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Now and Then: In TCM Battle of the Blondes, Who Comes Out on Top?

Reviews
by Matt Brennan
November 28, 2011 12:54 PM
1 Comment
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Grace Kelly (with James Stewart) in "Rear Window"

It’s been said that gentlemen prefer blondes (but only marry brunettes), a theory that the programmers over at Turner Classic Movies put to the test this week with the last entries in a November-long lineup of bombshells and ice queens they’re been calling “The Battle of the Blondes.” My first reaction was, “Score!” I duly noted the scheduling of some personal favorites and unknown treats. I paused, though, when a friend and I got to talking about whether or not Hitchcock, whose pictures are featured prominently in the series, was a misogynistic director. Was my enthusiasm reinforcing attitudes I’d never countenance outside a movie theatre? Does calling “Rear Window” my favorite film latch me to the same kind of sexism evidenced by the recent kerfuffle over THR’s miserable excuse for a director’s roundtable?


Focusing on the actresses featured this week (Julie Christie and Grace Kelly), I watched a few of the titles again, worried that I might find a stinking heap of chauvinism and wrongthink. In some places I did. But what was surprising was how fresh and strong the women seemed — even the sweeping, epic “Doctor Zhivago” (David Lean, 1965), which is about as old-fashioned and portentous as they come, gives Christie something to chew on. At the very least, she’s no wallflower, which is pmore than can be said of the female leads in many of today’s romances.

Style, though, is political. The hidebound tradition of “Zhivago,” which juxtaposes a sexy, aggressive Christie against a doting, dutiful Geraldine Chaplin, is a relic of another age, which is as evident in the film’s massive scope, bloated running time and utter self-seriousness as it is in its conceptions of gender. (The same, sad to say, goes for “To Catch a Thief,” Hitchcock, Kelly and Cary Grant’s 1955 romp on the Riviera — as a caper it’s good fun, but it feels distinctly less modern than, say, “The 39 Steps,” which Hitch made two decades prior.)

Julie Christie (with Tom Courtenay), in "Billy Liar"

Films with more radical stylistic feats, whether the close quarters and tight timing of “Dial M for Murder” and “Rear Window,” or the kitchen-sink realism of “Billy Liar” (John Schlesinger, 1963), tend to play more fast and loose with the gender roles. In fact, all three pit a beautiful free spirit, unafraid to ditch the housework, against a man in some sense stuck: a failed tennis player who relies on his wife’s money; a photographer stuck in a wheelchair during a New York heat wave; a working-class dreamer with a vivid fantasy world but no sense of how to make the fantasy a reality.

Things can get complicated, so don’t assume that I’m implying any of these are proto-feminist films — for every moment of free will, there’s the subtle male fear of emasculation, for every new impulse there’s also a mechanism of control. Yet for all its phallic imagery, its obsession with a man poking his long telephoto lens into the open windows of the women in the courtyard, I also think “Rear Window” — which isn’t in TCM’s lineup but fits so squarely between “Dial M for Murder” and “To Catch a Thief” that it seemed wrong not to talk about it here — is an exhilarating take on the battle of the sexes in which it really is a battle, and not a fait accompli. The film’s great moment of fierce tension is a gorgeous, note-perfect action sequence of groans and worries, phone calls and sudden discoveries, as Kelly’s society belle gamely breaks into the apartment of the suspected murderer across the way. That she almost gets knocked off in the process, escaping by the skin of her teeth, is evidence not of weakness but of bravery. She does what Jeff can’t, fleetly and, at least until the ordeal is over, calm as can be. It’s no giant leap, but maybe a small step forward — for blondes and brunettes alike.

