Ever been haunted by a movie? So touched that seeing it again evokes anticipation and apprehension?
This is my movie ghost. It occupies a special corner of mind and heart, a swirling mix of tenderness, complex personal relativity, poignancy and truth, all embedded in the Natalie Wood, Robert Redford characters. In my mind they're forever young and beautiful, as they are here, except reality intrudes, tells me tragedy took one too soon, though the other is still productively with us. It's the dual magic of movies - eternal fictional characters / ethereally beautiful humans. Both actors have been in other great films, yet for me this is the best of both. It weaves emotion, behavior and society into powerful tapestry. It portrays truths still barely acknowledged these forty-seven years later.
Based on a 1946 one-act Tennessee Williams play, the script was co-written by someone we'd come to know well in future years, Francis Ford Coppola, together with Fred Coe and Edith Sommer. Director Sydney Pollack's unique and complementary ability put it on the big screen.
Will watching it again be akin to returning to a childhood home where we find everything smaller and out of sync with memory? A disappointment? Or perhaps informed, even enriched by the prism of time and experience?
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It's now "after," and it's a mixed bag - some new and changed perceptions, along with renewed reverence for Tennessee Williams, why I love who he was and what he wrote.
Spoiler warning: The ending is included, something I wouldn't ordinarily do. Two reasons: it's essential to story and theme, and the movie is probably not on most folks' viewing wish list. It's a forgotten gem
The April 2013 print issue of Esquire magazine has Robert Redford on the cover, authentically depicting his 76-year-old face as only digital technology can. A quote from the piece:
[ ... Seventy-six years old, sun-baked and wind-whipped and ungorgeous at last, he's a handsome sumbitch ...]
I disagree; he's still gorgeous, just showing his age, an unforgivable trait in today's youth-obsessed culture. Esquire's feature-length piece by Scott Raab chronicles Redford's life and career, even showcases sixteen movie scenes from 1962 through 2013. This Property Is Condemned is never mentioned, though Redford's almost fifty-year friendship with director Sydney Pollack is.
A June 2011 GQ article does list this movie among 10 underrated [Redford] classics you need to see
A slim dark-haired girl wearing a long, tattered, sophisticated dress, gaudy jewellery and faux hair flower, teeters along a train rail. She sings Wish Me A Rainbow while holding a doll. Her age is uncertain, maybe early teens. A boy approaches, asks if she's seen his kite. "No," but she asks him to hold Crazy Doll so she can use both arms for balance. He does, but within moments she loses her balance, falls against him, and together they tumble down a steep hill.
Her immediate concern is for the 'diamond' she's lost from one of her many bracelets, not her skinned leg.
She: "Principal damage done to my bracelet I guess, knocked out one of the diamonds."
He: "Well, it wasn't a genuine diamond."
She: "How do you know?"
He: "Cause if it was, you wouldn't be out walking railroad tracks, not with a banged-up doll and a piece of a rotten banana."
Her name is Willie (because a boy was expected) and his is Tom. She's not in school because she doesn't like it - school's not necessary - to be important and succeed in life she must be like Alva. She remembers and reminisces about Alva; then, pointing to a ramshackle, boarded-up building in the distance bearing a sign reading This Property Is Condemned she begins her story.
Willie: Alva was beautiful, charming, magical. She changed things so they were special; she attracted people and knew what's important in life. I'm practicing to be just like her.
Alva (Natalie Wood) was her older sister, beautiful, flirtatious, possibly promiscuous, though that's unclear, the elder daughter of Mama Hazel who ran the now-derelict boarding house. Filled with workers from the town's main employer, a railroad repair depot during the '30s, it was awash in male testosterone and social activity. Alva was the main attraction, ensuring male income and interest, even romance that occasionally accrued to Mama. All Mama's attention was focused on Alva - tutoring, exploiting, pimping Alva's femininity.
