Fair Game: Democratic Principle in Hollywood Romances, from Tracy and Hepburn to the Present
By Robert K. Lightning.
Lovers that demonstrate both spiritual affinity and spiritual equality have long been popular in middle-class entertainment. Repartee has often expressed that equality: one thinks of Shakespeare’s Beatrice and Benedict, Austen’s Emma and Knightley, Brontë’s Jane Eyre and Rochester. Romantic relations defined by repartee are inherently democratic, wit allowing for a privatized gender equality that counters and transcends gender-based social inequalities, physical disparities, etc. We might go so far as to say that, in these idealized heterosexual relationships, repartee epitomizes the mediation of “separate but equal” gender powers.
As one can imagine, domestic/sexual relationships governed by a principle of “checks and balances” resonate particularly in American culture, and the principle is realized in a variety of conventional forms in the Hollywood cinema. Classical Hollywood’s screwball comedies, for example, regularly neutralized extant gender inequalities through the checks-and-balances of wit and repartee, with such films as The Awful Truth (1937) and Bringing Up Baby (1938) providing, in the process, among the most advanced and developed investigations of the structural bases of gender inequalities. Fascinatingly, screwball comedy’s insistence upon equal relations between the sexes extended beyond the verbal to the physical, equality expressing itself in screwball not only through repartee but also physical comedy: the Carole Lombard-Fredric March fisticuffs in Nothing Sacred (1937) provide probably the most blatant example of a mutuality of physical abilities between genders in screwball.
Supporting the analysis of social relations in screwball and other Hollywood genres is the heterosexual star pairing, this convention demonstrating again the culture’s preoccupation with exploring social relations within the heterosexual couple. Cary Grant’s pairing with Irene Dunne in The Awful Truth and Katharine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby was, in each case, only one of several with each actress, their frequent pairings testifying to the popularity of certain pairings to represent cultural ideals. Perhaps the Hollywood couple most fondly remembered today and most consistently deployed in its time to represent American democratic principles in action was Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn. Domestic stability often correlates symbolically with social stability in their pairings (i.e. domestic tranquility is the basis for social tranquility and vice versa), sometimes negatively. In George Cukor’s Adam’s Rib (1949) attorney Hepburn’s determination to prove a point of social injustice in court (against her assistant D.A. husband Tracy as opposing counsel) destabilizes marital relations and (it is the film’s conceit) perverts “the rule of law,” a point which she herself concedes under duress. (Tracy is pointing a fake gun at her at the time). Similarly in Frank Capra’s State of the Union (1948), Tracy’s exploitation of his estranged wife (Hepburn), in his pursuit of political power, is a direct result of his corruption by renegade American capitalist forces. Conversely, Hepburn and Tracy’s personal relationship in respectively Desk Set (1957) and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? (1967) cannot be solidified until broader social problems are resolved within the texts, the problem in the former being an institutional conflict between Labor and Technology and, in the latter, the attainment of the bourgeois community’s consensus (initially impeded by Tracy) to interracial marriage.
Although sometimes public figures in their films together, Tracy and Hepburn’s symbolic obligation to the state and society as harmonizing force can never be achieved without harmonious domestic relations: if the bourgeois couple affects the public world it must, on occasion, maintain its sanctity as a thing apart from that world. Adam’s Rib returns inevitably for its conclusion to the private sphere, the bedroom, the sanctum sanctorum, the space where gender and political synthesis is achieved (via coitus) between woman and man. (Even the first signs of marital discord between Hepburn’s Amanda Bonner and Tracy’s Adam – she accepts the case against his wishes – are easily resolved with a goodnight embrace in the boudoir). In the bedroom the couple mends the damage inflicted in the public sphere and, at the conclusion, it hives itself off from the media circus unleashed by the trial. (In this light, it is less Hepburn’s “misguided” liberalism that disrupts harmonious marital relations in Adam’s Rib than outside influences, specifically the shot fired by her lower-class client Judy Holliday at her husband, an action which gains support and sympathy from a cross section of the film’s women).
