What I Watched About Love—Dr. Strangelove

Dr. Strangelove (1964)

Directed by Stanley Kubrick


Peter Sellers as President Merkin Muffley, Group Captain Lionel Mandrake, and Dr. Strangelove

George C. Scott as General “Buck” Turgidson

Slim Pickens as Major “King” Kong

Sterling Hayden as General Jack D. Ripper

I did not see this as a Sunday night ABC Movie of the Week. This had to be a Friday night movie, starting at 11:30 or 12:00. I watched it by myself. It is a black and white movie, but I was well used to that. Almost all the horror movies of my youth were the black and white movies of Universal, or American… Besides, the first television I remember was a black and white set, which made the Wizard of Oz only a little less magical.

Why does this movie make it onto a list of movies about love? There is only one woman in the cast, Tracy Reed as General Turgidon’s “secretary,” and her part reveals more about the men than it does her. And at the end of the film, Vera Lynn sings “We’ll Meet Again” over a montage of hydrogen bomb explosions. What I didn’t know when I first saw this movie was that “We’ll Meet Again” was a soldier’s anthem in World War II; it marked the hope for those (don’t know where, don’t know when) sunny days. To me it was just dark irony.

I grew up in the company of boys. I had two younger brothers. I was in the Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts. Almost all my playmates were boys. We played “tank” on the school playground, draping our arms over each other’s shoulders and marching pointedly across the field. I went to an all boys private boarding school from 9th-12th grade. Boys playing at being men was what I knew.

Already, by my teenage years, I could see the pitfalls. I was aware of the passionate intensity that could overwhelm sensibility—just as Buck Turgidson demonstrates the the guile of a B-52 pilot screaming over the countryside to deliver his payload. I had experienced the misbegotten “fairness” doctrine—just as President Muffley tries to be fair with his Russian counterpart over the hotline. I had witnessed the driven madness of conspiracy that illuminates General Ripper, and the dedication to duty that Colonel Guano defends. Dr. Strangelove’s and Major Kong’s maniacal genius and drive was often held out as a, more sanely but only just barely, goal. Only Mandrake’s befuddled competence stands out as a lone vision of something like sanity—and he is a stranger in a strange land.

Where is the place for love—strange or otherwise—in a world that totters toward Armageddon? Romantic love is the counterpoint to the well-meaning incompetence, or belligerent dedication of the world of men. Without it: self-destruction.

Thoreau wrote in Walden that “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” In the late sixties and through the seventies, I didn’t know Thoreau at all, but I was naggingly aware of another desperation: one borne of the recent history of perpetual war and nuclear weapons. Those bombs waited like an exclamation point at the end of every thought about war, from World War Two, through Korea, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and then the Vietnam War. I often wondered who the men who bore responsibility for the weapons were, and if they were anything like the all too human men in my life. There came a point—it had passed to my way of thinking—when our weapons outstripped our ability to know how to use them. Desperation—existential anxiety—was a low thrum beneath all the humor, all the politics, and all the intensity of my teen age years.

And love? Could love stand against destruction? Imagine that. Only some equally powerful, equally misbegotten, equally passionate, dedicated, driven, and genius form of love, which is to say a love that was truly strange. How long would I try to fly that banner? Years.

What I Watched About Love–My Fair Lady

What Transformation Means

My Fair Lady (1964)

Directed by George Cukor


Audrey Hepburn as Eliza Doolittle

Rex Harrison as Henry Higgins

myfairlady2I first saw this with my family in the den of the house on Tinkerhill Road in Phoenixville.  It was a Sunday Night event movie, probably on ABC. This was also how I first saw Lawrence of Arabia and The Great Race and Ben Hur and The Ten Commandments.  I later saw My Fair Lady in a theater, first at Swarthmore College on a Friday or Saturday night movie night, and later when the print had been restored, most likely at the TLA in Philadelphia. I have seen it on television several times.

I remember looking for Pygmalion, George Bernard Shaw’s play on which the musical is based, in my school library (it wasn’t there).  I looked it up over and over, as if this time it would have been added. A note that has nothing to do with anything else: I am an inveterate checker and re-checker of things. I used to call my answering machine several times; if there was a message it would pick up after two rings. I reload baseball scores and stock market indices on my cell phone with the manic fury of a dervish. I can play solitaire until the sun rises. It’s like mental chewing gum; it allows the homunculus who says “No,” to stay busy while the other dwarf imagines possibilities. Which does have something to do with My Fair Lady, after all.

