belladonna) show that they are capable of being just as foul and grotesque as their male counterparts. There are other notable cast appearances, such as Simon Farnaby, for all those Mighty Boosh and Horrible History fans and Charles Dance, as the King.
There are also small but entertaining musical touches. Zooey Deschanel’s duet with the startlingly tone deaf James Franco; he may be exaggerating it for comedic effect but excerpts from the 2011 Oscars proved he was no song bird. As a special mention; Steve Jablonsky’s score for this film is very, very good and frequently gets played in my house (by my sister!) in the same session as tracks from Dances with Wolves and Brave.
Fun little creative fantasy touches include Marteetee; a nappy-wearing villain who plunges his hand into a cauldron as simultaneously his monster rises into the arena – a hand-shaped, five-headed reptilian creature. The heroes also have animal familiars to assist them on their quests; Fabious has the mechanical bird Simon and Thadeous’ has a less impressive lizard, called Steven.
The Princess Bride has a clear legacy. William Goldman’s book is hugely popular in its own right and you only have to spend a few minutes on ebay to know that there’s also a string of merchandise available. Rob Reiner (This is Spinal Tap, When Harry met Sally, Misery) is also a great director. The Princess Bride is well loved, often quoted and frequently televised and wins out in the end over Your Highness because, although less laugh out loud funny, it says something about ‘true love’ and friendship that a gross-out orientated stoner comedy could never hope to achieve. That said, Your Highness is also made with love and it really does get funnier and more quotable with every viewing. It might just be more of a slow burner…
These films are about men who dress as women. They’re both comedies and they both make a concerted effort to show that the distinction between genders is not as straight forward (pardon the pun!) as it may seem. Both go to extremes to humanise their larger than life ‘drag queen’ leads as much as possible, yet often at the cost of dehumanising the surrounding characters. Both also have freakishly long titles.
The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994) follows the story of three men who enjoy dressing in drag; Felicia (otherwise known as Adam, played by Guy Pearce), who is gay, one who used to be married and has fathered a child, Mitzi (or ‘Tick’ played by Hugo Weaving) and one who is taking copious amounts of hormones after an operation to become a woman, Bernadette (Terence Stamp).
The sexuality of the men in To Wong Foo Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar (1995) is less of a focus; but the film does make more of an obvious point to explain the concept of a ‘drag queen’ to its presumably naive audience. Noxemma (in a surprisingly flamboyant performance from Wesley Snipes) states, “When a straight man puts in a dress and gets his sexual kicks, he is a transvestite. When a man is a woman trapped in a man’s body and has a little operation he is a Transsexual… When a gay man has way too much fashion sense for one gender he is a drag queen.” Despite these films being a joyful celebration of drag queens, they seem to have behind them more of a purpose of trying to explain gender definitions and to make a potentially unfamiliar and daunting topic that many people may have prejudices about as sanitised and commercial as possible; through the medium of humour.
The movies both deal with the joy and the struggles (though more fleetingly) of being a drag queen, and this is told primarily through juxtaposing the main characters with a brutal setting. In Priscilla, the desert is an isolated place, where it seems humanity in general does not belong; and yet, this marginalised group are not intimidated in this setting. For Mitzi, Felicia and Bernadette, journeying through the desert on a large lavender-coloured, safety-blanket of a bus is about having the freedom to ride on its roof in a giant high-heeled shoe and lip-synch to their heart’s content (amid plumes of brightly coloured smoke.) Incidentally, I like the idea that these characters lip-synch to other people’s voices, they have no voice of their own – and this dimension is completely lost in the stage musical version which I refuse to see for this reason…
The two sets of characters in both films are on a road trip; in Priscilla they are travelling from Sydney, to a drag show in Alice Springs. In To Wong Fo, the audience goes on a drive with Noxeema (Snipes), Vida (Patrick Swayze) and Chi-Chi (John Lequizamo) from New York to a drag queen competition in Los Angeles. As usual, the story is all about the journey. While on the road, the drag queens find acceptance; the Priscilla Queens are embraced by the desert’s aborigines and in To Wong Fo Thanks for everything, the Queens in question experience a particularly charming moment when they are dancing in their open-top car and passengers in a parallel-running steam train lean out of their window and dance back at them in response.
