When JUDY met JOKER: Mental health in Hollywood

I was recently invited to discuss the portrayal of mental health in movies by the lovely people of the No Really, I’m Fine Podcast, and thought I’d share my notes with you.

It begins with recent films Joker and Judy, and ends with One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, taking in Changeling and Airplane! along the way. I hope you enjoy and/or find this useful.

WARNING: contains spoilers

You can listen to the podcast here and give them a follow @ImFinePodcast_

Joker and Judy are two recent and very different films in which the eponymous characters suffer mental illness in very differing ways, and in doing so the pair conform to a long established pattern of gender division in the portrayal of mental illness in the movies.

Joker

Phoenix on fire

Joker is a savage and disturbing thriller starring Joaquin Phoenix an aspiring stand-up comic and part time clown who suffers from a disorder that causes him to laugh at inappropriate times, he’s also generally nervous, lacks confidence and is not good socially.

When his medication and therapy is withdrawn because of funding cuts, he slowly becomes an insane and violent criminal, inspiring riots in the streets.

Judy

Zellweger on song

Judy is a biopic of Hollywood legend Judy Garland, who we see towards the end of her flagging career on stage in London, Renee Zellweger stars in a sympathetic portrait and sees Garland battles with long-standing nerves and addictions, leading to problems in her personal life including fighting a custody battle for her two younger kids, and a difficult fifth marriage.

Joker is a great example of when men in movies suffer mental illness, they typically externalise their problems and make them epic. Men seek to blame and punish others, become violent and their battles take place in a public arena. Male experiences of mental illness are closer to fantasy and framed as heroic, somehow successful, to a degree redemptive, or as in the case of Joker, they become powerful or somehow inspirational.

But when Judy and women suffer mental illness they typically internalise their problems and make them intimate. Women blame and punish themselves emotionally and physically, and their battles take place in the domestic arena. Female experiences are grounded in reality and framed as tragedy.

Plus women’s experiences of mental illness are defined by a perception of promiscuity, and of being a ‘bad’ i.e. neglectful mother, even when that ‘neglect’ is caused by the need to work in order to provide for their children.

It’s notable and typical Joker survives beyond the films end, and Judy doesn’t.

These gender defined portrayals and outcomes are consistent across all forms of mental illness when portrayed in movies, it doesn’t matter what form the mental illness of a character takes. Let’s look at a couple of examples, beginning with an absurdly extreme example to illustrate the point.

Dementia

Still Alice from 2014, is a small intimate, domestic drama which stars Julianne Moore as a middle aged woman diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes from 2011, is an epic action sci-fi adventure with John Lithgow suffering Alzheimer’s. His scientist son is trying to find a for cure Alzheimer’s, and along the way unleashes the monkey apocalypse.

Snow Cake

Weaver

Autism

Snow Cake is a 2006 indie romantic comedy drama starring Sigourney Weaver as a small town single woman with Autism, coming to terms with the death of her daughter.

Rain Man is a 1988 Las Vegas road trip comedy-drama starring Dustin Hoffman and is about the reconciliation of two wealthy brothers.

Rain Man

Hoffman

The next example is of deliberately inflicted mental damage, and the one after is a symptom of of mental illness, not a cause. However the gender division remains.

Enforced loss of memory; brainwashing.

Gaslight is a 1944 American psychological thriller starring Ingrid Bergman whose husband slowly manipulates her into believing that she is going insane.

The Bourne Identity is a 2002 action thriller starring Matt Damon who demonstrates advanced combat skills and fluency in several languages as he fights his way across Europe.

Eating disorders

Heathers is a 1988 satirical High school comedy starring Winona Ryder, which as well as touching upon bulimia, shows high school girls struggling with bullying, fat shaming, teenage suicide and violent, toxic boyfriends.

The Machinist is a 2004 dark thriller starring Christian Bale about a troubled factory worker who loses weight due to insomnia caused by a trauma, and eventually achieves salvation and peace.

So in all these examples we see the gender divide of external/internal, public/domestic, epic/intimate and heroic/tragic. Let’s have an example which provides another typical division, sexuality and a violent response.

Multiple Personality Disorder

Split is a 2016 psychological horror thriller starring James McAvoy as a man with 24 different personalities who kidnaps and imprisons three teenage girls. And similar to Joker, he is a super-villain

The Three Faces of Eve is a 1957 mystery drama starring Joanne Woodward as a married but childless woman suffering from a duel personality. Eve ‘White’ is a submissive housewife, while Eve ‘Black’, her ‘other’ personality is outspoken, promiscuous and considered a danger to other people’s children.

Filmmakers couldn’t show Eve having sex in 1957, so her promiscuity is presented in coded form, as dancing with a man other than her husband, who responds by slapping Eve.

This is important as it links madness in woman with promiscuity, and makes clear violence is an acceptable ‘cure’, or at least, a treatment.

Mental illness in men is super-villainy, mental illness in women is promiscuity and mistreating children. Sanity for men is being a superhero, and sanity for women is being married,  maternal, monogamous and submissive. And violence is the treatment. Which brings us to hysteria, and hysterical women in the movies.

HYSTERIA

Lets look at the most common mental affliction for women in the movies: Hysteria.

This can either be having a chronic attack of ‘nerves’, intense anxiety, or standing about screaming. It’s very loosely defined, if at all.

Airplane

Surely you can’t be serious?

Airplane! is a 1980 disaster comedy, the funniest film ever made but not without it’s problems. There’s a joke about a hysterical woman being slapped into submission. First a doctor, shakes her, shouts at her and then slaps her. She continues screaming, and so a fellow passenger steps up to shout, and shake and slap, and behind him is a queue of passengers, and they are armed with boxing gloves, guns and baseball bats.

