ARTS / Really bad girls: The way westerns treat women is monstrously regimented. And the latest example is hardly riding to the rescue. Which is a darned shame, given the tales that are there to be told
Sunday 26 June 1994
But here come four adorable pouts in saddles - Bad Girls, they are called: Drew Barrymore, Mary Stuart Masterson, Andie MacDowell and Madeleine Stowe as wild young women who can out-shoot, out-ride and out- swear men (so long as we're talking men at the level of the equally stupid 1988 hit, Young Guns). These Bad Girls look as if they've been costumed by The Gap. They've had make-up and hairdressing every morning, and not even the climate and a location near the Mexican border can kill the narcissistic bitterness of Beverly Hills in their actress faces. Yet again the history of women in the West has been cheated by the western.
Films like Bad Girls only remind us that the old western is dead, and how in most efforts to have it rise and ride again the corpse stinks. Many causes of that death are familiar: by the late 1950s, at least, the heroic western fantasy was played out. Riding through Arizona in 1960, the traveller met not the Apaches but Norman Bates. Television was re-doing the western a dozen times a week in wearying formulaic terms. In an age of civil rights legislation, it was no longer possible to make the Indian a villain. Maybe something else was nagging the genre: the way it had so seldom found an interesting or plausible place for women.
All too often, the woman was a meek prize in the struggle between men, and a patient, uncomplaining emblem of that civilisation that would commence once man had made the frontier safe, and (by implication) dull. Women flinched from the fight (like Grace Kelly's wife in High Noon). They were shameless tomboys (from Jean Arthur in The Plainsman to Doris Day in Calamity Jane). They were regimental mascots (Joanne Dru in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon). Their choice was to be whores or ladies (the rigid duality in so many John Ford films). Above all, they were observers, roles for actresses who might be needed 10 days on a 40-day shoot. The hero's horse sometimes got as many close-ups, and had a more compelling physical relationship with the guy.
Of course, there were thousands of westerns, and so many of them were Hollywood's most routine product. They were B pictures, little longer than an hour; the trade called them 'oaters'. They were also vehicles for stars who made no other kind of picture - William S Hart, Tom Mix, Ken Maynard, Roy Rogers. The girl recoiled from danger; she smiled when she was rescued; she listened
to Roy's songs; and was said to make great apple pies. She was a silent-screen actress,
and the obedient slave to a cast-iron male dream - of getting away from it all, riding
the range, shooting guns, righting wrongs, and being as magnificently unaccountable as Shane. The western always smelt of conservative piety and male self-satisfaction.
On the few occasions when a woman came close to dominating a western, or when she was a film's most interesting character, there was an air of wilfully breaking the rules. Some purists even responded that such films were not truly westerns. For instance, the generally estimable BFI Companion to the Western does not include Greed or The Wind in its select list of classics. Yet these are among the greatest of films set accurately in the West; they deal with extremes of terrain, space and weather as metaphors for human desire and ambition; and they draw astonishing performances from ZaSu Pitts and Lillian Gish. It's not enough to say that these films are merely dramas that take place in the West. For that is really a way of trying to avoid the experience of women in a very narrow genre. Why shouldn't their presence enlarge the genre, along with Bad Day at Black Rock, The Right Stuff and Thelma and Louise?
Complex women in westerns are rare enough, but the few there are are clouded by charges that their film was too modern, over- sexed or hysterical. As if every moment in the history of the West didn't regard itself as modern; as if sexual urgings were put aside there;
or as if there was not sometimes hysteria when women had to pull wagons over mountains, build houses, shoot savages of all persuasions, endure the snows and the loneliness and even cook their dead children when starvation was at hand. That happened to some women in the Donner party of 1846-7 (pioneers cut off in
the Sierras), and the threat of it begins to
account for the grim look in many old photographs from the frontier.
The code of the western kept the men laconic; so that men in the audience could dream of themselves as strong and silent. But there are fascinating movies where women break the rules, where they rage, own, control and talk - sooner or later, good talk will overpower gunfire. I'm thinking of Jennifer Jones as the half-breed Pearl Chavez in Duel in the Sun, a picture that was widely denounced for soiling the chivalric manners of the western and labelled 'Lust in the Dust'. Then there's Joan Crawford's Vienna in Johnny Guitar, a star who insists that no matter the guns, horses, canyons and fresh air, this is a woman's picture. There's Barbara Stanwyck as the rancher-boss in Forty Guns (Stanwyck was often good value in westerns - like The Furies - and she was one of the few women to head a TV western's cast, in The Big Valley). And maybe most intriguing of all, there's Joanne Dru's Tess Millay in Howard Hawks's Red River, a woman brave enough to stop an arrow without losing the line of her sentence, and a force who breaks down the bullish rivalry of two men and orders them to grow up.
