It is not often that Walking the Berkshires ventures into feminist critique, though as a living example of that all-but-extirpated (and still somewhat suspect) subspecies of the human male, the Bryn Man, I had more than a little exposure to it, back in the day. But as the late U. Utah Phillips memorably describes the California mindset in his first collaboration with Ani DiFranco; "If you live in California you gotta be open to all kinds of things. If you're not open, they'll pry you open." The same was true of my college years, and while two decades further down the line have offered a considerable leavening of life experience to go with all that theoretical knowledge, that academic perspective still has its contemporary uses.
Which is why I find myself following up the previous post - a light hearted Sunday morning invitation to collectively build a Top Ten list of Movie Monologues - with one that observes a decided gender imbalance, here and in other similar lists, and wonders what that might signify. Guess who invariably gets the monologue, or gets remembered for it? This is not a trick question so I'll give you a hint. Maybe Rosie the Riveter is giving an Italian Salute...
Caveat Time: I am not suggesting that those of us, myself included, who remember and enjoy movie monologues by men are inherently sexist, nor that no one else has developed a list of great movie monologues by women - I have, in fact, found one. This is not my Ph.D. thesis; but rather a highly speculative inquiry based on a limited dataset. Oh, yeah, and it's a blog post, meant to frame and stimulate discussion. Caveat lector, baby. 'Nuff said.
I am curious about the role of "the big speech" in cinema and whether or not these parts are routinely written for one gender over another. I am interested in whether there is a statistically relevant gender trend over time and across film genres. I would like to know about marketing research and the preferences of screenwriters and movie producers and theater goers and whether gender is a factor in any of that, and I don't have these data so one of you has the opportunity for a nice dissertation topic, compliments of the house. Let us know how it turns out.
I will offer a hypothesis, which you may feel free to test and critique against the available data. I believe I detect a trend of these speeches predominantly being written for men to deliver. I suspect that - surprise - monologues routinely become manologues because...wait for it...that is what is expected in the industry and by society at large and the best evidence for this is what works at the box office.
Try this experiment. Name the greatest living female film actor. 90% of you, along with me, said Meryl Streep. Alright, think of her greatest performances. I'll give you Sophie Zawistowski in Sophie's Choice and just for kicks I'll also throw in an early role as Linda in The Deer Hunter. Streep has a great comedic range too, and a brace of Oscars for Best Actress (Kramer vs. Kramer and Sophie's Choice), so here is the question... Does she have in all her body of work a truly memorable monologue, or are the parts she plays so brilliantly really about something other than soliloquies. In Sophie's Choice, her anguished "Take my little girl!" is among the most devastating moments in film and haunts me to this day, but monologue has nothing to do with it. As Linda in The Deer Hunter, it is her unacknowledged, unspoken interior self that comes through, in a film where the men are larger than life yet part of her own. As a homefront casualty, she is the one who tries to pull the shattered pieces together in that quavering delivery of "America the Beautiful" at the end of the film. Stunning stuff. But not monologues. I wonder if it matters.
There are some interior monologues delivered in film by women as voice overs. Susan Sarandon's Annie Savoy has a beauty in Bull Durham, yet it is Kevin Costner's statement of his beliefs that most folks remember - and its R-rated and testosterone-laden imagery includes the statement that "the novels of Susan Sontag are self-indulgent, overrated crap". It is still a great movie moment and it works. Why?
Is it that monologues, even the ennobling ones, are essentially onanistic? (I threw that one in there for one of my old English professors, who saw masturbation images everywhere). They are absolutely intimate, commanding attention, demanding to be heard, all about the self and how it wishes to be seen. They are profoundly gratifying, climactic moments. There is a great deal of emphasis on "the big speech" in films that have them, and if it falls flat it can spoil more than the moment. Talk about performance anxiety!
Now some of you, well versed in stage as well as screen, will say to me; "Hogwash! What about Linda Loman's "Respect must be paid" speech, invariably a show stopper? What about All About Eve?, or A Streetcar Named Desire? Dramatic theater does allow more latitude than film, I think, for narrowing the focus to a solitary female voice, so film adaptations may retain some big speeches by women. But for all her memorable one-liners, visceral collapse and violation, it is not Blanche Dubois but Stanley Kowalski who speaks in monologues. And the odds are long that The Vagina Monologues will soon be coming to a multiplex near you.
Perhaps in earlier times dialog was more literate - or more wordy - and there were more great female soliloquies, although sticking to certain conventions. Examples of these would be most welcome. Quite possibly my own movie preferences represent an unduly biased sample. So bring it on!
Until new evidence to contrary is revealed - and I am counting on you, dear readers, to chime in - I am left to conclude that either American film and film goers favor the masculine monologue, making it something of a celluloid ceiling for women, or maybe that it is not the best measure of dramatic performance and attention must be paid elsewhere. It would be a grave mistake, after all, to say that Meryl Streep is a fine actress: too bad she never had a grand soliloquy.