A few years back, I went through an odd, perhaps disturbing personal film festival during which I would watch a double feature of John M. Stahl's masterpiece Leave Her to Heaven (1945) and King Vidor's underrated Beyond the Forest (1949) over and over again. The only person who knew just how many times I'd stayed up, riddled with insomnia, soaking in the heart-stoppingly gorgeousness of the deranged Ellen Berent Harland and the harsh "what a dump" beauty of scheming Rosa Moline was my sister, who got it -- at first. Two movies about unhappy, deeply disturbed women who go to murderous lengths for privacy and very seriously reject pro-creation? Well, yes indeed, that's a perfect double bill.
But realizing I wasn't writing a dissertation about cinematic women who throw themselves down staircases and hillsides to avoid baby-making ("What to Expect When Certain Women Are Expecting") , she finally, bluntly asked: "Are you pregnant?"
Of course I wasn't. How could I be? I'd been sleepless for two months, staying in, memorizing the exact moment Ellen beautifully whips off those shades before watching her young-brother-in-law drown. I was intrigued. Perhaps obsessed. But in my restlessness, I was struggling to write an essay about the movies, and yet, I never did. Instead of turning to my keyboard, I would turn to the movies. And wonder what was going on with me.
Which fast-forwards me to last year when I discussed this obsession (over Ellen, I had yet to get to Rosa) during a long phone call with my friend and esteemed colleague, Farran Smith Nehme, she of the remarkable Self Styled Siren. I said of Ellen, "I kind of sympathize with her." Sayeth the Siren: “So do I, so do I.”
Well, bless you Siren.
What follows is our viral conversation, studying the complexities and reasons for, as the Siren wrote, having a "kinship" for "our beloved Ellen Berent Harland."
The Siren Explains:
Let it be said that neither the Siren nor her friend condones, approves of nor has any plans for drowning crippled children, indulging in do-it-yourself miscarriages or committing suicide in hopes our significant others subsequently will be executed for murder. One has certain moral limits.
Yet we were both serious. Tierney's character isn’t unsympathetic to either one of us. “She just wants to be left the hell alone with her man,” remarked the lady. “I get that way sometimes, too,” admitted the Siren.
And we do have company, albeit tongue-in-cheek company. The Siren's idol, James Agee, saw what was billed in 1945 as a tale of an evil woman's obsessive love and remarked, "Audiences will probably side with the murderess, who spends all of the early reels trying to manage five minutes alone with her husband. Just as it looks possible, she picks up a pair of binoculars and sees his brother, her mother, her adopted cousin and the caretaker approaching by motorboat."
Now it can be told: Ellen's other contemporary admirer was Kim Morgan of the exceptional film site (she hates the word blog) Sunset Gun. For her love of John M. Stahl's masterpiece, and considering her kinship with the Siren, Kim agreed to chat via email about our beloved Ellen Berent Harland.
Oh Gene. Or rather, misunderstood Ellen. A woman trapped in her obsession, of course, in her obsession with her father, but then, also trapped within the un-permissiveness of the times. Permission for Ellen to do…what would Ellen do? Perhaps that's the problem. This is a time when one is not allowed the strength of being… Ellen. I'm not sure when anyone is allowed to be Ellen, exactly, but she is certainly trapped by some force beyond mere psychopathology. Maybe born so impeccable, that unfaltering, that she even frightens herself? She's not normal. Well, she wants to be normal. A woman who yearns for marriage (to Cornel Wilde, though we're never sure why, maybe because he seems normal), a private honeymoon, some damn solace, a few less tedious family gatherings and…then… just maybe the desire to NOT procreate (albeit, she changes her mind a bit late in the game).
I know I'm giving Ellen a big break (maybe she should have remained single) but her superiority is a large part of the problem. You could call that pure narcissism, but that's not what's going on. She never boasts so much as arrives, right? All she needs to do is walk into a room with those startlingly beautiful blue eyes, flop on a couch and eat a sandwich with that perfect overbite. But it's not that she appears a mere mortal trapped in some super-human, celestial cage, she's both sensitive and smart. Maybe a tortured genius. I think this is a woman who suspects that her husband isn't such a great writer after all (I bet you she's got five better novels in her than he does).
She knows men desire her, how can they not? (I love seeing the film on the big screen because always, always, you hear an audible gasp when Tierney first appears -- she's so staggeringly beautiful). But anyway -- men -- they must have her, they yearn for this woman, this is the ultimate trophy (gorgeous, smart, strong, knows her way with a horse and an urn), but in the end, what they really want is 'the girl with the hoe.' Right?
Which then leads me to what you stated when we began this discussion. Of course -- no (I can't believe I have to say this), but I don't endorse the drowning of little brothers (but with those sunglasses? And that lipstick? Oh never mind... ), but what I certainly don't endorse are book dedications from your husband to your adopted sister who's, well, secretly in love with your husband. And vice versa! Come on! To hell with Jeanne Crain. We all saw this coming just as Ellen did.
But, as everyone prattles on like Ellen is the troubled one (and yes… she let the kid drown, but let's try to put that aside for a moment because no one actually knows that for sure, except us, which yes, yes, makes us complicit if we sympathize with Ellen. I'll take that up with Michael Haneke later…). But, returning to the point, it takes Vincent Price to sort all of the obvious 'girl with the hoe' triangle out? And posthumously, in court?
