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Molly Haskell on feminism, censorship, screwball comedy, and life after Andrew Sarris

Editor's Note: Molly Haskell has one of the most essential voices in the history of film criticism. Whether it's her groundbreaking writing at The Village Voice or New York Magazine or her influential book From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies, her work changed the way we look at film and how we write  criticism. She was kind enough to discuss her career with us late last year. She has a new book out, Steven Spielberg: A Life in Films. She has also re-issued From Reverence to Rape in a new edition, with an introduction by New York Times film critic Manohla Dargis.

MZS: One of the things that fascinates me about From Reverence to Rape is that, in addition to being about what it’s about—the image and treatment of women throughout movie history—the book is also about what’s shown and what’s withheld, what’s said and what’s unspoken, and what effect that all has on the viewer. At times it seems as if you think that a bit of repression can be good for movies.

MH: I do. Well … it’s really plus and minus.

Last night I was watching "North by Northwest" and I thought, “That can’t be done anymore.” They can’t make films that have that kind of subtext, and I guess it’s because we don’t have the veneer of normalcy that that sort of movie depends on, or the veneer of oppression and everything else. But those scenes with Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint are so erotic, and also when he’s hating her. Do you remember the film?


OK, so after he’s almost been killed by the crop duster and he comes to her room, and he doesn’t tell her that he knows she’s behind it, it’s all there. But it’s—so full of hate and the hate is so close to eros that it’s just indistinguishable! So amazing! I don’t think there’s anything like that today.

I did a Q&A with Ed Sorel, who’s done this book on Mary Astor, with his cartoon drawings and everything, it’s just fabulous. Well, we were talking about “Dodsworth” and how sophisticated it is. It’s such an adult movie, because you know Ruth Chatterton is having affairs with all these people, but the movie doesn’t spell it all out. You see her go to her room, and you know it. And people were amazed by that because they knew how strong the Production Code was at that time in the Hays Office.

Ed said that was what was wrong with the movie of “The Maltese Falcon,” you needed to know that Humphrey Bogart and Mary Astor had gone to bed together. Do you think they went to bed together?

Oh, sure. I saw the movie for the first time before I read the novel and I just assumed they’d had sex. I think there’s something in the way they behave. Don’t you?

Oh yeah, absolutely.

Although now that you mention it, I guess the movie never comes right out and says they had sex.

It doesn’t, but you infer it. In that scene in "North by Northwest" with Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint in the train compartment, you know they’re going to do it for sure because they’re actually together in the same room, so there’s more of a lead-in to it. But you infer that, too.

You know, Andrew [Sarris] didn’t like the Code, he thought it was stifling in so many ways, and that it was ridiculous with all the happy endings and so forth. But there were ways in which movies made under the Code were more imaginative about relations between men and women.

Well, then, I want to read something to you. This is a passage that survived all the different editions of From Reverence to Rape, and it discusses this idea that movies became more “sophisticated” in the 60s and 70s: “We’re lost in our freedom, longing to feel urgency and necessity, the preciousness of time and love and light, the irrecoverableness of a decision. But when anything is possible, nothing is special.” And then you write:

“Women have grounds for protest, and film is a rich field for mining the female stereotype. At the same time, there is a danger of going too far the other way, of grafting a modern sensibility onto the past so that all film history becomes grist in the mills of outraged feminism. If we see stereotypes in films, it is because stereotypes exist in society. Too often we look at roles from the past in light of liberated positions that have only recently become thinkable.”

Well that’s more true today, I think.

Orson Welles and all these people said they didn’t like sex scenes because it absolutely broke the illusion or atmosphere or line about whatever’s going on. Character stops, plot stops, and you’re looking at bodies.

And yet we don’t tend to have that same reaction watching violence, which is interesting.

Sex makes us self-conscious and violence doesn’t. I think sex sets off … and violence, to a degree … an involuntary adrenaline rush.

But it’s a really interesting question: why sex makes people self-conscious and violence doesn’t. 

I think there’s a self-consciousness that happens with sex in movies, but I haven’t analyzed it.

Maybe it’s because everyone’s had sex, but not everyone’s suffered violence or something? That can’t be it, though, because there are war veterans and other survivors of violence who are able to enjoy violent films. 

I think there’s a kind of identification with the characters in a film who are perpetuating violence. I think it’s mostly men who get off on that, though some women do, too.

Maybe it’s part of what you say: everybody does have sex, but movie sex sets up a comparison: ‘This is great sex, and my sex isn’t great.’ 

