Tag Archives: Blythe Danner

The Great Santini (1979)

I sometimes tell people that my mother was like Mary Tyler Moore’s Beth from Ordinary People and my father like Robert Duvall’s Bull Meechum from The Great Santini. It’s a harsh characterization, not completely accurate, and, even though it does have a grain of truth, it’s mostly the result of how both movies were in constant rotation on HBO in the early 1980s. Ordinary People framed my image of the toxic feminine. The Great Santini framed my image of the toxic masculine.

The Great Santini opens with a group of United States Marines stationed in Spain in 1962. Franco, unmentioned, is still dictator. Vietnam lurks ahead in the not too distant future. Castro is consolidating power in Cuba. The United States Marines are having a going away party for Lt. Col. Wilbur “Bull” Meechum. Meechum is a veteran, a popular, charismatic senior officer. He is also, as we shall soon see, a 40-year-old fraternity boy. After a waiter, then a senior United States naval officer, comes into their private room to ask, then order them to quiet down, Meechum and his buddies play a practical joke on the other people in the restaurant. They stagger out into the main dining room, drunk, and pretending to be even more drunk. There’s a band playing. Meechum grabs a woman and forces her to dance with him. She pulls away, indignant, then sits back down. Meechum, who had hidden an open can of cream of mushroom soup under his jacket, then walks up to the stage, and pretends to be sick. He then “throws up,” spilling the can of cream of mushroom soup. His fellow Marines start barking, get down on their hands and knees, and drink up the soup as if they were dogs drinking up their own vomit. It’s all good “fun and games” for the “men” who operate multi-million dollar fighter aircraft.

The scene changes to a military airport in Atlanta Georgia. Lillian, Meechum’s wife, Blythe Danner, Ben, his oldest son, Michael O’Keefe, younger son and two daughters are waiting for his plane to arrive. Anybody who’s seen the famous image of an American POW greeted by his family upon his return from Vietnam will immediately recognize the image. Meechum has never been a POW, and the war in Vietnam hasn’t even started, but the director Lewis John Carlino is reminding us exactly where we are in history. The conflict between the generations that will soon erupt in the streets and on the college campuses is also brewing in the Meechum between Meechum and his older son Ben.

It’s much easier to misinterpret The Great Santini than it is to misinterpret Ordinary People. If the family in Ordinary people, that icy, funereal trio of suburban Chicago WASPs, is so utterly cold and loveless that we realize from the very beginning it needs to crack up, the family in The Great Satini is a lot more complex. Lillian Meechum, and Blythe Danner is a much better actress than her daughter Gwynneth Paltrow, is a southern “lady.” She’s warm, gracious, kind, nothing like Mary Tyler Moore’s vicious upper-class Yankee bitch. What’s more, she and her husband, while they may fight, trade blows, and yell insults, genuinely love each other. After we see them in a post coital embrace, a long married couple in their 40s who still sleep with each other, they wake up, pile into a station wagon, and drive north to Beaufort, South Carolina and the 321st fighter squadron, which Meechum has been brought back to the United States to command. They sing. Lillian, a southerner starts out with Dixie, and Meechum, a Yankee, drowns her out with Battle Hymn of the Republic.

If the symbolism is a bit heavy handed, it’s effective at making its point. Beaufort, which is near the famous Marine Corps base at Parris Island, is not Selma Alabama, or Philadelphia Mississippi. It’s part of the Sea Islands. It has a substantial black population and was the site of a famous experiment in Radical Reconstruction. The Marine Corps means there’s a substantial presence of the federal government. This isn’t a grim, backwoods redneck hellhole with night riders and burning crosses. It’s a gorgeous old Tidewater city with gigantic old plantation houses, a substantial population of people from outside the south, and no obvious signs of Jim Crow.

That said, racism, as we will see in the film’s climax, is still front and center. After Meechum rents a huge ante-bellum plantation house, he jokingly baits Arrabella Smalls, their black maid, with accusations that she’s a potential thief. Meechum is no racist, and Lilian treats Arrabella Smalls no differently than she would if she were white. But Arabella’s son Toomer, a fisherman and beekeeper, who we earlier saw driving his cart full of honey jars into town, will soon get into a fatal conflict with a local gang of racists.