The reciprocal relationship of the couple to the national/social brings me to the topic of Fair Game, Doug Liman’s 2010 film based upon Valerie Plame’s and husband Joe Wilson’s accounts of the events surrounding her “outing” as a CIA operative in 2003, a film that could easily be a Hepburn-Tracy melodrama with the star’s characteristically opposing political positions of male conservatism and female liberalism reassigned. Here it is the husband (Sean Penn) who is conceived as the misguided liberal, represented in the film as both a dyed-in-the-wool social liberal and civil libertarian, Liman making the point through Wilson’s well-documented public challenge to the Bush administration’s dissemination of false information in its efforts to justify an invasion of Iraq and through the character’s tendency to disrupt even casual social gatherings with tirades against reactionary (and uninformed liberal) acquaintances. Plame (Naomi Watts), on the other hand, is depicted as a disinterested employee of the CIA (the organization depicted here as equally disinterested politically, although made vulnerable to political pressure by its own bureaucratic dynamic). As it effectively maintains the status quo, however, Plame’s allegiance to national duty as an unquestioning facilitator of America’s global interests makes her a de facto ideological conservative, however unavowed her politics. For her part, she cautiously criticizes Wilson’s lack of diplomacy in social gatherings while he resigns himself to her political neutrality. As in Adam’s Rib, the tensions in the marriage are felt from the start but, unlike the Hepburn-Tracy comedy, Liman’s political thriller postpones synthesis until late in the film, registering first only marital tension.
Clearly husband and wife also encompass different forms of patriotism, his strict constitutionalism opposed to her allegiance to the bureaucratic authority of the CIA and, as in the Tracy-Hepburn paradigm, the most profound tensions in the marriage derive from the extramarital commitments those positions entail. Plame receives the bulk of the film’s criticism during the film’s first half, with Wilson inheriting the burden (once his campaign against the administration makes him a media darling) during the last half. In what initially appears liberal fairness, the film introduces Plame as an extraordinarily industrious spy, engaging the viewer sympathetically in her endeavors when she (in the film’s first depiction of a covert operation) skillfully cows an unsavory, opportunistic and sexually-predatory foreign contact. In fact, as the contact uses to advantage his key position in his uncle’s firm in attempting to seduce Plame, the film introduces here the theme it will develop primarily through the Plame-Wilson marriage: public life’s corruption of sanctified family and domestic ties.
This theme is further developed when the administration increases pressure on the CIA to provide evidence of Iraq’s “weapons of mass destruction”, (“Scooter” Libby/David Andrews is the film’s arch-villain, largely taking the heat for all the excesses of the Bush administration) and Plame is forced to commit more time to her job. In one emotional scene Wilson (having intercepted Plame as she sneaks out of the house late at night on an assignment – she having left a note of explanation, ironically, on the refrigerator) plaintively questions her domestic commitment, arguing “I don’t know where you go.” When later in the film he begins his one man campaign to vindicate himself (the right wing media having by this time sullied both his and Plame’s reputations) and with the home now her primary commitment following the destruction of her CIA career, Plame makes an identical query of him.
The outside world clearly imposes itself here directly upon personal relations. It is important to note, however, that the reciprocal relationship of the personal sphere to the public to which I have referred is as much symbolic as real: the political machinations of the Bush administration not only affect the marriage directly but symbolically parallels, at the level of governance, domestic aberrations. Hence the rupture of the federal government’s system of checks-and-balances by the Bush administration’s renegade extension of the powers of the executive office finds its equivalent in the rupture of domestic quietude by first Plame and then Wilson.
It is a noteworthy feature of the Tracy-Hepburn films that they are only comedies when the star couple is childless: when children are present the film is a melodrama (e.g. The Sea of Grass ) or becomes melodramatic during the course of the film (e.g. Woman of the Year ). The ideological implications are clear: the application of democratic principle to the problem of gender roles can be a source of humor in entertainment, especially when it involves upper-class professionals (Adam’s Rib) or lovable eccentrics (Pat and Mike ) but the rearing of children – where issues of childbirth, the domestic division of labor, the recycling of both democratic and gender norms are concerned – is serious business, and both comedy and the textual debate over gender roles become immediately compromised by the imposition of oppressive patriarchal norms within the narrative. I will return to this.
As the Wilsons are parents, one should not be surprised that “family values” should temporarily supersede “the couple” in narrative importance. In Fair Game, the sanctity of the family even infuses the film’s take on global politics. When Plame lures an Iraqi doctor (living in Cleveland) into CIA undercover operations in Iraq, the carrot used is a proposed reunion (following a twenty-five year separation) with her brother and his family living in Iraq. When the U.S. bombing of Iraq begins, that brother (guaranteed asylum in the U.S. in exchange for state secrets) is unintentionally prevented from escaping to the U.S. and is himself endangered by the bombs along with other Iraqis. The film implies his predicament results from the culpability of a host of “conspirators”: Plame (who regularly uses family ties – even threatening the lives of family members – as a bargaining chip with her contacts) for involving the family in the government’s covert operations; the Bush administration for the bombings; Wilson for his public challenge to the government’s propaganda, which leads in turn to the administration’s making public Plame’s identity as a CIA operative and rendering her professionally impotent. (Thus nullifying all promises made to her operatives overseas, resulting in the entrapment of the doctor’s brother). The film renders its indictment of the “conspirators” chiefly through dramatic footage (recorded with chaotic handheld camera) of the Iraqi brother and his family (with heavy emphasis on his young son) desperately unable to escape a city under siege. But it singles out Plame in particular for finger-pointing when the desperate Iraqi doctor (herself a mother) arrives one night at the Wilson residence to be reassured about the whereabouts of her now-missing brother.
