If I were to tell you that I watched a film about a woman’s struggle with mental illness, I think most of you would yawn and write it off as another opportunity for Hollywood to show off its capacity for melodrama and cheap emotional body shots.
But what if I told you I enjoyed the hell out of it?
Let me explain. The first data point you need to know is that the film is from 1948. The more knowledgeable among you will be nodding at this point. Hollywood was a little less banal back then.
The second thing that made this one good was a truly spectacular performance from Olivia de Havilland. Again, the knowledgeable are nodding along. Those who know about planes because Olivia was the daughter of the magnate of Mosquito fame, and those who know about classic film because you already know I’m talking about The Snake Pit.
de Havilland, who is still alive and more than a hundred years old, navigates the film in a fog of confusion and uncertainty, and we never know her ultimate fate until a few moments before the end.
The madness on screen is understated, avoiding the grotesque and the exaggerated in favor of a lighter touch which is, in the end, much more effective. Even the asylum politics aren’t harped upon but left for the viewers to understand on their own terms.
Once more, it begs the question: were viewers in 1948 more sophisticated than those in 2019? Or was it simply a case of filmmakers creating for intellectually superior portion of their audiences? In a world saturated by least common denominator communication in every sphere, where literature and film seem more intent on teaching the consumer their political and moral ideas in bite-sized, easily digestible oversimplifications of a complex reality, old movies (and old books) are a breath of fresh air.
They take people as they are. Heroines are flawed, they are imperfect, and many of their troubles are self-inflicted, they DON’T overcome their failings over the course of the piece–they are still as imperfect at the end as at the beginning–and yet they are still sympathetic characters.
Best of all, these films show us the world as it really was, not the way the political activists who want to rewrite history think it should be portrayed. The bits that make modern audiences uncomfortable are still there. Hooray!
All in all, it makes for an entertaining film as opposed to one designed to be suffered through for your own good.
A final note on de Havilland’s performance. She was nominated for the Best Actress Oscar that year, but didn’t win…
If you need me, I’ll be on Google investigating who did win that year. It must have been a performance for the ages.
Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose book Love & Death is a collection of linked lives in paper (and electronic) form. You can check it out here.