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by Kathi Maio

The Way It Never Was

Recently, I watched an A&E "Biography" of America's Sweetheart at mid-century, Doris Day. I had always considered her a very gifted singer and a charming actor, and regretted the way much of the modern backlash against the saccharine wholesomeness of fifties and early sixties popular culture, had been leveled against her and her illustrious career.

But how could it be else? She was an icon of her time. As a singer, she had a sweet, clear, emotionally expressive voice with almost all of its blues undertow and sexual sophistication tidied away. And her acting was much the same. She was always smart and capable in her films. And, in most of her movies, she even starts out playing a "careerwoman." But even when she played a high-powered advertising executive (as in Lover Come Back) we always knew that all she really wanted for a man to seduce her and haul her away from the public realm into private, domestic bliss. And, almost always, that's exactly what happened in the final reel.

But the interesting thing about Day's cable biography was that it showed that she was even more representative of her time than her screen image as a "perpetual virgin" would suggest. For Doris, career ambitions and familial roles and obligations were in a constant tug of war. She wanted success. But she also wanted what women were supposed to want. Repeatedly, she abandoned her career for marriage. But hearthside happiness was never the tidy conclusion movies (like her own) made it appear. One husband battered her. Another squandered all her money. Again and again, she walked away from bad relationships and went back on the bandstand or the soundstage to salvage her finances and her self-esteem. Until, finally, late in life, as a single woman, with wealth restored, she was able to walk away from Hollywood and truly make a private life for herself.

Her own story is much more turbulent and realistically heroic than any of the ones we saw her act in in the fifties and sixties. And the same could be said of her favorite leading man, Rock Hudson---and of any number of other icons of the Eisenhower era. The "kinder, gentler time" we reconstruct from TV Land re-runs and movies of the fifties is not our true, tumultuous past. The cultural dissonance of mid-century America has already been explored by scholars. (See, for example, sociologist Stephanie Coontz's fine book The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap, for a discussion of the reality behind the post-WWII images.) And now, filmmaker Gary Ross tries to expose this same "nostalgia trap" in his directorial debut, Pleasantville.

Ross--who co-wrote Big, and had another writing success with Dave--has first-hand family knowledge of the less than idyllic aspects of the real fifties. His liberal screenwriter father, Arthur Ross (whose credits include the Creature From the Black Lagoon monster flicks) was a lesser-known victim of the Hollywood witch hunts. He suffered through "dark gray-listing" (as he called it), relying on low-profile work (in media like radio) to support his family during the most repressive days of that paranoid decade.

In discussing Pleasantville, Gary Ross has said that his aim was to lampoon the "bridge to the past" that politicians like Bob Dole have tried to sell us in recent years. He wanted to expose the "mythic utopia" that we have made of the fifties, and show the underside of "[t]his America that nobody really ever had." Through his film, he hoped to argue that longing for an idealized past is no answer to our current social ills. "All you can do," Ross said, "is to tear down your own cynicism and engage your own world." What a wonderful anti-nostalgia lesson! Too bad Pleasantville doesn't really teach it. Instead, Mr. Ross's sweet, funny film merely gently satirizes the conservative values of 1950s situation comedies without ever contrasting them with the real times in which such shows were produced.

Like its real counterpart shows, of the "Father Knows Best" ilk, "Pleasantville" is a late-fifties sitcom that has gained cult status on a nineties re-run cable network. One faithful viewer is a high-schooler named David (Ice Storm's Tobey Maguire). A shy, sensitive lad from a stereotypical "broken" home, David has immersed himself in solid family values and innocuous plots of a black and white TV show made years before his birth. And, who could blame him? At school, teachers recite grim statistics about today's poor career prospects, ecological disasters, and plague-like diseases. And, at home, his tense mom screams at his abandoning father on the phone in the kitchen.

David's twin sister, Jennifer (Reese Witherspoon), finds solace in more modern trivial pursuits--mall shopping and promiscuous popularity. But David would rather stay home and escape into his favorite TV show's placid portrait of nuclear family paradise.

Then, on one fateful night, when both siblings have big TV plans but no working remote, a mysterious old repair man (Don Knotts) magically arrives with a new TV controller that he promises packs more "oomph." It does, indeed. In fact, it quickly transports the two teens back into the world of "Pleasantville." David, an expert on the show, immediately realizes that he and his sister have become Bud (a.k.a., Sport) and Mary Sue (a.k.a., Muffin), the children of George (William H. Macy) and Betty (Joan Allen) Parker.