The conspirators’ crime is thus dramatically rendered as one against the family. But, because the couple is germinal to the family’s very existence, family stability is also ultimately dependent upon the solidity of the couple. To cite another example from classical Hollywood, Vincente Minnelli’s Meet Me in St. Louis (1944) makes the point when a schism in the film’s Smith family is mended when Mother and Father Smith reaffirm their mutual commitment as husband and wife in song (“You and I”), while their children (who, in a united front, had earlier abandoned them) return individually and gather round the parents. Fair Game makes the same point. With both their careers destroyed and each laying blame upon the other for his/her professional predicament, Plame leaves Wilson, with kids in tow, but returns when his campaign against the government (which she opposed as futile) is vindicated by Libby’s grand jury indictment. The system of checks-and-balances in government is thus validated and, as a consequence, that of the couple is restored. But wanting to maintain the sanctity of the couple as a sanctified entity separate from government, the film also concludes that the indictment is merely another cynical political maneuver by Washington when Wilson deduces that Libby, using his resignation as a bargaining chip, will not serve a day behind bars. He of course does not.
Thus the dialectic between the couple’s identity as intimate ideological confederate of the state and its identity as a thing apart continues to operate here at the moment when husband and wife reaffirm their mutual commitment: the government both affects the couple (Plame returns home because of Libby’s indictment) and doesn’t (the indictment is a cynical gesture and the couple reunites in spite of it). The film, however, does unambiguously affirm a privatized system of checks-and-balances. Both partners admit wrongdoing in the form of self-reproach: Wilson concludes that his one-man campaign was self-serving (“I did it for me”) while Plame recommits to couplehood by declaring upon her return home, “This is who I am, right here,” her belated response to his prior late-night concern about her whereabouts.
In a world gone mad it is only that privatized democracy that provides security. Unlike Adam and Amanda, however, Plame and Wilson do not retire to the bedroom following their reunion. They instead follow a path established in the Tracy-Hepburn State of the Union, where Tracy’s Grant Matthews has a change of heart, abandons his dream of political power and starts a one-man campaign to correct corrupt Washington politics. Similarly, with the marriage restored in Fair Game, Plame and Wilson seek (along individual paths) to restore democracy to the democratic state by making their story known, a miraculous synthesis of political positions having been born of their reconciliation. Now with a common goal, he rallies the people (workers, students) in public forums (as he had earlier in the film), only now tempering his political message with a newly acquired patriotic passion: his final words of the film are a heartfelt “God bless America” to his audience. Conversely, she (in the dramatic appearance that concludes the film) addresses the House Committee on Government Reform as a witness to executive corruption, for the first time playing an overt political role (that of political reformer), the goal of her appearance (challenging the government’s executive branch but, ultimately, defending the first amendment’s guarantee of freedom of speech) finally placing her securely in the same liberal-democratic camp as her husband and (I think we can presume) the film’s makers. In contrast to her assumed identity at the film’s beginning, her transition from agent to activist is heralded when she identifies herself to the committee as “Valerie Plame Wilson,” acceding at last (or so the film implies) to her “true” identity. The End.
Technically, all the tenets of liberalism fulfilled by the narrative (stasis achieved between the sexes, individual rights vindicated, runaway governance checked by governance itself) should prove satisfying to most viewers but, if one is left with a feeling of dissatisfaction at the conclusion, I propose that that dissatisfaction derives from the impediment to political progress (as opposed to reform) effected by the ideology of the democratic couple. In the case of Wilson, this neutralization of progress is realized (and largely against the evidence provided) by the film’s consigning his quest for justice to the realm of self-interest. Instead of a citizen-wronged-by-the-government, who (viewing his personal situation objectively and realizing its implications for the body politic) seeks redress for all citizens, Wilson seeks redress it seems (and by his own admission) merely for a bruised ego. (“I did it for me”). Moreover, it is the film’s conceit that only with the restoration of his marriage that something akin to disinterest is restored to his quest. This use of domesticity to critique non-domestic ambitions and to define them as self-serving has a long history. In Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), for instance, Mr. Smith’s career ambitions (to be realized by a move to New York City) are eventually curbed by the realization of the disharmony it will bring to the family. Domesticity is the natural modifier of unchecked ambitions…even those of the hero of an American film in defense of individual rights.