The Great Santini is an old school 1970s liberal movie. While there is a nod to Meechum’s older daughter Mary Anne, Sarah Jane Persky, who codes “Jewish, smart, plain, feminist,” his son Ben is squarely at the center of the narrative. If Robert Redford, in Ordinary People, went right for the jugular, gutting his Chicago WASP family, and exposing it as a complete fraud, then Lewis John Carlino seems a bit confused about whether he wants to make a movie that’s genuinely feminist and anti-militarist, or if simply wants to tell a story about a father and son. I haven’t read the Pat Conroy novel the Great Santini is based on but here, in the film, Mary Anne Meechum seems as needy for her father’s attention as she does critical of his patriarchal authority. She mocks her father’s authoritarian personality, but always seems like her brother’s sidekick. She makes up stories about sleeping with black dwarfs to get his attention, which become more and more outlandish as he simply pretends she doesn’t exist. For Bull Meechum, his two daughters really don’t exist. There’s a darker side to his oddly likeable frat jock, but Carlino never quite exploits it as well as he should.

Ben’s feminine role model, his path out his father’s twisted, macho world view, is not a woman at all, but Toomer, the maid’s son. That a black man is used to symbolize feminized masculinity and a white man patriarchy is politically problematic to say the least, but at the very least it does put race and class at the center of the story. Even as Bull Meechum becomes more and more of a caricature of boy man, as he drinks, bullies his kids, and bullies his wife, his wife still defends him. “I want to give my son the gift of fury,” Meechum says to Lillian, “or else the world will tear them apart.” Lillian, the bourgeois southern lady, seems to agree. She plays both sides. She defends her son against his father, as soon as her son rebels, she defends her husband. Lillian doesn’t reject patriarchy at all. On the contrary, after Meechum viciously bullies Ben, who had the temerity to beat him as basketball, Lillian defends him. “Your father loves you,” she said. “He just wants you to be the best.”

And why shouldn’t she? Lillian Meechum isn’t stupid. She knows, along with her husband, that she lives in the United States, a capitalist country that values male aggression. To raise her son to be a feminist would, indeed, be a form of child abuse. It would take from him his ability to succeed, to make money, to attract women, to start a family of his own. Lilian is no Beth Jarrett. She loves her son deeply and has no trouble standing up to her husband when she knows he’s wrong. But she’s no radical either. How could she possibly know that in 1962 helping to impose a traditional masculine identity on her son might mean he’ll die, or, even worse, commit war crimes in Vietnam?

Toomer, on the other hand, is something of a revolutionary. These days, it might be possible to see Stan Shaw’s stuttering, folksy black bee keeper as racist, as a “magical negro,” but, if you look more closely, you can see that Toomer is the black, working class equivalent of Judd Hirsh’s psychiatrist, the benevolent father figure who helps the hero break out of his tyrannical WASP family. Toomer has no trouble standing up to racists, and not only verbally. When a group of “shrimp folk” break his honey jars and try to get in the way of his livelihood, he wrenches the leader into a headlock, and threatens to crush his skull under the wheels of his cart. When the gang comes out to home, he sets up a trap to overturn two cages full of bees. The racists scatter,  howling in pain. When the leader of the racist gang starts shooting his dogs — Toomer keeps about 20 — and accidentally shoots Toomer, Toomer, with his last bit of strength, opens the kennel door. His pack of hounds chase down the racist and kill him.

Indeed, Toomer’s willingness to use violence to defend himself puts him a lot closer to Malcolm X than it does to the Schwerner, Cheney and Goodman of Mississippi Burning.