This joke works because the filmmakers know the cinema audience is totally accustomed to seeing men slapping women when they’re acting hysterically.

I was 11 or 12 years old when I first saw Airplane! and even then I’d seen enough movies to understand the joke.

Hollywood allows, encourages and expects men to inflict violence on women who are mentally ill. Violent ‘treatment’ is justified, accepted, and normal.

The word hysteria comes from the Greek word for uterus, hystera, and the Greeks believed that the uterus moved up through a woman’s body, strangling her, and causing madness.

This suggests an entirely physical cause for the symptoms but, by linking them to the uterus, it means hysteria only affects women. So madness is framed around your gender. And this thinking continued well into the twentieth Century.

Men who don’t have a uterus are inherently sane, women who do, are inherently prone to madness. For women sanity is equated with being passive, submissive, and governable.

Hysteria is a catch-all condition which because it’s definition is so broad, it makes it very easy for doctor’s to identify and treat – usually but not always with violence.

 

Hysteria

Now this won’t hurt a bit

Hysteria is 2011 period drama set in 1880, and starring Hugh Dancy as the real life
Dr. Granville, who treats hysteria.

Because the medical profession thought anxiety originated in the uterus, common practice at the time was to manage the symptoms of hysteria by massaging a woman’s genital area.

Treating so many women results in his hand getting tired. So he adapts an electrical feather duster to use as an electric massager. And invents what we know today as a vibrator.

But the point to this, and remember this is a true story is this is a case of a doctor sexual abusing a mentally ill woman.

During Hysteria a character called Charlotte is arrested and during her trial, the prosecutor recommends Charlotte is sent to a sanatorium and be forced to undergo a hysterectomy, as that would ‘cure’ her.

The important thing to takeaway from Hysteria, the film and the condition, is the link between men diagnosing women as mentally ill, and then using violence and invasive force to subdue them. And here we have another common thread in cinema. A choice between prison or an asylum. We’ll come back to that in Cuckoo’s Nest.

So as well as the public/domestic, epic/intimate, gender division, women are identified as mentally ill for not conforming to men’s ideas of submissive, domestic and maternal womanhood. Also the women are typically punished for their behaviour beyond the expected ‘treatments’, often with death. Here’s a couple of examples, again using different types of mental health for comparison.

 

Falling Down

On the streets

Revolutionary Road

In the house

Depression

Falling Down is a 1993 thriller starring Michael Douglas who walks across Los Angeles using a bat, a gun and a rocket launcher on those who annoy him.

 

Revolutionary Road is a 2008 domestic drama starring Kate Winslet as a childless housewife who has extra-marital sex, then an abortion and then dies.

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder

As Good As It Gets is a 1997 romantic comedy starring Jack Nicholson as a misanthropic and obsessive-compulsive novelist whose reward for redeeming his previous bad behaviour is sex with the gorgeous Helen hunt.

Mommie Dearest is a 1981 docudrama starring Faye Dunaway as real life Hollywood star Joan Crawford, who’s depicted as an abusive mother who adopted her children to benefit her career, she is eventually publicly humiliated and dies of cancer.

PTSD

First Blood is a 1982 action film starring Sylvester Stallone as Vietnam War veteran John Rambos suffering PTSD, who destroys a small town in a one-man rampage.

In Our Name is a 2010 British drama starring Joanne Froggatt as a female soldier suffering PTSD, who sexually rejects her husband and struggles to care for her daughter on her return home from a tour of duty.

Schizophrenia

The Soloist is a 2009 drama starring Jamie Foxx as the real life Nathaniel Ayers, a talented but homeless musician who finds some measure of stability.

Through a Glass Darkly is a 1961 Swedish family drama starring Harriet Andersson who childless and sexually aberrant, sexually rejects her husband but has incestuous sex with her brother.

Suicide

It’s a Wonderful Life is a 1946 feel-good sentimental fantasy drama starring James Stewart as George Bailey who attempts suicide on Christmas Eve

The Virgin Suicides is a 1999 drama starring Kirsten Dunst, and sees five suburban teenage sisters suffer depression and make a suicide pact. They are all childless and unmarried, and one is promiscuous.

 

Dirty Harry

Men get guns

Criminality

So the gender division leads to women identified as mentally ill for not conforming to men’s ideas of submissive, domestic and maternal womanhood, and are punished for their behaviour beyond the expected ‘treatments’, often with death. Now we’ll see how these signifiers for women’s mental illness are also aligned to criminality.

Dirty Harry is a 1971 neo-noir action thriller which sees a serial killer called Scorpio shooting strangers on the streets of San Francisco, chased by a cop, Clint Eastwood.

Seven is a 1995 crime thriller with Kevin Spacey playing a serial killer, torturing strangers and being chased by a cop, Brad Pitt

Single White Female is a 1992 psychological erotic thriller which stars Jennifer Jason Leigh as a childless and promiscuous singleton who is obsessed with her roommate.

The Hand That Rocks The Cradle is a 1992 psychological thriller starring Rebecca De Mornay as a childless widow out to destroy a woman and steal her family.

 

Fatal Attraction

Insane, moi?

Fatal Attraction is a 1987 psychological thriller starring Glenn Close as childless, promiscuous singleton who becomes obsessed with a married man with whom she had an affair.

In all of these films the criminal, man or woman, is killed, reinforcing the idea violence against the mentally ill is acceptable.

But cinema simultaneously aligns female criminality with madness, violent behaviour, promiscuity, childlessness and unmarried.

In all cases cinema is reinforcing a definition of sanity for women, which is to be married, maternal, monogamous and submissive.

And if as a woman you step outside this male definition of female sanity, then expect to be labelled as mentally ill and men are justified in using violence against you, and you may end up dead.Which brings us to Angelina Jolie.

