In My Opinion: The Ides of March (or the girl, the abortion, and the aftermath)

The first half of this post is straight-up plot summary. If you haven’t seen the movie yet and don’t want to know any spoilers, skedaddle.

I saw The Ides of March last Friday; for the most part, I absolutely loved it. It’s much more cynical than most of my favorite movies, but it was so well done that I couldn’t resist. It was directed by George Clooney; the cast that the power of his name gathered is fantastic.

Ryan Gosling is Stephen Myers, an extraordinarily idealistic press consultant working on the presidential campaign of Governor Mike Morris (George Clooney). In the opening scene of the movie, Myers is working on a  sound check just before a debate that is to be televised.  Quoting a speech of Morris’s, he says “I’m not a Christian, I’m not an atheist, I’m not a Muslim, I’m not Jewish. I believe in the American Constitution.” Morris may believe in the Constitution, but Myers believes in Morris. He tells a journalist covering the race that Morris has to become president… that it will change the world for the better if he is elected. He’s very passionate. In fact, he’s a little obsessed.

The events in the movie occur in the five days before the Democratic Primary in Ohio. Early in the film, the importance of the Ohio choice of Democratic candidate is emphasized: as Ohio goes, so goes the nation. The stakes are very high.

Senator Mike Morris is a little remote; as a presidential candidate his actions and words are the focus of everyone around him, everything he does seems a bit modified and constrained by an awareness of this. But he seems to be a basically good guy. Early in the movie, he explains his decision not to allow Senator Thompson, a crooked but extremely powerful politician, a place on his party ticket. He says that there are lines in the sand that you just can’t move. He references several political tactics that he previously had intended not to use, but has since utilized (negative ads being the only one I can recall mentioned, but that type of thing), but says that allowing Senator Thompson on the ticket will put him over that invisible line.

Molly Sterns is a campaign intern, beautifully played by Even Rachel Wood. She’s been working on Morris’s campaign for a while—she reminds a completely oblivious Stephen that they’ve worked together before. He kind of fumbles and asks if she’d changed something. Maybe her hair? She hadn’t.

Upon this triangle of characters, Senator Mike Morris, Stephen Myers and Molly Sterns, the action of the movie operates.

The initial banter during which Molly reminds Stephen of their previous meetings leads to the beginning of a relationship. One night, while they are asleep in bed together, a phone rings, waking Stephen who automatically answers it. When a male voice responds then hangs up, Stephen realizes he has grabbed the wrong cell phone. Stephen laughingly—then insistently—demands an explanation from Molly. She starts getting a little frantic, he calls the number back… and it goes to the senator’s phone.

The story comes out: earlier in the campaign, she took some paperwork up to the senator late at night. They were talking, and then, well, they weren’t talking. It happened only once; she ends up pregnant. Earlier in the day she had called the senator, needing money for an abortion.

Stephen is horrified, not by Molly’s condition (that doesn’t really seem to register), but by the toppling of his idol. He immediately goes into manage-and-suppress mode, telling Molly to make plans to go home, gathering cash for her abortion and plane ticket, taking her to the clinic, promising to pick her up after.

While she’s at the clinic, golden boy Stephen is fired. He made a foolish decision, met with someone from the opposition’s campaign, a journalist is threatening to go public with the information about the meeting. Morris knows about and approved of his dismissal. To Stephen, this is a personal betrayal—everything he believed in has disintegrated. He takes the incendiary story of the pregnant intern to the opposition, but is unable to exchange information for a job.

After calling Stephen several times for the promised ride, Molly takes a cab back to the hotel where she hears about the campaign dramatics that she missed. She panics. She suspects that he’s going to “do something crazy” with her story; hours later, when she is still unable to reach him on his phone, she overdoses on alcohol and the pills she was given at the clinic and dies.

Stephen arrives moments after the body has been discovered. He stares in horror at the twisted corpse on the floor for a few long moments, then pockets her phone and leaves unnoticed. 

Later, the now-unemployed Stephen uses Molly’s phone to call Senator Morris in the middle of press conference about the unexpected and tragic death of the campaign intern. He gets a private interview with Morris in the back of an empty restaurant kitchen. This is the first time in the movie that Morris isn’t “acting the politician”—during the rest of the movie, he’s surrounded by journalists and campaign advisors and interns and press secretaries. But here we see another layer, a deeper layer, of Morris. And he’s still basically a good guy. He’s smarter, he’s more ruthless than expected, he doesn’t plan to let his campaign or his life be derailed by the tragic death of one intern who just happened to be pregnant by him… ok, maybe he’s not a good guy. But it is apparent that he’s just managing the crisis as well as he can—he’d have chosen a different outcome for the Molly situation, and perhaps even the Stephen situation—but this is what he’s got.