Hawks may have appreciated the atmosphere of the western, but he never settled for the confines of the genre. So his westerns are games in which modern actors play at being in the West. He loved talk and the interplay of characters, so Tess Millay and Angie Dickinson's magnificent Feathers in Rio Bravo have more in common with characters from romantic comedy than with the subservient regiment of women in westerns.
John Ford and Sam Peckinpah, on the other hand, had no inhibition about making westerns, or in seeing the West as the last golden place where wild men could stay adolescent, their attitudinising matched by the mesas and mountains. Not that Ford didn't sometimes wrestle with the problem of women. In his greatest movie, The Searchers, there is unceasing interest in, and confusion over, the sanctity of women. The pioneering women we see are reasonably un-glamorous and inured to the severity of frontier life. Ford lets us feel what they feel (and cannot always talk about), and in the Vera Miles character there is an energy longing to break out of her set role. But the goddess in the movie is Debbie, the little girl captured by the Comanches and taken away to live with a cruel chief named Scar. The search is the years-long journey made by John Wayne and Jeffrey Hunter to find the child.
When she is discovered, she turns out to be Natalie Wood, perfectly made up and dressed in a lovely brick-pink Indian robe: she looks like someone in a Beverly Hills High School production of Hiawatha. So many things are overlooked: Scar has not made her his wife or the mother of his children (though Wayne so seethes with paranoia that he is ready to find Debbie so that he can kill her). She speaks English still, with hesitations that are all Strasberg's Method. She has had no experience with the Comanche, and on rescue becomes instantly acceptable in a sturdy pioneer household. The Searchers has many elements of grandeur, but the conception of Debbie is ludicrous.
A few years later, the same theme was
replayed in reverse, with Audrey Hepburn as a Kiowa who has been taken in by a white family. This was The Unforgiven, by John Huston, a fine film, and in some ways more challenging than The Searchers, for Hepburn's character feels herself torn between two tribal cultures. Both The Searchers and The Unforgiven are from stories by Alan Le May - evidence that at least one white American saw irony and tragedy in the racial interaction likely on the frontier.
Still, no one has yet attempted the story of Olive Oatman, who was kidnapped by the Yavapai Indians in 1851 when she was a young teenager. She was traded to the Mojave tribe, beaten and made to follow a harsh nomadic life. Five years later her brother found her, her face heavily tattooed according to tribal custom. Olive returned to white society but never could abide much company. Time and again in real accounts of the West, the power of isolation takes over emotional lives. In all the legends of the West, family and community prevailed. But that myth is repeated so religiously because real families broke up. The West was appealing to many as an empty quarter where they might flee from responsibilities. So there were many orphans and many women struggling to raise children on their own.
There are a few movies that seem to grasp this predicament and where the women seem worthy of the real chronicles and photographs: Jo Van Fleet's brothel-keeper in East of Eden; Geraldine Page's widow in Hondo; the sister, played by Mercedes McCambridge, in Giant; Julie Christie's drug-addicted businesswoman in McCabe and Mrs Miller; Cloris Leachman's forlorn adulteress in The Last Picture Show; Agnes Moorehead's mother in Citizen Kane, living in a cabin in the snows of Colorado; Patricia Neal's hard-bitten house-keeper in Hud. Incidentally, that performance is the only one by an actress to win an Oscar in a western. Among men, I count 13 winners, from Warner Baxter in In Old Arizona to Gene Hackman in Unforgiven, by way of Gary Cooper in High Noon, Lee Marvin in Cat Ballou and Wayne in True Grit.