Film Title: Changeling

Check out the bars and that noose.

Changeling is a 2008 crime drama based on real-life events from California in 1928, and stars Angelina Jolie as a single woman called Christine, whose son Walter goes missing. But when she’s reunited with him,  she realises the boy the authorities insist is her son, is a different boy entirely.

She is naturally angry and upset, which as a woman is not the correct mental state to be challenging the State’s authority, as being ’emotional’ allows the police and local government to define her behaviour as irrational, i.e. a sign of mentally illness, and she is vilified as delusional, labeled as an unfit mother, and confined to a psychiatric ward

A doctor diagnoses Christine as delusional and forces her to take mood-regulating pills. Steele says he will release Christine if she admits she was mistaken about “Walter” she refuses. And the film doesn’t end well for anyone.

So cinema shows women being labelled as irrational is an excuse for any manner of abuse by the state and/or medical profession.

And under the guise of ‘treatment’ a woman may suffer incarceration, drug regimes, invasive surgery and/or lobotomy, as well as losing possession of her kids. And the criteria for judging the success of any treatment is how submissive and quiet the female patient is afterwards.

Another criteria for madness is not being maternal, not liking children, women are forced into domesticity and punished when they fail. being labelled a bad mother makes it very easy for the authorities to teak your kids away from you.

There is no happy ending to this film. But it does show some of the nasty ways the mentally ill are treated in asylums.

One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest

I love this film, made in 1975, and was the 2nd of only 3 films have won all four top Oscars, best actor, actress, film, and director.

It was filmed film in a real mental hospital, in the Oregon State Hospital, and consequently is very good on visualising the mechanics of mental health treatment, the bars on the windows, the forced drugs, the physical restrictions such as strait jackets, and the barbaric use of electro-shock treatment.

Cuckoo McMurphy

Nice hat, Chesaroo

Remember how in Hysteria a character faced being sentenced to either prison or an asylum?

Cuckoos Nest starred Jack Nicholson as convicted sex offender Randall McMurphy, who chooses asylum over prison because he wants to avoid a regime of hard labour to which he’s been sentenced. McMurphy thinks the asylum offers an easier existence, and he is of course, very wrong.

 

The central conflict in the film is between McMurphy and Louise Fletcher’s Nurse Ratched, who runs the hospital ward to which he is restricted.

Cuckoo Ratched

The doctor won’t see you now

Presenting a sex offender as a hero was problematic, even for the 1970’s, and so the filmmakers down play the reason McMurphy is in the hospital, with his criminal behaviour rarely referred to beyond the opening scene.

And in the way Airplane! uses the audiences knowledge of cinema conventions to make a joke about hysteria, the filmmakers use the audiences knowledge of cinematic sanity to portray McMurphy as heroic, and to demonise Ratched.

McMurphy’s sanity is emphasised by showing him indulge with cinema’s male signifiers of sane male behaviour, such as playing cards and basketball, drinking, and having sex with a woman.

And it demonises the film’s authority figure Nurse Ratched by aligning her with cinemas traits of female insanity and criminality, such as being non-maternal, non-sexual, and non-submissive.

We’re asked to sympathise with and support an unpenitent rapist, a drunk, a brawler and gambler, and one who isn’t ill but wanting to avoid hard labour. Whereas the person we should be rooting for is the hard working and dignified professional, Nurse Ratched who’s been lumbered with the disruptive McMurphy.

In mental health in the movies, when woman succeed they remain defeated, and when men fail, they still win. It’s well, La La land.

ENDS.

 

Further reading:

https://hekint.org/2017/01/23/portrayal-of-schizophrenia-in-movies/

https://www.autism.org/movies-featuring-asd/

The below is from the World Health Organisation website:

There are many different mental disorders, with different presentations. They are generally characterized by a combination of abnormal thoughts, perceptions, emotions, behaviour and relationships with others.

Mental disorders include: depression, bipolar affective disorder, schizophrenia and other psychoses, dementia, intellectual disabilities and developmental disorders including autism.

Dementia is caused by a variety of diseases and injuries that affect the brain, such as Alzheimer’s disease or stroke.

https://www.who.int/en/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/mental-disorders

Miranda. Admired and misunderstood

Warning: this essay about a four hundred year old play may contain spoilers..

To celebrate the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare on 23rd April, let’s take a look at his most undervalued character and re-evaluate her true importance to his work.

Waterhouse.jpg

Miranda by John Waterhouse, 1916

Miranda is the main female character in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, his final and greatest play. Her tragedy is to be the most high profile character in his canon to be dismissed as a supporting character in order to allow a male character to be dominate the play at her expense.

She’s a vibrant, forceful creation sidelined by generations of productions in favour of her grumpy, duplicitous and barely sane father, the wizard Prospero.

Miranda needs to be reappraised as one half of the father daughter axis central to the play. To promote Prospero above Miranda in importance is to misunderstand Shakespeare’s intention. She is a crucial summation of Shakespeare’s grand legacy to the world.

And of course, because she’s written by Shakespeare, she’s a fabulous character in her own right.

The Play

Shakespeare .jpg

William Shakespeare.     The Droeshout portrait.     From the First Folio collection, published 1623

The Tempest is believed to have been written in 1610–11, and the first recorded performance is before James I on Hallowmas, November 1st, 1611.

Although Shakespeare is credited with having contributed to two further and generally undistinguished plays, The Tempest is regarded as his final solo and definitive work.

With the perfect and dramatic timing of the seasoned performer he was, Shakespeare milked his exit for all its considerable worth. He took every trick he knew to be successful on stage and stitched it all together into the exciting, funny, challenging and crowd pleasing final act of his career.

