2011, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut, No. 53, summer 2011
American Medusa: Bette Davis, Beyond the Forest, femininity and Camp
by David Greven
King Vidor’s 1949 film Beyond the Forest is, for many, a film chiefly notable for having provided the inspiration for a famous moment in Edward Albee’s 1962 play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. Imitating Bette Davis’ singular line deliveries and quoting her in Vidor’s film, Martha says to George, “What a dump!” Albee’s play and the famous 1966 movie version made of it confirmed Beyond’s status in the public eye as, in Pauline Kael’s words, a “peerless piece of camp,” in which Vidor invents “his own brand of hog-wild Expressionism.”[open endnotes in new window]
A scandalous box-office and critical failure, Beyond the Forest was seen as a career low for Davis, who lost her long-standing contract at Warner Brothers after this film spectacularly bombed. Precisely what made this film unappetizing to the audiences of its release date is what makes it especially striking today: the Davis character’s “unwomanly” disregard for marriage and family, an extension of Davis’s ongoing experiment in the limits of female propriety. While other classical Hollywood stars, to be sure, undertook this cultural work, Barbara Stanwyck most notably, Davis was willing to risk audience alienation in pursuit of the assertion of female sexual agency.
In film after film, Davis risks revolting the audience with her histrionic displays of neurosis, greed, obsession, depravity, desire run amok, or, at times, a seeming indifference to desire itself. The 1942 Now, Voyager most affectingly foregrounds this last theme, seemingly a film about the fulfillment of its heroine’s desire that concludes with her radical relinquishment of it. It is precisely the unabashed claim for agency—which can include, as it does in Now, Voyager, the desire not to desire—and a recognition of the the power and pitfalls of this agency that drive a Davis film. As such, she is an extremely important cultural icon and cinematic sign for feminist and queer audiences.
Martin Shingler has argued that, while neither Joan Riviere’s theory of female masquerade nor Judith Butler’s theory of gender as drag can fully account for the kinds of negotiations of gender identity within Davis’s star femininity, both theories illuminate the strangeness of Davis’s screen gender. Shingler has importantly argued for the ironic pleasures of Davis’s stardom, as exemplified in Mr. Skeffington, in which the unconventionally attractive Davis plays a woman famed for her beauty; Davis’s gender ambiguity and ironic detachment from the roles she plays make her a singularly interesting performer to watch, especially for queer audiences. With her short hair and ambivalence over normative femininity, Davis’s Charlotte Vale in Now, Voyager at times seems to suggest a lesbian identity, as Patricia White has argued in her study of lesbian representation in classical Hollywood.
My analysis of Beyond the Forest attempts to explore the significance of the film to an understanding of Davis’s star persona. This film most revealingly figures Davis as a figure that I call the American Medusa. It is through the film’s evocation of the Medusa myth—through which its significant and highly charged representation of female rage emerges—that its queer themes of female transformation become apparent.
Ed Sikov, in an appreciative reading of the film and Davis’s performance in it, writes in his biography of the star,
“Beyond the Forest is exactly the kind of film that must be seen to be believed, and the belief it inspires is the essential truth of camp.”
Sikov brings up some important aspects of the film’s significance to Davis’s career—it was made as she had just turned forty-one, and at the time of its release, what seemed particularly vexing to reviewers was Davis’s onscreen appearance, specifically her ugliness. Sikov adds that part of the disturbance here is that Davis had “suddenly become downright ugly without losing any of her carnality.”
Sikov sums up his sympathetic reading of Davis in Beyond by noting that one
“pays her the greatest honor by laughing. In awe.”
Laughing at failed seriousness, as Susan Sontag famously noted in her essay on Camp, is one of this sensibility’s chief attributes. While I will be exploring the meanings of Camp and how they pertain to Vidor’s Beyond, I want to suggest at the outset that the classical Hollywood genre of the woman’s film, particularly the Bette Davis melodrama, rather too frequently gets described in such a manner, when the films are not dismissed as mere genre entries. To classify these films as Camp classics is simultaneously to enshrine them and to ignore them, as I will attempt to explain. I want, here, to reopen the question of Camp—and certainly not to take its “essential truth” as a given.
In this essay, I offer a reading of Vidor’s film and its often overlooked significance. Vidor’s Beyond the Forest is the supreme melodrama, in that it so passionately puts, in Robert Lang’s observation about melodramatic film, a woman’s “desire at the heart of the story.” The film constructs female sexuality as a direct affront to patriarchy, an intransigent protest, albeit one always already doomed to failure. Synthesizing film noir, the family melodrama, and the woman’s film, Beyond the Forest at once enlarges and deconstructs all three genres.
Chiefly, the goals of my reading are to vindicate the film’s aesthetic, feminist, and queer worth and to argue against easy, conventional dismissals of it, dismissals that, in my view, are the core logic within its designation as a Camp classic. In terms of the latter, I revisit the question of Camp, gay male fandom, and the female star. At the same time, I treat the film as a key work in the development of Bette Davis’s onscreen persona. Her persona, which remains a powerfully resonant one for both female and queer audiences, undergoes a remarkable series of transformations in Beyond. At the same time, her transformations here are representative of defining aspects of her star persona.
Her infinite variety
In her classical Hollywood heyday, Bette Davis made onscreen transformation her signature feat. In film after film, Davis transforms, usually on a physical level but often emotionally as well. Typically, this transformation is grueling on several levels, ranging from the woman’s social situation to her bodily nature to her psychic state. As I will be treating as a central issue here, transformation in the woman’s film genre, as Bette Davis roles evince, is a traumatic experience.
Her ferocious, slatternly Mildred in Of Human Bondage (John Cromwell, 1934) metamorphoses from tartly pretty to ruined and abject by the end of the film, a ruination that outwardly reflects the loss of her soul. In the bristling crime drama Marked Woman (Lloyd Bacon, 1937), Davis plays Mary, a “hostess” (read prostitute) in a mob-run nightclub. Sharp and lively, Mary believes that she can outmaneuver the mafia boss. He eventually kills her kid sister (Jane Bryan). Mary defies him (“I’ll get you even if I have to come back from the grave to do it!”), but his henchmen savagely brutalize her, cutting a cross into her cheek, rendering her forever “marked.” In Mr. Skeffington (1944, Vincent Sherman), an odd, underrated film finally getting the attention it deserves, Davis plays, deliriously against type, the beautiful Fanny Skeffington, who dangles droves of suitors with thoughtless aplomb while failing to love her devoted, honorable Jewish businessman husband (Claude Rains). By the end of the film, the glamorous, beautiful Fanny succumbs to diphtheria, which leaves her prematurely aged, her vaunted visage indelibly marred.
Frequently in Davis films, her character will have a moment of devastating self-regard, looking at herself in the mirror, contemplating either the evidence of age or her own unspeakable ugliness. These moments occur in The Old Maid (Edmund Goulding, 1939), The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (Michael Curtiz, 1939), The Little Foxes (William Wyler, 1941), Skeffington, and elsewhere. Tellingly, even when made-over into a glamorous, desirable version of herself, her Charlotte Vale in Now, Voyager (Irving Rapper, 1942), while seated at an outdoor restaurant in Brazil looks at her reflection with the same bewilderment and self-alienation. These moments signify much more than a character’s negative self-confrontation, however. Most intensely, these moments allow Bette Davis to contemplate what she has wrought—not only the ravages but also the autoerotic pleasures of transformation.
The love that gay male audiences have had for Bette Davis throughout the decades relates, I believe, to Davis’s penchant for onscreen transformation. Trapped in the celluloid chrysalis, Davis bursts its confines. Transformation into a different form allows her to change not only her appearance but the course of narrative, to revise a constrictive scenario into a potentially liberating one. More than any other performer, Davis in her film roles allegorizes gay male experience, especially in terms of the closet and of coming out.
Bette Davis is forever coming out, popping out of prisons of conformity and convention, revealing herself. Not just her bodily metamorphoses but also her mercurial emotional states signal shifts in narrative. Suddenly seized by emotional disturbances, Davis becomes enflamed, enraged, excessive, flaunting her talent for reaching embarrassing extremes. She transforms conventional scenes into spectacles of emotional volatility. With her willingness to go ugly—emotionally as well as physically—she challenges expectations audiences have of the female star. Indifferent to whether we like her or not, she behaves badly, selfishly, cruelly, as if she and she alone had a right to satisfaction, pleasure, fulfillment.
