Archive for July 11th, 2010

George Hanson (Paul Rudd) and Nina (Jennifer Aniston) have a Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers moment during their Friday night dancing lessons, from 1998 The Object of My Affection

Miss Giest aka “poor Miss Taylor that was” [Twink Caplan] and Mr Hall aka Mr Weston [Wallace Shawn] talk on a park bench (1996 Clueless, free adaptation of Austen’s Emma, also starring Paul Rudd as the Mr Knightley character).

Dear friends and readers,

Over on WWTTA we have been having a second festival of reading and writing about women’s plays and films. For over a month now we’ve been reading and writing about to one another about Wendy Wasserstein’s work and life, specifically her Uncommon Women and others andIsn’t It Romantic. A couple of us read parts of Jan Balakian’s excellently biography and study of Lee’s works, not including this later material.

Well I discovered on Netflix there were available DVDS of Uncommon Women and Others (1970s for PBS), and The Object of My Affection. I watched the first last month and The Object last night and enjoyed the latter much better than the former despite a few reservations. Just now I read an article by Mark Steyn in the Spectator (“Marriage a la Mode, Sept 1988) dissing it which I take to be deeply anti-gay (the denigrating term “hag/fag” relationship gives this way) and apparently ignorant about the flexibility of sexuality. Steyn felt sorry for poor Jennifer Aniston (Nina), did he? She didn’t have a “proper male” (like himself?). She was much better off.

So partly to show why and how Nina’s better off and remains with George Hanson (Paul Rudd) walking and talking with him as the movie fades from view, partly to defend the film, however qualifiedly; and to record the good time and a few thoughts about Wasserstein we’ve had on WWTTA this past month I’m writing this blog.

The Object of My Affection is not short and I was surprised to find it was after 1:30 am when I was finished and I had stayed up! Not fallen asleep. I did very much enjoy the several dance sequences, long, short, and reprises of them (as montage, with blurring focus and some minor key music) at the end.

Our main hero, George (Rudd) and our heroine, Nina (Jennifer Aniston) who are living together decide to take dancing lessons together on Friday nights. Couples do this. One graces the opening of this blog. Nina’s scarf, flowing dress and slightly old-fashioned pumps, George’s his tie, white shirt and general elegance, plus the the swing and sweep of their motions might alert you to guess they are dancing a Ginger Rogers’ Fred Astaire sequence from which they deliberately fall.

More often they imitated Gene Kelly, and once there is some sudden (improbable not realistic but we leave realism) tap dancing.

Here they are dressed in the modern tap dancing way. Nina is now in short-skirted polka-dot dress, and George has on relaxed short-sleeved jersey and chino jeans.

At the close of the movie, they dance again and there is interwoven stills from Singing in the Rain.. One of Kelly with Debbie Reynolds in “I was meant for you, you were meant for me”

is sandwiched in between a dream-montage sequence where her pebbled silk 1920s kind of dress matches his suit:

As in “Isn’t it romantic,” “I was meant for you, you were meant for me” is the ironic recurring thematic music of the film. In the earlier play, Wasserstein alludes to the Rogers and Hart song which was part of a sequence from Love Me Tonight The suavity and charm of Maurice Chevalier’s rendition on the Net is more than a little undercut by these typical lyrics (there are different versions of this song):

Isn’t it romantic?
Soon I will have found some girl that I adore.
Isn’t it romantic?
While I sit around my love can scrub the floor.
She’ll kiss me every hour or she’ll get the sack
and when I take a shower she can scrub my back.
Isn’t it romantic?
On a moonlight night she’ll cook me onion soup.
Kiddies are romantic
and if we don’t fight we soon will have a troupe.
We’ll help the population,
it’s a duty that we owe to dear old France.
Isn’t it romance?

Wasserstein’s doing the same thing again: an ironic reference to an iconic song from a famous movie (Singing in the Rain). One “lesson” this movie teaches is no one was meant for anyone; it’s Austen’s lesson (P&P, S&S) that first attachments are often not the best, and first impressions as bad way to pick a mate (though film versions reverse her theme and have characers regularly falling in love with the person they were “meant” to have).

The story: girl (Nina, Jennifer Aniston) lives alone, takes in as a roommate a gay young man (George, Paul Rudd). George’s ruthless homosexual partner, Steve (Gabriel Macht), who uses people casually in other ways too, wants to get rid of him.George teaches Kindergarten. This is not exactly admirable heroic stuff for a male. Nina’s lover, Vince (John Pankow) is jealous, Nina becomes pregnant by Vince, and decides to have the baby.

Here’s my first quarrel with the film: it’s de rigeur for films to have an unwed girl decide to have the baby when in fact statistics repeatedly show that even after all the propanda, obstacles and pseudo-science most girls chose abortion when young, unmarried, early in their career, plus the word “abortion” is never used.

What has happened is Nina has learned to love George; he’s kind and good and she thinks he would make an excellent father for her baby. She loves how he leaves her room and space and doesn’t not at all try to dominate her.

Vince (the biological father) attempting to assert his “rights” over Nina

She wants George to be there all the time, to become the baby’s father from bringing it up, and as the movie progresses it becomes obvious she also would like to get him to go to bed with her, and marry her.