The Tempest is a rollicking  tale of shipwrecks, stolen kingdoms, murder plots, class warfare, magic, fairies, monsters, comedy, romance, satire and social commentary.

It was has variously been described as a comedy, a romance and a problem play. To limit The Tempest to a single category is absurd. It is an adventure, a romantic comedy, a reconciliation drama, an intimate family portrait and a deconstruction of Elizabethan politics and more. It is a dazzling combination of every art and technique at Shakespeare’s disposal, the pinnacle of his career, a four hundred year old play and the finest ever written.

It’s crowned with a moment of staggeringly self confident showmanship. In the closing speech Shakespeare demands the audience applaud his career achievements.

Shakespeare is the creator of the greatest female roles ever written such as Portia, Beatrice, Cleopatra and Lady MacBeth, to name a few.

And it is crazy to believe as many productions choose to, Shakespeare dressed this living testament, his final hurrah, with a simpering romantic female lead.

Prospero’s plans, the structure of the play and Miranda’s arc and behaviour demand she is played with strength, sexuality and humour.

The story

Prospero.jpg

Patrick Stewart as Prospero, RSC, 2006. Photo zuleikahenry.co.uk

The Tempest takes place on an unnamed and remote mediterranean island. The sorcerer Prospero, rightful Duke of Milan has been exiled there by his brother Antonio, who stole Prospero’s crown. Prospero has been plotting for the 12 years of his exile to punish Antonio and restore his 14 year old daughter Miranda to her rightful place in society.

Exploiting the powerful magic of his fairy servant Ariel, Prospero conjures up a storm, the eponymous tempest. This delivers his usurping brother Antonio to shore where while terrorising  Antonio and his party, Prospero arranges for Ferdinand, prince of Naples, to meet and fall in love with Miranda.

The problem with Miranda

Here is a typical description of Miranda, quoted by shakespeare-online.com from Shakespeare’s Comedy of The Tempest. (Ed. William J. Rolfe. New York: American Book Company. Pub. 1889.)

Miranda is a unique and exquisite creation of the poet’s magic. She is his ideal maiden, brought up from babyhood in an ideal way — the child of nature, with no other training than she received from a wise and loving father — an ideal father we may say

Ok, so it’s over a century old and written with the prejudices of the time but this perception of Miranda as ‘exquisite’ persists.

From Sparknotes:

Miranda is a gentle and compassionate, but also relatively passive, heroine. From her very first lines she displays a meek and emotional nature.

From Cliffnotes:

In all that she does, Miranda is sweet and pure, honest and loving.

My word she sounds dull. On this reading Miranda lacks any personal agency, reduced to a pawn of her father and married off to Naples secure the return of his Dukedom.

But this is the Shakespeare who wrote fiercely intelligent, adversarial, female characters. Not just in his tragedies such as the fiercely complex Cleopatra in Anthony and Cleopatra, but in his comedys. There is Hermione in A Winter’s Tale; Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing and Olivia in Twelfth Night.

Miranda is the product of an arrogant, educated, driven man and has spent her entire life solely in his company. She has been educated and raised to rule by her father who not only wants to regain his own throne, but see her placed upon it.

Let’s consider what growing up with such a man would have on the psyche of the child. What effect would it have to live with and watch ones only parent plot for 12 years the downfall of his enemy? The ferociously single minded and revenge driven pursuit of power is behaviour which would seem normal.

Prospero indulges Miranda and terrorises the domestic staff. Wouldn’t it be more realistic and more fun for the audience if Miranda grows up to be truly her father’s child; manipulative, mendacious and power hungry? Someone able to conquer the world without her father’s assistance?

Before we look at how Miranda should be played, let’s examine Shakespeare’s structure to see why Miranda should be played in a far more forceful and interesting way.

ShakespeareThe structure

The graphic (right) contains two break-downs of The Tempest by scene.

The first highlights the scenes which are broadly comic if the roles Miranda and Ferdinand are played in a traditional straight, demurely romantic manner.

If the romance of Miranda and Ferdinand is not played as comic, then laughs are sparse in The Tempest. It becomes a severe essay on an old man’s personal and political legacy, essentially King Lear with a suntan.

The sullen spirit of Prospero looms darkly over proceedings and the bright figure of Miranda is marginalised, her agency and character denied the light in which to grow.

We’re left with only the drunken antics of Stephano, Trinculo and Caliban to provide comic relief to Prospero’s repetitive machinations.

Yes, Ariel’s impudence and Alonso’s jibes at the elderly courtier Gonzalo have a pointed sarcasm. But this leaves a great deal of the play without comedy.

The second shows how many more scenes are broadly comic if Miranda is played as a person with motivation and ambition.

Immediately the overall tone of the play is raised, injecting more light and therefore more shade.

And yes, playing The Tempest as a comedy alters the tone of parts to something more frivolous, but Prospero is always lurking about to ground the humour. And if these scenes are not played as humorous then the play sags.

It becomes more digestible to a wider audience who are offered a considerable amount of sugar to help swallow the bitter taste of Prospero’s revenge.

Plus of course, Shakespeare. One of the joys of his writing is the unparalleled ability to switchback between comedy, tragedy, pathos, bathos and any other tone he cares to strike. Often in a single line.

Plus watching two strangers meet and profess love without the joy of flirting is insufferably dull. Shakespeare has already demonstrated his mastery of portraying flirting couples. For example, Beatrice and Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing.

It’s bizarre to imagine in what Shakespeare knows to be his final play he would provide a limp romance, especially when in all other scenes he’s pulling out all the big guns of his theatrical armoury.

