Last night, I saw “The Help” for the first time. I could wax lyrical about the performances, the story, the many ways they got it right, but this is going to be a blog about the little niggling things that movies get wrong, at least for me. So here’s one little niggling thing in all that wonderful rightness in “The Help”: Skeeter’s hair. I don’t mean to brag about my longevity, but I was alive during that era and I remember hair. Skeeter’s hair was, I think, supposed to be a mass of undisciplined curls, designed to show that she wasn’t caught in the feminine mystique of that era. And they got her hair right, too, in the scenes where it was straightened and smooth and in the wonderful scene of her first date when she arrives after driving in an open truck in all that Mississippi humidity — her hair suddenly looking as if it was filled with static electricity, frizzing up beautifully. But the perfect cork screw curls trailing down her face, well, they’re just impossible. Not just for the styles of the era, but for curly hair in high humidity. Without tons of what hairdressers call “product,” there are no such things as perfect corkscrew curls, there is only frizz, wild curls that don’t drape lovingly down the side of a pretty face. The whole point was that she didn’t do all the stuff women did then to make their hair smooth and perfect (well, perfect for the time). And the other point is that the movie stylists got the costumes, the makeup, the way women looked so right otherwise, but Skeeter’s hairstyle would never have been a style and it was too pretty, symmetrical and cared for to be the non-style the character really required. It didn’t spoil my enjoyment of a truly good movie, but it’s one of the things I remember about it.
And that got me to thinking about other movies where one niggling little thing (or a few) ends up being more memorable than all the things the cast and crew got right. I don’t mean to make of this an “ah ha, I’ve got you” kind of thing. Movie websites are filled with those, after all. And I don’t mean to denigrate the work and care and artistry that go into making a movie. I have worked on them myself, mostly in film school, and the quality achieved is often amazing, considering the constraints of time and money everybody works with. And it is impossible to get everything right, anyway. Even Steven Spielberg is human (although his level of artistic creation sometimes make me wonder about that). I also am not talking about deliberate stuff, where one of the artistic points happening may be pastiche, or parody or a stylized version of some kind of reality. But some of these niggling little things do make me wonder.
For example, in “Titanic,” James Cameron‘s vision is not only remarkable, it’s quite specific. And in one of his movies, apparently, truly it is his vision we’re experiencing when we watch and listen. He did his research. And yet, Rose wears makeup (and it’s made clear it is not simply the actress wearing it, but the character when, during a scene, her tears have made the mascara run), a VERY red and black evening gown, and is apparently living with her fiance. I’m not suggesting those things didn’t happen, even during that era, but NOT with a supposedly virtuous unmarried girl of good family. This is pre-WWI, after all, and not only was the whole function of virtuous girls of good family to get married, they achieved that ambition usually using the weapons of ignorance and innocence (imposed by that good family), even if they faked it. (Old Hollywood joke, attributed to Sam Goldwyn and which I am going to mangle: “Sincerity is the most important thing and once you learn to fake it, you’ve got it made.”) Trust me, no Philadelphia debutante would have appeared, PRIOR to her wedding day, wearing visible makeup and a red and black evening gown. And, even with her mother’s chaperonage, who would NOT have taken passage on even the richest ship in the same cabin/suite as her fiance. Another bit I didn’t get. At one point, Rose’s mother talks to her friends at tea and says, “The whole purpose of going to college is to find a fiance. Rose has already done that.” Rather than being pre-WWI, that attitude is post-WWII. Prior to the fifties, most women did not go to college, and if they did, it was in defiance of the current mores and to get an education. Rose would have gone to a boarding school, perhaps, or a “country day school,” and then possibly a finishing school, but if her mother’s only goal for her daughter was marriage, certainly she would not have taken the chance of having Rose be thought of as a bluestocking by going to college.
Whew! I’m glad I got that out. I love the movie “Titanic,” but those bits of it always bothered me. Because Cameron’s (and his crew’s) research was so otherwise impeccable, those must have been artistic choices, and I simply do not know why they were made as they were.
One minor item: In the movie “Pride and Prejudice” (not the BBC miniseries starring Colin Firth which simply makes me drool and which was very well researched and designed indeed), Elizabeth’s father is played by Donald Sutherland. He did a fine job of the part. But for some reason, to me, his teeth looked like chiclets, big white chiclets, far too large for his mouth, and completely unlikely given the period and the dental care available. I’m not suggesting that everybody in a period movie should go around with brown teeth (in fact, that is truly off-putting, because we watching the film would find that so disgusting), but Mr. Sutherland’s teeth outraged credibility.
So did Clive Owen‘s teeth in the otherwise good film (I loved it) “King Arthur”. Not as badly, because Mr. Owen was portraying a great knight and future king and a member of the Roman Empire, which while it did not have modern dentistry, did have some dentistry. But perfect, utterly perfect white teeth seem actually a bit wrong for even films set in the modern era. I don’t know if the gentleman has caps, which have a tendency to appear to be too big for any mouth they’re in, or if he simply has really terrific teeth, but they bothered me in that film. Especially since the other actors (while they had cared-for, attractive teeth) seemed to have, well, fewer of them than Mr. Owen.
And, finally, another artistic choice I didn’t understand, and in one of the most superb films I think ever made: “Schindler’s List.” Mr. Spielberg had a running motif of a little girl in a red coat walking through the frame in an otherwise purely black and white picture. For some reason I’d love to hear him explain, he chose to photograph those scenes in color film and de-colorize all but the little girl’s red coat. But color film de-colorized looks blue, not the rich silvers and grays of the black-and-white stock he used for the rest of the film. It jarred me. And technically, it wasn’t necessary, because the little girl’s coat could be, or so I was told at film school, colorized on the black-and-white internegative. In my view, that would have been the better choice. But of course I’m not Steven Spielberg by several hundred decimal points, and I’m absolutely sure he had an extremely cogent reason for his choice. I just wish I knew what it was.
And for today, that’s enough about niggling little things, especially teeth, which seemed to figure as prominently in this essay as they did (to me) in the actors’ mouths. I think, since TV tonight is abysmal, I’ll pick out the BBC version of “Pride and Prejudice” and spend the evening with Mr. Darcy as exquisitely and perfectly played, without one niggling little thing, by Colin Firth. Yum!