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Shut Up and Dance

Becoming Jane and Hairspray evoke a long movie tradition

By Frank Pittman

For much of the last century, the most memorable moments in movies (and maybe in life itself) took place as people danced across the screen, alone or en masse, cheek to cheek or butt to butt, and finally lips to lips. The great movie musicals that still live in memory were sometimes overpopulated spectaculars, sometimes lowbrow operettas, but mostly they were love stories about couples who, although they might at first speak different languages, eventually managed to come together, bypass the messy business of talking and, instead, dance off in a pas de deux of love.

Musical romances, with Fred and Ginger, or Gene and Cyd, or even just Judy and Mickey, kept a couple of generations of moviegoers dreaming of falling in love on the dance floor. Filled with convoluted plots, great costumes, and kinetic excitement, they usually had little connection to reality. But they were beloved, and afforded due respect by the movie industry. From 1951 to 1968, half the Oscar winners were musicals. Then, as the 1970s plodded on their bounceless way, the movie musical as we knew it abruptly vanished. One explanation was simply that dancing in the movies was a stand-in for sex, and when sex became more explicit after the late '60s, movie dancing ceased to be a necessary surrogate. Last summer, however, a few films resurrected dancing as a mating ritual that permits couples to connect without leaving their clothes on the dance floor, reminding us once again of the traditional importance of dancing in the mating game, whether traditional or not.

While anthropologist Margaret Mead detailed courtship rituals of young people in Coming of Age in Samoa, probably no novelist has reported more wittily on the mating rituals of the Western middle classes than Jane Austen (1775–1817). In six immortal novels, Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, Emma, Persuasion, Mansfield Park, and Northanger Abbey, Austen explored the timeless emotions, social manners, and vagaries of village life in Regency-era Hampshire.

Now Julian Jarrold, using a screenplay written by Kevin Hood and Sarah Williams, has filmed a fictionalized biography of Austen, Becoming Jane. In it, they turn the life of Jane Austen into a Jane Austen novel. Becoming Jane is an earnest and richly detailed effort to connect what we know of Jane Austen's life with what we read in her books. All six have much the same plot: a virtuous, highly observant girl of modest means and modest beauty rejects the man of her dreams—for matters of pride, prejudice, or persuasion—right up till the last minute, and then marries him happily ever after. We read her books not for their plots, but for their insights about the effects people have on one another. No one reveals more than Austen about what it feels like to be human. The entanglements of life in her books are just as she must have experienced them. But the happy romantic ending didn't happen for her, and must be made up for in the film, which draws the romantic plot, many of the characters, and some of the dialogue from Pride and Prejudice.

Following the lead of some of Austen's more recent biographers, the film fleshes out a romance hinted at in her voluminous, lifelong correspondence with her sister Cassandra. The object of her romantic inclinations was Tom Lefroy, a well-connected but presently penniless young lawyer with whom she danced and flirted in their youth. Since Tom's uncle wouldn't let his nephew marry one so humble as Jane, Tom married someone else and went on to become Lord Chief Justice of Ireland. Austen stayed home and wrote her immortal novels.

Lefroy was described by Austen on first meeting as "the most disagreeable, insolent, arrogant, imprudent, insufferable, impertinent of men!" He was energetic and cocky, and his hobby was boxing. He's played in the film by James McAvoy, the Scottish actor who played Idi Amin's doctor and prime minister in The Last King of Scotland. McAvoy is just a slight little fellow, not remotely prepossessing, but much akin to James Cagney or Matt Damon in his unbending uppitiness. He's enormously appealing in all the down-to-earth, unstuffy ways he differs from Austen's Mr. Darcy of the novel Pride and Prejudice. On film, Darcy, whether played by the princely Sir Laurence Olivier, the tongue-tied and vulnerable Colin Firth, or the plain but earnest Matthew Macfadyen is hardly a hearthrob. McAvoy brings more life (and more flesh) to Darcy than anyone who's actually played him before. He strips down and wrestles as entertainment for young ladies at a dance, and then runs naked through the woods and jumps into the river. He isn't bound by modesty, and is only too happy to reveal opinions on any subject. McAvoy isn't Jane Austen's Darcy. He's the Darcy Jane Austen might have fallen for if the story were taking place today. Such cheekiness as young Tom's was not suitable, especially for the daughter of a clergyman, in 1813.

