Just what do women talk about when men aren’t around? Within the context of the commercial cinema the so-called fairer sex has remained, inexplicably, something of a mystery, both in terms of an honest, unfettered exploration of female psychology and for any justifiable reason as to how a medium which lays claim to being the preeminent Art Form for over the the past century can justify such an oversight. During the Golden Age of Hollywood studio movies, the number of so-called women’s films were produced in an abundance unseen in the last fifty years, yet the considerations of such vehicles were entirely mercenary (as is all commercial cinema): by predicting what features would attract the greatest number of willing bodies in the largest demographic groups into vacant theater seats. Most of the “women’s” films of the era are, in fact, condescending to the very audience at which they are intended, reveling in gossipy levels of melodramatics in lieu of themes of substance, and always intended to be remindful of male dominance in both in real life and now, intrusively, even a woman’s fantasy world. By the restrictiveness of the Production Code, all behavior regardless of gender was unnaturally tempered, but it was especially so with the depiction of fully realized multidimensional female role models, as women portrayed with an independent attitude were often relegated to “bad girl” status (one must not upend the ideal of apron strings promoted by the industry’s moral watchdogs): either as man-gobbling career “bitches” who would inevitably have to atone for daring to upset the delicate balance of an acceptable gender role, with regretful loneliness and bitter recrimination from the rest of the cast (pity as a fixative, aimed at the antagonist, especially from her unnaturally patient and saintly subordinate- a confidante in the form of a friend, assistant [the Celeste Holm–Eve Arden model] or maternal figure -was the usual glue in which the message was made clear there might be hope that the independent woman will see the light and settle down with a good man who will chain her to a life of glorious domesticity), or as femme fatales who were not subservient to men, but used their womanly guile to exploit the weaknesses of men to achieve their ends (one would also assume this entailed personal sexual gratification, but any overt mention of S-E-X was absent as physical pleasure had yet to be invented by Hollywood until the latter half of the 1960’s), though this offense of personal initiative (especially when coinciding with making men look like fools) was generally rewarded with a bullet to the gut or promise of a lengthy prison sentence. Gothic trappings (both of the romantic variety and the Lillian Hellman variety of odious moral gargoyles) or gaudy historical costume dramas predisposed that every woman, no matter what the era, was graced with a contemporaneous 1940’s attitude: you were either romantically subservient or deemed leprously antisocial.
Despite the seeming multitude of women’s films in the 1930’s and especially the 40’s, there is barely a discernible portrait of a female that is not first passed through the filter of a greater masculine sensibility. Vehicles promoted as Bette Davis, Joan Crawford or Katharine Hepburn films- all supposedly strong role models -were actually hermetically sealed productions, meticulously formed around the particular marketed screen persona of each of the stars, rather than actually delineating a multi-faceted female character. The roles were vacuum formed around the public’s image of a particular film star and not as independent portraits of Everywomen. (Can you name any Katharine Hepburn film in which her character is not exceptionally ennobled with an inbred superiority similar to that which differentiates the Triple Crown Winner from the cart horse on a short road to the glue factory?) The image of the Woman, as depicted in Hollywood, was inexactly defined by the image of celebrity rather than through any insightful sociological prism.
Paul Mazursky’s 1978 “An Unmarried Woman”, a late entry into the American cinema of feminism, created a stir as it actually had the audacity to depict a modern independent woman within the context of the societal perfect storm of Women’s Lib and The Sexual Revolution (the film being a late entry in depicting feminism seriously in American cinema only by proxy, the film was actually one of the first in commercial American cinema, but like so many other examples of subjects featuring a radical shift in traditional thought- Vietnam, for example -Hollywood chose to play the Tortoise not the Hare), a refreshingly untapped subject whose integrity was shattered by a backslide into the comfort of male dominance and the completeness a woman can feel only by being encircled by the arms of her hirsute symbol of D.H. Lawrence infused masculine potency. Jane Fonda’s own string of commercial successes at this time stressed the awakening of the feminine consciousness, yet this theme of intellectual flowering was so redundantly overused from picture to picture to picture (the consistent thread evident at the beginning of every film seemed to be the startling fact that she’d reached her age without ever experiencing nor being cognizant of anything) the cumulative impression given with each successive film was that the actress was the slowest learner on the block.