There are westerns where women appear not at all, as the author of letters read over the campfire, or as whores who give the battle-scarred men brief and unquestioning consolation. There are no women in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre; there are only anonymous whores in The Wild Bunch, who are either pliant or treacherous - and more or less the same could be said for the females in that very influential modern western, Easy Rider. In Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid there is an extraordinary scene in which Garrett, tracking the Kid, takes four whores to bed with him. It is graphic, and may be as true to the period as to Sam Peckinpah's fantasies - but the whores are all beauties, and Peckinpah revels in the sexual splendour of the old champion. How sad it is that all released versions of the film omit a lengthy scene in which Garrett goes home to his Mexican wife and is so unable to endure her bitter rebuke that he leaves her. That is one of the few moments in Peckinpah where a woman gets the better of a man, and where male solitude is shown as a condition of dysfunction.
In the real West, women spoke up. They founded schools and businesses; they established newspapers (this is alluded to in Cimarron, a story in which the West becomes built up, to be run by imaginative women). They even told the stories. For instance in Tombstone, in 1879 or 1880, a Josephine Marcus met Wyatt Earp. Ms Marcus was of German-Jewish descent, an actress, and the common-law wife of one of Earp's enemies in Tombstone. Earp had his own wife (Mattie Blaylock), but he abandoned her for Josie on the eve of what is known as the gunfight at the OK Corral. You wouldn't know this from most of the Earp movies. For decades the story was told without women, or with a dutiful sweetheart in the wings. Yet the real gun-battle was prompted by political differences and sexual jealousy. This was admitted in last year's Tombstone, where Josephine Marcus at last made it to the big screen (she was presented on TV in 1983 with Marie Osmond in the part). Yet the most interesting part of the Josephine Earp story is that she died only in 1944, the author of a book,
I Married Wyatt Earp, and the steadfast critic
of cock-eyed Hollywood versions of what was also her story.
Josephine Marcus Earp is just one of those women of the West worth honouring. Others include actresses like Jennifer Jones (from Tulsa, Oklahoma, daughter of a man who ran a Wild West show) and Joan Crawford (from San Antonio, Texas), women who knew how insanely hot it could get; Georgia O'Keeffe, who painted the land and the flowers of New Mexico; Dorothea Lange, who photographed the roadsides and the farmlands of the Depression; athletes like Babe Zaharias (javelin and hurdles champion, then Open golf champion) or tennis-player Helen Wills; M F K Fisher, who began to teach America about food - which is one of the glories of life in the West now; Edna Ferber, who wrote Cimarron and Giant; Joan Didion, the unequalled describer of water, wind, drought, freeways and the everyday craziness of the West; and Willa Cather, one of the finest of novelists, author of The Professor's House, the best book about what the West means in the American imagination.
The West is, for some of us, a place to live: a dangerous paradise, what with fire, drought, earthquake and the taste for gunplay. But the experience is not possible without women. Women made the West - more than the men, the guns, the barbed wire, the cattle, the horses, or the oil. Women held homes to the ground and kept ties in place. And Willa Cather wrote about it. Here is the opening of O Pioneers, a 1913 novel, filmed for TV a few years ago with Jessica Lange as Alexandra Bergson, the woman who labours to sustain life and purpose:
'One January day, 30 years ago, the little town of Hanover, anchored on a windy Nebraska tableland, was trying not to be blown away. A mist of fine snowflakes was curling and eddying about the cluster of low drab buildings huddled on the gray prairie, under a gray sky. The dwelling-houses were set about haphazard on the tough prairie sod; some of them looked as if they had been moved in overnight, and others as if they were straying off by themselves, headed straight for the open plain. None of them had any appearance of permanence, and the howling wind blew under them as well as over them.'
Many towns survived, but some failed or were forsaken when their brief grip on gold or happiness slackened. There is a place called Bodie, on the California-Nevada border, where my wife and I love to go. It is far from anywhere and the drive culminates in a dozen miles of unpaved road. Bodie is a ghost city, once a boom-town as gold was taken out of the ground, a place of board-walks, churches, cat houses and 65 saloons, as well as the huge mining buildings. You can walk the old streets and look in at the tiny rooms, the faded wallpaper, the skeletal furniture and the tattered copies of catalogues from Chicago promising better futures. The wind blows all the time. The thick glass rattles in the windows. There is dust everywhere, dunes of it beneath the pillows on a bed, where once some woman strove to keep the place intact in the pursuit of happiness.
Bodie was famous in its day for gold and violence; it was like a great casino. But if you go there now, the gold is gone and the guns are rusted. All you can see is the struggle that women had to make real homes for those dangerous windswept dreamers, the men.
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