It’s been said that gentlemen prefer blondes (but only marry brunettes), a theory that the programmers over at Turner Classic Movies put to the test this week with the last entries in a November-long lineup of bombshells and ice queens they’re been calling “The Battle of the Blondes.” My first reaction was, “Score!” I duly noted the scheduling of some personal favorites and unknown treats. I paused, though, when a friend and I got to talking about whether or not Hitchcock, whose pictures are featured prominently in the series, was a misogynistic director. Was my enthusiasm reinforcing attitudes I’d never countenance outside a movie theatre? Does calling “Rear Window” my favorite film latch me to the same kind of sexism evidenced by the recent kerfuffle over THR’s miserable excuse for a director’s roundtable?
Focusing on the actresses featured this week (Julie Christie and Grace Kelly), I watched a few of the titles again, worried that I might find a stinking heap of chauvinism and wrongthink. In some places I did. But what was surprising was how fresh and strong the women seemed — even the sweeping, epic “Doctor Zhivago” (David Lean, 1965), which is about as old-fashioned and portentous as they come, gives Christie something to chew on. At the very least, she’s no wallflower, which is pmore than can be said of the female leads in many of today’s romances.
Style, though, is political. The hidebound tradition of “Zhivago,” which juxtaposes a sexy, aggressive Christie against a doting, dutiful Geraldine Chaplin, is a relic of another age, which is as evident in the film’s massive scope, bloated running time and utter self-seriousness as it is in its conceptions of gender. (The same, sad to say, goes for “To Catch a Thief,” Hitchcock, Kelly and Cary Grant’s 1955 romp on the Riviera — as a caper it’s good fun, but it feels distinctly less modern than, say, “The 39 Steps,” which Hitch made two decades prior.)
Films with more radical stylistic feats, whether the close quarters and tight timing of “Dial M for Murder” and “Rear Window,” or the kitchen-sink realism of “Billy Liar” (John Schlesinger, 1963), tend to play more fast and loose with the gender roles. In fact, all three pit a beautiful free spirit, unafraid to ditch the housework, against a man in some sense stuck: a failed tennis player who relies on his wife’s money; a photographer stuck in a wheelchair during a New York heat wave; a working-class dreamer with a vivid fantasy world but no sense of how to make the fantasy a reality.
Things can get complicated, so don’t assume that I’m implying any of these are proto-feminist films — for every moment of free will, there’s the subtle male fear of emasculation, for every new impulse there’s also a mechanism of control. Yet for all its phallic imagery, its obsession with a man poking his long telephoto lens into the open windows of the women in the courtyard, I also think “Rear Window” — which isn’t in TCM’s lineup but fits so squarely between “Dial M for Murder” and “To Catch a Thief” that it seemed wrong not to talk about it here — is an exhilarating take on the battle of the sexes in which it really is a battle, and not a fait accompli. The film’s great moment of fierce tension is a gorgeous, note-perfect action sequence of groans and worries, phone calls and sudden discoveries, as Kelly’s society belle gamely breaks into the apartment of the suspected murderer across the way. That she almost gets knocked off in the process, escaping by the skin of her teeth, is evidence not of weakness but of bravery. She does what Jeff can’t, fleetly and, at least until the ordeal is over, calm as can be. It’s no giant leap, but maybe a small step forward — for blondes and brunettes alike.