The two men, squaring off in the empty kitchen, reminded me of a scene from some old western.There’s a kind of submerged threat of violence (all those knives and bare metal surfaces!) but it’s completely subject to their intelligence. Morris tries to determine what Stephen actually has on him—there is no paperwork, no DNA tests are possible now—but in the end succumbs to the threat to his career.

Stephen successfully leverages his way into his superior’s position (getting him fired) and blackmails Morris into offering the dirty politician a place on the party ticket, ensuring Morris’s presidential candidacy and Stephen’s career. The movie ends as an eerily expressionless Stephen waits in an empty gymnasium to talk to the press about the Democratic Primary results in Ohio.

Phew, that’s a lot of plot summary. And I just focused on the information that I needed. Stephen’s boss, Philip Seymour Hoffman, was brilliant as the honorable guy that gets stabbed in the back. Paul Giamatti was perfect in the slightly smarmy and completely untrustworthy role of opposition press consultant. Marisa Tomei is a manipulative journalist who is also just being used. There are other ways to tell the plot of this movie that would focus on all of their machinations, but I wanted to talk about… you guessed it… the girl, the abortion and the aftermath.

I was most interested in Molly Sterns. While not entirely thrilled with the presentation of her situation, it was rather well done. She wants an abortion and (gasp) she’s not a raging nymphomaniac—she seems normal. Let me restate that, once more, just to let it sink in. Because that’s a rather shocking statement: she’s a normal girl who wants an abortion. I love that they didn’t demonize that decision. She wasn’t presented as a “bad girl” or particularly “fast” or “forward” (what does that even mean?) or anything other than a cute girl interested in a hot guy at work. The dialogue with Gosling—as they flirt back and forth, as she invites him for drinks at her hotel, as their budding relationship progresses—could have been lifted from any workplace romance movie.

Even after we know that she’s pregnant, her presentation didn’t change. She admits that she was a little drunk when it happened—but not that drunk. It was just a stupid mistake.

And even—get this, because it isn’t what I expected—it isn’t some episode of deep-seated guilt after the abortion that drives her to suicide. It’s fear that her story will be used—that she will be used—as a political maneuver. And it’s a very rational fear. Stephen tries to do just that. In fact, Stephen does do just that. Her corpse becomes a noose that Stephen dangles above Morris’s head. But all of that is separate from the abortion. She didn’t kill herself because she got an abortion. She didn’t need an abortion because she was a slut* (Kudos, George.)

In a larger sense, I hate how used she is in the movie. She is this intelligent and beautiful girl who turns out to be so much less important than what she means politically. But that’s kind of the point—my discomfort with her end is assumed. I’m gonna be pissed when Stephen, who was sleeping with her barely fifteen minutes ago (screen time), tries to sell her story. It’s a huge betrayal. It’s an acknowledged betrayal. We’re supposed to understand how completely he’s been shattered by the depths to which he sinks.

I thought the movie was great. As I mentioned earlier, it’s not my usual fare. Honestly, I watched Mr. Smith Goes to Washington later that night to kind of restore my faith in… whatever I have faith in. But the movie was so well done. Gosling didn’t overplay his emotional disintegration—it’s just kind of there, behind his eyes. It’s rather wrenching. Clooney is this suave figurehead of a candidate until the moment when he’s fighting for his career and the façade cracks away to reveal the human inside. Fantastic. And I hate that Molly was basically a trading card. But I love that she wasn’t a crazy, slutty trading card.

And that’s my opinion.

*I’m consciously employing this rather loaded term to designate society’s conception of the type of girl who might need an abortion. Hopefully it’s obvious that I don’t agree that only “that type of girl” might need an abortion, nor would I ever use that word for an individual, regardless of sexual choices. But it’s effective in describing the space in which sexually active women have been conscribed.

Friday Flicks: My Man Godfrey (1936)

D. Gregory La Cava. With William Powell, Carole Lombard, Gail Patrick, Eugene Pallette, Alice Brady, Alan Mowbray.

The movie industry in the 30’s had to tap into all sorts of fears and hopes to earn their 15 cent admission fee. And they succeeded—60 to 70 million Americans patronized the theater each week, watching the musicals and westerns and gangster films and escaping the difficulties of their lives. Almost 25% of the country was unemployed in 1933; by 1936 that had gone down to about 17%, but not until 1942 was that percentage back down to pre-Crash rates. And then, well, the country had other problems. To put that in perspective, the unemployment rate lately has been hovering at about 8-9%. Of course, percentages can be tricky—keep in mind that the overall population of the United States is quite a bit higher than it was in 1930. If you’re interested in actually breaking down the numbers, there are hundreds—thousands—of sites that will help you do that. Come back and tell us what you find out.  Also the racial and gendered composition of the workforce has changed, our conception of the nuclear family has changed, as have assumptions about receiving help from the government, the price of food, our ideas about the line between “need” and “want”, our relationship with credit…Lots of things have changed. That wasn’t actually my point. Anyway.