Well, thank god for Vincent Price. But, like the pregnancy, he came a bit late into the picture (unlike Dana Andrews who fell for her at death, and in a painting…actually, art connoisseur Price and Andrews have a lot more in common than they think, but that's a whole other movie/story). But this all makes me ponder fantasy scenarios like, where the hell was Eve Arden when Ellen needed her? Or Thelma Ritter? Ellen may have left that delicate slipper on her foot had Thelma been fluffing the pillows. Eve and Thelma would've been on to little Jeanne for the Ann Blyth/Veda Pierce she really is. Christ. But Ellen would never hang around these women. What are they going to talk about? Normal things?
And yet, a woman can't have Vincent Price as her only best GIRLfriend -- I think. Well, after death anyway. Though that would be pretty damn great in life. Come to think of it, maybe she needed Conrad Veidt while living.
But again, Gene/Ellen is a modern type of woman, a poetic, ingenious woman, and I always get the sense that her inner struggle to express whatever power or talent she has, well beyond her beauty is pure torture. Many may look in her eyes and see cold orbs of hate, but I see… Wagner's entire Ring Cycle, and beautiful, damnable Richard W. seems especially appropriate since, for some crazy reason, he also managed to write, in "Lohengrin," "Here Comes the Bride" amidst his Götterdämmerung.
Is this an excuse for her dastardly acts? No, but she does serve to symbolize every trapped, powerful woman flapping around her white picket fenced-in bird cage. That war raging inside her twists into a a full-scale blitzkrieg on the… normal people. Her revenge is her final work of art! Her masterpiece!
So of course Vincent Price is the one left in her corner. He's probably the only person who could conduct an intelligent, lively conversation with her about things like… music, paintings and stylish ways to throw oneself down a staircase. He would appreciate the Keats in her -- "La Belle Dame sans Merci" -- "The Beautiful Lady Without Pity." He liked what he knew. And he was usually right. Oh Ellen… She can take the dark out of the nighttime and paint the daytime black...
You're so right--Ellen is about sublimation. If she could focus that fierce intelligence on art or a career, she might be able to stay away from rowboats.
I love the idea of Vincent Price as the one person who understands her to any degree. His character, Russell, tells Ellen he'll always love her, and he would have made a much better life partner for her than Richard (Wilde). Ellen could have been Jill Hennessy to Russell's Sam Waterston. Or even just friends, gleefully prosecuting death-penalty cases and critiquing opposing counsel’s wardrobe.
Amen--a husband who dedicates the book he’s been obsessing over from day one to your freaking sister has got to expect some payback, although we can agree Ellen’s reaction is a wee bit disproportionate. And Ruth's (Crain) love for her sister’s husband is never presented as conniving, but the little minx winds up with just what she wants.
Yet Ellen is memorialized as a monster--”leave her to heaven,” the line from Hamlet about Gertrude. That's ironic to me in a way that probably wasn't intentional, since I always thought Gertrude got a raw deal from her male creator. She’s another woman who's ceaselessly nagged because she wants a man of her own and some peace and quiet.
The movie shows Ellen’s father fixation, and I guess that's something. Usually a femme fatale springs fully formed from the forehead of Zeus, puckering a lipsticked mouth around a cigarette, prepared to pull the wings off men and watch them flop around in a mason jar. But, beautiful as Ellen is pouring her father's ashes out of the urn while riding that horse, don't you feel this one stab at psychology is pat? Half the women I know describe themselves as Daddy's girls. What's this telling us--men want a woman who's never loved another man, including Dad? Now really, who's the one with the jealousy problem?
I always wait for that staircase, for Gene hurling herself down it after carefully leaving one slipper on the top step, like a psychopathic Cinderella. It's a wicked act, but she tells Ruth just before she does it, "sometimes the truth IS wicked." Along with Mildred Pierce, Leave Her to Heaven dares to go down some dark maternal byways, into things some may feel, but no one wants to admit--in this case, pregnancy as a cage, one that's about to slam shut for oh, about 21 years. Ellen's on bedrest, its own kind of "Yellow Wallpaper" hell. (Those insipid posies on Ellen's dressing-room wallpaper could drive a lot of women to the brink.) Look at what she's doing beforehand. She's talking to her own sister about the stroll the girl just took with her husband. Couldn't Richard be upstairs talking to his wife? Making sure she isn't bored and terrified, instead of taking it for granted for that she's rubbing her belly and practicing lullabies? So she grabs her most beautiful robe, and re-applies her lipstick, and she even puts on perfume--because she's about to go back to Ellen, the beauty, and leave behind Ellen, the terrarium.
For me, the poignant aspect to Ellen isn't that she's, well, crazy. It's that she's got a face for the ages, but if she isn't willing to play along, if she insists on being the most important thing in her man's life, that face avails her nothing. She still loses her husband to a girl who uses niceness the same way Ellen used those sunglasses in the rowboat: as a cover for the schemes churning inside. And nobody will be on her side, except James Agee, bless him, and Vincent Price, and you, and the Siren, and whoever else is crazy enough to say, "I kind of sympathize with her."
Thank you so very much Siren. But beware. Rosa Moline is next...