The-Professor-rex-harrison-as-henry-higgins-28174493-500-368Higgins is a brilliant driven man, and he is also, what? “a bad tempered… conceited success.” He declares himself “an ordinary man,” a “very gentle man,” and a “quiet living man,” when all evidence points to the contrary.  He is an idealist and a snob. He rails against “verbal class distinctions,” while living in the lap of all the benefits of his class. I was fortunate that when I first saw this, I was able to instantly recognize that Higgins was a fool, if a fool surrounded by a stultifying upper class, and a set of gender norms (I did not call them that then) that constricted his heart and mind.  When he sings, “I’m an Ordinary Man” and “A Hymn to Him,” I knew he was delusional.

By comparison, Eliza’s songs are full of hope for connection. “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly,” hqdefaultand “I Could Have Danced All Night,” are genuine, human wish songs. Eliza’s vision is never in doubt in this movie.  She is a “good girl,” but early on, while watching a group of older women string beans before the market opens, she realizes that they are her future, and if she wants something else, she is going to have to change.  Higgins words, “I could even get her a job as a lady’s maid or a shop assistant, which requires better English,” haunt her. She goes to Higgins and undertakes the work of transformation.

Eliza and Higgins (and Colonel Pickering, charmingly played by Wilfrid Hyde-White) get the project underway.  There are predictable challenges (“Just You Wait”), bumps (Ascot), and the eventual success (“You Did It!”), but the story is not about Eliza’s transformation.  Of course, the story is about Eliza’s transformation, but it’s not about her learning to speak English well enough to masquerade as royalty at the Embassy Ball, or even speak well enough to work as a shop assistant.  Eliza learns her value, and she learns that value is not determined by the upper, middle, or lower-class morality, but by something more transcendent—something more ideal, platonic, “friendly-like.”

Did I know that part when I was 14 or 15?  No, I might have sensed it, but most likely it swam away from me.  What I did know was that Higgins had to change.  He could not remain aloof and professionally disdainful of the world–an intellectual bully–but had to accept that deep personal connection was not only possible, but necessary.  Eliza cracks his shell.  She sees him bereft of her presence, and he knows that she has seen him in this vulnerable state. He may not change his affect, but they will always know it is a front.

Whether or not they form a romantic attachment, they have become true partners, because he has shown her his vulnerability.  She will become his secret keeper (He is human and flawed), and she will also become his protégé and heir, and better than he was because her experiences have been more galvanizing. I knew that was what partnership was meant to be, and recognized that change only came when a personal cord was struck.

425124bg / Film - My Fair LadyAnd now to come back to those two little men living in my brain: Higgins is not aware that he has to change (or he will lose Eliza), nor is he aware that in his vulnerability he will gain strength (Eliza’s company). How often have I had to distract my thoughtful, intellectual self to gain access to the more vulnerable feeling self? Higgins, for whatever reason, has girded himself with thought and professional aloofness. The endlessly repeated exercises with Eliza—the servants only hear “Ay not Aye”— distract Higgins, and allow something new, something finer, to flower within him. Yes of course, it’s just Eliza’s newly potent personality that finally wins him over, but the seeds took root during those exercises.

Did I play solitaire until the sun rose because I knew it would distract my thinking brain, and help me “feel”? No.  It’s just what happened—over years, not the six months that Higgins had with Eliza.  Maybe what I needed was an “Eliza.” Or a household of servants. 40 more years certainly did not hurt.

What I Watched About Love—What’s Up, Doc?

What “Yes” Means

What’s Up, Doc? (1972)

Directed by Peter Bogdanovich


Barbara Streisand as Judy Maxwell

Ryan O’Neal as Howard Bannister

When one encounters a force of nature, the best one can do is be moved by it. I was 15 or 16 when I first saw this, and fell head over heels in love with Barbara Streisand’s character, Judy Maxwell. I didn’t get half the jokey allusions, but that would come later, just as later I would see Howard Hawks’s absolute masterpiece Bringing Up Baby–which uses a dinosaur bone (the intercostal clavicle!) as opposed to four plaid overnight bags as the MacGuffin. The point was to set the romantic leads on an adventure, and watch them discover love along the way.

Ryan O’Neal plays Howard Bannister (as in sliding down the…) as a handsome nebbish. His highlight comes when he tinkles out “As Time Goes By” while Judy (Streisand) sings. Otherwise, he is the simply perplexed witness to the whirlwind that is Judy. At one point, Bogdanovich has him turn to the camera and implore, “Help,” to which the audience can only respond, “Submit.” Bogdanovich surrounds Bannister with a cast of men who are all more recognizable in caricature—it’s a bag of types, all of whom threaten to overshadow Bannister, who at least has the decency to distinguishing himself by sporting a narrow plaid bow tie. Otherwise he is seductively bland.

