Issue 12  •  Spring 2013

David and Lisa and Vincent and Lilith and Bud and Deanie and Poor, Poor Carole

Written by Edward Doty
How many crazy ladies have we seen in movies over the years? We have Angelina Jolie and Winona Ryder running mad through the halls in Girl, Interrupted. We have Kate Winslet playing a crazed and obsessed convalescent in Phil Jackson’s true crime thriller, Heavenly Creatures. We have Jennifer Jason Leigh in Single White Female, killing people with her spike heels and Sally Field in Sybil, suffering from multiple personality disorder. Of course there have been plenty of psychopathic, murderous fellows gallivanting around on the silver screen over the years as well, but the women tend to take on a different, and oftentimes more dynamic and multifaceted role.
{multithumb resize=1 full_width=600 full_height=600}How many crazy ladies have we seen in movies over the years? We have Angelina Jolie and Winona Ryder running mad through the halls in Girl, Interrupted. We have Kate Winslet playing a crazed and obsessed convalescent in Peter Jackson’s true crime thriller, Heavenly Creatures. We have Jennifer Jason Leigh in Single White Female, killing people with her spike heels and Sally Field in Sybil, suffering from multiple personality disorder. Of course there have been plenty of psychopathic, murderous fellows gallivanting around on the silver screen over the years as well, but the women tend to take on a different, and oftentimes more dynamic and multifaceted role.

Behaviors that may be deemed “mad” in these films may in fact be understood as parables about female sexuality, particularly female adolescent sexuality. In these movies, we can see a fear of budding female sexuality and the male resolution to view young women at this stage of their personal development as incomprehensible and in need of curing. This view of the adolescent libido is a way to avoid accepting and embracing feelings of desiring and being desired. This look into young women in crisis also reveals something about the (largely undiscussed) male sexual crisis. I’d like to take a look at a few particular films from the early 1960s that deal with mentally disturbed young women. These movies come from a time when repression and propriety were strong cultural norms. This era was also on the burgeoning point of the sexual revolution, and women’s liberation was just entering mainstream society. It was a period of shifting ideals, a greater interest in sexuality and personal freedom, but also a time when these developments presented a threat to the status quo.

In David and Lisa (1962, dir. Frank Perry), Lisa (Janet Margolin) is a resident at a boarding school for emotionally disturbed teens where recently admitted David (Keir Dullea) comes to be cured of his fear of being touched. Lisa speaks only in rhyme, has temper tantrums, and invents a secret language that she believes is taught to her by a race of beings only she can see and hear. David shows himself to be a trustworthy companion for the enigmatic and untamed Lisa by speaking to her in her own system of rhyming. The movie culminates in a final scene where Lisa’s hysterics are averted and she begins to speak without rhyming when David reaches out to her (figuratively and literally) by letting his emotional defenses drop and allowing himself to be touched. David and Lisa exit the film holding hands and walking away down the steps of a museum, the site of their partnered breakthroughs.

David has been the guide through most of the development of their relationship and each of their psychological recoveries. But Lisa is actually the first to have her breakthrough when she realizes that her two personalities (Lisa and Muriel) are both part of one person, “Me.” She abandons her need to speak in rhyme, and seeing this, David is then able to have his own breakthrough by allowing himself to be touched. He understands and accepts the possibility of his own recovery by helping Lisa through hers. There is a certain balance to their relationship because they are both patients; they both find recovery through each other. But in a way, David’s breakthrough comes partially from a practical need to expand his capacity for human contact in order to be able to remain Lisa’s guide and protector as she comes to terms with herself. Are we meant to believe that our personal breakthroughs can only happen as a means of partnering ourselves with another person?

Unfortunately for the characters in Lilith (1964, dir. Robert Rossen), the outcome is not so rosy. The movie follows veteran-turned-orderly Vincent (Warren Beatty) as he spends time at a mental institution. He gets a job there in order to, as he says, “be a direct help to people.” Shortly after being hired Vincent meets Lilith (Jean Seberg), a disturbed and reclusive patient with a history as a seductress, and falls in love with her. Their sometimes-tumultuous relationship eventually comes crashing down in a tragic ending to the film. Having driven fellow patient Stephen (Peter Fonda) to suicide by rejecting his pleas for affection, Lilith is reminded of the reason for her being institutionalized—her role as seductress in an incestuous relationship with her brother that led to his suicide. She reacts by killing herself.

