Thursday, August 30, 2012

Radical Enough for You?

After I wrote my post on Vito Russo, it occurred to me it would be a good idea to check exactly what he wrote about the film of My Brilliant Career.  Here it is, from the revised (1987) edition of The Celluloid Closet:
... it is historically true that celebrated figures who were lesbian or gay have invariably been either portrayed as heterosexual on the screen or neutered sufficiently to shift the focus away from the importance of their sexuality to their lives.

This hasn't changed.  Gillian Armstrong's My Brilliant Career (1979) is based on a novel by celebrated Australian writer Miles Franklin.  In the film, Sybylla Melvin (Judy Davis) is pictured as a strong-willed woman who refuses twice to marry a gentle, handsome man (Sam Neill) because she is committed to her work.  Most critics commented on the implausibility of her choice and the lack of sufficient motivation for it.  "Perhaps director Armstrong sees something in Sam Neill's Harry Beecham that would doom this marriage from the start," wrote critic David Chute, "but she hasn't conveyed it."

It was not "something" in Sam Neill's character but in the character of the heroine as well as from the novel on which it was based.  In an exhaustively researched piece by Michael Bronski called "The Story Behind the Movie," which appeared in Gay Community News in 1980, it is revealed that, in fact, the real Miles Franklin spent most of her life in relationships with women.  It is Franklin's own discretion that kept the truth from her adoring public during her lifetime, but it is Armstrong's disinterest in exploring the real woman that perpetuates the deception for filmgoers.  Feminism, yes.  Potential lesbianism, no [274-5].
My obvious next step was to have a look at Michael Bronski's "exhaustively researched piece."  The university library has online access to most of Gay Community News's run, and I found "The Story Behind the Movie" easily.  It doesn't say much more than Russo's summary, because it's not really exhaustively researched at all.  In March 1980, when the article appeared, My Brilliant Career was not available in the US, though St. Martin's Press issued it here later that same year.  Bronski refers to only one book on Franklin's life and work, a Twayne series volume by Marjorie Barnard published in 1967.  Since then a lot more material has appeared, including letters and papers and a huge biography by Jill Roe, Her Brilliant Career (Belknap Press, 2009) that I haven't read, and much of Franklin's other work is in print in the US.

This meant that Bronski didn't read the novel on which the film was based; he presumably relied on a summary in Barnard's book.  That's not exactly "exhaustive," but it's also not his fault.  He also admits that he's reading between the lines of Franklin's life, though she "herself was very private about" her personal affairs: but it is true that Franklin never married and had numerous important friendships with women, and that her later works, as he says (again presumably relying on Barnard), "are filled with strong friendships between women."  In Franklin's 1933 murder mystery, Bring the Monkey, when the female narrator is invited to a weekend at an English country house she brings along her female friend, "who is disguised as a maid and monkey-minder."  (For the narrator also brought along their pet monkey, at her hosts' invitation; I'm not sure what reading between the lines would suggest in this case.)

But Bronski is also mightily offended by Sybylla's refusal to marry Harry Beecham.
Sybylla's steadfast refusal to marry her suitor (whom she professes to love) is the only aspect of My Brilliant Career that challenges plausibility. One can feel the audience getting restless when she refuses him for the second time. Theoretically you can understand why, but the story does not really support the decision. We feel we aren't given all the reasons, that something is being held back. It is not so much that we want her to marry (for romantic reasons), but that there seems little reason for her not to: a comfortable middle-class existence would have enabled her to pursue her writing. Sybylla claims that she is not going to be part of anyone else's life until she has had her own. The movie ends with her back in the outback - sending her newly completed manuscript to a publisher - claiming both her independence and her art.
I don't remember Sybylla professing to love Harry.  I do remember her saying, "Oh Harry, I'm so near loving you -- but I'd destroy you, and I can't do that."  I don't see how anyone could watch My Brilliant Career and not feel the truth of Sybylla's declaration; we've already seen that she will lash out -- literally, with a riding crop -- if she begins to feel trapped, and she knows very well what a trap marriage is for women.  The only implausibility is that a teenaged girl could know herself so well, but this is a movie, after all.  She has also been insistent all along that she and Harry are "mates" -- buddies -- not dates.  Despite his disclaimer, Bronski does seem to want Sybylla to marry, and he is excessively optimistic about the possibility of a "middle-class" married woman's managing to build a career as a writer.  (The Beechams, by the way, are not middle-class: with their huge house, many servants, and land holdings, they have the same pretensions to aristocracy as Sybylla's grandmother.)

