Bad Women (A Retro View)

by Lisa Lieberman

Frigid women. Manipulative wives. Bad mothers. Dumb blondes. Liz in BUtterfield 8Alcoholism. Failing marriages. Furtive sex. Before Mad Men revived these retro conventions and somehow made them hip, they were just tawdry. The poster for BUtterfield 8 (1960) shows Liz Taylor in a slip, highball in one hand, a mink coat hanging off her shoulder. “The most desirable woman in town and the easiest to find. Just call BUtterfield 8.” (In the more risqué version, she's standing by a pink telephone wearing nothing but a sheet).

In real life, Liz had just wrecked Eddie Fisher's marriage. He plays her friend Steve in this picture, long-suffering an older-brotherly way, a real prince. He left Debbie Reynolds for Liz, but she's the one doing penance here. Liz's character, Gloria, is angry, manipulative, and a nymphomaniac: the dark side of 1950s womanhood, as perceived by 1950s men. Nobody would ever mistake her for a nice girl.

The married guy she's cheating with, Liggett, is married to a nice girl, Emily. She's long-suffering too. She knows her husband is lying to her, he drinks too much and beats her around, but she blames herself for tempting him with a job in Daddy's company when she should have let him stand on his own two feet. Actually, it's not all Emily's fault. Emily's mother played a part in emasculating Liggett. They blamed mothers for everything in the 1950s and, let me tell you, Gloria's mother's got a lot to answer for too.

Poor Gloria. Behind her back, the men who buy her drinks and expensive trinkets (less crass than paying money for her “services”) make jokes about how they ought to rent out Yankee Stadium, the only place big enough to hold all her ex-conquests. Poor Liz. She may have won the Oscar for her role, but it wasn't worth the humiliation.

It wasn't only Liz, though. “Prepare to be shocked,” promised the trailer to A Summer Place, “because this bold, outspoken drama is the kind of motion picture excitement demanded by audiences today.” Really? I can't imagine what audiences in 1959 found shocking about this picture. As an exposé of sexual hypocrisy, it's pretty tame. Yes, there's an extramarital affair, but the betrayed spouses are so unsympathetic you're cheering the adulterous couple on. There's a pair of teenaged lovers having sex too, but Molly (Sandra Dee) and Johnny (Troy Donahue) are driven into one another's arms by the screwed-up adults in their lives. Knowing the mess that both Dee and Donahue made of their own lives, it's tempting to read more into this picture. When Johnny's alcoholic father calls Molly “a succulent little wench,” we're obviously meant to feel, with Johnny, that this accusation is unjust, but he only disputes the “wench” part. Dee is indeed succulent, her surface innocence barely concealing her sexual readiness. Toward the end of her life, the actress revealed that she had been raped repeatedly by her step-father as a child. The way she was presented in A Summer Place, it's all there. Poor Sandra.

Forget the squadron of pointy-breasted blonde bimbos in Bond Blondes Goldfinger (1964). Sean Connery was having too much fun playing 007 for me to object to such an over-the-top satire. I have no problem with Marilyn Monroe either in Some Like it Hot (1959). No, it's the smutty stuff that bothers me: Anne Bancroft, all of thirty-five when she made The Graduate (1967), a beautiful woman playing a washed-up housewife. She's got no life, admits she's an alcoholic, is messing up her daughter while having meaningless sex with a boy barely out of his teens and busy manipulating every male within arm's reach. Take away the jaunty Simon and Garfunkel soundtrack and Mrs. Robinson is just sad.

Makes me long for witty Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday (1940) or Barbara Stanwyck in The Lady Eve (1941). Or one of those really bad B movie heroines, the type who takes a good man down with her without so much as a twinge of remorse. The character Jean Simmons plays in Angel Face (1952) “traps a man into marriage . . . and murder,” as the trailer puts it. You don't feel sorry for her, you feel sorry for Robert Mitchum, the chump she plays. The guy was out of his depth.

But that's the point of misogyny, in the movies and in the world at large. Sandra Dee was succulent, but not particularly smart. She didn't have to die at the end of A Summer Place. Liz, on the other hand, and Jean Simmons's character in Angel Face: all I can say is, enjoy your power while you can, ladies, for the end is nigh.

Lisa Lieberman's historical noir, All The Wrong Places, was published in March by Five Star, a part of Cengage Learning.