Ah, naturalism. How fraught our relationship is. Once I saw that one of our Liz Taylor memorial picks, A Place in the Sun, was based on a novel by Theodore Dreiser, I pretty much knew what I was in for: an irresistible and cataclysmic downward spiral. And once I saw it was based on An American Tragedy, I had a feeling that women would be instrumentalized in a way that would make me uncomfortable. Right on both counts.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with book and film, George Eastman is related to a wealthy family, but has enjoyed none of the benefits. His mother is involved in some sort of evangelical movement (a subplot that I bet gets a lot more attention in the novel), and his father has died. George goes to hit up the wealthy side of his family for a job, and gets one in the bathing suit factory (I think that's what they manufacture???). Though he swoons over Elizabeth Taylor's character the second he sees her, and who can blame him, he quickly understands she is not meant for him, and for reasons unimportant to anyone, begins a flirtation/seduction of another factory worker.
And here's where I feel the movie is unfair to both Shelley Winters (factory worker Alice) and Elizabeth (Angela). They are not human beings so much as alternate fates for George. Shelley represents the chains of his class and his past--a life in shadows, to use the metaphor the movie appropriates. And the film HATES her. She is irritating and dim-witted and dowdy. Elizabeth represents the possibility of what life could be like--beautiful and free and powerful. But neither of the female characters are important for anything other than the lifestyles for which they are meant to serve as a metonym. I felt bad for Alice. She was in as much of an impossible situation as George, but I feel that with the way her character is portrayed, our sympathies can't really lie anywhere else but with him. And we are given no reason why a woman as vivacious as Angela would ever fall in love with someone as dour and diffident as George.
Naturalism seems to me disingenuous as a genre. It proclaims that human beings are subject to a universe that is inherently disinterested and capricious, but all the naturalist texts and films I've watched (including A LOT of recent horror movies) seem to lend themselves pretty readily to a more social critique. I think this movie could be all about capitalism. Eastman sells things, including Angela, and George is meant to both want those things and to be forbidden access to them. That's how capitalism works--and the dehumanization of Angela and Alice could fit nicely in this reading. But because the movie doesn't need them to be fully realized human beings in the first place (naturalism has no place for character), what I think could have been a really gut-wrenching and feminist text becomes a Greek tragedy without the fatal flaw.
What do you think Nat? I know you love this movie, and I found it really entertaining, but still troubling. Was I biased the second I saw this was based on Dreiser?