The thoroughly modern Jennifer is aghast to be a pasty-faced player in a black and white world. But David is delighted to be in a realm where a boy's every basketball shot is nothing-but-net perfection, and a dad always comes home--to find a spotless home and a hot meatloaf waiting.

Even after the initial culture-shock, Jennifer finds the atmosphere of Pleasantville stifling. It's bad enough that everyone is, like the cinematic Doris Day, a perpetual virgin. But when she learns, in geography class, that the teacher is unaware of anything beyond the ever-sunny town's city limits, she subconsciously resolves to rattle the cage of her pretty prison. David, protective of the town's populace, is dismayed by Jennifer's cavalier willingness to "throw their whole universe out of whack." But, before long, even "Pleasantville"'s biggest fan is disrupting the rigid harmony of town life. When "Bud" assures his amiable soda-shop boss, Mr. Johnson (Jeff Daniels), that the order of his opening-up rituals can be changed without disastrous results, he sets in motion an entire reassessment of the man's life goals.

Meanwhile, our little Muffin is a one-woman sexual revolution. She explains the birds, bees, and delights of the autoerotic to her new mom. And she deflowers the captain of the basketball team (Paul Walker), giving him, apparently, a vivid new appreciation for the flora around him. Now he sees a normally gray rose in all its crimson glory for the first time."

Which brings us to the movie's primary conceit, the use of color as a symbol of change and liberation. Technically, in terms of the look of the film, this device works marvelously well. The film is gorgeous to look at. Ross and his visual effects team utilized a new form of reverse colorization. They shot the movie in color, and then removed most of the spectrum, in most of the scenes, adjusting the palette of blacks, whites, and grays digitally. Pleasantville contains more than 1700 digital effects shots, hundreds and hundreds more than any other live-action film to date. And the great thing about the impressive special effects of the movie, is that they actually serve the story.

It's the story itself that doesn't quite work.

Ross uses color as a metaphor for the inner transformation of his characters. Yet some of the first things to colorize are objects like roses and cars. (And I don't think even nifty little roadsters have the power to change from within.) As for what actually puts a peachy glow on the cheeks of the populace, for most of them it is apparently sexual activity. Yet, I was frankly surprised that the cheery inhabitants of Pleasantville even possessed genitals. After all, in one of Ross's many sight gags, we learn that the town's bathrooms contain no toilets.

This kind of illogic always bothers me. But it doesn't trouble me as much as a movie that turns preachy, without really settling on what the sermon is. Is Ross trying to say that change is necessary and good? Not exactly a radical notion, that. And many of the film's characters actually seem to change very little when they go technicolor. They express a burst of anger. Or they shed a quick tear. They read a book. Or, as I've indicated, they get laid.

The transformative nature of free love is a very sixties notion. But, like most in Pleasantville, it is not consistently held by the film. It is telling, I think, that although most of the film's characters are prompted, by Ross's screenplay, to embrace the uncertainty of the future and "engage [their] own world," the rebellious, and already sexually-experienced, Jennifer is not. At the end of the movie, when the entire town is suffused in nice, bright colors and David prepares to return to his nineties life, sister Jennifer elects to stay in 1958 and lead the very kind of chaste, genteel, studious ("kinder, gentler"?) life that Ross claimed to be exposing as a fraud.

Forget about whether Jennifer's real 1998 mom might miss her. (We might as well forget about it, Ross does.) Still, in accordance with the filmmaker's own philosophy, shouldn't Jennifer go back and engage her nineties world, taking with her the lessons she learned in neverneverland? Could Ross be implying that young women actually need the repressive stability of 1958 sitcom society to keep their life on track? I hope not! In any case, that doesn't seem to be his advice to the older Betty, who appears to be cheerfully embarking on a brave new life, in a menage a trois, no less, at movie's end.

Pleasantville regrettably abounds in just these types of mixed messages. In addition, the film has a tendency to trivialize the very social issues that it goes out of its way to heavy-handedly raise. For example, Ross tries to illustrate cheerful conformity's ugly underbelly by portraying Pleasantville's city fathers, lead by Big Bob (the late, lamented J. T. Walsh), as worried reactionaries. They conspire to crack down on the profusion of color overtaking the populace, by decreeing against it, and arresting those who defy them.

