SIFF Becky Sharpest
posted by June 9 at 17:10 PMon
Yesterday I saw the restored 1935 Becky Sharp, the first three-strip Technicolor movie ever, for the first time. The flashy lemon yellows hurt my eyes a little, but I kept comparing it—favorably—to the the 2004 version. Back then (wow, I’ve been at The Stranger a while), I had all kinds of complaints about Mira Nair’s reading of the Thackeray novel:
The problem with Reese Witherspoon as Becky is linked to the way this film tries to reinvent her character. Thackeray’s secret sympathy for his conniving protagonist—who is so bad she even hates children—always seeps through the cynical narration. Becky Sharp is great because, no matter how much we admire her pluck from the safe distance of the 21st century, she was a terrible bitch.
Mira Nair does not agree. Becky Sharp “was not allowed to be Becky Sharp,” she contended. “Women basically were told to stand in the corner and be quiet. It’s just that she was not happy with the cards that society had given her, and she wanted to make her own way.” This generous view of one of English literature’s most notorious antiheroines—that Becky, a pure product of the oppressive class and gender codes of the 19th century, was somehow trapped in the wrong era—mutes the very exceptional qualities that modern readers delight in.
Moreover, this Becky Sharp doesn’t scheme and claw her way up to society’s most precipitous heights. She’s Reese Witherspoon, and we know she belongs there already. Instead, she rises like cream to the top of a pitcher—effortlessly, and without any particular evidence of talent. Witherspoon’s Becky does not dissemble; she could never appear to suitors as, in Thackeray’s words, “the picture of youth, unprotected innocence, and humble virgin simplicity.” Like Tracy Flick or Elle Woods (her equally ambition-soaked characters in Election and Legally Blonde, respectively), she winks, she smirks, and her every thought is written on her face. Nair explained, “You can see all that clickety-clack in her mind, everything going on. All I need is that face, that Reese-thinking face. It’s fantastic.” But it’s also a completely modern notion of femininity, and in this role, it doesn’t make any sense.
Well, the 1935 Becky Sharp, as unleashed upon the world by one Miriam Hopkins (Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Richest Girl in the World), has an equally modern notion of femininity—and there is much clickety-clack in evidence—but hers is femininity in the depths of the Great Depression.
It’s femininity at its most ravenous, its most spiteful, its most unapologetic. And although this Becky Sharp is definitely a bitch, the audience isn’t expected to hate her for it. The audience, the studio assumes, is also poor and insufficiently loved and cleverer than they’re given credit for. Becky does what she has to do. And she isn’t really even punished for her greed at the end.
I recently watched the first American Girl doll movie, Kit Kittredge, which is set in 1934 and purports to educate its young audience about the hardships families faced in the Great Depression and the values that got them through it. It’s not a bad movie, for what it is. But I can’t help wondering whether Becky Sharp gives a more accurate description of people’s real desires, of the tactics they truly admired at the time. (After all, 1934 was the year Bonnie and Clyde were killed and instantly mythologized.) Becky Sharp is the perfect antiheroine for bleak economic times. And she’s fashionable, too. Rawr.