Aristotle.jpg

Aristotle. Roman copy in marble of Greek bronze bust by Lysippus c. 330 BC

So The Tempest needs Miranda to be funny, clever and spirited. Our interest in her romance relies on her being so. Shakespeare knows we will only approve of her sailing away to become queen of Naples if we warm to her. And no-one would ever warms the damp dishcloth she is commonly presented as being.

On a broader structural point, The Tempest is rare in being Shakespeare’s only second play after The Comedy of Errors to abide by the classical structure of the three unities.

Greek philosopher Aristole’s unities are limits placed upon the dramatist to restrict the use of time, place and action. Shakespeare’s sudden adoption of them in his final work seems a two fingered salute to the establishment for criticising his previous refusal to adhere these strictures.

The arc of Miranda

Miranda undergoes a remarkable journey of personal growth from immature desert island urchin to a commanding future queen of Naples. This is as fascinating a character arc as any in literature.

The Tempest opens with Miranda as a 14 year old, the same age as the doomed Juliet in Romeo and Juliet. In the Jacobean era of King James I she would be considered an adult woman.

King James I .jpg

King James I, by John de Critz the Elder (before 1647)

But having spent her life from the age of 2 on a desert island, she is suffering from arrested development and consequently acting like a child when we first meet her. This gap between her adult age and her childish behaviour is a seam of humour to be mined.

She shares the island with her father Prospero, the rapacious monster Caliban and Ariel the fairy. There’s not much to choose from in terms of romantic suitors there.

Caliban’s attempt at rape tells us she understands the sex act, but importantly she has not connected it to her own sexuality and doesn’t understand lust or the nature of romantic love.

However once Miranda spies Ferdinand, her sexuality is awakened, triggering her rise to adulthood and authority.

And Miranda sets out to pursue dominion over sex and love with all the single minded energy of the daughter of a man who has spent 12 years plotting revenge on his enemies.

Just like her father, Miranda knows no half measures when her mind is set. Indeed she surpasses Prospero’s expectations by dominating Ferdinand in a manner her father undoubtedly approves of.

Ferdinand.jpg

Reeve Carney as Ferdinand, The Tempest (Dir. Julie Taymore, 2010)

A great deal of the fun in The Tempest is seeing the arrogant and unsuspecting Ferdinand swept away by the force of Miranda’s assault. As Miranda becomes a woman, so Ferdinand becomes her plaything and a means to facilitate her ascent to the throne.

By the time Ferdinand claims all he wants is a quiet life, it is said with the absolute ruefulness of a man exhausted and spent.

Miranda proves to be the one wearing the metaphorical trousers. When they sail away to Naples to be wed, Miranda has outgrown her father and her ascent is complete.

Humour, sex and magic

Every character in The Tempest lies, plots or seeks to persuade another person to take a course of action. This is no less true of Miranda.

Only the faithful Gonzalo does so for the benefit of someone other than himself. In his case, the worst he is guilty of is painting an optimistic picture of the island in order to cheer the grieving Alonso.

Each performer has to emphasise the difference between what their character says and does.

When Ferdinand swears to Prospero he will respect Miranda’s virginity, the actor playing Ferdinand must communicate to the audience his character has absolutely no intention of abiding by his own words. He must project arrogant belief he is cynically seducing a hapless maid while pretending to be madly in love.

Similarly Miranda must demure to her father but be clear to the audience she shares Ferdinand intentions. She must offer supplication to Ferdinand’s smooth seduction while suggesting the awakening of ravenous desire which is about to consume the unsuspecting prince.

Plus it’s far funnier to suggest the young pair are at it like rabbits every time Prospero’s back is turned, rather than see them placidly obeying him.

How Miranda should be played

Act II begins with Miranda commanding her father to quell the storm she rightly suspects is his doing. She is fully aware of his power and his temper. Yet from her very first lines she is not the slightest bit afraid to face him down. From their very first exchange, Miranda and Prospero are engaged in a power struggle:

If by your art, my dearest father, you have Put the wild waters in this roar, allay them.

Feel the childish sarcasm in her first words ‘If by your art, my dearest father‘. Plus it tells us Miranda is aware of her father’s magic powers.

Prospero’s first words to Miranda and the audience are disingenuous:

Be collected: No more amazement: tell your piteous heart
There’s no harm done.

Yes, Prospero saves the passengers of the ship. But only in order to carry out his dastardly plan an punish them at leisure. And of course he created the storm in the first place. The doting father and daughter are vying for the upper hand from the off.

We learn Miranda is highly educated:

and here Have I, thy schoolmaster, made thee more profit Than other princesses can that have more time For vainer hours and tutors not so careful.

It is reasonable to assume Miranda has knowledge of her father’s magic. Just because it is not acknowledged on the page, it is possible to infer Miranda possesses magical ability and to demonstrate it on the stage.

Miranda loses interest in Prospero’s story of exile. He repeatedly demands she pay attention:

Thou attend’st not.

And:

Dost thou hear?

But why? Well, these pauses help focus the audience attention on the lengthy exposition.

But why is she so skittish? Especially when the story is about herself?

Consider Miranda has spent nearly her entire life incarcerated on the island with Prospero and familiarity has bred a casual if loving contempt. She has been indulged for years and is a victim of arrested development. Although 14 years old and therefore an adult, she acts with the attention deficit of a 4 year old .

Having received her father’s reassurances about the storm, she’s returned to playing with her toys and is in fact ignoring her fathers story. Her tone is bored. So now the scene has humour to liven up the reams of exposition. She offers sarcasm:

Your tale, sir, would cure deafness.

Prospero doesn’t reprimand Miranda. His repeated questioning of Miranda’s attention in this scene is usually attributed to his agitated state of mind. His years of plotting are coming to fruition and he has many characters to manoeuvre. But this limited reading of Miranda relegates her to an expository device, an empty listening jar, a thankless task for an actress and a more sombre play.

