Tuesday, June 02, 2015

But as a Man or a Woman

How do you tell a guy he goes about things the wrong way when he happens to almost always be right? That's precisely the problem concerning Robert Mitchum's character in 1955's Not as a Stranger. A Stanley Kramer film, it's one of his most psychologically complex and yet also one of his most politically conservative. Conservatives who aren't feminist will often tell you that they value women for their own strengths and if you ever wondered what they mean, this movie will give you a good idea. This movie is most assuredly not feminist, despite the fact that Robert Mitchum and Frank Sinatra are billed under Olivia de Havilland.

As usual nowadays, I have to address the definition of "feminism" which is lately a matter of some controversy. The word has come to mean for many a belief in the superiority of women, a definition fostered in many cases by louder voices of poorly informed sexists. But as is often the case with language, the way in which a word is predominantly used tends to take priority over its originally intended meaning. But Not as a Stranger is not feminist in the original sense of the term--it presents a belief that women and men best fit into specific socially prescribed roles. It argues women are more instinctively drawn to home and child rearing than men and assumes that we agree that while women might make fine nurses they should never be doctors. And yet, perhaps unintentionally, the film undermines its own point of view slightly.

First we're introduced to the most improbably manly trio of medical students in history--Robert Mitchum, Frank Sinatra, and Lee Marvin. Marvin wasn't a well known star yet but this movie is certainly filled with recognisable names--also in the film are Gloria Grahame, Charles Bickford, and even Mitchum's drunk father who appears in just one scene is played by Lon Chaney, Jr.

But of all these people, and despite the fact that Mitchum's character is clearly at the centre of the story, it's De Havilland who gets top billing. Those of you who only know her as a supporting player in Gone with the Wind or as Maid Marian in the 1938 The Adventures of Robin Hood might wonder why she was clearly seen as such a valuable player. In fact, by the 1950s, she had moved from serial supporting love interest to being recognised as one of the great performers of her time after winning two Academy Awards for best actress, awards which had an even higher profile due to the De Havilland Law, the result of Olivia De Havilland arguing the illegality of studios keeping actors under contract for excessive periods, thereby inhibiting their freedom to choose roles. Here real life presents what looks like an unmitigated success of feminism--a career woman who successfully fights for a law securing career rights for herself and everyone else. Not only did she win the court case but her subsequent performances proved she really did know better about her career path than the man.

But Kristina, the character she plays in Not as a Stranger, is ultimately an argument that women should place career aspirations at a lower priority than home and family. A respected and skilled nurse, Kristina is worried she's too old ever to find a husband and she's fallen in love with a younger man, Lucas (Mitchum--who was in reality only a year younger than De Havilland).

Lucas is one of the top students and he knows it. He has the audacity to point out a doctor's mistake due to lack of knowledge during a theatre surgery, something which almost gets him expelled. But his prospects of completing his education are tenuous for other reasons, mainly that his father has spent most of the college fund on booze.

One day, while Lucas and Al (Sinatra) are at dinner at Kristina's place, one of her roommates lets slip that Kristina has accrued a sizeable savings. Suddenly Lucas, who hadn't seemed interested in the smitten woman before, wants to have dinner with Kristina again.

Does he marry her for her money? One of the nice things about the movie is that it isn't as clear cut as that. Lucas does seem to like her, he certainly respects her as a nurse. When Al suggests just what we the audience are thinking about his motives for marrying her, we're reminded forcibly how much bigger Mitchum was than Sinatra as he swiftly lifts the skinny crooner right up against the wall.

The message is clear--Lucas is disgusted by the implication that he could sink so low. But does he love Kristina as much as he wants to?

Most of the time, Lucas is right about things, like when Al accidentally removes a woman's mole even though it's the kind that can spread cancer cells when removed. Lucas upbraids Al angrily in front of everyone, as he usually does whenever his colleagues do something wrong. After all, he feels, it's a matter of life and death. But later Al admits to being wrong and Lucas admits to coming on too strong, showing he is capable of some constructive introspection.

The film is almost like two movies, the first being the story of Lucas at medical school and the second the story of his and Kristina's life in the small town where they move together into a beautiful two storey house. Kristina gives up her job and becomes increasingly worried that Lucas doesn't seem interested in having a baby with her. Then Gloria Grahame turns up as a bored, lonely, beautiful rich woman who requests a house call at 1am.

Still, the movie doesn't quite fall into the typical pot-boiler pattern. Both the first half and the second share a continued rumination on male frailty all the more exasperated by a need to believe in male strength. I wasn't sure Robert Mitchum was appropriate casting--he exudes so much genuine confidence and I kind of felt Lucas should come off as more of a bundle of nerves. But then I decided he works precisely because he comes off exactly as capable as he believes he is, otherwise no-one would put up with him. De Havilland, of course, is great, though one sort of wants to see a movie about her proving herself in her own medical career.

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