Ross utilizes many powerful images of political oppression in these scenes. Mr. Johnson's soda shop is ransacked. Books (formerly blank, and now filled with subversive words and pictures) are publicly burned. And local businesses start displaying "No Coloreds" signs in their windows.

I must admit that I found that last bit infuriating. Pleasantville's shallow cooptation of a very painful symbol of this country's racist past seemed inappropriate here--especially since the film never does deal with the issue of race or ethnicity. How would the newly-tinged, but still lily-white citizens of Pleasantville respond to the first dark-skinned person to cross townlines? We never learn, but presumably they'd be welcomed with open arms, since the reactionary impulses of Big Bob and his cronies have already been swiftly deflated by David, in a key courtroom scene, simply by getting Big Bob to blow his cool.

Would that fascism were that easy to abrogate! But it is not. And from his own family knowledge of the political repression of the 1950s, Gary Ross knows this, too.

Undoubtedly, Ross's spurious depiction of both the upside and the downside of the fifties wouldn't gall so much if the writer/director had shown, at all, the contrast between the real Eisenhower era and the late-fifties of his make-believe town. In the real 1958, all was not sunny prosperity. This country was actually suffering from high anxiety and a good deal of unrest. Here's just a few events from that year: A serious recession and high unemployment unsettled the nation. Lolita and The Ugly American were published. The Hollywood blacklist was still at the height of its powers. Nuclear protests (following bomb tests by the major powers) increased, and the "peace sign" were introduced. The John Birch Society was founded. Worries about Russian technological superiority prompted the U.S. to launch its first satellites, and test-launch intercontinental ballistic missiles. The Defiant Ones, starring Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis, was released on the screen. As was Orson Welles' brilliant, noirish bordertown drama, Touch of Evil, in a studio-edited--i.e., censored--version. And, in Little Rock, and elsewhere, school officials shut down schools rather than complying with a federal mandate to integrate.

Not exactly the prosaic "Leave It To Beaver" placidity of Ross's sitcom town. Of course, that may be the point. But, if so, Ross needed to make it--by counterpointing the real with the make-believe. The fact is that millions of people in Pleasantville's potential theatrical and video audience have no idea how little resemblance exists between sitcom "Pleasantville"s and America's past, because they have no direct knowledge of the fifties.

Woody Allen faced a similar challenge in his Purple Rose of Cairo--and met it. When Jeff Daniels (again!), as movie character Tom Baxter, steps off the screen, and into the life of a mousy waitress named Cecilia (Mia Farrow), he moves from his carelessly prosperous world into another, much harsher environment. And Allen shows us both spheres. In the screen world, rich bon vivants fly from continent to continent on a whim, and frivol the night away at fancy nightclubs, sipping champaign. In Depression-era New Jersey, Cecilia can't even hold on to a work-for-tips waitress job. She worries about the rent. And she lives in fear that her drunken gambler husband will knock her around again.

Her life is night-and-day different from that of her madcap screen counterparts. And that's what makes her dependence upon an hour or two lost in a screen fantasy so understandable. And that's also what makes Cecilia's final choice of her own world, and of the imperfect men who populate it, all the more poignant.

If Gary Ross had managed to make the movie he set out to make, one that lifts the mask on those countless 50s sitcoms that really do distort the historical perceptions we hold of an earlier era, he would have made a powerful statement as well as a spectacular fantasy film. But even though Pleasantville never debunks an "America that nobody really had, that never really existed," it's still fun to watch.

Besides the gorgeous visual effects, the production design of Jeannine Oppewall (L.A. Confidential) and the costuming of Judianna Makovsky both add to the visual pleasures of the movie. The cast, too, is uniformly fine. Although I was especially moved by Joan Allen as the sitcom mom who escaped the kitchen, and William H. Macy as the sitcom dad disconsolate to find her gone.

In the film's funniest/saddest scene, Macy's George wanders through his dark, empty home plaintively crying "Where's my dinner?" He is ridiculous, and, somehow, tragic: a haunting symbol of an entire generation of white males who watched it all get away from them.

Is Pleasantville worth the trip? Sure. It's not the movie it might have been, but so few are. It certainly ends on a high note, with a progressive coda to the movie's final Pleasantville scene. Betty sits on a park bench with her husband and her lover. One asks "What's going to happen now?" And another happily answers, "I don't know."

Or, as Doris Day would sing, "Que Sera, Sera!"

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