As they operate in Hollywood, the ideologies of domesticity and “the natural glory of the couple,” as Roland Barthes put it (1979: 24), have always proved even more damning of a woman’s ambition than a man’s, her activities outside the home classically defined as unfeminine. Again the conventions of the Hepburn-Tracy films are anticipatory. In Woman of the Year, Hepburn’s extraordinarily accomplished Tess Harding is conceived by the film not as an exceptionally gifted individual but instead as an unnatural woman, the product of too liberal parenting, her cosmopolitan upbringing ill preparing her (when she and Tracy adopt a war orphan) for a woman’s natural duty, mothering.
A contemporary American film can hardly afford to explicitly condemn an ambitious woman as unnatural, but Fair Game’s critique of Plame follows a remarkably similar course to that set by Woman of the Year. Both Harding and Plame (who, in addition to her roles as wife, mother, spy and, frequently, hostess, maintains a strict exercise regime) are multitasking phenomena. Each is the product of a peripatetic childhood. (Harding is the daughter of a diplomat; Plame, of a career soldier). Each has been aberrantly influenced (the texts imply) by the male parent. In Harding’s case, for instance, her “failure as a woman” derives from two points: breaking one of the great cultural taboos, she remains her widowed father’s primary emotional attachment well into her adulthood (“my girl” he still calls her) while he, the male parent, remains a primary identification figure for her (along with her feminist aunt!).
Clearly father and daughter’s continuing mutual commitment impedes the cultural primacy of the monogamous heterosexual couple, resulting in Harding being judged by the film as “not really a woman at all” (as her husband finally puts it). Wife-and-mother Plame is not assessed as unfeminine but, rather, psychologically marred and again the father is to blame. Her identification with the father is obvious: it has led her not only to a career in government but to exceed his commitment to national service, hers being to a clandestine, extra-Constitutional agency. But Fair Game implies that this identification is a negative reaction to her early life as an Air Force brat. Impotent in the face of the upheavals her dad’s career exerted during childhood (he himself notes that the family moved at least twenty times), we can read Plame as having compensated for feelings of helplessness by taking the powerful father (in a subversion of the Oedipus) as role model, rather than the female parent, equally impotent in the face of domestic upheavals. Now retired, her father (Sam Shephard) is at once the domestic villain of her childhood (who now tries to compensate for their earlier rootless family life by providing his wife an endless supply of unwanted household furnishings from his basement workshop), positive model of patriotism in action, and negative domestic model. (The emotional estrangement of father and mother is underlined by mother’s sole “appearance” as a carping voice from an upstairs room). As such when Valerie and the kids remove to the family home and father notes the stubborn disposition his granddaughter has inherited from Valerie, she interprets this as a dire warning that her daughter has inherited from her the germ of aberrant femininity and, hence, the family curse of future domestic unhappiness. With the shadow of bad parenting now looming over her and her patriotic dad himself condemning the administration’s actions (“What they did was wrong, Val”), Plame promptly returns home to mend her marriage.
Tess Harding too returns home after a period of estrangement from her husband and (in the strained comic scene that concludes the film) attempts to appease him by demonstrating her domestic skills – and fails miserably in the simple domestic chore of preparing breakfast. Witnessing her defeat, Sam Craig (Tracy) tells her that he had never wanted his wife to be “Mrs. Sam Craig” anymore than the famous “Tess Harding.” Rather, he proposes (while failing to draft a design for its construction) a new composite identity for his wife: Mrs. Tess Harding Craig.
Valerie Plame adopts the equivalent identity at the end of Fair Game and, distressingly, the film’s makers are no more able to define this position than those of yesteryear, although the losses incurred by Woman are a bit more apparent. (To its credit, Woman of the Year ends inconclusively). Plame has (so the film implies) adopted her husband’s politics of agitation at the conclusion and, even if the viewer concurs with those politics, she has done so from a position of absolute defeat. Although a valuable witness to government malfeasance, Plame’s value as such derives from the utter destruction of her own career. And while the cessation of career has the positive effect of allowing her to become more politically active, by default she commits also more fully to her role as suburban hausfrau.Clearly one of the purposes served by the democratic couple in Tracy-Hepburn and Fair Game (and both in contrast to the more radical aims of screwball comedy) is to reinforce patriarchal sexual and gender norms, particularly as they apply to women. It is its further purpose to convince the viewer that woman discovers, or returns to, her “natural” secondary or supporting social position by the rational and objective operation of a system of privatized checks-and-balances, the reconciliation of differences between the sexes achieved through the exercise of those hallmarks of American democracy, debate and compromise. Although these narratives give at least the appearance of successful resolution regarding the problem of male ambition, where women are concerned they reach an inevitable impasse and end, more likely than not, unintentionally foregrounding the social contradictions of women positioned as both patriarchal subjects and Constitutional “individuals.” Valerie Plame and Tess Harding end in a no-man’s-land somewhere between professional and private life. Mary Matthews (State of the Union) reassumes her supporting role as helpmate to her formerly estranged husband. And tensions in Adam’s Rib are resolved because, as Adam Bonner puts it to Amanda, “No matter what you think you think, you really think the same as I do.”