Willie: Mama wanted Alva to be nicer to a much older man who really liked Alva and was paying Mama extra to get Alva to spend time with him. He paid for a big 43rd birthday party for Mama, too. But it was too much for Alva; she wiggled out of any dates and got away from him every time. Mama's boyfriend, J.J., liked Alva, too. A little too much.
Ahead of his time, Williams was unafraid to depict what we now know is prevalent, inappropriate peripheral sexual interest and interaction within familial / romantic relationships. Figures in a 2012 More Canada magazine article state:
More than 12% of girls report unwanted sexual acts before their 17th birthday, and the vast majority of victims still, despite public education, do not report their abuse. Furthermore, among substantiated cases, apparently biological fathers are perpetrators in 9% of cases, stepfathers in another 13%.
Willie: A good-looking, well dressed man arrived in town and rented a room from us. He wouldn't say why he was here or how long he'd be staying. He was different from the locals and seemed to like me. He talked to me a bit, but seemed to dislike Alva. She liked him though, as soon as she saw him.
Fictionally acknowledging Dorothy Nolte's Children Learn What They Live, Alva turns her charm and Mama-nurtured guile on this new man in town. Owen Legate (Robert Redford) takes pleasure in rebuffing and subtly ridiculing her attempts to impress him. He observes the interaction between Alva, boarders and Mama, and rebukes Alva:
In spiteful response to a particularly painful interaction with Owen, Alva invites boarding house groupies to a communal moonlight swim where Mama's boyfriend makes a second, more determined, again-rebuffed pass at Alva.Alva: "Just because some people might think I'm beautiful, that doesn't mean I'm everybody's property."
Owen: "If you really thought you were beautiful, you wouldn't be anybody's property. You'd be your own girl."
Willie: Dodson was a railroad town. Our boarders had jobs at the train repair depot. The town grew around it, and we all depended on it. Wasn't long before we learned Owen was a hated "spotter" - someone sent by the railroad to lay off workers. By this time Alva and Owen were friends, though she downplayed it to me. Once Owen told workers their jobs were over, people didn't like her being with him, and they hated him - beat him up badly once. The layoffs meant big trouble for Mama. Without jobs there'd be no money and the boarders would move on. Mama decided Alva should reconsider that older man she'd already refused to date, that he could provide a secure future for us. You see, Daddy left long ago. We were on our own.
In a signature scene, the one indelibly etched on my mind, beautiful Alva, wearing an exquisitely feminine, revealing white dress, meets Owen at the depot and walks with him toward an adjacent rail yard. Intense, hate-filled stares follow them. Owen questions why she came, noting the men don't like it. She tells him she simply wanted to see and show him something. At that moment Owen spots an abandoned passenger car with Miss Alva on its side. Taking Owen's hand, she happily pulls him toward it. They've become close, yet Owen is wary.
Inside the long-abandoned relic, Alva tries to envelop Owen in her imaginary world, a world of lilac-talcum-powdered train seats instead of dust, a sky of her preferred color, real snow in a snow globe, and an idealized concept of his job and travel. She holds out a necklace she never removes, a gift from her father who made many promises and kept only one - writing Miss Alva on the exterior of the car and decorating the interior before leaving her a gift card that read Hail my heart's delight, and farewell.
Alva asks Owen if he feels bad about laying off the men. "No," he says grimly, he can't, he does it in every city he goes into, it's his job. Alva senses he does and tells him so, then quickly reverts to fantasy, tells him he must smile on The Honeydew Express or the wheels won't turn.
With rising frustration, Owen thrusts reality at her, attempts to pierce her illusions - her "poetic nature," Alva calls it.
Owen: "Why do you do that? Why are you so fanciful? Why do you make everything seem so special?"
Alva: "Because it is."
Alva: "What's your dream?"
Owen: "I have no dream."
Alva: "How terrible for you!"
Owen is leaving for New Orleans next morning and wants Alva to acknowledge it. Though she knows it's reality, she resists. Her dream has always been to go to New Orleans on The Hummingbird Express, her name for the train that passes through. Owen's departure signifies both dream and love unrealized.