Or, “How tame compared to what I would do!” I hear that in reviews sometimes, too.

I think that bears what I’m saying: movie sex sets up some kind of comparison, and one way or another, you’re left feeling wanting.

This is all consistent with arguments you make throughout From Reverence to Rape. The first edition came out in 1974. I would imagine there was a risk of being perceived as culturally conservative for saying things like what you just said about “North by Northwest.” There was a consensus in the early '70s that American cinema had finally taken its corset off and was finally going to be a grown-up artistic medium, because now filmmakers could show whatever they wanted. You didn't buy that.

Where my book actually ran into the most trouble was with the party-line feminists, like Ms. Magazine, which chose not to run an excerpt because of my thesis that women had been better off in movies when the studios ran things. This ran counter to their idea of progress: the belief that women in movies were doing better in the ‘70s. 

Eventually, everybody saw that they weren’t—that they had more roles, and more interesting roles, in older movies.

Even though the great female stars of the 1930s and ‘40s didn’t have the financial control over their destiny that they do now, they had more input into their own image. Material was chosen for them, and they sought material out.

Yes. And that’s how they carved out a persona that audiences gravitated to, in film after film. You knew what it meant to see a Bette Davis film, or a Katharine Hepburn film.

What I and so many other women didn’t see is that when you’re in the middle of a revolution, you just focus on “We must have this and that,” but you don’t see the downside: what are we gonna lose with this? And also, what happens to things that are not susceptible to political reeducation?

Such as?

Fantasies of submission. Of wanting the wrong man. You’re not going to suddenly want the right man because you’re a feminist.

Nora Ephron doing her little rip-offs, or spin-offs, or whatever they were, of older movies, like “An Affair to Remember” in “Sleepless in Seattle”: that says to me that something in us still wants that, something like that. Forever. The forever love, the soulmate love, which those older films represented.

Should movies concern themselves what we should want, with making us better, healthier people in some way? 

There’s nothing wrong with that. We can change. We can improve. I think that’s true. That thinking is opposed to the fatalistic, European view.

But there’s something to be said for European fatalism, I think you’d agree.

Well, yes, that’s what everybody loved about noir! There were no happy endings, and the women were irredeemable in a certain way. 

You’re skeptical of the idea that all the male auteurs who came up in the 1970s, like Francis Coppola, Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielbergwho you just wrote a book about—were really as great as everyone says, because they didn’t seem very interested in women.

"The Movie Brats." That’s what they called them. 

Orson Welles was a god to all these young male filmmakers. It was exciting that they were so aware of earlier movies and directors and they were incorporating them into new movies, but it was all about their personal style and expression. The whole Spielberg thing comes out of that era, the late 60s/early 70s, when directors wanted Hollywood money to make non-Hollywood films, and were able to do so for a brief period. 

But since they weren’t tied to one studio, they didn’t have to satisfy the idea of making sure you have a woman in a major role in your film, or making male movies that also had some appeal for a female audience.

And that development was just huge. Especially for the female audience, huge. 

And it was a marketing decision. The whole development of movies as properties was built on the idea that you had to keep both men and women in mind. And now suddenly, in the ‘60s and ‘70s, here came these directors who didn’t know how to use women, and didn’t have to anyway. 

And at the same time, here the women’s movement was, demanding equality.

And that’s what the ‘70s Neo-Women’s films are about: this moment when women don’t want just marriage, but they also don’t know what they do want. 

The question these movies asks is, “Who am I, and what is my identity once it’s not defined by marriage?

I’m doing a piece for an anthology where you write about your favorite film of the early 70s, the “golden age.” I decided to do an example of what I call the neo-Women’s Film, things like “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore” ... 

Which you wrote about at some length in From Reverence to Rape.

Yes. [The editor of the anthology] felt I was hard on the neo-women’s film, so I’m re-examining them and my own responses. That’s a whole complicated thing, I won’t even get into that.

But yeah, I think there it was some sort of a shock because I was so accustomed to the great roles of the great heroines of the 1930s and ‘40s who projected strength, even if it was a fantasy. 

I notice that when you talk about the Neo-Women’s picture of the '70s, you can list examples of them  quickly and be done with it. There weren’t that many at all because—as you have pointed out pretty regularly—in the late 1960s and throughout the ‘70s, movies became a boys’ game. You feel that while ‘70s was liberating for American cinema in certain ways, it was not liberating for women. 