By privileging the sanctity of the bourgeois couple over both Constitutional rights and a woman’s (partial) autonomy (and hogtying the exercise of both to the preservation of that sanctity) Fair Game reinforces the political and social status quo: progress is alright, as long as domestic relations remain intact. And (as per my thesis) this finds its equivalent in the film’s concluding take on governance. The triumph of democratic checks-and-balances, heralded by the House Committee on Government Reform hearing at the conclusion of Fair Game, is also the triumphant return to norms of governance rather than a movement beyond them. As the committee’s very title implies, a keystone of political stasis, reform (rather than progress), has been institutionalized by government itself. As with the film’s position on marriage, the institutional operations of the executive branch of government are not called into question, only transgressions against their norms. Plame, Wilson and Libby err in their lack of faith in the basic rightness of these institutions and the mutuality of criticism the film levels at their transgressions implies the common ideological link between the violated institutions of marriage and the state.
Those familiar with the version of Fair Game released to U.S. theaters beginning in December of 2010 might find some discrepancies in my account of the film. That is because my reading is based upon a version of the film shown in the spring of 2010 at the Cannes Film Festival. If memory serves (supported by notes written during that viewing), the Cannes version of the film is not the same as the version shown at a special presentation of the film by New York’s Center for Communication (which I attended) in March of 2011, presumably the same version released to theatres in December. The practice of altering or tailoring filmed material for different audiences (for instance, after a poorly received preview) is, of course, as old as Hollywood itself. In a Q&A session with the audience following the special viewing in New York, director Doug Liman (when questioned by me) expounded on the necessity of the practice, conceding in the process the likelihood of differences between the Cannes and American versions of the film. (He did not specify, and I did not ask, what changes, if any, were made).
Only two episodes in the film seem significantly different to me in the American version, those of Plame’s interview with a nuclear engineer in Cairo and of her return to her parent’s home, but only in the latter case would I, with any confidence, propose that changes were indeed made. If memory and my notes can be trusted, the primary differences between the Cannes and American versions of this episode are (1) a more extended on-camera appearance by Polly Holliday as Plame’s mother in the American version (her reduced camera time in the Cannes version particularly impressing me, as Holliday is an actress of some note in the U.S.) and (2) the elimination of the dialogue between the parents regarding father’s production (in his carpentry shop) of unwanted home furnishings for the mother.
In my estimation, the Cannes version of this episode gave the impression of a permanent rift between the parents, one ossified over time and unbridgeable by the father’s acts of contrition (i.e. the homemade items). Additionally, Holliday’s onscreen reduction in the Cannes version supported my reading of the father-daughter relationship as the dynamic one in the family. In the American version, the father is no longer the “domestic villain” (however well-intentioned) but, rather, the wizened patriot offering sage advice to his daughter. Moreover, in the American version, there is no indication that Plame has been in any way harmed by her peripatetic childhood: rather, it has rendered her “responsible” and “tough” in the father’s estimation, and the film in no way contradicts his evaluation. Equally, the impression of the perversion of bourgeois norms in the relationships of parents (Plame, her father) to children (Plame’s daughter, Plame herself) is totally absent in the American version.
My aim in suggesting the possible existence of alternate versions of Fair Game is not to imply that the film’s producers engaged in some extraordinary, politically-motivated deception: to do so responsibly, one would have to cast a much wider net. In proposing the existence of alternate versions, I wish only to account for differences between the narrative details recounted in the preceding reading and those of the film distributed to U.S. theatres (and later on DVD). I must say that, whereas my interpretation of a specific episode may change according to the version viewed, this in no way affects my overall reading of the film. Nor does this affect my thesis that the institution of American democratic principle in romantic narratives has always had a conservative intent.
Robert K. Lightning is a New York City based film and media critic. He is a regular contributor to CineAction magazine. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Barthes, Roland (1979), The Eiffel Tower and Other Mythologies, Berkeley: University of California Press.