But it’s still Ben’s story. While Ben never challenges Meechum over the neglect of his two sisters, he does stand up to him over Toomer. After the father orders the son not to interfere — “when the crackers and blacks go at it we don’t stand in the middle” — Ben defies his command and goes out to the bus. It’s too late to save Toomer, but, by at least trying, Ben saves himself. The tables are turned. Ben is no longer the bullied son. Indeed, as Bull Meechum continues to degenerate into the alcoholism that symbolizes his toxic, vicious patriarchal authority, his son becomes the parent, he the child. When Ben hunts down his father, who’s wandered off after a drunken binge, he not only saves him from public humiliation, he yells in his face “I love you dad. I love you dad.”

If Ordinary People’s toxic mother in 1980 meant Reaganite neoliberalism, The Great Santini’s toxic father would very soon, in the 1960s, mean Vietnam.

Meechum is killed after the fuel gage in his fighter jet malfunctions, and he crashes it into the ocean rather then kill civilians.  Ben and Lillian take command of the family, and try to maintain things as they’ve always been. Lillian orders Mary Anne not to cry at the funeral. Ben drives the family out of town, leading them as they sing the Battle Hymn of the Republic, his father’s old song. Ben’s Oedipal fantasy has come true. He has Lillian and the kids all to himself. He’s the man now. But Vietnam is only a few years away. Ben, 18 in 1962, is soon going to face a choice. Will he go to Vietnam, napalm civilians, become an agent of the imperial state as his father surely would have done, or will he rebel? Will he resist the draft? Will he go to Canada or jail rather than participate in genocide and war crimes? Will Lillian help him? We have no way of knowing, but, like Conrad Jarrett in Ordinary People, he does at least have a fighting chance.

1776 (1972)

Back in middle-school, during the Cold War, my fifth grade “social studies” teacher, a liberal but a still patriotic liberal, was always fond of telling us that the United States, whatever its faults, was still better than the Soviet Union. That Spring we went to see the film version of 1776, which a local theater ran every May. On the walk back to school, the teacher explained to us how 1776 demonstrated why democracy would triumph over communism. Communism was top down, stultified. Democracy was messy, improvisational. Communism needed censorship. Democracy needed free speech.

Little did I know that the version of 1776 my patriotic 7th grade teacher had taken us on that pleasant Spring walk to go see had been censored and abridged by none other than Richard Nixon himself. The politics of 1776, which had been written by a staff writer at the Brill Building named Sherman Edwards and a Hollywood screenwriter named Peter Stone, can best be described at Gordon Wood meets Thomas Carlyle. John Adams, the liberal great man, towers over the rest of the Continental Congress. Thomas Jefferson and Ben Franklin are reduced to sidekicks. But it wasn’t Adams that Nixon objected to. It was his antagonist, John Dickinson, a sneering, reactionary who threatened to strangle the United States in its cradle. An Independent United States, Edwards and Stone are telling us, threatened to overthrow the “men of property” that John Dickinson represented. In one song, “Cool, Cool, Considerate Men,” he makes it explicit.

“Don’t forget that most men without property would rather protect the possibility of becoming rich,” he says, “than face the reality of being poor.”

While Sherman Edwards and Peter Stone were liberals, Jack Warner, the film’s distributor, was not. A conservative Republican who took out a full page ad in the New York Times in 1960 to support Richard Nixon over John F. Kennedy, he showed a preview of 1776 to Nixon, now occupying the White House, before it’s release. Nixon objected to “Cool, Cool, Considerate Men” and Jack Warner not only had it removed, but ordered the entire segment burned. Not surprisingly, the butchered film, not really very good in the first place, tanked at the box office. For years, the segment was considered lost, but, in the late 1990s, someone found a copy filed away in the studio archive under a different name, and it was restored for a new “Directors Cut” DVD in 2002. To be honest, the lack of “Cool, Cool, Considerate Men,” is not the reason 1776 tanked at the box office.