1 Comment

  • DomizianoA | November 28, 2011 10:13 PMReply

    Interesting points: However, I think,that here ,we're talking about 2 very different-polar opposite,almost- Icons(Grace Kelly and Julie Christie) and,discussing,about, even 2 more different Times (1950's and 1960's/1970's).
    It seems almost 'unfair' to compare -somewhat- the 2 Ladies!
    Grace Kelly, stuck with her proper East Coast background and mannerism,and(at least, as we perceive it today) extremely wooden acting and,overall,with all the Respect, for her Beauty, and Persona, a real lack of Talent as a performer. She's a little more intriguing,and,exceptionally, likable, in "To Catch a Thief",maybe, because of the splendid saturated colors,portraying a vibrant French Riviera,featuring her 'bigger than life' gorgeous gowns, and,obviously,Cary Grant! But, even, that ,still amusing, and elegant, film is very dated, as you said,and more so, than "The 39 Steps" filmed 20 years earlier!! Her performance in "Rear Window",at least for me, was always overrated: she is in a brilliant Hitchcock's Film,and script, but, her rendition is so indicated and gimmicky, that truly reminds me, How wrong reviewers were, back then,by, praising 'that type of acting',for example, and go down harsh,instead, on Monroe,as a main designated victim, of that 'evil and vile society',whom,by comparison,was a real fresh, and naturalistic example of a more modern,and free spirited type of woman
    Kelly was a snob, I'm sure, she would ever even wanna compare herself with a 'Doll' like Monroe, but, that was the standard mentality, back then: sadly enough,the truth is that Kelly was never a great actress,nor a blond that made an impression through her work, but,more of a fine and emblematic Princess.
    A role,that interestingly enough, Julie Christie(divine),about a decade later,portrayed, so well, in Schlesinger's still fabulous and melancholic trend setting "Darling" to win,at 23,a Best Actress Oscar(and well deserved,God Damn it! lol) in 1965,and,indeed,the following year,when "Zhivago" came out triumphantly, manipulating most of the world cinemas throughout 1966 and even, 1967(back then,there were in fact, no VHS or DVD's, but plenty of 2nd,or 3rd grade Theaters, playing those movies, over and over again!). I think Christie is still today a striking example of rebellious Icon, never allowing Press too close(even in the past few weeks, while filming the central female role on Redford's and LaBeouf new high profile, political thriller "The Company you Keep" a great role for her,still looking great,at 70!),and,often missing great Films opportunities, in favor of supporting with her work, Human&Civil Rights Campaigns,Anti-Nuclear or Environmental Issues!
    But, She was already the 'It' Girl, since 1962, when everyone,at least, in the Business,was talking about her as 'The New Image' of the new cinema. And,that, she certainly was,immediately getting cast in the Cult of the new British Free Cinema's "Billy Liar" ,and immediately becoming the crush,first, the 'girlfriend' then,of a whole new generation of audiences, but,and this is my point,that were the fab and idealistic 1960's, where everything all of a sudden, became 'old', and very old (even though filmed a few years before!), and a whole new crowd made of diverse, idealistic romantics,intellectuals,leftists,College's protesters,Hippies,and,in general, people looking 'ahead' into the Progress, made of Christie one of the most prominent symbols of that drastic change! And, i must say i love Christie so much,not just because of the great(and Blond,most of the time,anyways..),beautiful actress she is,and the unforgettable,haunting screen presence she's established throughout a very turbulent Film Career, but, also, and mainly, because, despite infinite pressures, from the Studios,still, wanting to capitalize on her image,as well, trying to make of her ,some sort of "Scandalous,Free Spirited, if Amoral"Icon", just Think, the complete media's misinterpretation,back then,of the 'true meaning' of her roles, in classics,like "Shampoo",1976,or even MGM's"Demon Seed",1977,and all that infamous Press,still very active today,for her,instead, wonderful and in depth Turn in the Cult of shock value,yet a splendid and stylistically extremely rigorous film, "Don't Look Now"(1974),or Remember the exploitation of her very true, and profound relationship with another Idol of those greater years,superstar Warren Beatty,
    Christie has always kept,and never compromised,Her humble,yet stubborn identity,full of integrity,personal choices,while,appearing in few,but,always, extremely selected,and unforgettable&memorable Films,making of her, a "Class Act" and,a Blond Icon, that can be compared to very few others!

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