Jane is played by the breathtaking beauty Anne Hathaway, who played the title role in Princess Diaries and went toe to toe with Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada. Hathaway's wide-mouthed face is reminiscent of Audrey Hepburn's. She is playful, fiery, and quite modern in her stubbornness, independence, and outspokenness. But she's American, and despite her efforts at a British accent, she plays Austen as an American girl, with maybe a dollop too much Paris Hilton in her swagger and a cupful of extra drool in her not-so-shy glances.

Initially Tom and Jane don't get along well. Jane lectures Tom, Tom lectures Jane, Jane storms out. Yet when they dance a minuet together, they both work up a sweat and a state of hormonal intoxication. Hathaway is surely the sweatiest Jane Austen in film history, and in her sweaty state, she shines.

The British critics loved McAvoy, but they hated Hathaway, mostly for being too American to play a British national treasure. The critics much preferred Keira (Pirates of the Caribbean) Knightly in last year's version, lushly beatific Jennifer Ehle a few years ago on the BBC, and even Greer Garson (a snob in the wrong costumes) half a century ago. In the film, Ireland is substituted aptly for Austen's native Hampshire. These days, Ireland bears more resemblance to the ratty Hampshire countryside of her day.

Austen's villagemates come together to dance with visiting aristocrats and the local proletariat. (They could dance but not marry outside their class.) Her books aren't about the lives of royalty, but about struggling pig and chicken farmers, and rural ministers who overbreed and must obsess themselves with the marital prospects of their daughters. Jane wants to write, and her family encourages her talent in a world in which women were expected to stay home and pull back from society, except when courting, breeding, dancing, or meddling in other people's affairs. When Maggie Smith, as an aristocratic neighbor who's come to assess Jane (in the next room) as a marriage prospect for her pathetic nephew, asks, "What is she doing?" the old bag is reassured: "She is writing." The lady turns up her nose and feigns alarm: "Can anything be done about it?"

We know from the start that Jane's romance with Tom Lefroy won't end happily ever after for the young couple. Austen's choices in life and in Becoming Jane were far less romantic than those at the end of each of her novels, but romance was highly suspect in Jane and Tom's day. For young people to choose their own mates would undercut the principles by which property was distributed and passed on, encouraging intergenerational warfare. During the period when Austen lived, there was great deference to order and tradition. Her penetrating exposure of the unromantic underpinnings of marital arrangements wasn't just a sociological observation, but a rebellion against the established order. This defiance, however polite on the surface, presaged the romantic era that followed, in which women had the right to marry the men of their choice, even if those choices led to disaster, as they did for Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina.

How central is romance to marriage and to life? This is the preoccupation of Jane Austen's oeuvre. In Becoming Jane, Mrs. Austen insists that "Affection is desirable. Money is indispensable!" Tom Lefroy asks Jane "How can you of all people dispose of yourself without affection?" Jane answers, "How can I dispose of myself with it?" In today's world, young people considering the choice of a mate continue to balance sense and sensibility. The divorce rate confirms that they aren't getting any better at finding that balance. So they may look back to Austen. She grows more popular every decade. Young women wear T-shirts asking "What would Jane do?" We have two answers about the choices she would have made: what she herself did in her own life and what her counterparts did in all her novels. Shall the courting choice be made practically or romantically?

Even when if we know how to conduct a courtship, we must determine who's an appropriate object for our affection. In 1988, avant-garde Baltimore filmmaker John Waters made Hairspray, a revolutionary movie proclaiming the lifting of our customary sanctions about whom to court and whom to pass by. Set in 1962, when Kennedy was president, it focused on the hope (and in some circles, fear) that, along with all the other possibilities, the world would open up its dating pool. Adolescents danced on television and in the streets, overturning rules of mating behavior that pertained to race and color, size and shape, even gender—-whether the opposite, the same, or the indeterminate.

Hairspraywas Waters's straightest film, although it starred his childhood buddy Harris Glen Milstead (1945–1988) aka "Divine," a 400-pound transvestite and walking monument to bad taste, who played female parts straight-faced while breaking all film boundaries having to do with gender, physical appearance, and the evidence of our senses. Divine, who'd also starred in Pink Flamingos and Polyester, died the year Hairspraycame out, but he lives on as the model of transsexual, cross-cultural, boundary-hopping chic.