No, not for women. The older directors in that wave, like Altman, Allen and Paul Mazursky, all had women featured prominently, and so did Arthur Penn. But the younger ones, like Scorsese and Coppola, really didn’t—although I looked again at Coppola’s “The Rain People,” with Shirley Knight, and I think it’s actually pretty good. It shows the schizophrenia of the period. Shirley Knight hits the road, which is something men usually do in movies! Women don’t just end the marriage and walk out and hit the road. 

But then, even though this movie came out when women in the movement are out there fighting against the whole glamour thing, there’s Shirley Knight wearing the same old dress the whole time, night and day night and day in motels, yet her hair is always just perfect, so glamorous looking and shiny and blow-dried and all that! 

This is the double-standard. You can never get away from the importance of appearance and youth for women. There it all is. And I think we’re still fighting it all the time. 

That’s what I like about Amy Schumer and some of these newer women comics who started out in TV. They are a mess, and they don’t get better! They get drunk, they get wasted, laid, and they revel in bad behavior. It’s one of the things I write about briefly in my review of “Elle”: it used to be that we loved these bad women, like Barbara Stanwyck in “Double Indemnity,” because they were the exception in a way, because we had been fed all these goody-goody women. That’s what was refreshing about Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O’Hara, because women like that really were irredeemable and dark and didn’t behave the way women, or certainly ladies, were supposed to behave. That was all tremendously refreshing. 

And now, everybody wants to play bad. But I think that can become a cliché, too.

I remember a piece you wrote for the New York Times in 1997, about a remastered version of “The Godfather.” It was called The World of the Godfather: No Place for Women. You talked about how the famous closing image, Michael Corleone shutting the door on his wife Kay, unknowingly predicted what was about to happen to women in cinema in the 1970s. 

One of the things we’ve failed to appreciate is just how deep and ingrained the fear of women is. We see this now in what’s going on with Trump and his followers. So much of it is just sheer gut reflexive misogyny and fear of the strong mother, a fear that’s been around as long as men have been born of women. 

What’s fascinating about this whole incredibly important conversation about the language of the predatory male that came about because of Trump is that so many just automatically dismiss it as locker room lingo. Women have, since time immemorial, been the property of men. For them suddenly not to be, that’s a radical reorientation.

And that plays into this other quote I like. You write, and this is of this late ‘60s-early ‘70s movement of filmmaking: 

“Women are no longer the focus of the director’s passion but the satellites of his alter ego. Where you once watched Paul Henreid light Bette Davis’s cigarette and lift her from spinster into smoldering sensitivity and passion, or Elizabeth Taylor being given in marriage to Don by her father in “Father of the Bride,” we were, by the ‘70s in Summer of ’42, watching Oskie and Hermie and their dates watching…Now, Voyager, and in The Last Picture Show we were watching Jeff Bridges and his date watching Liz Taylor…We were watching ourselves watching movies, but only from the man’s point of view. In the [1970s] coming-of-age story, the women figured only incidentally in the man’s struggle for maturity.”

That’s still true. 

That’s right!

That passage ties together the male auteur worship of the '70s—which is still being practiced in a different form today—and this recurring note you strike, of men hating women because women are the creators of life.

Or revering them because they are.

The angel or the whore.


You know, Ellen Burstyn talks in an interview on the DVD of “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore” about the script, how they felt they needed to “rough it up,” that it read too much like a Doris Day-Rock Hudson comedy. That made me think about Doris Day and what she represented, and how the male movie brat phenomenon was a collective reaction against the Doris Day movie in all its aspects: the shiny studio perfectionism and the snappy dialogue and the whole package.

But it was also specifically a reaction against Doris Day, who was quite threatening in a way. If you look at those movies, it’s always her and a dubious male—not just Rock Hudson, but Tony Randall and all those various people.

Not rough guys. There’s not a John Wayne or Robert Mitchum in there anywhere.

Not at all! [Laughs] And men felt that if they went to those kinds of movies at all, it was emasculating. They thought of Doris Day as emasculating.

So I think there’s a compensatory thing happening in those 1970s movies [by male auteurs]. A lot of it is male flight from women, and from feminism, and from all the threats feminism represents.

How did you feel about the reception of From Reverence to Rape when it first came out, and how do you think people feel about it today?

At the time, a lot of people treated it as some kind of jeremiad, and I don’t see that. I think it is critical and, as you have seen, both sides are in there. They have to be, I think.

I think that’s the difference between politics and ideology. You shouldn’t paint movies in broad brushstrokes and describe them in either/or terms.