All that to provide a little context for this week’s movie choice:

My Man Godfrey is set in New York city, in the middle of the Great Depression. While many of the other movies of the era focus only on the glittering side of financial dreams, this movie shows both sides of the economic divide.

The movie begins in a shanty-town at the city dump, where a scruffy homeless man (William Powell) is smoking a pipe outside of a cardboard shack. A shiny black automobile pulls up to the edge of the dump with a screech, with another automobile in close pursuit. The wealthy have descended upon the dump to find a “forgotten man” for their ongoing scavenger hunt. The homeless man—Godfrey Smith, as we will soon know him to be—initially refuses their rudely-put request, but then agrees to accompany one of the women, Irene Bullock (Carole Lombard), who stays behind to apologize for the others’ rudeness .   

They go to the Waldorf-Ritz, where Godfrey eloquently calls the room of very wealthy people a bunch of empty-headed nitwits and says he’s ready to return to the company of really important people. Irene is thrilled with his bravery—and with the fact that he helped her to beat Cornelia, her awful sister, for the first time in her life. She asks him if there is anything she can do for him, and he asks for a job. Irene offers him the job of family butler, which he gratefully accepts.

The next morning, a newly-suave Godfrey arrives at the kitchen door of the Bullock residence, gracefully stepping into the role of butler (and providing a hilarious outsider’s view into the antics of the very wealthy.) 

The family is nuts: Mother Butler always wakes with a hangover and sees pixies. The rest of the time she giggles. Incessantly.  Cornelia is pretty much a stone cold beyotch, glaring and posturing so beautifully that I wish I were more familiar with the rest of her movies. She should have been a comic book villainess—she is a gorgeous, though not green, Maleficent.  Irene is the consummate dizzy dame with a heart of gold, fluttering and screaming and having spells, but so much more empathetic than the rest of the family that she almost seems normal by comparison. Mr. Butler is by turns resigned, confused, frustrated, and furious by the women-folk in his life, and their ever-increasing monthly expenditures.

Godfrey manages the household beautifully, mixing hangover cures for Mother and dealing with Cornelia’s petty sniping, until Irene decides she is in love with him, a fact which increases his difficulties a bit, as he singlehandedly has to keep the “certain proprieties” in place.

At a cocktail party, one of the guests calls Godfrey by another name, claiming they were at Harvard together.  Godfrey manages the situation as well as he can, saying he was a valet at Harvard, not a student, and quietly promises his old friend that he will explain everything the next day. (Unfortunately the story that the friend uses to smooth over the situation involves an imaginary wife and five children for Godfrey, a fact which launches Irene into a random—and quickly broken–engagement with an empty-headed young chap at the party, after which she spends the rest of the party sobbing in the staircase. Told you: she’s a little silly.)
The next day it is revealed that Godfrey Smith, late of the City Dump and now buttling for the Bullocks, is actually Godfrey Parke, of the Parkes of Boston, whose family is just as wealthy (and disconnected from reality) as the Bullocks. Sickened with his life after an affair went wrong, Godfrey ended up at the East River, planning to “slide in and get it over with.” Instead, he met the men clinging to the lowest ring of society, and clinging hard, and decided to become Godfrey Smith and battle it out without his birth-right advantages.  Of course, the Bullocks know nothing of any of this, and his family is to remain uninformed.

Finally, Godfrey loses his temper at the latest in a long line of Irene’s antics. In the middle of an impressive display of theatrics, she slumps against him, apparently out cold. Godfrey isn’t completely sure if she’s faking or not, so he carries her up to her room. As he’s rummaging through the trinkets and bottles on her dresser, looking for the smelling salts, he glances up and catches her watching him in the mirror. She immediately falls back, still pretending. He picks her up again and puts her in the shower.

Rather than being furious, she screeches that this rare show of emotion means that deep down he loves her. He looks shocked and leaves the room immediately. She’s ecstatic. She jumps on the bed a bit. That’s not a metaphor.

Downstairs more drama is afoot: Mr. Bullock has come home early and called the family together for a talk. He’s lost the money, stocks are gone, and he’s played with the investors’ money to try to regain the capital. All in all, a bad show. The good Bullock name is done for…until Godfrey reveals that he knew of the financial trouble and has used his business acumen to play the market and rebuy all of the lost stock, which he then signs over the Mr. Bullock. Godfrey saves the day, but resigns as butler.