The scene crystallizes Williams' ability to reveal the lengths we humans go to survive confining, ugly lives, to make life tolerable, perhaps even beautiful, delusions that keep us sane and ward off the lonliness of being different.
It also depicts an aspect of arrogant cruelty and control, Owen's insistence that Alva adapt and adopt his matter-of-fact response to life and reality. (Didn't see this as clearly years ago.)
Alva had two competing spirits - one that conformed and played out her expected/dictated role, a second that escaped into soul-comforting fantasy where the world existed more gently, beautifully. But she knew and didn't disappear into the difference, unlike Blanche DuBois (A Streetcar Named Desire) and Laura Wingfield (The Glass Menagerie).
Mama finds Alva in Owen's bed next morning, sneers that Alva "didn't even lock the door," and dictates a newly-hatched plan. They are going to Memphis where the persistent old and married gentleman-suitor will advance a loan to "set them up." Implicit is Alva's attention and companionship. Seeing Alva's shock and disgust, Mama responds scathingly, "If there's one thing I loathe, it's that innocent virgin look you put on your face!" Encountering intransigent defiance, Mama first uses guilt - appeals on behalf of Willie, desperate finances, her maternal role - then, ultimately, emotionally-weighted character assassination, accusing Alma of being selfish, "just as your father predicted."
Meanwhile, Owen buys a one-way ticket to New Orleans, and while writing "For Alva
To be used ... whenever"
on an envelope in the boarding house hallway, he overhears Mama on the phone giving details about their move to Memphis, emphasizing "Alva's just wild to go." She hangs up and looks smugly, knowingly at Owen. He bolts upstairs and confronts Alva in the shower.
Alva: "Owen, don't say what can't be fixed."
Owen: "You wonder about other things, other ways to live? You wonder and you dream but you go on doing what you do. That railroad carriage is enough for you. That snowstorm, fake. But it's enough for you because you're a fake, Alva. You're a gyp. You're not unique. You're not even special. You're just ...peculiar. What in hell did I think was so magical or fanciful about a little whore who is just a little bit peculiar?"
Alva begs him not to believe Mama, but he has and does. Unlike Alva who found ways to cope with her societal prison, Owen has completely surrendered to his. He and Mama have trapped Alva between two sides of the same moral coin.
We next see Alva at a club with the prospective old sugar daddy, Mama, and boyfriend, J.J. Alva is drunk, hurt and bitter. She thrusts ugly truth in Mama's face - that she's been the male attraction that benefited Mama financially and romantically, that even Mama's boyfriend lusts after her, stays with Mama just to be near her.
Mama responds with the jealousy and resentment she's always borne Alva, her beauty and youth. Alva uses her currency, the one Mama created and nurtured, and offers J.J. intimacy in exchange for marriage. He readily accepts. Emerging from their first-night marriage bed, Alva takes J.J.'s money and leaves in darkness for New Orleans.
Alva wanders New Orleans, exploring, noticing, learning, absorbing -- gloriously free for the first time ever. She finds herself, and heals her soul and spirit. Owen finds her in a beautiful park one day.
Owen: "I missed you, Alva. Didn't know I would. And New Orleans is not a place where a person needs to feel the pain of separation for long."
They reunite and are blissfully happy with the kind of tender, considerate, passionate relationship every romantic imagines. Together she and Owen explore the city, even the above-ground cemeteries that long intrigued her.
Alva worries about Willie and her whereabouts. Owen encourages Alva's search, offering to take Willie with them to Chicago.
Suddenly, unexpectedly, Mama arrives. She's waiting as they arrive home together, scolds Alva for leaving the door unlocked. She learned their address from Alva's cards to Willie. She wants and expects Alva to leave with her, says the old sugar daddy is no longer in the picture, but she has other schemes and plans. Owen wastes no time in telling her Alva stays with him; she's to get out.
Facing defeat, Mama responds, "Heard you're getting married." Then, with cold, calculating, merciless cruelty, Mama chooses scorched earth.
"Didn't she tell you? That little girl's all wrapped up."