One example is the dichotomy of the male gaze. It became very popular to use that phrase, “the male gaze.” Movies are made by men, and the way movies look at women is male. They treat women as objects, and of course there’s a lot of that. But it’s also true that women enjoy looking at men in movies, too.

Yes. And they looking at other women as well as men, and they go to the movies to admire many things that are not people.

I had a conversation with a friend of mine years ago about the films of Michael Mann, and he said, “I think they’re marvelous films, and here we are talking about them as if they’re very deep and serious works of art, but on another level, aren’t they just Nancy Meyers films for dudes?” Like, “Look at this beautiful house and kitchen, now let’s walk along the beach,” but instead of talking about whether they’re going to go out on a date with that cute dentist, they’re brooding and looking out at the waves and thinking about robbing a bank.

Your friend is absolutely right, and the fact that we don’t look at them as in any way similar is the sexist heart of it all, really. Because one is treated as trivial, the other is auteurist and imaginative and visually beautiful, all of that, which is a higher order of art than the Nancy Meyers films. 

I mean, that one with De Niro, "The Intern," is just very funny and loving!

A double feature of “Heat” and “The Intern” would be interesting.

And you should introduce it and discuss why you paired them! I’ll come with you and we’ll talk about that!

You know, Andrew used to talk about “the male weepies,” the idea that there were all these movies men would go nuts over and think they were better than “women’s weepies” because they were supposedly about more important subjects.

What are some examples of male weepies?

Well, “Bicycle Thieves” would be one. And a lot of war movies.

What, like “The Deer Hunter”?

Maybe, yeah.

Male weepies are often about how men can’t cry.

Well that’s the thing in writing the Spielberg book that I sort of figured out as I was doing it. Martin Amis has a quote somewhere about how he loves Spielberg because his movies make grown men cry, and when Spielberg was making “E.T.”, he was telling [the film’s screenwriter] Melissa Mathison he was afraid that men wouldn’t like it. In fact men loved it, because it gave them permission to cry somehow.

I don’t quite understand it, but he really got to men—I mean, science fiction is often more of a male genre, but on an emotional level, with that film, he reached men equally with women.

I think maybe because he reconnected with childhood, when it was okay to cry still.

Exactly, exactly.

You wrote in Love and Other Infectious Diseases, and really in all your books, about being a Southern woman. You use the phrase “Southern belle" a lot, and not just in relation to films like “Gone with the Wind” and “Jezebel” that have these white spitfire heroines. You described your friend Billy in Love and Other Infectious Diseases as being “deceptively genial in the style of the transplanted Southerner, because if he was as easygoing as they appeared to be, these refugees would never have left easygoing Alabama, or Lubbock, Texas, or Richmond, Virginia, for the prickly, restless, anonymity of New York.”

There’s a lot of stuff in your books to that effect.

I guess I’m still wrestling with it.

I want to talk about that some more. In From Reverence to Rape, especially, but also your other work, you seem aware of yourself as someone who’s slightly politically or socially out of step with your contemporaries, even in 1974. You bring that to the way that you respond to older movies, in relation to the new kind that were coming down the pike then.

You think I was more conservative? I didn’t feel that at the time.

Well ...

I was conservative in that I felt women were better off in some ways before the movies changed. That was considered retrograde by feminists because were supposedly in this great new era. But now I think the idea was ahead of its time. Unfortunately, as Manohla points it out in her preface, it’s almost truer now than it was then, that women are squeezed.

But conservative? I don’t know. I was always a Democrat. My family would’ve been Republican of course, they were conservative southerners. I was never somebody who marched. I had never been extremely political. I’m interested and involved, but I don’t think movies …

I’m sorry, I don’t mean to put you on the spot.

No, it’s fine.

I just get a sense, particularly in a lot of your writing from the '70s and '80s of, “Hold on a minute: are we really moving forward here?”

OK, yes. Absolutely. And this has always been my impulse, because I think every era likes to think it’s so unique and more enlightened.

I get upset with what I think are simplistic political attitudes in film that are completely one-sided. I guess there’s also a place for one-sidedness too, for propaganda and making a case, but I’m just more interested in the nuances. The one-sided approach lets us off the hook in a way: if we see "12 Years a Slave" and think, “Oh, that awful South,” then we’re somehow exonerated or feel superior, as if never would’ve done that or whatever. We can feel morally self-righteous.