Vincent, her occupational therapist and lover, realizes he has been unable to help her and is left alone with his own psychosexual crisis. It’s hinted at that he has some serious mommy issues. His mother had died at some point in the past from causes unknown to the audience, but we are given the sense that Vincent has a strong sense of guilt over her death, and that this guilt is a major factor in his wish to help people. He tries to make up for his perceived failures as a son by being a better lover/protector for a different woman. But it all falls apart. The movie ends with him begging his former coworkers and bosses to help him. He has broken down; the therapist has turned patient. Has Lilith driven him, like her brother and Stephen before, mad, or has he finally realized that trying to help other people is not the way to deal with his own issues?

Warren Beatty (who plays Vincent in Lilith) also stars in Splendor in the Grass (1961, dir. Elia Kazan). This movie, set in 1928 Kansas, tells the story of two high school sweethearts, Bud (Warren Beatty) and Deanie (Natalie Wood). Repeated parental warnings about the dangers of sexuality and the “bad example” of Bud’s sister Ginny as a sexually active woman, send each of the two young lovers into crisis. Deanie at first resists Bud’s advances, but when he breaks up with her because he can’t bring himself to sleep with her, possibly damaging her reputation and social standing as a “good girl,” Deanie turns into the aggressor. When Bud refuses her, she has a breakdown and is sent, as her parents euphemistically say, “up to Wichita” to an asylum. The movie ends with a reunion between Bud and Deanie after she gets out of the hospital. Everything, the movie seems to say, is all right now.

But there’s an edge of hopelessness in their final words to each other. Deanie is to be married to a young man she met at the asylum who has now been “cured,” returning home to be a doctor and fulfilling his parents’ wishes for his future. Bud is already married to a waitress he met while away at school. Bud, his pregnant wife, and their toddler live on the abandoned family ranch that his (now dead) father stopped working on to go into the oil business. Bud has found a certain freedom and comfort, still close to home, but out from under the thumb of his overbearing father. But he has failed to fulfill his parents’ wishes for him, as well as to claim his own desire, and he has married below his class—a sexualized, fertile waitress, and not a “good girl” from a “good family” like Deanie was. The brief heart-to-heart between Bud and Deanie at the end of the movie is a mutual admission that happiness doesn’t seem that important to them anymore. Happiness, freedom, and sexual liberation are now seen as childhood phantasms that we are meant to outgrow as we enter adulthood and claim responsibility for our families and ourselves.

The most overtly sexualized movie of this group, and the only one that doesn’t have an institutional setting, is Roman Polanski’s 1965 film Repulsion. Catherine Deneuve stars as Carole, a young Belgian woman living with her sister in England and working as a manicurist at a local salon. Over the course of the movie, we see Carole retreat further and further into a nightmarish fantasy world populated by hands that come out of walls to grope her and men that enter her room at night and force themselves on her. The movie climaxes with her violent reaction to her growing sense of doom as the sexual advances of the real men around her become increasingly aggressive and repulsive. She murders both the boy who has been trying to win her fancy, and the creepy landlord who comes to collect the rent, then propositions and attacks her. Colin, her suitor, is an attractive, honorable young man who defends her from his piggish bar friends. But Carole is still unable to handle his desire for her, and even the most innocent of sexual advances from him, seem to her, to be the initial stage of the worst possible outcome of sexuality. The final shot of the film is a close-up of an old family photograph, which has appeared as a prop throughout the film. We see a young Carole looking very uncomfortable and staring at a seated male figure at the other side of the picture, possibly her father or an uncle. I read this an as insinuation that she was molested or raped by this male figure during her childhood. Carole is cast as a ruined woman, someone beyond help; she is shown as a victim of abuse and not as a survivor—someone capable of confronting and overcoming a traumatic experience. She can’t recover from her childhood trauma, because she was abused before she was at a stage in her life when she could have had any chance of facing her own sexuality. And, in the world of this film, this leads her to insanity and violence.

The illness experienced by these four women is an exaggerated response to the confusion of coming to terms with their sexuality as human subjects. Of course in the real world, not all mental illness or emotional disturbance can be so directly traced to sexual crisis. By making the link between adolescent sexual awakening and illness, we are shown this stage of development, not as something to come to terms with through experimentation and discussion, but as something to recover from, to “get over” or “grow out of.” Though each young woman in these movies has her own particular history and confronts her crisis in a unique way, with varying degrees of success or failure, not one of them accepts herself as an independent sexual subject. The male characters experience problems, anxieties, pressures and failures, but the particular point of accepting one’s self as a sexual subject isn’t addressed in the same way as it is with the women. Is it just that easy for men to understand their sexuality? Or maybe it’s just that difficult for us to talk about it.
 
Illustration by Lizz Wasserman 

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