Viewing all three hours of 1776 again after all these years, I understand now just what an odd film it really was. I saw 1776 it in the late 1970s, after Nixon’s resignation and the massive Bicentennial celebration in 1976 had restored the idea that patriotism was a good thing. But it’s important to remember that the original Broadway musical had come out in 1968. In the late 1960s, the Cold War liberal jingoism my social studies teacher believed in so passionately had fallen out of fashion almost as much as conservatism. Remember, it was the liberal John F. Kennedy who committed troops to Vietnam and the very liberal Lyndon Johnson who kept them there. Black nationalism, Maoism, the Yippies and the new left had allowed the generation before mine to question not only the Vietnam War but the idea of American nationalism itself. The United States flag was no longer a progressive symbol of democracy. It was napalm and Rolling Thunder, Cointelpro and the Ku Klux Klan. So if you were on the right, you hated 1776 for its liberalism. If you were on the left, you hated it for its patriotism. Nixon’s heavy handed censorship turned out to be unnecessary, just another example of his paranoia.

10 years later, however, it was a highly effective piece of propaganda. At least it worked on me. Whatever its faults, 1776 did manage to distil the entire American Revolution into a three hour musical. The sneering reactionary John Dickinson in the film, nothing like the principled conservative he was in real life — Dickinson was the only member of the Continental Congress who freed all of his slaves outright — becomes the stand in for King George and the loyalists. The sniveling James Wilson, firmly under Dickinson’s thumb until the very end — when Ben Franklin sets him free — represents those Americans who sat on the fence, unsure of whether to support the revolution or the King. John Adams, a straight edged middle-aged liberal from Massachusetts becomes not only the father of his country, but also evokes those progressive Democrats who questioned Johnson and Vietnam, Eugene McCarthy, Benjamin Spock, Frank Church, and George McGovern. Jefferson, a lazy slacker who has to grow a five o’clock shadow and get laid before Adams can goad him into writing the Declaration of Independence, is the New Left, the younger generation of intellectuals that finally comes around to realizing their country isn’t so bad after all. There is also a colorful collection of dirty hippies, surly proletarians, and and a feminist Abigail Adams.

1776 is still not a very good film. It hits its nadir during a long, tedious, and appallingly sexist interlude between Jefferson, Adams, Franklin and Martha Jefferson, played by a young Blythe Danner. Adams brings her from Virginia only so that she can fuck her husband and free him from his writer’s block. Even as a 12-year-old it made me groan. But 1776 still addresses an issue the American left hasn’t fully dealt with. What about American nationalism?

Indeed, as reactionary as it turned out to be in the late 1970s, in the corporatist United States of Barack Obama, 1776 once again feels progressive. This is not the American Revolution of the Tea Party. Thomas McKean of Delaware, a gun-toting Scotsman played by Ray Middleton, is played for laughs, as is a segment where Adams takes Samuel Chase of Maryland to observe the sharpshooting skills of the Continental Army in New Jersey. The Reverend John Witherspoon, in reality a giant of the Scots Diaspora, is a minor character. The Continental Congress of 1776 is a decidedly secular place. Religion is absent, except as the opportunity for an occasional witty remark. The south, slavery, and states rights are seen as an obstacle to the birth of the United States of America. Adams, the hero and moral center is not only a passive abolitionist, as he was in real life, but a fire breathing anti-slavery crusader who would make Thaddeus Stevens proud.

What’s more, there is an implicit critique of the reactionary side of the United States Constitution that, whether intended or not, runs through the whole film. John Dickinson, the villain, insists that any vote for the resolution of independence has to be unanimous, recalling not only the constant Tea Party filibusters in Congress under Barack Obama, but also the idea that government should exist to protect a minority of property owners against the people. Edward Rutledge, the grandee from South Carolina who has a memorable exchange with John Adams over state’s rights, threatens to tank the whole country to protect slavery. Anybody who saw this film in 1972 realized that it would take another 600,000 dead Americans, a total that dwarfed the casuality rate of the War of Independence, to finally do away with slavery for good. John Adams the abolitionist, even though he gave in in the face of an inevitable rejection of the proposal for independence, was right after all.

In other words, 1776, for all its man faults, brings back the idea that the Declaration of Independence represented an idea of American nationalism far more progressive than the United States Constitution. Would I recommend seeing it? Probably not. Read the Lincoln-Douglas Debates instead. But it remains a historical curiosity, an odd little example of how during a time of revolutionary upsurge like the late 1960s, even people who wrote creaky Broadway musicals had to adapt.