"She and J.J. got married and the next morning, she went through his
pockets and rolled him."
"Tell him, Alva."
With hand to mouth, face contorted in horror and pain, Alva cries, "Oh, my God!"
Owen is dumbstruck, shocked, then with a look of disgust, says only, "What?!!"
Alva runs hysterically into teeming rain, having known, feared, and now experienced Owen's reaction.
Willie: Mama ran off with a man named Sam and they're somewhere in Arkansas, I think. Papa never did come back. You know where Alva is now? The bone orchard ... cemetery ... graveyard. Her lungs got affected. She died of the same thing as a heroine in a movie here recently. It was beautiful, violins playing, old lovers come back. I'm gonna live a long time like Alva, then die with all my jewellery, and someone else will inherit all my beaux.
A fan named BadZKarma99 has compiled actual film clips into a perfect micro narrative at
Wish me a rainbow
Wish me a star
All this you can give me
Wherever you are
And dreams for my pillow
And stars for my eyes
And a masquerade ball where our love wins first prize
Wish me red roses and yellow balloons
And black sequins whirling to gay dancing tunes
I want all these treasures, most you can give
So wish me a rainbow as long as I live
My words can't possibly reconstruct or reflect the elements of poignancy, beauty, tension, youth, parental tyranny, dictatorial, unforgiving morality, love, loss and sorrow contained in the film. There's darkness, and as I read the account above, I wonder that anyone would choose to watch it. However, its genius is that all themes are submerged beneath an engaging story. They require reflection. On the surface it's compelling drama with exquisite cinematography and music.
Ultimately, it's a complex morality tale. It depicts survival of the fittest, though it was never a fair fight. It offers insight into the power of family dynamics, their enduring influence on all members, and the power of cultural morality to control and destroy lives. It illustrates the power of the human spirit to adapt and cope, as well as the reality that love, even maternal love, can be twisted, manipulative, jealous and destructive. It depicts predatory lust that abuses proximity and trust.
Above all, it portrays truth - ugly, hidden, painful, and too-briefly, beautiful. Like the boarding house itself, the characters were ultimately condemned property, compromised by life and circumstance. Like the sign on the boarding house, the movie alerts and warns.
For some who personally relate, Williams says, "I see, I understand, and I will tell."
Dysfunctional motherhood and familial sexual misconduct were taboo in polite society forty-seven years ago, secret in all but professional and religious circles, and probably unimagined in the 1930s when the story is set. Motherhood was sanctified, still is unless crime or adultery are involved. And still largely unacknowledged is a jealous resentment often borne by mothers toward daughters, a competition of sorts that simmers, bubbles up and is expressed/repressed in a vicious, recurring cycle. Some mothers deny it exists, and perhaps for some it doesn't, others don't. It's emerged occasionally in popular literature the past decade, and it's one of the last taboos.
Williams served society best, in my opinion, and was again far ahead of his time, in not only depicting J.J's. lust for Alva, but his attempts to act on it, to embrace, paw and accost her in secret. Though the movie was released in the sixties, heyday of free love and hippies, conventional society was still just that -- rigid, hidebound, disbelieving of much that was surreptitiously happening to young women like Alva.
A family friend suddenly appeared in my own dark teenage bedroom during those years, yet my mother didn't believe me twelve years ago (40 years later) when she demanded to know why I refused to talk with him when he called about a death in our family. I was careful to never again get behind my first boss's desk after he ran his hand down my leg as I stood beside him, waiting for him to sign letters. We young women were too often considered property, sometimes even by our parents. We weren't believed, even when we (rarely) dared tell. "Mr. X wouldn't do that!" Or, as is still shamefully the case today, "You must have led him on." "What were you wearing?" We still haven't come as far as we'd like to believe.
Thank you, Tennessee Williams. You knew, and you told.
Life has wonderful pictures and a great piece titled Tennessee Williams: Portraits of an American Genius @ http://life.time.com/culture/tennessee-williams-portraits-of-an-american-genius/#3