Godfrey has kept a bit of the profits to fund a private project of his own—where the city dump used to house dozens of unemployed men, a swanky new club now glitters, appropriately called The Dump. The doormen, parking valets and the waiters are all familiar faces: Godfrey has staffed his restaurant with the men who couldn’t find work. The wealthy investors in the club won’t be getting dividends for a while—first he’s got housing and heat to provide for the fifty employees, and then there are plenty more to help after that.

Unaware of the truth about Godfrey’s finances, Irene follows him to the dump, bringing firewood and baskets of food to make the cardboard shack she expects to make home as comfortable as possible. Instead, she finds a swanky club packed with the highest members of New York society. She is not deterred. Obviously. She grabs an old family lawyer from the dining room and beards the lion in his den. Or rather, Godfrey in his office.

And they all—Irene, Godfrey, Bullock family, forgotten men, Dump investors—lived happily ever after.

The movie is absolutely wonderful. The characters are all engaging, there isn’t an off performance in the whole thing. Even the bit parts are played by fantastic actors. The love story sounds perhaps a little abrupt here, but it’s actually really well done. If you watch the way Godfrey watches Irene and Irene watches Godfrey—even in the beginning, when he’s grimy forgotten man and she’s a ridiculously flighty and spoiled little girl —it’s completely believable. (William Powell and Carole Lombard were married and divorced before this movie was made–he was responsible for her involvement with the project. They work very well together.) Watching the relationship between the two of them develop is fascinating. The power in the relationship shifts constantly–from the initial dynamic of Irene’s wealth and Godfrey’s position as servant it reorients as Godfrey sets boundaries and makes Irene abide by them and then shifts again as Irene manipulates circumstances to prove his attention and force Godfrey’s emotional response to her foolishness. If you picture power as a rubber ball, they pass it off to each other constantly through the movie. Which I absolutely love–it’s not a perfect picture of an equal relationship, but at least they each have power. I could talk about gender and power relations all day–in fact, some days I do. But rather than focusing solely on the feministy stuff, this time watching the movie I concentrated on the social commentary.

While the film is screwball humor at its best, it is grounded and framed by the reality of poverty. The opening screen shots, which you can see above, are absolutely beautiful. But more than strictly providing a wow beginning, they grab the audience’s view with the glamour and glitz of high-society (big marquees, tall buildings, lights flashing on the river), and in a circular panning shot, end seamlessly… in the city dump. The focus of the movie returns incessantly to the have-nots–even when apparently firmly grounded in the world of the haves, there is always an undercurrent of threat in the possibility of slipping back to the the world of the dump. Mr. Bullock ask why Godfrey stays, when the family is so frequently infuriating; Godfrey replies that it is better than the dump. Mr. Bullock loses his share-holders’ money and says he is going to end up in the dump—or jail. Godfrey takes his rich Harvard friend to the dump, to illustrate where his new persona was born and to introduce his emerging ideas about the club. Most of the characters in the movie are wealthy beyond comprehension, but their security is not complete—everything is a little unsettled and unsettling because of the thrumming back-beat of poverty.

Hand in hand with that emphasis on poverty is the idea that not all the currently poor have always been poor. From Godfrey’s chosen residence in the dump, to Mr. Bullock’s near-miss, to the bank manager of the Second National Bank—who gave his considerable fortune to his investors when the bank crashed, and so was left penniless—the poor aren’t poor because of any personal failing, but rather because, well, most people are. When you consider how stigmatized poverty is—all of those ridiculous Puritan values (pulling one up by one’s bootstraps and so on) are kind of turned on their pointy little heads.

Replacing that idea of wealth as a measure of personal merit is the idea that all of us– rich, poor, intelligent, foolish, giddy and sad– have obligation and responsibility to those around us. The theme of responsibility plays throughout the movie: Irene wants to do something for Godfrey because he helped her beat Cornelia. Godfrey wants to help the men at the dump because they showed him the value of life. The manager of the Second National Bank felt responsible for to his investors. Godfrey wants to help the Bullock family because they gave him a home. And then, since Godfrey helps the men at the dump, they are able to help others. And so on and so on. Even the movie’s theme, which winds its way through many scenes in the movie, echoes the tune of “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime,” a classic of the Great Depression in which the singer attempts to remind the apparently wealthy listener of his obligation to help the needy.

While the romance is wonderful, and the comedy is incredibly well-done, the social commentary that provides the underpinning of the movie makes it absolutely unforgettable.