The film assumes the viewer has a sufficient knowledge of real sexuality to know it’s flexible, and there are two scenes where George almost does begin to have sex with Nina. In the first instance there’s a comic interruption; in the second, he has already become involved with Paul, and the truth is he does prefer men to women and so prefers Paul to Nina. He likes living with Nina; they enjoy one another’s company, reading together, watching TV together, eating the same things:

It is important that George is a gay male: he is presented (implicitly, this is not made explicit lest it make viewers nervous I suppose) as more willing to talk, more willing to open up and confide and comfort. A trope common to many romantic comedies is the couple talking on the park bench. I remember a touching one of two lonely grade school teachers in Clueless, the free adaptation of Emma movie where Rudd played the Mr Knightley role (and this is no coincidence — see still at the front of this blog, one of my favorites from Clueless)

Here they discuss her pregnancy and George says that Nina must tell, Vince, the coming baby’s biological father:

Back shots are seen as more romantic

A side shot

Gayness is part of the film’s subject matter (so to speak). What is emphasized goes with the film’s encompassing theme: the dangers of falling in love, how hurt you can be (thus how important it is to choose well), and what happens to gay people we see is since society does not pressure them to be faithful, they drop one another easily.

Early on in the film George’s lover-partner, dropping him shamelessly

As the film goes on a second or third couple emerges (depends on how you count the couples). Paul (played by Amo Gulinello) is not a free agent (any more than Steve was). He’s living very well while working as an actor because he’s the live-in partner of an older professor, Rodney Fraser (Nigil Hawthorne). Paul invites George into bed with him while Rodney is there and has no shame or feelings for this older man’s hurt.

Paul, a real shit; George on the phone making excuses to Nina

The older man can do nothing for Paul (we are made to feel) would leave him.

Hawthorne has the funniest lines and the most poignant.

Nigel Hawthorne as Rodney raising his glass to Nina (very pregnant) with George standing by

Hawthorne utters his lines more skilfully than anyone else and I found myself laughing most when he was witty about what they were seeing or the behavior of someone. The title of the film come from his wry description of his relationship with Paul: Paul is not his beloved, or mate, or partner, but (the ironic drawled-out tone here makes a complicated point) “the object of my affection.”

This delving into gayness is found in Wasserstein’s plays, especially the best known, Heidi’s Chronicles. Very Wasserstein is Nina’s choice to have her baby and end up a single mother. When it becomes apparent that George is going to bed with Paul and in their shared flat and she is to take this kind of thing as a norm, she says she can’t take it and wants George to move out. She still doesn’t want to live with or marry Vince.

There are some typical kinds of jokes or targets for jokes one finds in Jewish New York stories and plays (except here the Jewishness has been partly erased by keeping the names neutral and not bringing up any particular culture or ethnic group). Nina has this superambitious networking sister and brother-in-law (Dr Roger Jolly, Alan Aiken) who we are asked to feel a certain distaste for over their superficiality and commercial socializing — meanwhile everything in the film endorses networking, wealth, social life of conformities of various sorts.

The film has real flaws. The worst is the tacked on meretricious happy ending. After an effective because tense Thanksgiving dinner made by Nina for George, Paul, and Rodney (where Rodney does lecture her on the problems of being with a gay man), George and Vince begin to accompany Nina to the obstetrician and Paul and Rodney are seen going out with them. All four are now seen to be happy, reconciled.

Fast forward five years later and George is again putting on a play with his kindergarten (that’s how the movie opens) only now it has Molly, Nina’s five year old daughter there. All are blissful with love for this child, cherishing her (including the commercial couple) and she is just so sweet. Nina is not a single mom after all; she has begun to live with he nice African-American male who as a cab driver befriended her.

When an ending is tacked on — a sudden gush of a wedding — like this it usually means the studio insisted. But not always.

Not very Wasserstein was how impersonal it felt. The situations are uncommon and forced — which is not at all the way of her three plays we read on WWTTA. All three of these had a cyclical structure. This was a forward moving though one could say the story is the story of Nina’s pregnancy for the move becomes hinged when she announces the pregnancy and conflicts come from that and it (in effect) ends on her going to hospital. The film reveals what happens when material is made commercial and to reach more people by turning it bland, smoothing over, disguising what gave the material the interest it had in the first place.

Do I think it more than amusing and advocating decent values and kindness? Yes, because of the gay characters, Nina’s pregnancy out of wedlock, and refusal to marry. It’s not what it could or should have been: when George comforts Nina after telling her that he loves Paul and prefers Paul and this is an inexorable reality about him, we have confronted one of its strengths:

It may seem I have spent too much time on a relatively slight comedy, but there is more here than meets the eye. Nina and Paul are decent good people who don’t betray, don’t drop, don’t sue and don’t hurt others. What’s not to like? They are last seen walking and talking as the film fades away.

Sheer ballroom dancing

I admit my favorite character was Nigel Hawthorne’s — I just loved him as Archdeacon Grantly in Barchester Towers, Madness of George III.

What Wasserstein is capable of may be seen in Wasserstein’s less commercialized plays, about which see the comments.


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