Not long ago, Jane Alexander and Henry Fonda played Supreme Court justices in an entertaining Broadway play called "First Monday in October." About that time, I had a long talk with Miss Alexander about the meaning of entertainment.
She told me she used to doubt the importance of being an actress. But then she realized that big changes in thought and society often begin in movies and plays. People saw her onstage as a female Supreme Court justice, and it didn't look strange. Later, when a woman actually comes up for such a post, it might seem a perfectly reasonable step to most people, thanks partly to such harbingers as the Alexander performance.
I think she's right. And the same theory points up the importance of Goldie Hawn's new picture, Private Benjamin. The Story deals with a pampered young "princess" who ends up in the Army, whose she beats the male soldiers at their own game, then fights free of the system altogether to emerge as a trully liberated women.
On the surface, it's just a screwball comedy, with enough vulgar moments to earn an R rating. Yet its message, about the inner strength of the heroine, could have important echoes in our culture. As filmmaker Claudia Weill has a new movie of her own, called It's My Turn. Jill Clayburgh stars as a bright professional woman who is torn between two men played by Charles Grodin and Michael Douglas. She examines her life and develops new attitudes during a trip to New York, where her widowed father is about to remarry.
"It's My Turn" is not as consistent as Miss Weill's fist feature, "Girl Friends." Its vulgarity will offend many viewers, and I didn't find either of the male characters attractive enough to provide a plausible choice for the spunky Clayburgh.
YEt the film becomes exquisitely moving in its next-to-last scene, when the heroine breaks up with her live-in boyfriend, saying she wants a more solid relationship. The boyfriend is confused: The whole points of the arrangement, he says, was to give each other a lot of "space." In the high point of the picture, the woman replies that she is fed up with "space" -- she wants intimacy and warmth for a change!
This is a terrific pitch for the traditional idea of marriage. It reminds me of a line in John Barth's book "Chimera" in which a character says that "to anyone of moral imagination who's known it, no other relation between men and women has true seriousness." Still, the movie doesn't end with some neat resolution, to the tune of wedding bells. Miss Well knows that emotions are tricky. The important thing is to explore them in a thoughtful and humane way, so the movies can do their part in encouraging positive changes.
"It's really important to get humanistic concerns into the culture," says Miss Weill. "That's the way films are political -- their values pervada society , and we internalize them. Personal politics are at the root of so- called real politics, because politics are predicated on the power relationships between people."
Miss Weill knows that her values take on great resonance every time she makes a movie. "Your values and assumptions are always at the heart of your work," she says, "and are always revealed." Central to Miss Weill's thinking is her conception of feminism. Her films are explorations of feminist ideas. Yet they are not limited to narrow visions based on some predetermined party line.
"Feminism is the most profound, most humanistic philosophy I know," she says. "If my films are coming out humanistic, that's why -- because I consider feminism to be a profoundly egalitarian philosophy that deals with women, men, and children as all human beings that should be respected. No one should be treated as a second-class citizen."
Miss Weill's conceptions of respect and equality carry over to the world of ideas, too As she puts It, "I think it was [the filmmaker] Renoir who said: 'The problem is, everyone has their own perfectly good reasons.' In any piece of work you do, you have to make sure you show those reasons, even if you disagree with them. There's nothing better than a like- able villain; there's nothing more gripping on the screen."
Such thoughts go beyond the usual cliches about love and liberation. In her new movie, says Miss Weill, "I was interested in the notion of liberation not being enough. I wanted to make a romantic film about family and marriage -- a kind of reaction to notions of self-realization, self-fulfillment, and careerism. Those are useful for awhile, to get you going. But they aren't adequate as life philosophies."
It's too bad "It's My Turn" doesn't address these ideas more head-on. Unfortunately, much of the plot sloshes around the heroine's dubious relations with dubious menfolk, and the real point of the picture doesn't emerge as clearly as it might. In Miss Weill's view, however, the real "main characters" are the middle- aged couple about to be married, and their wedding -- a minor event, in terms of screen time -- is "the central organizing event of the film."
Why? It's a matter of really paying attention to another person, so their life is at times as important, or more important, than your own.
"Yet it's the antithesis of what most people think they need to put into a relationship these days," she continues. "The attitude is, if there are too many demands, I'm out' That's the way the Grodin character is. But what you see between the two older people in the film is precisely what's needed to make a relationship work."