Yet, somehow, her baroque narcissism is paradoxically a plangent display of empathy and feeling that reaches out to the audience, involving us in her self-driven campaign against bumbling men and conformist narrative. Her fits of rage lacerate because they lacerate her. As her cautious, sorrowful Aunt Belle (Fay Bainter) says of her Julie Marsden in Jezebel (1938, William Wyler),
“I’ll love her most when she's meanest, because I know that's when she's lovin’ most.”
Given the constrictions of U.S. culture’s construction of femininity as nurturing, caring, tender, soft, vulnerable, generous, and so forth, Davis’s blazing bad temper and brutal tongue make her a distinctive and subversive screen presence.
Onscreen transformations happen frequently in the classical Hollywood genre of the woman’s film, as diverse titles spanning the three decades in which the woman’s film flourished evince:
Davis films take this trope to an altogether different level; they trope the trope. Transformation becomes not just a defining genre trademark but the crucible of identity in the Davis film. Her films posit that no character is fixed or stable but, instead, a series of personas, masks donned and discarded at will. Many have described the femme fatale of film noir in much the same manner; Davis’s characters turn melodrama into noir. As I will show, Beyond the Forest is the exemplary fusion of both genre modes.
In contrast, Katharine Hepburn’s characters do not change; they only become more and more Hepburn-like. In part, we can speculate that Hepburn’s screen stability (especially after the 1930s, a decade of much greater flux for the star in terms of the varieties of femininity she put on display) emerges from the essential “healthiness” of Hepburn’s screen persona, which stems from her associations with good sense as well as genetic pedigree, on the one hand, and perceived ability to be “one of the guys,” evinced by her frequent pairings with the unimpeachably masculine Spencer Tracy, on the other hand.
Comparing Davis’s star persona to that of Katharine Hepburn is revealing, and necessary, since these are, arguably, the two most significant women stars of the classical Hollywood period. Though they could not be more distinct from one another, both Hepburn and Davis have historically been accused of playing themselves. (One thinks of Dorothy Parker’s famous put-down, “Katharine Hepburn runs the emotional gamut from A to B.” It’s as if Hepburn’s lack of range, in Parker’s eyes, is indicative of her inability to create a persona distinct from herself.) If it is undeniably true that Davis is always irreducibly Davis onscreen, the source of her appeal must lie, on an important level, in her ability to remain resolutely and essentially herself no matter which persona she inhabits.
This essential sameness in her screen persona relates in key ways to gay male fandom, which is now inextricable from the Davis legend. I argue that an important aspect of the woman’s transformation, one of the woman’s film’s defining events, is its metaphorical value as a coming out allegory. I speculate that one of the reasons why gay men have been so drawn to the genre is that the woman’s travails and specifically her transformation allegorize both closeted gay male identity and coming out.
One of the mythic “truths” about the closeted gay man who can play straight is that he is always his secret, authentic gay self, inside. If the gay man who has played straight then decides to come out, he is only revealing that authentic, previously hidden identity. Correspondingly, the authentic Davis persona, even when hidden, eventually, triumphantly, and painfully emerges over the course of the narrative. Irving Rapper’s indelible Now, Voyager is the exemplary film in which Davis’s “true” self emerges, butterfly-like, from the chrysalis of repression and depression. As discussed in Mike Black’s fascinating documentary Queer Icon (2009), about the cult of Davis among gay men and, especially, drag queens and female impersonators, Now, Voyager is a sacred text for gay men, never mocked or subjected to Camp parody.
I would argue that Now, Voyager allegorizes the essential nature of Davis’s queer appeal: it lies in her access to the authenticity of an essential, true self despite her penchant for masquerade and metamorphosis. Whatever role she plays, Bette Davis always eventually comes out. Her star persona allegorizes the pain and deprivation of being in the closet and the possibilities and emotional liberation of leaving it behind. At the same time, Davis’s star career has become inextricably enmeshed with the history of gay male fandom, in ways that are both suggestive and disturbing, exciting and confusing.
Transformation and feminism
It is worth lingering on the disparities between Hepburn and Davis not only as stars but also in terms of audience reception. Despite the legion of female fans Davis had in her heyday as well as now (as the various Bette Davis fan pages in social networking sites attest, she continues to appeal to both women and gay men), Katharine Hepburn is considered the true feminist paragon of the classical Hollywood era. In contrast, Davis seems more problematic for feminist thought. Associated with melodramatic suffering and “trash” plots, Davis seems either too masochistic or too much the diva for feminism.
While in no way dispensing with Hepburn’s singular, angular appeal (especially vivid in George Stevens’ 1935 Alice Adams), I would argue that Hepburn ends up being a much more conventional embodiment of Hollywood constructions of femininity than Davis. Deft, droll, and witty though she is, Hepburn is tethered to her leading men—most often Spencer Tracy or Cary Grant. Despite her considerable gender ambiguity and lesbian appeal (especially in her much more interesting films of the thirties), Hepburn is most famous for being a witty sparring partner in battle-of-the-sexes heterosexual marriage plots.
If Dorothy Parker was unfair to Hepburn, it is nevertheless remarkable how unvaried most of Hepburn’s post-1930s roles are. With some superb exceptions such as Summertime (David Lean, 1955) and Suddenly, Last Summer (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1959), based on Tennessee Williams scandalous gay-themed play, Hepburn maintained a fixed position as the tough-minded woman who achieves heterosexual bliss by beating men at their own rhetorical games. With Davis, the situation is different. Her blazing emotional states often preclude heterosexual fulfillment; her messy, histrionic suffering scrambles normalizing programs.
As Andrew Britton argues in his superb essay “A New Servitude,” what he calls the “radicalism of the woman’s film” emerges from its refusal to force the heroine to capitulate to the normalizing effects of heterosexual marriage, a refusal that Britton sees at the heart of several important Davis films, including The Old Maid, Dark Victory (Edmund Goulding, 1939), and The Great Lie (Edmund Goulding, 1941) along with Now, Voyager. That several of these films were collaborations between Davis and the gay director Edmund Goulding cannot be overlooked. I would argue for the equal importance, however, of the films that Davis made with William Wyler, diminished in Britton’s treatment. Jezebel, The Letter (1940), and The Little Foxes all feature a Bette Davis equally resistant to the normalizing codes of heterosexuality or who is a figure of striking gender ambiguity.
In Jezebel, Davis’s passionate, willful Julie Marsden destroys her own prospects of marriage to the man she loves by simultaneously exceeding all the boundaries of feminine propriety—wearing a red dress to the Olympus Ball—and challenging her fiancé’s sense of his own masculinity. This last point is key, for within it lie the seeds of her “failure” as a woman. So challenged, Pres (Henry Fonda) forces Julie to endure the Olympus Ball and the opprobrium the dress generates, insisting that she dance with him despite her protestations and as various attendees disapprovingly shun them.
In the opening scenes of The Letter, Bette Davis strides out into the nighttime air as she pumps her lover full of bullets. The moon, her emblem, shines upon her cold, murderous face as she stares down at the body of the man she loves and has killed. In such moments, Davis exceeds the boundaries of gender, no longer woman but cold, phallic vengeance, Diana and Fury at once. As I will discuss in my reading of Beyond the Forest—a neglected masterpiece of Davis’s, as well as the director King Vidor’s, career—Davis’s ascension (or devolution) to Fury links her roles not only to the film noir femme fatale but also to the avenging woman of modern horror.
In The Little Foxes, another relatively overlooked film in the Davis canon and certainly one of the most interesting, Davis transforms herself into a cold, death’s head-mask, a corpse-like woman animated only by her seething contempt for her weak-willed husband (Herbert Marshall, adept at such roles) and her financial ambitions. This film, based on the Lillian Hellmann play, is an extraordinary counterbalance to Jezebel. A stinging critique of the Reconstruction-era South, it links Davis’s Regina Giddens, in her malice and indifference to others’ needs and feelings, to the region’s racism and corrupt politics. Exceeding all of these concerns, however, is the rage Regina feels towards her husband, which isn’t so readily classifiable.
