My Take by Jim Carl - February 2, 2012
Sometimes, a single scene in a movie can be so memorable that it opens your eyes, perhaps for the first time, about an injustice happening in film, one you may not have even realized existed (or cared about), and makes you aware that your views can be shortsighted. There's a scene like that in John Cassavettes' Gloria, a movie that arrived in my hometown of Sweetwater, Texas with little fanfare in late-1980. The scene happens early in the movie. Gloria, an Oscar-nominated Gena Rowlands, is on the run from the Mob, towing along a Puerto Rican boy whose family has just been massacred. A black sedan intercepts them on the New York sidewalk and, after a brief exchange with Mob members, Gloria reaches into her handbag and pulls out a handgun. As the car races away from her, she fires, again and again, until the sedan crashes and explodes. It's a simple scene, right? What's the big impact?
You have to remember the times. I'd just lived through the 70s and tough female characters were few and far between, if any. Around me in 1979-1980, Sally Field was rallying a union, Jane Fonda was preventing nuclear meltdowns, and Jamie Lee Curtis was fending off slashers. Were those strong female characters? Of course, no argument here. They were not, however, tough characters, and that's the difference. By tough, I mean Charles Bronson and Steve McQueen-tough. Before Gloria, the toughest female character I'd ever seen was probably Tyne Daly as Dirty Harry's partner in The Enforcer. And even then, she died at the end of the film saving his life, which is what happened to tough dames, because that's the fate that always befell women who tried to behave as tough as men. I'm not certain where I learned this idiotic belief, but it must have happened at the movies. What about women like Pam Grier in Coffy, you ask? She was certainly a tough female character. Remember, I was twelve years old in 1980. The chance of seeing films like Coffy in a small West Texan theatre were non-existent, at least in my hometown. Gloria marked the first time in my life I realized that I had a preconceived notion about the role of women in movies, and that those notions were silly.
Women were damsels in distress, mothers, victims, or wives. They could be strong, loving, supportive, and many other things, but they were never tough, at least in my mind. Gloria, however, was a tough broad who didn't seduce men to advance the storyline, could fire a handgun, and not get a single hair out of place in the process. I fully expected her to go down in a blaze of bullets in the final scene, and when she didn't, I was dumbstruck. She was a female Dirty Harry, and it had never occurred to me that such a thing was even possible, much less so enjoyable. A year later, I would smile in amusement when Kathleen Turner got away with murder in Body Heat, but by then, my understanding of the role of women in films had changed. In the years that followed, I would see many more movies with tough female leads, particularly Aliens, but none could hold the same impact as that moment when Gena Rowlands whipped the gun out of her handbag. Gloria got there first.
Do you have a movie moment that redefined your views? A scene that made you challenge your own beliefs til that moment? Tell me about it.
JIM CARL is Senior Director of the Carolina Theatre. He has been in charge of its film program since 1995. Some of his favorite contemporary movies include True Grit, Jaws, Dolores Claiborne, Silkwood, The China Syndrome, The Right Stuff, Aliens, The Fog (1980), and almost anything involving Great White Sharks, Gilda Radner, George Burns, or is set underwater. His favorite movie of all time is Ordinary People. Some of his least-favorite contemporary movies include 300, The Other Guys, Moulin Rouge, District 9, Take Me Home Tonight, The Tourist, Sherlock Holmes, O Brother Where Art Thou?, Scarface (1983) and almost anything involving snarky twentysomethings, British gangsters, gross sexual humor, or extended action scenes in slow motion. His least-favorite movie of all time is Pulp Fiction. He is a firm believer in the presentation and preservation of 35mm film and will book any movie he suspects will make money, even if he hates it.