In contrast to this, however, is the treatment which the characters encounter elsewhere. Every time Priscilla’s Mitzi, Felicia and Bernadette come into contact with civilisation, there is some kind of conflict. There is a particularly unpleasant scene where Adam decides to don his ‘Felicia’ gear and go to the video store and is pack-hunted by a gang of, presumably, straight men. Likewise, the To Wong Foo characters find themselves with a broken down car (it is worth nothing that Priscilla the tour-bus also breaks down!) and stranded in the backward Syndersville; a lifeless town complete with comedy double-barrelled, Southern names for all of its confused residents. Ultimately, the more kindly members of the community must rally round the ‘girls’ and pretend they’re all drag queens in order to protect their new found friends from police brutality.
Interestingly, both of these films portray their genuinely female characters in a less than flattering light. The women in Priscilla, Queen of the Desert are either Thai brides who shoot ping pong balls from their behinds, or Tick’s rather masculine ex-wife. The women in To Wong Foo are also rather harshly contrasted to the drag queens; they are massively unglamorous, dowdy and some are even victims of domestic abuse. In this instance, the Queens become intermediaries between men and women; rescuing the ladies from the oppression of aggressive husbands and taking them to the salon in order to restyle them. Men are still telling the women how to look and who they should be; is it more acceptable to take when they’re in dresses? Is the message here that women are often less glamorous than transvestites, or that they make themselves look as such when they go to extremes to look attractive?
The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert is a good film. As a feel-good film, however, it isn’t quite satisfying. As a viewer, you are left feeling upbeat because the film ends with the Queens back home in open-minded Sydney, doing an Abba routine. When you actually think back over the film, however, it is a film of small victories and the prejudice and violence that has been seen is hard to forget. Felicia might be able to paint over the horrific graffiti which defaces Priscilla, but we can still remember what it said. I would say that To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar is similar; they also meet with hostility, life-threatening hostility at times, but by the film’s close this is glossed over, and gives way to the chick-flick feel good factor. Vida is clearly heartbroken when she pulls into her old neighbourhood and is ignored by a woman in the front door of her old house, presumably her mother, but by the film’s close she has decides to go back to her home town and try again.
Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy watching both of these films (though I think that Priscilla has the artistic edge, it seems to be trying to do more). I would be interested, however, to know what kind of an audience the films have. They don’t really push any boundaries; the target audience seem to be straight women with cocktails who enjoy watching attractive men dragged up. The very women, incidentally, who are presented as bland and powerless in contrast to drag queens. Are there any transvestites out there who are interested in this particular kind of portrayal of their lifestyle? Or is the film enjoyed more by people who like the idea of being open minded from a brightly coloured place of safety? These are essentially safe, non challenging films (in a very similar vein to The Birdcage of 1996). At the conclusion of To Wong Foo, Vida’s new found friend, Carol-Ann (Stockard Channing) tells her, “Vida, I do not think of you as a man and I do not think of you as a woman. I think of you as an angel” to which Vida replies hesitantly, “I think that’s healthy!” it’s a lovely exchange, but does the film know what it’s actually trying to say? I’m not so sure.
I really like mermaids. Or, more to the point, I really like two particular mermaid movies.
I think the connection we oddballs have with mermaids is to do with their split nature. Shakespeare describes men as having “One foot in sea, and one on shore, to one thing constant never” and mermaids are the same. They get to experience the best of both worlds… and then they have to make a choice. Usually love is involved. In the case of Hans Christian Andersen’s original Mermaid, she chooses love and is rewarded with death. No boyfriend, no soul, do not pass go, do not collect two hundred pounds. As Ursula the Sea Witch so articulately puts it in The Little Mermaid, “Life’s full of tough choices, innit?”