Prospero puts Miranda under a sleeping spell so he can discuss his plans with his servant Ariel. But is Miranda asleep? Does Prospero have the power he thinks over his daughter? Is she surreptitiously listening to all which is being said? Is Prospero being played by his daughter?

Miranda’s sarcasm is mirrored by Ariel later in the scene. He too offers Prospero sarcasm:

All hail, great master! grave sir, hail!

But unlike Miranda, Ariel is beaten down for his impudence. Even his slave Caliban subjects Prospero to open subordination:

There’s wood enough within.

So although Prospero is tremendously powerful, domestically he is challenged at every turn. This makes him a somewhat more sympathetic figure and softens his vindictive persona enough to make his redemption feasible.

As an aside, with its emphasis on performance and illusion, The Tempest is often read as an allegory for the theatre. Here Prospero’s domestic vicissitudes are a parallel for a troubled stage director trying to herd his cast in line his creative vision.

When Miranda first spies Ferdinand it is at Prospero’s behest. It’s the last time Prospero has control over his daughter, if indeed he ever had any. Miranda gasps:

I might call him A thing divine

Note Miranda’s objectification of Ferdinand as a thing. And she goes on pantingly:

The first That e’er I sigh’d for

And from here on Miranda’s character begins to develop as Ferdinand’s arrival triggers her sexual awakening.

Prospero seems to have no little idea of the potential of the strength of her character. Certainly the unsuspecting Ferdinand has no idea of the storm of  sexual aggression soon to be unleashed upon him.

Ferdinand sees Miranda as a cheap victory, quickly making a rash promise:

O, if a virgin, And your affection not gone forth, I’ll make you The queen of Naples

And we’ve no reason to suspect Ferdinand hasn’t made this offer countless times before. The greater the unthinking swagger in this scene, the further he falls later in the play.

Ferdinand freely admits through his flirtatious declaration:

Full many a lady I have eyed with best regard

With Prospero’s knowledge of court behaviour, he suspects full well the whole truth of Ferdinand’s statement of intent, causing the wizard to say:

this swift business I must uneasy make, lest too light winning Make the prize light.

But in his desire to protect his daughter and his own machinations, Prospero is hugely under-estimating his daughter.

Which takes us to Act 3.

When we see Ferdinand and Miranda alone on stage, the scene at face value is written as two lovers delivering lyrical but dramatically dull declarations of love.

But actually Shakespeare has gifted us a comic scene of one-upmanship where a predatory Ferdinand thinks he is is manipulating Miranda but actually he is doomed from the off.

Miranda may act the innocent but is in reality always one step ahead of her suitor. It is only at the end of the play Ferdinand comes to understand he has been played like a kipper and never stood a chance against his supposed prey.

Miranda is happy to deceive her father in order to pursue Ferdinand:

My father Is hard at study; pray now, rest yourself;

Note how the last two words are a command. She physically asserts herself over Ferdinand and wrestles him to the ground, the better to seduce him and emphasise her sexual conquest of him:

If you’ll sit down, I’ll bear your logs the while: pray, give me that

Again notice how the the last three words are a command. And Miranda establishes intimacy with Ferdinand by affecting the breaking a promise of not telling Ferdinand her name:

Miranda. O my father, I have broke your hest to say so!

Though she pretends to be unaware of her own behaviour, Miranda knows exactly what she is doing. There is a humorous gap between her fake naivety and aggressive pursuit of sexual experience:

The use of wood as a phallic symbol is not a modern invention:

for your sake Am I this patient logman.

Ferdinand freely admits his desire. And Miranda plays on his expectations by offering crocodile tears:

I am a fool To weep at what I am glad of.

..before drawing from Ferdinand a declaration of love:

Do you love me?

And extracts from him the promise of the throne which is her endgame:

My husband, then?

Note, she does not offer to be his wife, but he to be her husband. Ferdinand belongs to Miranda the same way Caliban and Ariel belong to her father. Ferdinand is Miranda’s ‘thing’, to play with as she wishes. She wishes to have sex and to take his throne.

And Miranda leaves a frustrated Ferdinand wanting more:

And mine, with my heart in’t; and now farewell Till half an hour hence.

We next meet the pair in Act 4 scene I.

They enter the stage. Lets have Miranda and Ferdinand blushed and with dishelved clothing, barely hiding their sexual activity from Prospero though clearly readable to the audience. If the scene is played as comedy it provides comic relief to the drama of previous scene and it lets the audience draw breath.

Plus it makes Prospero fallible and more likeable if the grand schemer fails to read what is happening under his nose. Is he blind or does he choose not to to see as a father may well choose to when his daughter becomes sexually active?

It adds humour to the scene if everything Miranda and Ferdinand say to Prospero is a lie, designed to hide the truth of their sexual activity from him.

When Ferdinand proclaims:

I warrant you sir; The white cold virgin snow upon my heart Abates the ardour of my liver.

Shakespeare here is piling deceit upon deceit as all three scheme against each other.

Prospero thinks he has the upper hand as Miranda is doing his bidding by becoming betrothed to Ferdinand.
Ferdinand thinks he has the advantage over Prospero having consummated his relationship with Miranda.
Miranda actually has Ferdinand utterly in her power. He is under her spell but doesn’t yet realise it.

Ferdinand is so dim as to what is really happening he tries to ingratiate himself with Prospero:

This is a most majestic vision, and Harmoniously charmingly.

While Prospero has been busy with his plans for Alonso, he even invites the pair to:

retire into my cell And there repose

at which the young lovers would be hard put to disguise their glee at being told to ‘rest’ together. Shakespeare wasn’t afraid to make his women sexually active. For example Juliet in Romeo and Juliet,  Titania in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or Cleopatra in Anthony And Cleopatra. Why not Miranda?