When she allows him to die of a heart attack before her very eyes, Davis allows you to see the fear in Regina’s eyes along with the pragmatic hatred. Is this a fear that she will be caught? Or is it a fearful recognition of the avidity of her own desires, which are distinctly non-feminine? Her chief desires are not for love and companionship but for material gain; for capital, not marital intimacy. While most famous for Gregg Toland’s superb deep-focus cinematography, this sequence demands attention today as a classical Hollywood set-piece of heterosexual alienation: a stronger female refusal of marital ties cannot be imagined.
In these terms, I am in disagreement with André Bazin’s famous reading of the scene:
“One can see here how Wyler uses depth of field. … The director elected to have Toland envelop the character of the dying Marshall in a certain haziness, to have his cinematographer, as it were, befog the back of the frame. This was done to create additional anxiety in the viewer, so much anxiety that he would almost want to push the immobile Bette Davis aside to have a better look.”
While I concur with Bazin about the way Wyler’s “cinematic expression superimposes its own evolution” on the scene’s dramatic development, I argue that much of the scene’s hypnotic power derives from Davis’s performance—her willingness to let us see the full range and the full coldness of Regina’s desires. Far from wanting to shove Davis aside to get a better look at Marshall as he gropes his way to the staircase in the distance, more or less expiring once he reaches it, we are chiefly arrested by Davis’s immobile but wide-eyed face, those eyes that span cosmic mysteries.
If Davis was peerless at achieving such states of snake-like intensity, she was equally adept at emotional urgency. When her daughter (Jane Bryan), who knows her only as desiccated, tyrannical Aunt Charlotte (anticipating Now, Voyager), kisses her on the cheek before riding off with her new husband at the end of the period melodrama The Old Maid (based on an Edith Wharton novel), Davis registers surprise and a pure, quiet joy that is wrenching precisely because it is so simply, unshowily displayed. Known for her onscreen pyrotechnics, Davis can be, in such scenes, heartrendingly simple.
What’s also powerful about her as a screen heroine is her resilience, even in the face of impossible circumstances. When she discovers, in Jezebel, that her beloved former fiancé has married someone else, a bland, prim Northern woman, her instinct isn’t to mourn, much less to accept defeat, but immediately to “fight.” She plots to win him back, defying the constrictive laws of matrimony, pitting men against each other and wreaking more than enough social and gendered havoc to earn her right to her titular biblical name.
In that so many of Davis’s heroines either defy, thwart, or on some level resist marriage, the theme of transformation that informs so many of her films suggests a resistance to assimilation into the conventional marriage plot of the woman’s film. The very fluidity of her identity emerges as an attempt to stall or circumvent the achievement of heterosexual normalization. In her first really important role, she rejects marriage to her young, earnest boyfriend in Ex-Lady (Robert Florey, 1933), much to her angry father’s chagrin; when they do eventually marry, the couple is shown to be miserable. It is worth considering just how frequently Davis’s characters reject marriage and other markers of conventional heterosexuality.
Chafing against the strictures of 1852 New Orleans society, Julie Marsden wrecks her chances at heterosexual fulfillment just as ardently as she pursues them; Davis’s Elizabeth R fiercely remains forever the Virgin Queen; Aunt Charlotte remains the Old Maid; cold, murderous Leslie in The Letter rejects her husband (whose savings are lost as a result of his wife’s adulterous affair, the letter of the title part of a blackmail plot) in favor of devotion to her dead lover (“ I can’t, I can’t, I can’t anymore,” she shrieks at the climax to her husband, who remains bewilderingly devoted to his adulterous, murderous wife. “With all my heart, I still love the man I killed!”); in Beyond the Forest, she betrays her pious, loyal husband. In film after film, Bette Davis rejects stable heterosexuality for elusive pleasures with no clear sexual fulfillment, resolution, or identity.
Camp and its discontents
Beyond the Forest is a foundational text in the emergence of a Camp sensibility that would be indelibly associated with gay male subculture. Martha, the vicious and unhappy wife of Edward Albee’s play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (which premiered on Broadway in the October of 1962) saunters into her kitchen early on, broadly and emphatically quoting Bette Davis’s now infamous line from the Vidor film: “What a dump!” The citation of both the film and Davis’s performance in it, taken as emblematic of all of her screen performances, can be seen as indicative of an awareness of both as representative of Camp sensibility.
In Mike Nichols’ 1966 film version, the actress playing Martha, Elizabeth Taylor, delivers the line in a manner that presents Davis’s original line reading as an outburst of wild, drag-performance excess. Hands circling and hips sashaying wildly, Taylor offers a flamboyant Camp homage to Davis’s famous elocutionary and physical mannerisms: “WHAT…AHH…DUMP!” As the theater critic and playwright Robert Simonson notes,
“Albee was 33 or so when he wrote the play, and had no doubt been exposed to plenty of camp culture. Uta Hagen had already vamped up the line six years before Taylor had a chance.”
By the early 1960s, Davis was already enshrined as a Camp icon.
As Mike Black notes, the Camp appreciation of Davis dates back even earlier. It is present in 1952’s Diplomatic Courier, directed by Henry Hathaway. In this film, as Black observes, the female impersonator Arthur Blake,
"whom Davis herself credited with 'inventing' Bette Davis, was giving a hip-swaying, cigarette-brandishing version of her Margo Channing, just two years after Davis had created the character in 195's All About Eve. But, of course, there were those who would have said that Davis was in fact giving her own camp impression of Tallulah Bankhead in that film." 
While the Davis-Bankhead rivalry and its possibilities would make for a fascinating discrete discussion, let me note here, for our purposes, that clearly, even by the early 1950s, Camp, specifically associated with gay male and/or drag queen responses to the female star, was becoming a public, discursive practice. As Pamela Robertson notes in her discussion of the development of Joan Crawford’s Camp-icon status in the context of her star vehicle Johnny Guitar, a famously Freudian 1954 Western directed by Nicholas Ray, what helped to solidify Crawford’s nascent status as Camp icon was her rivalry with the younger actress Marilyn Monroe, coming into prominence at this time, and the release of pictures in which Crawford was shown to be transforming from a “hardworking, self-made star” into a “pathetic and lonely shrew whose career is her only fulfillment.”
While comprehensively historicizing the development of Camp discourse far exceeds the parameters of this essay, we can establish, along the lines of Robertson’s analysis, that for Davis her biggest failure, Beyond, and biggest success, All About Eve, directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz and an enormous critical success that was seen as Davis’s spectacular come-back, each contributed to her Camp status. Both films concern rivalry between an aging, powerful woman and a younger (in Beyond, this rivalry occurs between Davis’s Rosa Moline and her venomously contemptuous “Indian” maid, a relationship I discuss below), and both are about the loneliness and anger of this woman, though in quite distinct registers. If, as Robertson points out, the Camp icon is the female performer who has been “recoded,” so that “her persona becomes that of an excessive grotesque unsuited to the dominant ideology,” then Davis in Beyond has already begun her transition to Camp.
One of the major points I want to make is that Camp discourse homogenizes the works it enshrines, rendering them free of their particularities, idiosyncrasies, discordances. The first point to make in our analysis of Davis and Camp is that, in Beyond, the famous line that is so extravagantly parodied in both the stage and film versions of Albee’s Woolf has a markedly different character in the film. Davis delivers the line quietly, with an undercurrent of resignation. The line and her delivery of it are very considered, even methodical, as is, actually, much of Davis’s work here.
While both Vidor’s film and Davis’s performance in it are stylized and in some key ways anti-mimetic, there is also a very determined insistence on cinematic realism in the film. One of the major points I want to make is that Camp discourse homogenizes the works it enshrines, rendering them free of their particularities, idiosyncrasies, discordances. The first point to make in our analysis of Davis and Camp is that, in Beyond, the famous line that is so extravagantly parodied in both the stage and film versions of Albee’s Woolf has a markedly different character in the film. Davis delivers the line quietly, with an undercurrent of resignation. The line and her delivery of it are very considered, even methodical, as is, actually, much of Davis’s work here.
The moments in which her femme fatale-masks slip and a demonic, hysterical energy bursts through are the focus of the Camp appropriation of Davis’s performance here and elsewhere. While her wild moments are not insignificant, their relationship to the more measured aspects of the performance is lost, as is the depth and precision of Davis’s work generally within Camp. This disjunction between the reception of the film and what the film itself attempts to do is a wide, fascinating gulf. The film itself forces us to question the validity of such culturally freighted categories as “Camp classic.”