I’m going to cheat here a moment and compare O’Neal to the other leading men in these movies: Lemmon, Harrison, Sellers, Taylor, Finney, Scott. He is easily the most handsome, and also the least striking, which makes him nearly disappear. There’s just no way to get a grip on him—its like grabbing melted butter. Later, watching Cary Grant in the movie this was built on, Grant’s David Huxley sputters and mugs with alacrity. Bannister is simply overwhelmed—he can’t even untie his bow tie.

But there’s a magic in Bannister, and that is we can easily paste our psyches’ over his, and why wouldn’t we? Because, for reasons that are passing understanding, he draws the attention and affection of Judy Maxwell. There is no moment of kindness, no flare of brilliance, nothing. She swoops down and carries him off the way the roc would snatch an elephant from a caravan. What man doesn’t want to feel the full force of hurricane Barbara? Submit.

Of course, reimagine the parts, with O’Neal as Judy and Streisand as Howard, and the creep factor would explode. No man could get away with the barrage of attention that Judy lavishes on Bannister, unless he was wielding a knife, and that is a very different movie, thank you very much Dr. Lecter. It’s just a movie, a slice of fantasy and fun, and so enjoy it. Don’t think about it. Submit.

And because of this movie, and several others in this series, I never had any difficulty with “No, ” and I didn’t always trust “Yes” either. Unless the terms of endearment were as stridently proposed as Judy proposes them here, I bumbled romances. And for years I substituted someone else’s desires for my own. That changed, but it took time, and in the intervening years lead to some less that fortuitous choices.

I don’t know how Howard and Judy will end up. The quotidian part of romance will probably only last as long as the cartoon that plays at the end of the movie. But it was nice to think (and feel) that there was someone as magical and forceful as Barbara Streisand’s character waiting in a shop to scoop me up and transport me to the land of joy.

What I Watched About Love—What I Missed

It does not escape my notice that the male protagonists of these movies had these jobs: architect, investment banker, surgeon, professor of musicology, hotel manager, professor of languages (although Professor Higgins’ actual job is never shown), and President/colonel/scientist (Sellers did triple duty). The women have no professions: wife, wife (Brubaker’s wife in the film is a realtor), wife, dilettante, escort, flower girl (and Eliza is worried about what she will do when she leaves Higgins’ tutelage), and secretary. Of the films I remember from my youth, there were precious few professional women. The Andromeda Strain featured a female scientist, played by Kate Reid, as a member of the biological threat team. Shirley Maclaine played a taxi dancer in Sweet Charity and a prostitute in Irma La Douce. Jane Fonda played a prostitute in Klute. Natalie Wood played a reporter in The Great Race.

The divide between men who worked and women who did not mirrored the world in which I grew up, although at some point, my parents hired a cleaning lady to come to our house once a week, and almost all of my school teachers in elementary school and junior high school were women. When I reached high school, an all-boys private school, the teachers were called “Masters” and were, with only two exceptions, men.

Besides the obvious cultural morass I walked into, which would shape all sorts of expectations and norms that I fight with to this day, movies created a world in which men and women were primarily romantic partners. In the movies that I remember, even when there was an imbalance of power, the women nearly always determined the romantic course. Women initiate the romantic relationship in each of the movies I’m writing about here. Men are meant to work, even if the work is dissatisfying. This is their public role to fill in the world. Their romantic lives are secret, like the apartment Peter McDermott keeps away from the St George in Hotel. Sometimes love is secret even from the men themselves; only when the princess kisses them do they blossom into their princely selves.

Did I always wait for the women in my life to make the first move? I was shy. I made a few tentative moves, but mostly I waited. And for whatever reason, I never felt confident in the continued bond. I didn’t know that (or how) people who loved each other could have disagreements, let alone fights. Surely there were couples who argued (Mark and Joanna, Higgins and Eliza), but disagreements usually foreshadowed an ending–or a horrible continuing present, which anyone who sees Whose Afraid of Virginia Woolf? can tell you is worse than any ending. I never had the benefit of watching my parents fight and make up. Most of what I saw were beginnings and endings. The vast middle ground of actual life does not lend itself to popular cinema.

Have I learned? Sure. But the heart’s first lessons are intractable. The new lessons are built on strange foundations. I have become aware of them, but only in reflection. Self knowledge is like a shoe that flies in through an open window. If it fits—that is if one is sensible enough to put the left shoe on the left foot—we spend the rest of our lives looking for the other half of the pair.