There’s a really good piece by Tim Clarke, an end-piece in the book section of The New York Times Book Review: “Should Novels Aim for the Heart or the Head?” He quotes Muriel Spark, about how she feels this whole idea of emotional identification with characters allows us to feel that we’re sympathetic, good people without really doing anything at all. He’s making an extreme argument, but there’s something to it.

I tend to resist any preconceived pattern of forcing films into a Procrustean theory that denies the complexity of what viewing identification is. I think you can almost feel a kind of self-censorship in a lot of the writing about film now. It’s almost obligatorily political now. It has to cover that, it has to cover the political angles, even if the reviewer might not be inclined to do so.

I wonder if perhaps there aren’t two separate issues here, though. One is that the industry is only now starting to open its doors to women and people of color, and that’s a business issue. But the other issue is this idea that only a person of a specific gender, race or ethnicity can tell this story of that person from that group. A reaction to decades of people of color and women seeing white men tell their stories and getting it wrong. 

But there are times when maybe a man is better able to identify with a woman than a lot of women are. A lot of directors in the past proved that.

You’ve written about how George Cukor was able to do that.

Exactly, and I think the crazy combination of Cukor and [Victor] Fleming was one of the things that made “Gone with the Wind” work, these two directors’ sensibilities.

Ideally, we should be able to embrace characters not of your own sex. An artist ought to be able to. If they can’t, you should wonder why. Philip Roth is a pretty great writer but is really unable to be interested in a woman for her own sake. Norman Mailer is that way, too. And there are women who, correspondingly, are completely tone-deaf to men.

But ideally we should hope for filmmakers who are able to imagine the lives of other people who aren’t like them, and be critical when we don’t see that.  It should be considered one of the criteria by which we judge an artist, his ability to identify with or empathize with other people. But it should be one criteria. 

I’m really interested in how you see me as conservative. I mean, I know I am conservative in certain ways. I’m always shocked when I meet somebody and they ask “Where are you from?” and I realize I have a Southern accent, and I don’t think of it! I guess if I wanted to completely disassociate from the South I would’ve gotten rid of my accent and I didn’t, but I don’t think of myself as Southern. I think the South has held the country hostage all these years, ever since the Civil War. I think they’ve they’ve gotten away with awful things. They should’ve seceded! I really almost think that! I’m so anti-much of the South. But I also have a lot of fondness for the individual people.

Perhaps your attitude towards the American South is not too dissimilar from your attitude towards Hollywood movies.

Yes! In general, they’re awful, but in particular, they’re pretty great!

It’s been over four years since you lost Andrew. How are you doing?

Oh, I’m doing fine right now. There are ups and downs. My main concern now is that I don’t have the energy to do what I want to be doing. I just … I mean, I would’ve been at New York Film Festival every day if I could. I’ve gone through a really bad depression.

There are all these passages in Love and other Infectious Diseases where you describe what it feels like to be in this house without him, while he’s undergoing medical treatment or recovering from it and you’re by yourself, contemplating the life you’ve built together as it’s manifested in your home, in the décor, the books and so forth. Those bits sent a chill down my spine because when you wrote them, Andrew was alive, and now it’s more than twenty years later and he isn’t. I felt like I was reading a series of premonitions.

It’s terrible, it’s really terrible. And he was quite ill at the end, and I thought … I thought that when he went, it was time for him to go. It was the perfect time for him to go, it really was. It was just going to get worse. But you don’t always remember that, and you always look back to the other times, and nothing prepares you for it, either.

The other thing is, Andrew and I became who we were in relation to each other, probably more than couples who have children, because it was just the two of us. I’ve really have to go through something that has taken much longer than I would’ve liked, of redefining myself, and the space I take up almost—metaphysically, I guess, as well as physically.

Do you feel different now, as a person, without Andrew?

In one way: I think my mind is broader. I’m just talking to myself about movies and politics all the time, whereas when Andrew was alive, part of me was always moving towards him in some way. When you’re attached to somebody, those threads are just so powerful that you’re just … well … it’s very hard to define.

There are certain movies I can’t look at, John Ford movies and others, films that he liked. I just can’t. But others, I think, “Andrew, you wouldn’t like this because you’re so old fashioned, and I like this.” We had divergent tastes about contemporary stuff while he was alive. Now I’m thinking for myself in a way I didn’t before.