In Susan Sontag’s famous 1960s essay “Notes on Camp,” she influentially argued that “Jewish moral seriousness and homosexual aestheticism and irony” are our defining cultural sensibilities. Her essay remains a touchstone text, albeit one often critiqued and challenged in current critical investigations of Camp. For Sontag, Camp is always “failed seriousness,” and she is careful throughout this essay to distance herself from any kind of cultural legitimation or endorsement of Camp.
In his essay “Uses of Camp,” Andrew Ross provided a notable rebuttal to Sontag in which he makes a case for the value of camp. Ross specifically valorizes Camp as a resistant queer mode. There are some inherent frustrations in this valuation, however, chiefly that his surprisingly celebratory essay institutionalizes a view of gay/queer appropriation of Classical Hollywood and other related archives as consistently, irreducibly Camp gestures. Moreover, Camp becomes an exchange object, a queer exoticism readily appropriable by mainstream and heterosexual audiences.
Critiquing Ross’s essay, Moe Meyer discusses the discursive sleight of hand involved in the Pop/heterosexual appropriation of Camp discourse:
“Because the act of appropriation includes the erasure of the queer, dominant (read Pop) formations of camp translate this activity into a recognition that was once a homosexual discourse, but now refers, more correctly, to the redistribution of objects plundered from the ‘dead’ queer’s estate. … Situating the queer’s signifying practices in the historical past creates the impression that the objects of camp no longer have owners and are up for grabs. … Thus instead of the harmless reassignment of values to junk store items that Pop theorists have convinced themselves is ‘camp,’ the actual maneuver conceals a contemporaneous struggle over meanings and value production by competing discourses.”
While in agreement with Meyer’s views of the covert politics of these cultural maneuvers, I number these disturbing aspects of Camp discourse among those inherent within the function and form of Camp discourse itself. Camp was once a way for an oppressed minority to read against the grain of popular, heterosexist culture, employing an array of cultivated defenses—wit, sophistication, taste, irony, et al—as a form of counterattack. Inseparable from Camp discourse has always been the sense of marginalization—it is the self-consciously minoritizing stance of a minoritized group.
With all due consideration for the political urgency of Camp as well as for its considerable usefulness as a means of gay/queer negotiation of a heterosexist culture, a way of making humorous lemonade out of homophobia’s lemons, I also think it has emerged as a fairly limiting and often vexing social, cultural, intellectual, and personal position, when it is considered not just as a sensibility but more dramatically as a repertoire of affects and attitudes toward the past, and as such an attitude which has been so assimilated into cultural practice as to be, in some ways, effectively “de-gayed.”
Many who have written on Camp have rightly pointed out its essential duality—that it blends satire and, at times, mockery, with admiration and love. It would be a mistake, then to pursue simplistic concepts of Camp and to treat it as purely a mode of satire or parody. Watching, or rather, hearing the audio commentary on the 2006 DVD edition of Robert Aldrich’s film What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962)—the Camp classic par excellence—by the authors, film historians, and drag performers Charles Busch (the star of the 2003 Mark Rucker film Die Mommie Die!) and film historian John Epperson (a/k/a “Lypsinka”), one certainly gets a joyous and affirming sense of not only the fun but also the thoughtful, analytical discretion possible in Camp appreciation. Particularly salient to me are the commentators’ notes on the creativity and acting choices made by the performers, Bette Davis in particular, but also Joan Crawford, Maidie Norman (who plays the secluded sisters’ African American maid), and even the unsung Australian character actress Marjorie Bennett (who plays Victor Buono’s mother).
The problem, however, is that the Camp response, usually delivered in tribal and collective settings such as revivals of older films, tends to be anything but analytical, measured, thoughtful. Without putting too fine a point on it, there is a sense of older films generally, but especially those starring “diva-gorgon” icons like Davis and Crawford, as always already Camp.
I want to make it clear that I understand and appreciate the finer points of Camp, its dual modes of satire and admiration, as exemplified by Busch and Epperson in their commentary. Therefore, let me establish that what I oppose is uncritical Camp, a species of a general contemptuousness, which expresses itself in the form of derisive humor, toward the past that, as such, has a great deal to say about U.S. attitudes regarding not only its own cultural history but that of cultural history, generally.
I am well aware of how polemical this all sounds. While I want neither to be hyperbolic nor insensitive, I do feel that it is of some urgency to point out that at least one dimension of Camp—though only one—is its relation to the ways in which cultural artifacts, earlier modes of representation and performance style, previously held attitudes and associations, and earlier, no longer fashionable genres are routinely treated as ephemeral, obsolete, and generally valueless. Understanding the patterns and practices of the past takes time, discipline, and sustained engagement. In ways far too complex to do justice to here, the failure or the unwillingness to bring such tempered attitudes toward past forms of representation must, on some level, relate to the hetero-reproductive capitalist standards of our culture and their insistence on newness, progress, and futurity. This is, of course, a bizarre wrinkle in a cultural practice historically associated with homosexual subculture.
Any mention of these terms inevitably evokes Lee Edelman’s arguments in No Future, which can be roughly summarized as a call to queers to embrace the death-drive and to resist cultural directives that emphasize futurity. My effort here is not to pursue Edelman’s line of argument, but, rather, to open up a new space in which the past, especially in its queer valences, can be experienced in fresh and sympathetic terms. Along the lines of Pamela Robertson’s excellent deconstruction of the Camp response to Joan Crawford in the Nicholas Ray Western Johnny Guitar (1954), I want to acknowledge the Camp potentialities of Davis in Beyond the Forest but, much more comprehensively, treat both as significant to queer theory and feminism in ways that transcend or denature or at least problematize the Camp response, which at its worst robs works of their particularities and certainly of their political implications.
What I specifically wish to draw our attention to is the way in which Camp can distort not just the texts we study but the means whereby we study them—our reading itself. My goal in reading Beyond the Forest in non-Camp terms is to attempt to understand it in ways that exceed or are not contained, and constrained, by Camp response. My hope is that in doing so, I will also make sense of Camp’s value as well as its place in the history of gay male fandom. My discussion of Beyond the Forest will be oriented around the question of its value for queer as well as feminist audiences.
Beyond the Forest: a queer-feminist reading
A title opens the film with suitably allegorical portentousness:
“This is the story of evil. Evil is headstrong—is puffed up. For our soul's sake, it is salutary for us to view it in all its ugly nakedness once in a while. Thus may we know how those who deliver themselves over to it end up like the Scorpion, in a mad frenzy stinging themselves to eternal death.”
Notably, this title does not make specific reference to the heroine, Rosa Moline (though on first glance it would appear to).
The film then offers us shots of the setting, Loyalton, Wisconsin, a drab, dusty saw-mill town, that emphasize its alien-landscape barrenness. Immediately, the film suggests this mill town’s stifling atmosphere. We proceed, as if we have been indicted for our transgressive thoughts, to a courthouse, where a murder trial is being conducted. We see the audience, the jury, the judge. But we do not see the person on trial—until Bette Davis as Rosa leaps up and proclaims her innocence. As Rosa rises up, her figure, in a striking shot, bifurcates the frame. (The film was shot by the great Robert Burks, a Hitchcock stalwart.) Rosa’s strident declaration of her innocence—even though we know we can safely assume that she is “guilty”—has the power to snap narrative back from a seemingly objective, rational trajectory to a much more subjective one, Rosa’s experience of narrative.
Rosa’s husband is small-town Midwestern doctor Lewis Moline (Joseph Cotten). The film efficiently contrasts Lewis and Rosa right from the start. He cuts his leisure time with Rosa and their elderly friend Moose (Minor Watson) short in order to tend to a dying woman who has just given birth, engaging in an excruciating argument over money with the blood plasma-supplier, to whom the doctor is in debt because he neither demands nor accepts payment for his services. Only deepening his debt, Lewis pays for the plasma himself, administering it to the dying woman and saving her life.
In contrast, Rosa administers strong drink to Moose, getting him drunk so that she may escape his watchful guard and head over to the hunting lodge of Neil Latimer, a wealthy Chicago industrialist and millionaire. Rosa’s manipulation of Moose is doubly cruel, since he not only gets drunk but also becomes piercingly self-recriminating, weeping as he blames himself for walking out on his family. The self-sacrificing, kindly physician administers “warm blood” to restore the life of his patient; Rosa, a raven-haired femme fatale, feeds poison to a vulnerable old man. The good man denies his own happiness to help another; the femme fatale injures others to ensure her own satisfaction. The film plays with the tropes of the femme fatale, but ultimately produces, as I will show, a distinct figure whom I call the Fury.