The same goes for Russo's quotation from a mainstream movie reviewer.  I'm not surprised that a straight male newspaper writer would be unable to believe that that a woman would be unwilling to marry the "gentle, handsome" Harry, but I am surprised that gay liberationist writers like Bronski and Russo objected.  Unusual in a popular novel and movie, yes, but not implausible, and I have always believed that the film carefully developed Sybylla's character to make it plausible.  The heterosexual and homophobic reviewer Stanley Kauffmann didn't object to the outcome (I believe that his review impelled me to see My Brilliant Career), nor did many others in the audience.  From the first time I saw the film, Sybylla's decision felt right to me.  How odd that two politically and sexually radical writers should be unable to free themselves from their very conventional plot expectations.

(This reminds me of Koreeda Hirokazu's 2006 samurai comedy Hana, which plays similar games with a popular boy-culture plot: The Coward of the County, who refuses to fight until, pushed and bullied beyond endurance, he carries out an exemplary bloodbath against his tormentors.  Slow-motion blood geysers!  Severed limbs!  When the protagonist of Hana is cornered, however, he runs, which outraged many reviewers of the film.  Despite this, he survives, flourishes, and gets the girl.)

Bronski acknowledges that the novel is not strictly autobiographical -- Franklin, he says, never spent an extended period at her wealthy grandmother's estate, as Sybylla does -- but he keeps falling back on the assumption that it is.  (For some reason he insists on referring to her as "Miles," though everyone else is referred to by her surname.)  True, Franklin's family and neighbors complained about what they believed to be their caricatures in the book; I'm not sure how far to believe Franklin's own defense in My Career Goes Bung that several different people saw themselves as the models for the same characters in the book, or that she deliberately set out to confound the conventions of the novel when she wrote it.

But there's another reason to doubt that the novel suppressed Franklin's "potential lesbianism": she was sixteen when she wrote My Brilliant Career.  It doesn't strain credulity that a teenager born in 1879 and raised in the Australian outback with limited access to books might not yet have figured out that she wasn't romantically interested in men.  It's remarkable enough that she had such a radical critique of marriage, which is in the book: one could say she harps on it.  When I saw the movie I wondered if that aspect had been retrojected from its modern perspective, but reading the book soon put that suspicion to rest.  Even if My Brilliant Career was Franklin's wish-fulfilment fantasy, it's notable that marrying a nice, supportive man was not on her wish list.  And the ending of the film is not in the book: Sybylla sends off her bulky manuscript by post after staying up all night to finish writing it, and a title informs us that My Brilliant Career was published in 1901.  That's something that Franklin couldn't have known when she wrote the book, and I still remember the joy I felt when I read those words for the first time.  Someone went against the grain of her family and society, and won.  And I still feel that way every time I watch it.

Not portraying Sybylla Melvin as a baby dyke, even if Stella Maria Sarah Miles Franklin was one, doesn't seem to me a betrayal of the spirit of the novel, whatever Gillian Armstrong's reasons.  Marrying her off to Harry Beecham would have.  Franklin was a trickster, though, and she had fun with the confusion between herself and her literary stand-in: in My Career Goes Bung, Sybylla has to cope with the attentions of a fortyish, bearded, macho rancher named Henry Beauchamp, who's convinced that he is the real Harry Beecham, and must carry out Harry's thwarted destiny by marrying Sybylla and breaking her to harness.  No wonder Franklin had to light out for the territory of America; all her life she resisted being "sivilized."

(It occurred to me for the first time that the filming and release of My Brilliant Career happened to coincide with Franklin's centenary.  Was that coincidental or deliberate?  I don't know.)