Ron Howard’s naive and cockle-warming Splash (1984) and the frankly flawless The Little Mermaid (1989) are more closely connected than they may at first seem. For starters, both movies technically belong to Disney. The screenplay for Splash was, in fact, the reason why Disney invented Touchstone, so that they could make a PG film which features the concept of Daryl Hannah’s lady lumps without marring the good Disney name. The Little Mermaid was made several years after Splash, and therefore is understandably influenced by it on some level, even if the influence is Disney’s willingness to do something different. For example, a willingness to design Ariel’s character slightly differently from the blonde, buxom stereotype Madison is so close to.
So, in the interest of fairly comparing the two, I have cunningly devised several criteria: Love, Leg Envy, La-la-la-la-la-la-las (stay with me), Leading Ladies and the Last Scene.
As far as I’m concerned this is always the most important ingredient in a film and neither of the flicks in question disappoint on this front. Tom Hank’s watery-eyed portrayal of Allen Bauer, a man who finds himself deeply besotted when he comes into contact with his dream girl is just lovely. Both he and Ariel harbour a crush-like affection for their leading significant others, and this affection then grows into a romance which defies all odds. For me, The Little Mermaid is the ultimate love story.
- Leg Envy
Both mermaids have a fascination with what they don’t naturally have; legs. Madison is given a glass dome by Allen which contains two mechanised dancers. Similarly, in the “Part of Your World” sequence, Ariel is shown rolling her eyes longingly towards two wind-up dancers which she has salvaged and hidden in her grotto. Subsequently, the idea of dancing, especially dancing with a dishy man, is idealised. The fulfilment of this wish is seen most satisfyingly in the ice skating scene in Splash, where Madison and Allen -take to the ice together. I always find this scene especially tear-enticing because of the moment when Allen clocks an older couple who are skating together and realises that, if Madison can’t stay with him, he will never experience growing old with the woman he loves. Equally satisfying however, is when Ariel finally gets to dance with Prince Eric in the ‘Tour of the Kingdom’ sequence in The Little Mermaid. This scene is especially complimented by Menken’s amazing score. I would argue that both films are even on this point.
There are some surprising little moments, where the score of both films feel rather similar. Ultimately though, there’s just no contest; The Little Mermaid was always going to win this one. The Disney musical double-act of Howard Ashman and Alan Menken are undefeatable and songs such as “Part of your world”, “Under the sea” and “Kiss the girl” are popular the world over.
- Leading Ladies
In both cases, the lady makes the first move. Madison and Ariel have both made some kind of time sensitive deal in order to pursue the man of their dreams and both are subsequently quite forceful in pursuit of their chosen male. In addition to this, both show such watchable child-like wonder at the new land-based worlds they experience. In my view, Madison has the slight advantage in this category. When faced with the concept of eating a crab, Ariel is spared, Sebastian has escaped. Madison, however, grabs that lobster with both hands and bites her way straight through the shell. Now that’s a dinner-date.
- Last Scene
In the finale of The Little Mermaid, Ariel bids her dad and her sisters farewell in order to be with the man of her dreams, the gorgeous Prince Eric. In Splash, Allen leaves his land-based brother and leaps into the water to be with Madison forever. Good for him; even if the concept of being vivisected by curious scientists might have been a contributing factor. Allen Bauer scores another win for Splash.
So there we have it. The scores are even. The Little Mermaid is one of my favourite films of all time, and the experience of seeing it at the cinema is also my first memory (which dates me). It is a crucial part of the canon of classic animated Disney musicals, it signified a major comeback for the company and it has a lot of heart. The voice acting is wonderful across the board (Pat Carroll as Ursula is a particular favourite, and no one but Jodi Benson could do Ariel). Splash, however, remains a fond favourite, and is probably in my top three Tom Hanks films (alongside Big and the incomparable Mazes and Monsters). It features some impressive mermaid-transformation special effects, as well as a great performance from John Candy as Freddie Bauer, Allen’s brother, noteworthy in particular for the line he delivers in Swedish.