I mean, I don’t actually refer to him. And it’s not a conversation in the sense that I’m trying to talk to him. It’s a conversation with myself, or a monologue. But … what I mean is, I think I’m reaching for things and discovering things that maybe would’ve been stunted in some ways. I think that the thing about that kind of closeness is … it does curtail … I mean, I don’t want to say, it’s nto that you don’t think independently, but …

I know what you mean.

It’s somehow attached to, or encased in, coupledom.

I think about that a lot. I lost my wife 10 years ago. I had the kind of relationship with her that I think you had with Andrew.  I think I’m probably a more substantial person than when she was alive. But I feel strange saying that.

It’s like the only good thing, in a way.

Yes, but it’s also like, “Did she have to die for the sake of my personal growth?”

That’s what it’s like! It’s like personal growth. It’s exactly that. Oh, that’s horrible.

But your mind is freer in some ways.

Yes—and yet I also feel I’ve incorporated her into myself.

Very much, very much. It’s almost sort of automatic that you’re not talking to them anymore, they’re just there and sometimes they pop up, or something.

One really hard thing for me is, Andrew was always my first reader, and he was fantastic, just everything I wrote I’d have the first paragraph and ask, “Should I do this or this?” He’d know right away. “Was it too much?” Everything. I don’t have anybody I can trust like that the way I trusted him because I think everybody was competitive or something. 

But now that the [Spielberg] book is out, I’m a wreck, because when Andrew was here, he cushioned everything. I couldn’t be that much of a wreck when I was with him, I couldn’t be. Now I’m not sleeping, and I think I don’t care about it, I think I’m detached from it, but I’m not, and I can’t be. And also, the other thing is that you and all of you and the younger critics are so smart and so up on everything, and know every camera movement, every this, every that. And it’s just daunting! You know? Keeping up.

I hope you realize that a lot of us wouldn’t do what we do if we hadn’t read your books.

Oh, that’s nice. 

From Reverence to Rape certainly challenged me, politically and formally, in college. But another thing that was really important—and I didn’t understand this until much later—is that your writing gave me permission to admit that I’m an unfinished person, you know? You’re grappling with contradictory insights and influences and desires on the page, and the lack of resolution is the point of a lot of your writing. It’s like you’re saying, “It’s OK. We don’t have to pick a side here.”

I think Andrew influenced me that way. He was so curious about how a movie looked a year later, or two years later. It was the opposite of Pauline [Kael], who I don’t believe never saw a movie twice. Andrew was always saying, “this is provisional.” Everybody acted as though American cinema was written in stone, and Andrew was the first one to say, “I was too hard on Billy Wilder, and this person, and that person.” I think it’s fun to recognize one’s own biases! That can be exciting and illuminating! 

As much as you’re writing about the subjects you’re writing about in your film criticism, there are moments where wonder if you aren’t also writing about your relationship with Andrew.

Absolutely, you’re right.

I went to Paris in May, and “Princess Yang Kwei-Fei” was playing at some little revival house, and I’d never seen it. Andrew was such a Kenji Mizoguchi fan, that’s why I went to see it.

And so I go down these steps into this dark basement room, and it’s full. It’s tiny, but it’s full. And nobody’s on their cell phones. It’s like the church, it’s the temple of cinema. And I was thinking about writing about that because in ’62, Andrew and I were both in Paris on the left bank but we didn’t know it, both going to old movies, and so I thought I would do something about how our relationship and the cinephilia of the time sort of converged. I might still do something about that.

You know, I never saw a screwball comedy growing up, or if I had I’d seen “Calamity Jane” or something, but they were before my time and I didn’t see them till later. The screwball comedy, that was what I wanted. I did not want suburbia, I did not want domesticity. I wanted that. The screwball comedy.

Were you and Andrew starring in your own screwball comedy? When you’re writing about the screwball comedies in particular—the bantering comedies—I sometimes feel as if I’m reading your love letters to Andrew. In Love and other Infectious Diseases, there are a lot of phrases where you’re describing Andrew that are similar to the way you describe Spencer Tracy in From Reverence to Rape!

[Laughs] The trouble with that is, that comparison got used by Andrew and Pauline [Kael] in their big feud, so that sort of tarnished it!

How do you mean?

I guess he said, of our marriage, “Yeah, it’s like Hepburn and Tracy” and somebody said to Pauline, “He’s no Spencer Tracy!” and he said, “Well, she’s no Katharine Hepburn!” [Laughs]

I do like the Tracy/Hepburn movies, though, because they’re about what those Hawks couples turn into when they get older. I mean, there’s something infantile in the Hawks films that I guess I respond to! [Laughs] It’s something very anti-domestic. But the Hepburn-Tracy films are escapist, too, in that way. You can’t imagine Tracy and Hepburn having the little house with children, and you can’t imagine what kind of children they’d have, and that’s okay, because you don’t have to think about any of that. That’s not something those movies are interested in.