Another great shot of the film—the medium close-up of Rosa lying in wait for Latimer, who discovers her, to his crudely titillated pleasure—deserves special scrutiny. Of all the ways in which Vidor may have chosen physically to present Rosa as an erotic visual subject, the manner he devises emphasizes the perversity of the male gaze and of erotic excitement.
In Billy Wilder’s 1944 Double Indemnity, Barbara Stanwyck’s Phyllis Dietrichson emerges from sunbathing in the first shot of her in the film. Clad in a white robe, Phyllis stands above the hapless insurance agent Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray). We are invited to partake in his visual appraisal of her from a low angle perspective, moving from top to bottom so that we see her body in full.
In contrast, Rosa is not conventionally presented a vertical spectacle of femininity, standing up to be hungrily appraised from top to bottom by the camera, Latimer, and us. As Vidor frames Rosa/Davis, she is supine, in a fixed, stationary position. From this position, she imparts the sensation that only her lips are moving even as her body remains tautly, tensely immobile.
The famous film critic James Agee often expressed his fearful disdain of “Bette Davisism.” No doubt Agee would have attributed the absolute absence of erotic and sexual frisson in this would-be erotically charged scene to the miscasting of Davis as a femme fatale. Yet this is, in my view, precisely the point. It is Vidor’s use of Davis in such a role and his visual and thematic conceptualization of her that make this shot and scene both so oddly powerful and resistant—the deconstruction of the femme fatale’s ostensibly overpowering and irresistible sexual allure.
While establishing and demonstrating Rosa’s sexual magnetism would appear to be the point of this scene—certainly Latimer’s reaction shots would appear to suggest so—the manner in which Davis is directed and filmed thwart these apparent intentions. Her physical position; the cold, cryptic, Sphinxlike expression on Davis’s face; and the harsh lighting all contribute to a tone that is almost Kubrickian in its coldness. Far from erotic, the tone suggests the nadir of eros. If Rosa is the object of the male gaze here, she is, pace Laura Mulvey, an object that defies the gendered power structures of the gaze. Far from submitting to Latimer’s look, she unflinchingly stares it down, hardly engulfed by but, rather, exceeding it.
As Rosa proceeds to play pool, she and Latimer discuss their ostensibly torrid passion. As Latimer—in dialog that no doubt provoked frowns in the Hays Office—asks her if she enjoyed their last tryst, Rosa responds, “I’m back, aren’t I.” I have self-consciously omitted the question mark to reproduce Davis’s delivery of Rosa’s response. Throughout, Davis’s performance is taut, fixed, the entire scene affectless and mechanical. When Latimer takes Rosa in his arms, the screen fading to black (the classical Hollywood signal that sex is imminent), it’s a cold climax.
Both Rosa Moline and Phyllis Dietrichson are man-traps, icy, venomous, de-eroticized femmes fatales who use their sexuality clinically. What distinguishes Rosa, however, is that, while Phyllis plays Walter expertly, seducing him into believing that she loves him in order to enlist his aid in the murder of her husband, but having no intention of maintaining a relationship with him afterward, in fact, plotting the entire time to allow Walter to take the sole blame for the husband’s murder, Rosa never lies to the object of her adulterous ardor, at least not in a Phyllis-like manner. Her honesty is, in my view, significant.
Stanwyck’s Phyllis is pure unadulterated bleached-blonde evil, treated as a conniving (and scintillating) succubus who eventually destroys the men on whom she feeds. But Rosa does not appear to want to destroy Latimer; she genuinely wants to escape her husband and become, instead. Latimer’s wife. She views Latimer as a means of escape from domesticity. And it is her desire to escape domesticity, figured in her husband’s devotion to the normative order, that is presented as her chief interest.
The embodiment of stop-at-nothing, evil-for-evil’s sake mendacity, Phyllis is driven by a homicidal impulse to destroy those in her way, a point emphasized in the climax of the film, in which, in the neurotic manner typical of the femme fatale, Phyllis can only feel love for Walter at the exact moment in which she has fatally shot him (he does not die immediately but staggers to the office of his boss, played by Edward G. Robinson, to offer his dying confession). Pragmatically and rationally, Rosa wants to escape her stifling environment and suffocating marriage and marry Latimer, whom she does not love but recognizes as a much better match for her. It is the complexity of Rosa’s character and motivations that makes her, in my view, a Fury rather than a femme fatale—a woman who on some level has a kind of moral force and cause, however baroquely and poisonously she wields this office.
The best-known female figure of classical Hollywood is, without question, the femme fatale of film noir, whose spidery stratagems and coldhearted ambitions animate many a darkened cinematic landscape. As I develop elsewhere, I argue that another female figure, analogous to but also distinct from the femme fatale, exists, one that I call the Fury. When the woman’s film cross-fertilizes with film noir (The Letter, Leave Her to Heaven, Deception, Possessed, Flamingo Road) or with the western (The Furies), an important figure emerges: the phallic, avenging woman, a Fury who enacts retributive justice, primarily only on males, usually figured as misogynistic, and sometimes as sexually nonnormative.
An exemplary instance of the Fury can be found in Possessed (Curtis Bernhardt, 1947), one of the high points of 1940s films and the exemplary fusion of the woman’s film and film noir. Joan Crawford stars as Louise Howell, a woman slowly going mad over her unrequited love for a man, David (Van Heflin), an architect who has an affair with her but doesn’t love or want to marry her. Learning that David and Carol, Louise’s stepdaughter, are to be married pushes Louise to the breaking point. In one of the most memorable moments of genre film, Louise kills David by shooting him, smiling as she pumps him full of bullets. In her most radical deployment, the Fury explodes the confines of the femme fatale, striking a blow against the rigid cultural and social constraints of gender identity.
In another great shot of the film, Rosa sweats on the porch in close-up as huge, grimy, phallic mills belch smoke in the distance. “If I don’t get out of this town, I’ll die,” she says, with infinite weariness. “If I don’t get out, I hope I die.” This line, dramatically accentuated by Max Steiner’s agonizing, brooding score, acutely summarizes the desperation of Rosa’s situation and her gargantuan desire for escape. It also raises, again, the same question that the mystified Bette Davis herself raised: why would anyone want to leave Joseph Cotten’s Doctor Moline? He is kind, self-denying, compassionate…patient. Herein lies the audacity of Beyond the Forest. Its villain is not Medusan Rosa, the farthest thing from a Virgin Mary figure, but, instead, the Joseph-like husband.
Rosa’s bad manners, lack of taste or tact, witchlike black mane, and the general ugliness of her demeanor and person all distract us from the film’s unjudgmental sympathy for and identification with her. To be sure, she is not a charmer. Yet her desire for escape is powerfully evoked and made intensely palpable. If we think about Rosa as a more sympathetic figure than she would immediately appear to be, the tirelessly accommodating Lewis, conversely, comes to seem less attractive.
Indeed, upon deeper analysis, Lewis’s attitudes can be read as less than entirely selfless and generous. His sympathies extend wholeheartedly to his patients, to the mass-hordes of suffering townspeople. His ostensibly kindhearted patience with hissing Rosa actually masks his opposition to her desires for escape or enjoyment. Indeed, his opposition can be read as perversely staunch. He makes no plans to take her to Chicago, the mythic metropolis of her dreamy desires. Instead, he throws the money she has extracted from his patients in her face, telling her that if she leaves he will never take her back. (She does; he does.)
The scene in which Lewis supplies the dying mother with plasma is highly ambiguous in light of the film’s complicity with Rosa. As he saves the woman’s life, he mellifluously informs her that she drinks in “warm, rich blood.” Perverse though it will surely appear to some to argue along these lines, the film presents Lewis as an inverted vampire, feeding his victim blood rather than feeding on their own—a succubus of self-denial. In this way, he perfectly, appositely inverts Rosa. With her ugly appearance and demeanor, Rosa is a bracing heroine who seems like a monstrous villainess; with his kindly manner and benevolent aims, Lewis is a tyrant who behaves like a saint. Though fully the reverse of selfishness-espousing Howard Roark (Gary Cooper) in Vidor’s previous film, an adaptation of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead (1949)—another difficult film worthy of reappraisal—Lewis is similarly intractable.
