The Reelist: Virgins on Film
Virginity! It's a topic that Hollywood and cinema love to pursue. Writers and directors love to push boundaries and create remarkable, sometimes real, sometimes ridiculous situations concerned with what happens when someone does (or doesn't) give up their "most precious gift" (i.e., having sex for the first time). While films concerned with boys' sexuality tend to err on the side of raunchy comedies—Losin' It, Risky Business, American Pie—movies concerned with the virginity of young women run an interesting gamut.
We chose a grab bag of films for this week, concerned with virginity and its relationship to power, religion, and madness. The Miracle of Morgan's Creek, Splendor in the Grass, Elizabeth, The Virgin Suicides, and The Magdalene Sisters would all pair nicely with Deborah Kampmeier's Virgin (2003), starring Elisabeth Moss (who is currently best-known as Peggy Olson on Mad Men). And it must be noted, we're leaving out horror films, where the final girl, the virgin, is the one who ends up alive at the end of the film after vanquishing the evil.
These days, perhaps, female centered films about virgins are moving beyond the society's limits on females and sexuality, ever so slowly. Sure, there are quibbles and frustrations to be had. Women are still shamed in various forms for choosing to have sex in films. But perhaps it's the small victories that matter. Take Juno, for example: Ellen Page's sassy young character may get pregnant due to her initial dalliance with Paulie Bleeker, and even though that fuels the film, she at least gets to say that the sex was "magnificent," which is a far cry from the do-it-once and you get punished—severely—tradition of many other virgin stories.
Dir. Preston Sturges (1944)
How saucy is this screwball comedy? It got noted writer (and at-that-time movie critic for The Nation) James Agee to quip, "the Hayes Office must've been raped in its sleep," regarding the many dirty jokes in this film. It's a story about a girl named (ha) Trudy Kockenlocker (Betty Hutton), who wakes up after a wild party for the soldiers realizing that she's pregnant—but, ah, which soldier did it? She gets her best friend, Norval Jones, to masqerade as the father and hilarious complications ensue. Sturges wanted to show young girls "what happens when they confuse patriotism with promiscuity," but mostly, he was keeping the Hayes office busy with jokes about virgin births and drunken mothers and all sorts of things. The result? Hilarious! War-time satire is the best. (And yes, this is the film that Virgin has the most in common with, concept-wise, even if it isn't a Preston Sturges comedy.)
Dir. Elia Kazan (1961)
Sexual repression drives Natalie Wood absolutely bonkers in Elia Kazan's psychosexual drama. Working from a script by playwright William Inge, the Depression-era film follows Wood and a gorgeous young Warren Beatty, two teenagers madly in love. Wood's Deanie is poor, so naturally, her mother wants her to be a good girl, while rich boy Bud (Beatty) is warned that sex with his girl would probably lead to (a baby, and then) marriage. Social mores and class come into what should be a simple case of two teenagers going at it. But it does illustrate a truth: a young Beatty would probably drive any girl mad. Rumor has it John Mellencamp wrote "Jack and Diane" after seeing this flick.
Dir. Shekhar Kapur (1998)
Has there been quite the star-making role since this film? Before Elizabeth, Cate Blanchett was an Australian stage actress most noted for her role in Oscar and Lucinda (1997); after Elizabeth, she's a worldwide movie star, on the road to winning a "make-up" Oscar (some snipe) for her role as Katharine Hepburn in The Aviator. Kapur's film takes liberties with history, but that's not the point. What it does do well is set up a classic story outline—we start with a girl, the lusty, vivacious Elizabeth, who grows more ruthless and Machiavellian over the course of the film. Her ace in the hole, of course, was her virginity. For much of the film, people are shagging right and left—but Elizabeth comes into full flower when she realizes the power she can have by not having sex. She learns to wield her influence in a new way, and Blanchett's transformation into the Virgin Queen is a chilling, unforgettable scene.
Dir. Sofia Coppola (1999)
Sofia Coppola made her name in this dreamy adaptation of Jeffery Eugenides' debut novel (now celebrating its sweet sixteen). A couple of things about this film showed her as a director to watch. She could've coasted on her family name and hipster cache and taken any script; instead, she engineered getting the rights to the book herself and does a fine job of keeping the spirit of the book alive in the film. In particular, the book presented a problem—the anonymous first person plural narrative voice of the neighborhood boys. Coppola stuck to that voice, using it in spare, careful voiceover, and letting it add to the film's mystery and sweetness. The story is simple, of course: the neighborhood boys are in love with the Lisbon sisters, and tragedy strikes. Innocence, first love, and what happens when you are used and cruelly abandoned all lead to the melancholy ending. It's a film concerned with girlishness, and what happens when it leaves, and it showed that Coppola could cast a suburban spell.
Dir. Peter Mullan (2002)
This film is absolutely devastating. Partially due to the fact that yes, there were really Magdalen Laundries, where "fallen women" were sent into horrific, abusive, and hypocritical Catholic asylums. The anger about the sins and oppression practiced by the Catholic church is nearly palpable in each reel. Acclaimed actor Peter Mullan's directorial debut follows a group of women (including Eileen Walsh, who won Best Actress at the 2008 TFF) whose "crimes" include having a baby out of wedlock, being a rape victim, and, in the most egregious example, merely being a never-been-kissed flirt. They're sent off by their family to abusive living/working conditions. We watch as the women eventually triumph over their virtual prisons, where the cards are stacked against them, where their mere feminity makes them a criminal. The most mind-blowing aspect of this tough, sad, important film is the end card, which soberly informs us that the last Magdalen Asylum closed in Ireland in 1996.
See it for free: Deborah Kampmeier's Virgin
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