That’s a bit of what made Tracy and Hepburn movies escapist for me. They didn’t have children, and they had enough money to do whatever they were doing.

I never thought of the Hepburn/Tracy comedies as wish-fulfillment fantasies for couples who never wanted to have kids. But now that you put it that way, I can totally see it.

The two genres that always gave you that were screwball comedies and noir.

But you know, in general, movies were more child-free in the studio days than movies today. There’s tons of children around now, whether in TV or movies, more than then there were then. That’s one of the things people don’t talk about when they talk about old movies, the lack of children.

Why didn’t old movies have as many children as movies today?

Because the movies were our fantasies. One of the big fantasies that American movies sold was that somehow you could fall in love and marry for romance, and that could continue. But it really can’t. And I was determined to make it continue. I don’t think it can continue when you have children, because when you have children you have to re-calibrate everything.

It’s all about them, suddenly.

It’s all about them, and I’m a selfish person. People write about how parents today, especially today, are worried all the time about children. I hope you’re not worried all the time about yours.

I am. But I get used to it.

I know it’s worth it, I know it is! But it’s a whole different thing.

You’ve written about that a lot: the unrelenting pressure to have kids, and what it costs a woman to rebel against it. That's one of the ways in which your writing is classically feminist, defending a woman's decision not to have kids.

And that’s still a hard argument to make. I think it’s more accepted now than it was when then [in 1974], but it’s still hard to make. I had a huge fight about this with [the film critic] David Thomson via email. We were both being very extreme, and he was saying what he wouldn’t have done without his two sons, and all the rest of it. One point he made that rang true for me was that part of the appeal of parenting is the fascination of just watching these minds form. But that’s not a reason to have children, I don’t think. And you know, although it’s gotten a bit better now, women who have children are still more likely to become hostage to the daily routine and responsibility of raising children, more so than men. And I didn’t know how I could do that.

And still have a career?

I didn’t even really think I was having a career at the time, so it wasn’t because of that. I was really unformed. I wasn’t coming from anything doctrinaire.

You wrote in Love and Other Infectious Diseases:

“As so often happens in marriage, roles that had begun almost playfully to give line and shape to our lives had hardened like suits of armor and taken us prisoner. They weren’t exactly false, just too narrow and ill-fitting for the ways in which we’d expanded, changed each other over the course of 15 years. We were a long running comedy routine: Laurel and Hardy, Jack and Mrs. Sprat. We didn’t dare play against type or risk losing our audience, ourselves, our friends. If we were a combination that no right thinking biologist or horse breeder would’ve brought together, nevertheless, we seemed to mesh symbiotically like one of those ocean hybrids: the clam and the algae.”

“The clam and the algae!” [Laughs]

And then you have this one, and it’s quite lovely, about watching "The Searchers" with Andrew: 

“I felt an added frisson as I watched the ending. Heretofore I had always identified with [John] Wayne, the aggressor-hero of The Searchers, but this time I felt like the Natalie Wood character, that unconscious pull towards surrender and annexation. In this duet, I was suddenly the reclaimed daughter, embraced and forgiven by a father whom she had dishonored. Andrew and I had long defended Wayne against the derisive oversimplifications of the left: he was a quintessential movie actor, his career full of subtleties and tensions, quiet brushstrokes that contradicted the flag-waving, jingoistic image described to him. But I know on that instinctual level I was drawn to him by his resemblance to my father, with whom he shared that mix, not as contradictory as we would like to be of macho, arch-conservatism and feminine gentleness.”

That business about John Wayne’s feminine qualities being part of his charisma: that’s fascinating to me, because there are points in From Reverence to Rape where you also talk about Cary Grant that way—specifically about the feminine aspects of Cary Grant.

I felt that last night again looking at Cary Grant. It’s amazing. But it’s so subtle. Ah!

Here’s another one, and this really touched me, about Andrew: 

“For at home, with me alone, no one was sweeter and more courtly, a true Galahad. Indeed, in a marriage that was much like a perpetual courtship, he was like a 12th century troubadour paying homage to his lady. As Maurice Valency describes him in his wonderful book In Praise of Love, ‘The courtly lover desires not so much to be possessed as to be accepted.’”