Emblematizing the case made for the Beauty of Selfishness by Rand’s novel, Howard Roark despises charity, working for others, and, indeed, all communal values; he insists that each man must work for himself alone, never doing anything for anyone else. Lewis alternatively feels that his own life and needs must be renounced in order to help others. But both men share an intense personal vision that requires total commitment, from themselves and those around them. Luckily, Howard finds Dominique Francon (Patricia Neal), who could hardly be more compatible with his ideals; unluckily, Lewis must contend with a wife who is his living antithesis.
Rosa’s eventual and abortive (in this film obsessed with abortion) escape to Chicago constitutes the most daring section of the film and a striking critique of patriarchal attitudes towards women in the postwar era. Her “shopping” trip—really the chance to meet up with Latimer—to Chicago made possible through the money from the Doctor’s impecunious patients, Rosa finally gets to go to the Pleasure Dome. Once there, she stays in a hotel room and makes increasingly desperate attempts to see Latimer, leaving endless messages at his office, harassing his secretaries, waiting by the phone for his call, going to his office, waiting for hours, only to be told that he left through his private exit.
Few passages in classical Hollywood evoke a deeper sense of modern urban anomie, isolation, and despair. There are evocative shades here of Vidor’s similarly themed great early work, The Crowd (1928). In her ungainly drab suit, Rosa jarringly contrasts against the high-gloss fashions of 40s films. Davis plays these scenes plainly and piercingly, never making a grab for our sympathies but, instead, presenting Rosa in her increasing isolation and disappointment with an extraordinary openness. (Completely overlooked when not parodied, this is one of Davis’s most thoughtfully modulated performances.)
When Latimer finally makes contact with Rosa, picking her up in his limo, she wears a more sexually provocative form-fitting black dress, which makes her look like a Goth chick avant la lettre. Her vampiric look conforms to archetypal images of the sexual succubus, the mythological female monster that drains men of their vitality, and therefore of its modern incarnation the femme fatale.
But the film also illuminates the class barriers that separate Rosa from the capitalist acquisition she fetishizes. Throughout the film, if Rosa has erotic urges, they are directed towards material possessions, signs and markers of wealth and pleasure. When Moose’s daughter (Ruth Roman) visits, improbably dressed in a fur coat, Rosa surreptitiously tries it on, and throbs from the voltage of pleasure wearing the fur gives her.
Rosa fetishizes objects, the acquisition of which Latimer can facilitate; naively, she fetishizes Capitalist kitsch. As Tomas Kulka writes,
“Capitalist kitsch, exemplified by advertising … uses class distinctions and status symbols to create artificial needs and illusions to foster the ideology of the consumer society.”
Rosa both desires transgressively—objects rather than men—and enables her own subjugation by her erotic relish for the markers of dominant culture and material acquisition. She pines for her own reification.
Informed in the limo by Latimer that he will be marrying a young woman (realizing his own social-climbing ambitions), Rosa, devastated and angry, insists that he let her out. She roams the streets, looking haggard and lost, telling herself in voiceover “I’m Rosa Moline!” as if to remind herself of her own identity, which the urban vortex threatens to consume. Then, “for refuge’s sake forlornly rushing into peril” (to lift from Melville’s Moby Dick), Rosa ducks into a dive bar, sitting down, probably hoping to order a drink to calm her nerves. The proprietor comes over to her and, all but calling her a whore, tells her that she cannot stay in the bar alone without an escort.
Denied refuge and respite, Rosa again walks the streets, soon accosted by a greasy man who wants to lure her into sexual perdition. Vidor films the section as a nightmare vision of urban alienation: Rosa is hopelessly dwarfed by powerful, immense, mysterious forces. No less than Loyalton, Chicago traps Rosa. Vidor’s vision is a powerful statement about female mobility and agency, or the lack thereof, in the postwar United States. Denied any independence, denied a drink, Rosa is trapped within a rigidly maintained and sweepingly coherent patriarchal order, spanning the rural and the urban. There is no place in this bleakly denatured world, lightless, dark, and oppressive, for this un-reverenced Fury who has clawed out from her earthly imprisonment. The film reflects the new desires of and opportunities for women during the WWII era, but more palpably, apprehensively, and pessimistically prognosticates the redomesticization of women in the 50s, while offering a vision of modern despair and aloneness.
Defeated, Rosa returns to Loyalton, to Lewis, with whom she conceives a baby, Lewis assuring her that being a mother will turn her into a real, fulfilled woman, healing her damaged psyche and repairing her insufficiently realized gendered identity. Davis, with amazing subtlety, conveys the sense that it is Rosa’s sense of her own defeat that makes her acquiesce to normative domesticity and reproductivity—with the faint hope that perhaps, in so conforming, she just might actually be happier. With prescience, Beyond the Forest anticipates the era of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, the moment when modern women began to question the desirability of inevitable marital and familial destinies. Anticipating Adrienne Rich, Beyond the Forest critiques a culture of compulsory heterosexuality.
The split second that Latimer, returning to Rosa, tells her that he now wants to marry her, after all, Rosa instantly leaps at the chance. Many viewers will find Rosa’s subsequent behavior revolting. In an infamous gesture, she successfully aborts her fetus by jumping off a cliff, and murders Moose, who threatens to divulge her secret plans to Lewis. But it is precisely the despicability of Rosa, her moral questionability, that reveals the movie’s radical view towards patriarchy.
The film vividly suggests that a woman’s lack of desire for children, home, and husband make her socially monstrous. Rosa is merely a more garish, heightened version of any female—and, for that matter, male—who transgresses against normative gendered and social codes. In that her violent stratagems and machinations are linked specifically with her frustrations with compulsory gender roles, Rosa is a deconstruction of the femme fatale, typically figured as an embodiment of an archetypal evil that simply thrives, black widow spider-like, on destroying the male, on the one hand, and a kind of essential and inscrutable female neurosis, on the other hand.
The figure of Jenny (played by the Mexican-American actress Dona Drake), the American Indian maid hired by Lewis, despised by Rosa, intensifies the film’s argument about misogyny while providing a grim new version of the Demeter and Persephone myth, in which symbolic mother and daughter remain locked in enmity. Jenny, scowling and haughty, matches Rosa taunt for taunt, talon for talon. Like Rosa, she sports a long black mane of hair and similar dark eye-liner. Matched and mirrored, Rosa and Jenny engage in gendered, class, and race warfare. The lack of empathy between them suggests that the erosion of bonds between women derives from a culturally enforced misogyny then internalized by women. But having this “Indian” woman resemble Rosa so closely also suggests that the oppression of women cuts across all social lines and connections; despite their lack of connection, they are similar in their lack of options, their entrapment, their shackled sexuality.
In her fascinating essay (though one wishes it were lengthier) “Afterthoughts on ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ inspired by King Vidor’s Duel in the Sun (1946),” Laura Mulvey famously argued, revising Freud, that the female spectator’s response to classical Hollywood cinema, organized around the male gaze, is transvestic. She identifies with this male gaze, which activates for her a nostalgic yearning for her own early stages of psychosexual development in which she had full access to phallic sexuality, before the onset of the Oedipus complex and its mythology of female castration. The biggest lacuna in Mulvey’s treatment of the film is that she ignores issues of race in an epic Western in which the “half-breed” heroine played by Jennifer Jones is caught between two brothers, one evil and carnal (played, against type, by Gregory Peck) and the other pious and upstanding (Joseph Cotton). A great deal needs to be said about Vidor’s 1946 woman’s film-Western, but for our purposes what I wish to establish is that Beyond the Forest extends this film’s interests in the race-related tensions of femininity in the melodrama, which, as both Duel and Beyond evince, was able to intersect with other genres, such as the Western and noir.
As Patricia White points out, the white actress comes to masquerade as the woman of color within the film’s diegetic world. As Rosa Moline, Davis bears an uncanny resemblance to her hostile Latina maid.” (Does her Indianness fall into a continuum of “Latina” stereotypes? More work on this issue must be done, I think.) White observes that this textual doubling culminates in the moment in which Rosa masquerades as Jenny in order to escape from Loyalton at the end of the film. White argues that Davis is either “unable or unwilling” to register this “expropriation” of a supporting female role subtly.