This same soft pedaling of feminist principles informs the entirety of Joseph Losey’s final film, a tepid filmization of Nell Dunn’s equally colorless play “Steaming”, which inexplicably, in 1981, was awarded what was to become the Olivier Award for Best New Comedy, which instead of elevating the stature of the work, calls into serious question the state of theatre in England: if such a mediocrity could be so exalted, what could possibly be the lack of excellence in the other competitors? The play is a generation removed antecedent of the “angry young man” brand of theatre, perhaps more properly recognizable as the “flustered middle aged woman” drama, though the possibilities of penetrating insight into the frustrations and disappointments of the modern woman- which might usefully coincide and be comparable to the earlier aforementioned male-based brand of drama -is quickly dashed by conformity to the colorful rather than the insightful. Were Ms. Dunn serious about her depictions of the modern British woman (and one might conclude all women, as the particulars of conversation have little to do with matters specific to British gender roles) then there is a critical need for a mass campaign to brain scan for lesions and perhaps a good deal of psychological observation.
If one of the fundamental characteristics useful in understanding a Losey film is the baroque setting which is an extroverted representation of character, then his hands might seem tied by the claustrophobic setting of the steam bath, a flatly sterile and uninspiring piece of staging, except for the impressively designed staircase and pool which more resemble discarded set pieces from “Caligula” than a utilitarian bath house. That is, unless Losey has a greater purpose in mind for entombing his entire film within these visually restrictive rooms, if one is willing to concede that the sheltered (even subterranean) isolation of the characters is paramount to the play’s function, but then this ugly path leads back to the material: just what is going on within the text and how does Losey as director draw out its more essential elements? Again, the opening salvo is readdressed: just what do women talk about when men are not around? Based upon the findings within both Ms. Dunn’s play and the adaptation by Patricia Losey (the director’s spouse), not a great deal. What is most dispiriting is that, once again, the subject of male dominance, male superiority, male suffocation surfaces time and again.
This can be a useful sounding board if these observations lead to a cathartic resolution- either collectively or individually -or even a conscious concession to the forces of restrictive chauvinism (the intention of Art is to engage all directions within the human experience, not merely the pleasant or dramatically expedient), yet what is served up is treacle rather than brimstone, none of it particularly meaningful nor memorable as there are no well delineated characters in the film, merely women as sketchily written placards (or worse yet, completely obtuse hieroglyphs) who each announce their nugget of restrained discontent before each retreats into a dishonest cloak of regret, with wishes to continue embracing those same disappointing values. This is gutless drama of the worst variety, made all the more creaky by the introduction of a plot to save the bath house from the extinctive hands of land development, a clumsy device meant to show the resilience of the women, but instead extending a far too easily won victory (Losey’s cynicism over the danger of unchecked authoritative bodies would have railed at such a concept two decades before) that deliberately distracts from the film’s core relationships, making the setting more important than the players in it: a rather ironic bit of creative misconception as this actually should fortify the lack of individual self-worth; the victory in saving the baths could be seen as a win for the group dynamic, but to what end- merely to retain the meeting place of unhappy assertions of dissatisfaction? The abrupt resolution of the threatened bath house closure brings a dismissal of all of the miseries unearthed throughout the film: just how will the continued existence of the house solve their problems, if it did nothing to solve them before? The message of the film seems to be: everyone needs a place to vent, to let off steam (the title, no doubt, has several connotations) and that’s a pretty dismal picture for women to look forward to: a brew of disappointment with a bile topping. (The concluding image of the women sending white balloons to the ceilings is a moment cringe-worthy of the soggiest Hallmark Hall of Fame, but in the hands of Joseph Losey it’s downright embarrassing.)