That’s interesting, the whole idea of possession.

I think that’s something that has changed in relationships. Maybe it’s one reason they’re more difficult now, because you don’t have the clearly defined lines of the male possessing the woman and the woman wanting to be possessed. That was kind of ingrained, and it was considered acceptable because it was all we knew, and because it was all we knew, therefore it became the right thing. Not just the thing you had to do, but the right thing, to be submissive or to take your orders. Patriarchy.

You can’t just get rid of that, of those impulses, in one or two generations, I don’t think. They’re still there.

That’s what I think we failed to take into account in feminism. I think we still want it. Screwball comedies show us that we can want it and not have it be destructive. That’s because in a good marriage, you can play both of those roles.

The male and female archetype? The possessor and the possessed?


And that’s what the great love stories and screwball comedies are. I mean, you don’t think of one person as dominant. You don’t think of male dominance and female submission. You think of the always-changing dynamics, but it’s done in such a way, whether it’s “Bringing Up Baby” or the Hitchcock movies.

People dismiss Hitchcock with, “He loves to see blondes in danger,” but the dark-haired man in his movies is in just as much danger! And to see Cary Grant in that white, white shirt and tie and suddenly he’s crawling on the ground? Ah! He’s got all these people after him, and he’s in Eva Marie Saint’s hands, and he’s so cool when he comes to see her.

I think that’s such a great scene because he could just say, “You sent me to my death.” He never says that to her …but he knows, and she doesn’t yet know that he knows, and he’s enjoying the power he has of knowing, but he’s also enjoying being completely the victim, in a way, of her. He’s enjoying hating her and blaming her and not saying what he knows. It’s just incredibly complicated. Later on, when they become sort of lovey, he says, “Hating is so much fun.”

There is something fun in that hatred! I think it’s something people in analysis have to come to terms with, women especially, with anger that they don’t want, or don’t want to acknowledge. It’s a very freeing kind of thing to feel, that hate is part of it! You have to hate somebody that you love so much that you’re dependent on him, someone who has power over you! You can’t not hate him a little bit!

I think Andrew and I always knew that, and it didn’t come out that often, but it probably did come out in other ways. I remember one year I went to Telluride with Andrew, and he was being honored. I loved it, I loved just being there for him, and I wasn’t important. But a man can’t feel that in the same way. If Andrew’s being celebrated, it reflects on me, I’m bathing in the reflected glory. But if the wife is the one being celebrated, the husband gets nothing out of it. Well, maybe he does nowadays, I don’t know. 

I think every marriage has a very mysterious and organic thing that takes place on the unconscious level, where you’re constantly changing and re-enforcing each other, and you have a vested interest in keeping together. Then later on, you see it maybe as better than it was, you know? I think I idealized our relationship in many ways.

But I also think it took shape somehow around and through movies, and maybe was also improved by that template.

If it’s all right with you, I want to zero in on Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn or Rosalind Russell, or whoever he’s with in the Howard Hawks couples, versus the Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn pairings.


I get the feeling that you feel the Hawks pairings are more ideal because the women and the men are more evenly balanced in terms of power. With Tracy and Hepburn, although they have a great deal of affection for one another, he’s always the more sympathetic of the two, because he doesn’t have to change and she always does.

I think men of that time did not like Hepburn. She was too threatening, too full of herself and all the rest of it.

Tracy brings her to heel.

That’s right. And there’s also something a little bit sexless about the two of them at that point. Whereas with the Grant and Hawks ones, it’s more electric.

Oh, you can tell. You can tell those couples in Howard Hawks movies always have the hots for each other.

Yes! You feel this huge attractive impulse. You feel that a little with Tracy and Hepburn but there’s something a little older and more resigned, or more settled, about them. And also, those Tracy and Hepburn movies end in domesticity, and a lot of the other screwball comedies never do. Well, that’s not quite true, "Woman of the Year" ends in domesticity. But often they don’t.

Cary Grant’s characters have many of the same impulses as Tracy’s characters in the films with Hepburn, but unlike Tracy, Grant doesn’t get to have the things he wants, and that’s what makes those movies so funny. His frustration becomes part of the texture of the film.

The woman never caters to him. [Laughs]

No. Grant’s character wants the woman to be more submissive or pliant, but it never happens.

And that’s fine, because it’s only what he thinks he wants.

Matt Zoller Seitz

Matt Zoller Seitz is the Editor at Large of, TV critic for New York Magazine and, and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in criticism.

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