“That the masquerade involves an element of gender inversion ironically makes visible the irreducible difference between women—race, class, and power—that appears to give such doubling its frisson.”
I would argue that the narcissistic elements here—the doubling/mirroring—intensify the lesbian subtext in the women’s interactions. Moreover, the issue of race, rendered visible in Jenny but also in Rosa-as-Jenny, amplifies the political implications of Rosa’s rebellion. What the film suggests, in my view, is that the woman who defies patriarchy, even if she is “white” and heterosexual, threatens to align herself with a wide range of patriarchy’s enemies or undesirables—such as sexual deviants, non-whites, and the working and lower classes. Clearly, patriarchy is figured as the domain of the white father in such a reading. In defying the white father-husband, Rosa promiscuously aligns herself with queer and interracial desires as she threatens to cross class lines.
For these reasons, the last scene between Rosa and Jenny is especially interesting, and, in my view, moving. Confined to her bed, recovering from her improvised cliff-jumping abortion, and madly delusional, Rosa desperately attempts to get to Chicago, where she believes Latimer awaits her. Despite their diabolical history of enmity, Jenny appears genuinely concerned, for the first time, for Rosa’s well-being. Rosa, for her part, continues to hurl abusive comments at Jenny, even as she commands that her maid help her pack. Jenny’s compassion for Rosa in this scene, and the fact that she does help her to leave, poignantly evinces Jenny’s recognition of the legitimacy of Rosa’s desire for escape, a surprising feminine empathy in this tough, unyielding film.
Rosa’s lack of empathy for Jenny opens up a different feminist dimension of the film, which I will call Medusan discourse. In a variation on the theme of female-as-Fury, Rosa is Medusan in her synthesis of female sexual power and the terror of that power, culturally understood and registered. Freud famously interpreted the Medusa myth as representative of male fears over female sexuality. In Freud’s formulation, the head of the Medusa suggests the terror of accidentally viewing the primal scene. In the iconography of the Medusa, he saw the representation of the male child’s attendant revulsion—the writhing snakes being representations of pubic hair and also compensatory substitutions for the castrated penis.
Rosa and Jenny both wear the mark of Medusa: each has long, snaky hair (shades of the snake-woman Sin in Milton’s Paradise Lost as well); always arguing, they constantly hiss at each other. Rosa is clearly depicted as snakelike, in her elemental fusion of sinfulness and sexuality (even if this sexuality is as cold as ice). In the Ovidian version of the Medusa myth, Minerva takes out her rage against brute male power—Neptune’s rape of a woman in Minerva’s temple—upon the victim of that power, Medusa. Just as Minerva can exhibit no empathy towards Medusa, scapegoating her as the site of sexual contagion, Rosa incessantly berates Jenny, Jenny mocking her in turn.
Beyond the Forest’s innovative contribution to Medusan discourse is that it locates both Minerva and Medusa as victims along different lines of the same rigid, unyielding patriarchal system that constricts and categorizes both as Medusan monsters. Though Rosa fails in her operatic attempt to catch the train to Chicago (made all the more florid by Max Steiner’s riffs on “Chicago, Chicago”), there is something resistant and moving in her ruthless determination to escape, even if her attempt is a woefully unsuccessful one. Her corpse, discovered by Lewis near the tracks, lies there like some penitent offering to the gods.
I understand Beyond the Forest as not only a feminist but a queer film, and a very important one, in that it presents the harrowing personal costs of affronting our heterosexist, capitalist culture, which demands conformity, compulsory heterosexuality and reproductivity. Rosa Moline’s rage against normative domesticity and motherhood makes her a queer threat to the ordered, normative realm of Loyalton. By adamantly rejecting marriage and motherhood, Rosa comes close to symbolizing a queer subjectivity.
As Cynthia Morrill writes,
“the framework of dominant representation prohibits the presence of queer desire. Accordingly, queer desire can only become perceptible by recognizing its proscription [.]”
In a reading with relevance for the valences between the woman’s film and other genres (Rosa Moline evokes the troubled and troubling women of horror films as well as film noir), Morrill notes that the queer is “vampire-like,” casting no reflection in the Pop mirror.
Morrill writes that we should question
“the Platonic interests in the ‘parameters of Being—the borders of life and death,’ and more specifically, the divisions between the reproductive as sign of the natural and the ‘non-reproductive’ as sign of the unnatural, the uncanny, the undead. [In so doing we raze] the hierarchy of Western culture binarisms which work to align Being, the organic, living flesh, reproduction, and heterosexuality on the one side (the side that reflects) and non-Being, the inorganic, dead flesh, sterility, and homosexuality on the other (the uncanny side of nonreflectiveness).”
The film illuminates the ways in which the patriarchal, symbolic order relegates the messiness of female fury, female ties, longing, and despair to the chthonic recesses of “trash” culture. It also exposes the opprobrium engendered by gender nonconformity. In her vampiric monstrousness, refusal to accommodate regimes of normativity, indeed, her rapacious affront to them, Rosa refuses to conform to the social expectations of women. In its insistence upon the vitality and the legitimacy of non-Being, the film extrudes a queer sensibility, one that awaits a fresh queer as well as feminist appropriation.
Camp and its discontents
Having attempted to demonstrate why I believe Beyond the Forest is an important work, I want to return, in summation, to the question of Camp as a mode of response that is specifically interpreted as a historical and enduringly homosexual-gay-queer response.
Sontag has taken her lumps over the years for having diminished the gay specificities of camp. In her classic study of female impersonators, Mother Camp, Esther Newton reported that one of her interviewees railed against Sontag for having “almost edited homosexuals out of camp,” a reaction that Newton also felt was justified.
“He said Susan Sontag was wrong about camp’s being a cult, and the moment it becomes a public cult, you watch the queens stop it. Because if it becomes the squares, it doesn’t belong to them any more. And what will be ‘camp art,’ no queen will own. It’s like taking off the work clothes and putting on the home clothes.”
The “work clothes” are the straight culture that the queer person, specified here as the queen, must accommodate each day at work, the “home clothes” that queen’s authentic queer life. On some level, then, Camp must remain authentically homosexually oriented lest a fatal blur of work and home occur—if straight culture appropriates queerness, there is no queerness left to provide compensatory succor, a refuge, for the queer subject.
As Richard Dyer writes, Camp
“is profoundly denaturalizing. Far from expressing a sense of what is natural, it constantly draws attention to the artifices attendant on the construction of images of what is natural. Camp, drag, and macho self-consciously play the signs of gender, and it is in the play and exaggeration that an alternative sexuality is implied—a sexuality, that is, that recognizes itself as in a problematic relationship to the conventional conflation of sexuality and gender.”
Dyer makes one of the best cases I know of for the power and usefulness of Camp and other modes of ironic queer style. Newton’s interviewee poignantly establishes that Camp is a refuge from the culture of heterosexist conformity. These and other accounts of Camp signify its chief and most resonant value, its function as a mode of resistance. The problem with Camp, as I see it, is that it has lost this significance as it has become assimilated into the culture and then transformed into a general cultural attitude—one of uncritical derision, patronization, and also assumptions about the political and ideological character of the past (along the lines of, “That was such a sexist/homophobic/racist time, wasn’t it?”—the implication that our own cultural era has liberated itself from these evils). For Camp to do its most significant kind of work, it must be a critical intervention.
When Sikov, in his wonderful biography of Davis, talks about the “essential truth of camp,” of course, I know what he means. But Beyond the Forest isn't, in my view, about the essential truths of Camp, but, instead, an unflinching examination of the effects of gender, sexual, race, and class conformity on an intransigent, passionate, willful, intelligent, and deeply frustrated female character. To classify Vidor’s film as Camp classic is to ignore its much more vexed and vexing preoccupations, in short, its power as a work of resistant art.
2. At the same time, of course, Davis did not want to make this film, thinking it was wrong for her. In my view, the publicity surrounding Davis’s dissatisfactions with film, role, and her own performance have obscured the powerful resonance of all of these.
3. Martin Shingler, “Masquerade or Drag? Bette Davis and the Ambiguities of Gender,” Screen 36, no. 3 (1995).
4. Patricia White, Uninvited: Classical Hollywood Cinema and Lesbian Representability (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999).