Then in Act V we next meet the lovers with the following stage direction:

Here PROSPERO discovers FERDINAND and MIRANDA playing at chess

And Miranda exclaims having been discovered inflagrante:

Sweet lord, you play me false.

With her words ‘Sweet lord’ as an exclamation of blasphemous surprise to herself and ‘you play me false’ directed not to Ferdinand but her father.

Ferdinand being not up to speed believes Miranda is talking to him:

No, my dear’st love, I would not for the world

And Miranda, on seeing her father with Alonso, berates him for any accusation of a double standard:

Yes, for a score of kingdoms you should wrangle, And I would call it, fair play.

Prospero seeks power in one way, she does it in another.

And Ferdinand, realising he has been caught with his trousers down, prostrates himself before Prospero and makes a plea for clemency:

Though the seas threaten, they are merciful; I have cursed them without cause.

And Miranda, upon seeing the crowd of courtiers, immediately recognises her universe and therefore her power base has expanded:

O, wonder! How many goodly creatures are there here! How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world, That has such people in’t!

And Prospero acknowledges Miranda’s journey to a sexually active adulthood, authority and independence and power over Ferdinand with the words:

Where I have hope to see the nuptial Of these our dear-beloved solemnized

Prospero accepts Ferdinand’s proposal not only because he is to be king of Naples and willing to make Miranda his queen, but because Miranda has Ferdinand’s arm twisted behind his back and she is clearly the one in command.

Miranda, child of Prospero and Shakespeare conquers the world

The Tempest is Shakespeare’s great goodbye to the theatre and a lyrical valedictory to his own career. If he uses Prospero as an on-stage proxy to deliver his last words, then what does Miranda represent?

Well, as all children are the creative endeavour of their parents, so Shakespeare’s canon are his children. Miranda symbolises his body of work, his great plays, sonnets and poems.

In the same way Prospero anticipates Miranda to rule not only Milan but Naples, Shakespeare expects his work to rule the kingdom of theatre long after his death.

Miranda symbolises Shakespeare’s work and encapsulates his desire for it to outlive and prosper without him. This is why Miranda deserves to be considered and portrayed as a character possessed of vitality, intelligence and wit. After all, if the bard considers her to be the epitome of his work, who are we to argue?

@ChrisHunneysett

17.04.2016

 

 

 

Oscar predictions 2016

Best supporting actor nominees
Sylvester Stallone, Creed
Christian Bale, The Big Short
Tom Hardy, The Revenant
Mark Ruffalo, Spotlight
Mark Rylance, Bridge of Spies

Best supporting actress nominees
Jennifer Jason Leigh, The Hateful Eight
Rooney Mara, Carol
Rachel McAdams, Spotlight
Alicia Vikander, The Danish Girl
Kate Winslet, Steve Jobs

Best actor nominees
Bryan Cranston, Trumbo
Matt Damon, The Martian
Leonardo DiCaprio, The Revenant
Michael Fassbender, Steve Jobs
Eddie Redmayne, The Danish Girl

Best actress nominees
Cate Blanchett, Carol
Brie Larson, Room
Jennifer Lawrence, Joy
Charlotte Rampling, 45 Years
Saoirse Ronan, Brooklyn

Best director nominees
Adam McKay, The Big Short
George Miller, Mad Max: Fury Road
Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, The Revenant
Lenny Abrahamson, Room
Tom McCarthy, Spotlight

Best film nominees
Spotlight
The Big Short
Bridge of Spies
Brooklyn
Mad Max: Fury Road
The Martian
The Revenant
Room

Oscars 2016

Best supporting actor nominees
Sylvester Stallone, Creed
Christian Bale, The Big Short
Tom Hardy, The Revenant
Mark Ruffalo, Spotlight
Mark Rylance, Bridge of Spies

Best supporting actress nominees
Jennifer Jason Leigh, The Hateful Eight
Rooney Mara, Carol
Rachel McAdams, Spotlight
Alicia Vikander, The Danish Girl
Kate Winslet, Steve Jobs

Best actor nominees
Bryan Cranston
, Trumbo
Matt Damon, The Martian
Leonardo DiCaprio, The Revenant
Michael Fassbender, Steve Jobs
Eddie Redmayne, The Danish Girl

Best actress nominees
Cate Blanchett, Carol
Brie Larson, Room
Jennifer Lawrence, Joy
Charlotte Rampling, 45 Years
Saoirse Ronan, Brooklyn

Best director nominees
Adam McKay, The Big Short
George Miller, Mad Max: Fury Road
Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, The Revenant
Lenny Abrahamson, Room
Tom McCarthy, Spotlight

Best film nominees
Spotlight
The Big Short
Bridge of Spies
Brooklyn
Mad Max: Fury Road
The Martian
The Revenant
Room

David Bowie & the movies

From Elvis to Mick Jagger and Madonna, most successful musicians gravitate to the big screen and David Bowie was no exception.

Relaxed on camera, practised at performing to cue and no stranger to adopting a stage persona, Bowie was a natural fit for cinema.

However his greatest contribution to cinema wasn’t his thespian ability or his music, but we’ll get to that in a bit.

Never one to repeat himself creatively, Bowie’s film career as an actor suffered for the same reason his recording career.

An inclination to experiment saw him explore creative opportunities with varying degrees of success.

His charisma, intelligence and otherworldly demeanour lent itself to portraying outlandish characters such as an alien, a vampire, a goblin king or a mad scientist, respectively in The Man Who Fell To Earth (1976) The Hunger (1983) Labyrinth (1986) and The Prestige (2006).

