All The World's A Stage
"In Love In Vain:
Classic Women's Films"
Oak Street Cinema
Tuesdays through February 6
WOMEN'S PICTURES MIGHT signify most strongly to women viewers, but they definitely aren't for anyone of either gender who's averse to dealing with strong feelings--on the screen or otherwise. Exploring the relative merits of selfishness and self-sacrifice, companionship and independence, sex and sisterhood, and the thin line between love and hate, the greatest women's pictures are intense entertainments that measure the distance between a tear-stained eye and a stiff upper lip.
Both the new Georgia and the old women's picture classics at Oak Street Cinema this month are no less cerebral than passionate, and more dense than they may seem: Offering a wealth of emotional detail and psychosexual subtext, they can't help being open to interpretation. On the surface, Georgia is about sisters and music and chemical addiction, although, like the other best films of '95, its plot is merely the conduit for a much deeper story: in this case, one about the different ways we make and interpret art, and the different ways we choose to live our lives and judge their worth. And it's a masterpiece.
Even aside from an unusually smart script and the transcendent acting
of Jennifer Jason Leigh and Mare Winningham, Georgia's finest achievement is that it allows viewers to make up their own minds about which of its musician sisters--the preppie, seemingly perfect Georgia (Winningham) or the punkish, blatantly imperfect Sadie (Leigh)--is the better artist or healthier person. Both sisters are born performers who carry their stage personas home: Georgia is a smooth, earnest folksinger with a dedicated fan base (think Joni or Mary Chapin-Carpenter); Sadie is a bar-band screamer who manages to earn just enough money to keep herself intoxicated (think Janis or Courtney Love). Offstage, Georgia's calm, condescending manner seems a response to Sadie's chaos, which may itself be Sadie's way of getting back at her goody-two-shoes sister. Whatever the particulars, Georgia is thoroughly incisive about the ways we define ourselves in relation to others. So while Georgia prefers to conceal her frustration, Sadie embarks on a film-long exercise in tragic over-emoting and general self-destruction.
Some critics have described Georgia as a grueling experience; I'd call it energizing. The peak example of this (re)viewer litmus test is the already legendary sequence in which Sadie, invited to perform at an AIDS benefit concert starring her sister, shrieks the words to "Take Me Back" for a full eight minutes. She covers this Van Morrison song in his imitably jittery style, but it's entirely hers. "Take me back take me back take me way back," she wails--perhaps exorcising some childhood trauma, or imploring Georgia to come and rescue her yet again. The film's most beautifully haunting moment comes midway through this scene, when Georgia moves slowly into the side of the frame and starts singing a back-up lullaby to Sadie's fierce caterwaul. It's debatable whether Georgia has acted as an angel or an egoist here (Sadie thinks the latter), but there's an undeniable poignancy in their union.
The brilliant script by Barbara Turner (Leigh's mother) reflects every shade of the sisters' roles as mirror opposites: Sadie lives life to the fullest, but she's killing herself and the people around her; Georgia seems dead inside, but she's the epitome of strength and stability. So which sibling does Turner favor? Like Georgia, Georgia is even-tempered to the point of being cold; but it's also, like Sadie, amazingly expressive. Still, if the movie could be said to combine the strengths of both sisters, that's only one interpretation. In other words, it's just as possible to view Sadie as an awful singer, a lost cause, and a general pain in the ass. But by literally giving voice to her pain, might she be the more admirably real person? The unique virtues of the Sadies in this world are that, in the name of honesty, they suppress nothing. Suffice to say that neither do Leigh, Turner, or Georgia.
Briefly, Oak Street's "In Love In Vain" series comes at the perfect time to enhance one's appreciation of Georgia. There's plenty more enlightening ambiguity and prime gender studies material on view in this collection of late-'30s gems: Is George Cukor's all-female The Women (screening this Tuesday) a rare showcase for distaff power, or an insidious attempt to illustrate the harm that WWII-era women might do when left to their own devices? Does the Barbara Stanwyck soaper Stella Dallas (January 30) primarily celebrate motherhood or martyrdom? And should Bette Davis's Dark Victory (February 6) be read as heroic or pathetic? All of the above, probably, and lots more. As in Georgia, there are no right or wrong answers here, only exquisite opportunities to think and feel.
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