5. Sikov, Dark Victory: The Life of Bette Davis (New York: Macmillan, 2008), 276.
6. Ibid, 276.
7. Ibid, 277.
8. Robert Lang, American Film Melodrama: Griffith, Vidor, Minnelli (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1989), 49. I am indebted to Robert Lang’s brilliant study. For Lang, melodramas
“make genre visible, even though it is commonly understood that melodrama is merely a genre. The paradox … is that melodrama is already the model, the archetype, for genre itself.”
9. As Slavoj Zizek writes of the femme fatale’s inevitable and defining moment of crisis, “when the femme fatale breaks down, loses her powers of manipulation, and becomes the victim of her own game.” She makes threats, weeps, but then claims complete ignorance of the malevolent activities at which she has been the center. Then, she “suddenly assumes again an attitude of cold distance and disdain, and so on. In short, she unfolds a whole fan of inconsistent hysterical masks.” This culminating moment of defeat for the femme fatale is, at the same time, “the moment of triumph for the hard-boiled detective.” What lies beyond hysteria for the femme fatale is “the death drive in its purest,” Zizek concludes in his customarily Lacanian fashion. See Zizek, Looking Awry: An Introduction to Jacques Lacan through Popular Culture (1992; Cambridge, Ma: MIT Press, 1998), 65.
For our purposes, the overlaps between the genre of the woman’s film and film noir should be considered. I would argue that what film noir does in such moments is to put a general narrative and characterological tension within the woman’s film’s into relief, condensing, in a way analogous to time-lapse photography, the woman protagonist of melodrama’s shifts in identity, emotional make-up, and her relationship to the principle male character (usually in supporting role to her). The difference between melodrama and noir that seems most relevant here is that in the melodrama the focus is on the woman’s experience of this breakdown in or transformation of identity.
10. That Hepburn became associated with both good U.S. stock, gumption, and practicality all stem, in turn, from her biographical mythos as a “Yankee,” her familial and cultural upbringing in New England. Fascinatingly, though originally from Lowell, Massachusetts, to which area she returned after her post-Hollywood heyday years, Davis’s onscreen persona exceeded or even obscured her associations with New England and the Northeast. Part of the strange disparity in their doubleness is that Davis and Hepburn seem each completely distinct from the other even though both emerged from similar geographical and cultural backgrounds.
11. I base this understanding on anecdotal evidence and personal observation. I have had numerous discussions with women in academia who find Davis’s persona a regressive and unfulfilling model for feminism—as opposed to conversations I have had with non-academic women who generally express very different views of Davis.
12. This essay has been collected in Britton on Film: The Complete Film Criticism of Andrew Britton, edited by Barry Keith Grant (Detroit, Michigan: Wayne State UP, 2008).
13. André Bazin, Bazin at Work: Major Essays and Reviews From the Forties and Fifties (1st ed.; New York: Routledge, 1997), 14.
14. Robert Simonson, personal correspondence.
15. Mike Black, personal correspondence.
16. Pamela Robertson, “Camping Under Western Stars: Joan Crawford in Johnny Guitar,” in her study Guilty Pleasures: Feminist Camp from Mae
West to Madonna (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1996), 85-115; quote from p. 98.
17. Susan Sontag’s famous 1964 essay “Notes on Camp” was her first essay for the Partisan Review. It is collected in her Against Interpretation: And Other Essays (New York: Delta, 1978).
18. Andrew Ross, “Uses of Camp,” No Respect: Intellectuals and Popular Culture (London: Routledge, 1989), 135-170.
19. Moe Meyer, “Introduction: Reclaiming the discourse of Camp,” The Politics and Poetics of Camp, ed. Moe Meyer (New York: Routledge, 1994), 14-15.
20. Edelman, No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive (Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2004).
21. The screenplay was written by Lenore J. Coffee based on a novel byStuart Engstrand.
22. Much the same effect is achieved by Beckett in his 1972 play Not I, in which only the mouth of the actress (“faintly lit from close-up and below, rest of face in shadow,” as Beckett’s stage directions determine), playing the sole character MOUTH, is visible as her monologue is delivered.
23. The Warners release caught the full wrath of the Legion of Decency. Weak reviews combined with unseemly content made exhibitors skittish, and the Legion's “C” offered them an excuse to cancel contracts. .... Executive director Father Patrick Masterson was miffed at Warners for producing this "sordid" story. .... While the Legion objected to the “unrelieved evil” of the plot, it reserved its wrath for the abortion. See Leonard J Leff and Jerold L. Simmons, The Dame in the Kimono: Hollywood, Censorship and the Production Code from the 1920s to the 1960s (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1990), 170.
24. At times, other women are the targets of the Fury’s wrath, a prime example being the scene in which Barbara Stanwyck’s ambiguous heroine in the tellingly titled The Furies (Anthony Mann, 1950, an important film only now getting the recognition it deserves), standing with her back to her mother’s mirror, hurls a pair of scissors at her father’s new fiancée and Stanwyck’s bitter rival (Judith Anderson, who played Mrs. Danvers in Rebecca).
25. I mean to suggest that the film is critiquing the kitsch nature of Rosa’s fantasies. For an excellent discussion of the distinctions between Camp and “self-aware kitsch,” see Chuck Kleinhans, “Taking Out the Trash: Camp and the Politics of Parody,” in the Moe Meyer-edited The Politics and Poetics of Camp, 182-201.
26. Tomas Kulka, Kitsch and Art (University Park, Pa.: Penn State UP, 1996), 28.
28. In her study On the Verge of Revolt, Brandon French discusses the chief difficulty of female attempts to rebel against the constrictive system of 1950s female-redomestication:
“What it never becomes is a perception beyond the personal, and so it is presented as a series of problems which are resolvable in personal, or interpersonal, terms… But the personal solution, divorced from the larger social, political, and economic dilemma, is doomed because it is impotent.”
See French, On the Verge of Revolt: Women in American Films of the Fifties (New York: Frederick Ungar, 1978), 153. I would offer that Rosa’s personal solution, however ineluctably tragic, is nevertheless a moving indication of her resistance.
29. Mulvey, “Afterthoughts on ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ inspired by King Vidor’s Duel in the Sun (1946),” Feminist Film Theory: A Reader, ed. Sue Thornham (New York: New York UP, 1999), 122-131.
30. White, Uninvited : Classical Hollywood Cinema and Lesbian Representability (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999), 169-70.
31. See Sigmund Freud, Writings on Art and Literature, ed. James Strachey (Stanford: Meridian, 1997), 264-5.
32. Beyond the Forest represents a key aspect in an extraordinary phase of Vidor’s career in which he reinvents the woman’s film as social commentary and cultural critique. I would add The Fountainhead to the group of such films as Duel in the Sun (1946), Beyond the Forest, and Ruby Gentry (1952), a quartet about the transgressive exploration of female sexuality within patriarchy. Though often overlooked, Dominique Francon (Patricia Neal) in The Fountainhead is an important and daring female character whose strength and tenacity are strikingly modern. The rapturously beautiful climax of the film, in which Dominque ascends to the heavens on a sci-fi-high skyscraper elevator, as Howard Roark looks down on her expectantly, would be more beautiful still if the odious Roark were not present. But Roark is presented in this climactic sequence as a kind of mythological/archetypal shining, denatured image of modern manhood, and Vidor’s focus is on the upwards flight of exhilarated Dominique, given rare female access to the vaunted heights of Western sky-cult, rationalism, ambition, Apollonian majesty. But the sci-fi quality of this climax—perhaps the only way to transcend Rand’s tormentingly awful script and ideas—is crucial to the depiction of Dominique’s triumphant ascension. Back on earth, a woman’s access to flight, her ability to transcend the limits of the social order, look much more like Rosa in the last moments of Beyond the Forest. Few U.S. films of any era have so unflinchingly depicted the costs for women in patriarchy of asserting their desires and claiming their own social agency.
33. Cynthia Morrill, “Revamping the Camp Sensibility: Queer Camp and dyke noir,” Politics and Poetics of Camp, 110-129; quoted portions from pages 113-115.
34. Newton, Mother Camp: Female Impersonators in America (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1972), 106n12.
35. Ibid, 106.
36. Dyer, The Matter of Images: Essays on Representation (New York: Routledge, 1993), 42.
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