An audience watching these films would find it easy to suspend their disbelief with Bowie in these roles, the persistent suspicion being Bowie may have been one or all of these things in real life.

It’s far more difficult to imagine the onetime Ziggy Stardust as an ordinary person, so less successful were his attempts to essay straight roles such as his second world war P.O.W. in Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence (1983).

Unable to secure leading roles, there was a small role as Pontius Pilate in Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ (1992) while more typical were cameos such as in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992).

There were many TV appearances as himself, including one in the short lived Ian Le Frenais and Dick Clement scripted series, Full Stretch (1993).

Far from the best series from the creators of Whatever happened To The Likely Lads (1973-74) Bowie gamely played himself asleep in the back of a limousine.

Away from acting Bowie contributed the eponymous tracks to Cat People (1982) and Absolute Beginners (1986). Two great songs worthy of better films to accompany them.

The latter is a muddled British musical mostly remembered for launching Patsy Kensit onto an unsuspecting world.

Bowie’s singing and dancing contribution lifts the film in what is far less than the sum of its ambitious parts.

The former is a glossy retread of a 1942 classic horror and though a complete bomb on release, Bowie’s track is so good Quentin Tarantino used it as part of the soundtrack to Inglourious Basterds (2009).

Containing narrative based lyrics and dramatic swells, Bowie’s songs contain a cinematic air.

Plus the singer possessed non of the reluctant fear of, say The Beatles, to allow others to creatively use his music.

As a result Bowie’s tracks have been used in part or in whole in over 450 different movies.

This may not be a record for an individual artist but it feels like one.

Yes this includes concert recordings, documentaries and the like, but it’s still an impressive total.

The royalties accrued may have been a nice pension for a man who never retired but I feel he was at least equally interested to see how his music would be adapted and used.

Movie-makers have rewarded Bowie’s faith with a genre hopping mix of films.

From sci-fi such as Guardians Of The Galaxy (2014) to football drama The Damned United (2009) musicals Moulin Rouge! (2001) thrillers American Psycho (2000) and romcoms Pretty Woman (1990) all have benefitted from Bowie’s music accompaniment.

However it’s certain Bowie considered his greatest contribution to cinema to be his most unique and personal, his son.

Duncan Jones’ debut directorial effort was the tremendous sci-fi thriller Moon (2009). This was followed up by the tricksy time-bending action adventure Source Code (2011). Next up is the much anticipated mega budget big screen adaption of online game Warcraft (2016).

From performing to soundtracks and bequeathing cinema an exciting new directing talent, its an extensive legacy for a man who was primarily a rockstar.

David Bowie. 1947-2016

The 10 best films of 2015 (UK release)

When I stepped back to look at my list of the 10 best films of 2015, I noticed 4 of my choices are science fiction and a further 3 are animated.

Cinema is escapism and if I wanted real life I’d stay at home. When I go to the cinema I want to go to places I can’t go in real life. There’s no place I can’t go to more than outer space.

Any film holds the possibility for fully exploiting cinema’s epic potential if it combines intelligent storytelling, tremendous visuals, an out of this world scale and a sense of humour.

As ever it’s impossible to see every film released each year, and so the absence of drama 45 Years (2015) and documentary Amy (2015) shouldn’t be read as a judgement upon them.

However the absence of probably Oscar contender Carol (2015) is deliberate. You can read about here.

Top 10 films of 2015

1. Mad Max: Fury Road

George Miller’s barkingly brilliant reboot of his own 1979 action classic is an extraordinarily epic non-stop thrill-ride, an apocalyptic nitrous charge of pure cinema.

2. The Martian

Matt Damon was marooned on Mars in this breathless, big budget sci-fi adventure which rockets along to a disco beat. Who knew Ridley Scott could do funny?

3. Song of the Sea

This gorgeous Irish fairytale is a moving and magical adventure full of enchantment and transformation. Oscar nominated for Best Animated film.

4. Ex Machina

Sexy, sharp and stylish, this brilliant British sci-fi thriller explores man’s relationship to machines with verve, wit and polish. Alex Garland is happy to acknowledge the debt it owes to long running comic 2000AD.

5. Whiplash

An aspiring jazz drummer clashes with his menacing music teacher in this  exhilarating music masterclass. Won three Oscars including Best Supporting Actor for JK Simmons.

6. Big Hero 6

Disney gave us this hilarious, joyous and thrilling tale of a boy and his inflatable robot Baymax. Winner of the Oscar for best animated film.

7. Birdman

Michael Keaton soars in this extraordinarily ambitious black comedy about a desperate actor enduring a nervous breakdown. It’s funny, sexy, brave and bold. It won Oscars for Best Picture, Director, Original Screenplay and Cinematography.

8. The Tale of the Princess Kaguya

Magical and moving, this animated folktale of a young girl who comes of age is a charming, moving and beautifully crafted joy, bursting with humour and life.

9. Star Wars: The Force Awakens

A light speed blast of fun from this epic seventh and third best episode in the long running sci-fi saga. Fast, funny and visually spectacular. The force is strong in this one.

10. Spring

Little seen but fabulous horror of an American in Italy who falls for a mysterious girl. A gorgeous and terrifying love story. Narrowly edged out It Follows as best horror of the year.

And the best of the rest:

Horror 

It Follows

Documentary

Red Army

Precinct 75 

Western

The Salvation

Slow West

Bonus movie:

The return of Keanu Reeves in kick ass form as the puppy-loving assassin John Wick.

Top Ten worst films

1. Jupiter Ascending

2. Entourage

3. The Last Witch Hunter

4. The Boy Next Door

5. Seventh Son

6. Captive

7. The Visit

8. Vacation

9. Hot Pursuit

10. Everly