In its opening moments, the film promises more- with an annoying opening song (the electronic scoring by Richard Harvey is truly appalling, the musical version of having a gnat caught in your ear) that, at least, contains the refrain “we’re not going to take it”, a rallying cry for an emotional revolution that never emerges as that’s exactly what the characters in “Steaming” do: take it… and wish for more. Losey, despite his extensive background in theater seems positively paralyzed by the stage bound nature of the film– oddly, his theatrically-based films have always had a feeling of unfocused control as if he were constantly in conflict in attempting to stay true to his Brechtian roots while remaining faithful to the play, while making it cinematic. However, there’s nothing intrinsically cinematic about “Steaming” (it would be similar to making a film from an unaltered adaptation of “Kennedy’s Children”) nor is there sufficient material for Losey to explore with his usual probing interest in a person’s sexual nature as the controlling force of the human character (regardless of gender), the voluminous talk of sex being entirely fractured in its coherence and mundane in it’s content. (There is room for incisiveness even here, but it would take a team of better writers to draw it out.) Losey faced similar thematic dislocation in his penultimate film “La Truite”, a film which- visually -seemed a complete return to form, but conceptually had its focus on the wrong character (Isabelle Huppert’s deliberately sphinx-like performance is a bold choice which simply doesn’t work); had Losey switched gears and made the film about Alexis Smith’s Gloria, it might have been an interesting companion piece to Losey’s fascinating but butchered “Eva”.
The opening sequences of “Steaming” seem to presume a foreknowledge as to what is going on and who the characters are and by the time the fog begins to life, far too much of the film has unspooled and far too much information has been squandered. Surely, the intention wasn’t to toss aside the first reel of the film. (For what purpose?) Neither Losey’s editorial sense (which often leads to interesting if initially arcane dramatic rhythms) nor his faultless sense of place are in evidence; the film jerkily moving from the occasional effective moment to an intrusive edit emphasizing the artificiality of character entrances- the mosaic of artistic temperament on display is dismaying if not outright alarming -and Losey’s camera makes no sense of his setting, never establishing the layout nor the location of the scene from one moment to the next, a scandalous failing for a director known to imbue the settings of his films with a sense of character almost equal to his actors.
Vanessa Redgrave is noble but colorless in the noble but colorless role of Nancy, while Sarah Miles as Sarah is not only colorless, but flavorless as well: has an actress of such reputation ever left a less memorable impression on the screen? As the flamboyant, sexually charged Josie, Patti Love is alternately grating and affecting. However, the two best moments of the film belong to her- an enraged tirade of class frustration against Nancy and a quieter moment preparing for the board meeting by practicing her evidence -are handled with genuine bravura, showing a real actor’s range and the ability to extend the limits of a transparently conceived role with a real actor’s gift: intelligence. The role of Violet, the last in the film career of Diana Dors, is one-note affair (although Violet’s persistence that every patron’s crisis- including domestic abuse -is solvable by a “good steam” hints at a form of lunatic satire that disappears as rapidly as it appears); one of those utilitarian hostess parts in which you realize she’s in the bulk of the film yet don’t remember her doing anything of significance (think Miss Cooper in Terence Rattigan’s Separate Tables), a part that requires little but a pleasant screen presence.
It would be comforting to suggest that perhaps the wily Losey had something more in mind for his swan song, such as a perverse kitchen sink version of Sartre’s “Huis Clos” (it does often feel like an eternity), though that is critical wishful thinking of the variety that explains all the horrid mistakes of late Hitchcock with the insane reassurance that major blunders were part of a brilliant grand design. Worse yet might be a consideration that the dreary mise-en-scene is, in fact, perfectly reflective of the material and that Losey’s flat visual renderings are an openly sardonic approximation of a concessionary shoulder shrug.
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