The early death of Milstead didn't mark the end of Hairspray, which endured as a campy cult favorite and became a huge hit as a Broadway musical in 2003. Gravel-voiced, hairy-bodied Harvey Fierstein, in glittering gowns, starred as the hyperbolic transvestite. Fierstein played Edna in a far more outrageous way than Milstead would have. Both of them, beneath their bows and rhinestones, are obviously, inescapably men in drag. Fierstein, though, plays the role, not as a man, not as a woman, but as a cross between Ethel Merman and an orangutan.

Hairsprayis now reincarnated as a Hollywood musical anthology, with the energy of Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland, the splash of Busby Berkeley, and an intimate moment of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. John Travolta, whose career began as a dancer in Saturday Night Fever, Grease, and Staying Alive, is wrapped in a fat suit, made up to look prissy, and given another chance to dance. He plays Edna Turnblad not as a transvestite or a freak of any sort, but as a shy, gentle woman who's grown too fat to leave home for 15 years. Her adoring husband, Christopher (Deer Hunter) Walken, owns a rundown novelty shop in a rundown section of Baltimore. Their daughter, Tracy, a 250-pound, 4 foot 10-inch energizer bunny of enthusiasm, is played with boundless bounce by real high school student Nikki Blonsky.

Tracy, in a Gene Kelly moment, starts the film, singing "Good Morning, Baltimore" as she dances down the sidewalk feeding the mice, and catches a ride to school on a garbage truck. Irrepressible, she designates a boyfriend for herself—Zac Efron, with dancing feet, bright blue eyes, and perfectly straight teeth. Her ambition is to appear on the Corny Collins show on TV, where the beautiful people of high school dance and show off.

Tracy is sent to detention for having her hair teased so full that the students behind her can't see the teacher. In detention, she meets the black kids of the school, whose dancing, led by seemingly boneless Elijah Kelley, is free, athletic, and gravity defying. The black kids are kept in detention all day, where they perfect their boneless chicken dance. When Tracy discovers that they don't get to dance on the Corny Collins show except on "Negro Day" once a month, she recruits them to picket the station, demanding that, here in 1962 Baltimore, the black kids and the white kids will henceforth dance together with all the muscular urban pizzazz of West Side Story. She even hooks in big, blond, beautiful Queen (Chicago) Latifah to be their spokeperson.

Tracy, her energetic gang, and her adoring parents fight it out with insipid, skinny Michelle Pfeiffer, hater of the fat, the black, the ugly, and anyone else who isn't made in her own image. Here she embodies the stereotypical "beautiful people"—too white, too rich, too thin, and too hateful. The colorless, toothpick-legged Pfeiffer looks sickly in this company. (Anorexic women shouldn't stand too close to Queen Latifah.)

We're accustomed to Walken, an ex-Broadway dancer himself, playing loonies and creeps. But the high point of the film is his graceful turn in an Astaire-Rogers dance of delicacy in a tiny garden behind his novelty shop in which he romances Travolta, singing "You're Timeless to Me." Comparing the shy Edna to aged cheese, Walken leads his beloved out of her seclusion with the most delicate touch of his fingertips. Travolta's Edna, with eyes at least six inches too close together, is nimble and fluid, gazing lovingly and cross-eyed at the man she loves. Enchanted by her husband's seductive glances, she comes to life in the film, in her marriage, and in her daughter's heroic battles. She follows Tracy's bouncing lead into a brave new world in which all people, of whatever size, shape and color, have a place.

All the teenagers in Baltimore sway to the music, cut across all thoughts of class and race difference, fall joyously in love with the forbidden people, and dance to the point of speechless exhaustion. The audience has rarely had a better time, and, as if taking an unlikely cue from the summer's modern-day retelling of Jane Austen's story, discover the ecstatic bliss of flashing a wide smile, shutting up, and just dancing.

Frank Pittman, M.D., is a contributing editor to the Psychotherapy Networker and is in private practice. Contact: fsp3md @aol.com. Letters to the Editor about this department can be e-mailed to Letters@psychnetworker.org.

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