I recently watched two movies starring Shirley Jones: “The Music Man”, a musical– a genre I generally despise– and “Silent Night, Lonely Night”.
I grew up the 1960’s and didn’t find Hollywood movies very satisfying until the later ’60’s and 1970’s. (Today’s Hollywood is much worse, even, than it was in the 1950’s, but there are more good films around, in general, than ever before.) One of the biggest reasons was the Hollywood star system that built up actors and actresses like products to be foisted upon a grateful, credulous public. They were personalities, celebrities, more than actors or artists. They are objects in which the studios have invested. They were primped and polished and surgically altered and air-brushed and vacuumed clean until they were antiseptic. As a young male, of course, I would be expected to experience lustful thoughts about the female stars. Here’s some of them: Doris Day, Raquel Welch, Audrey Hepburn, Jean Simmons, Grace Kelly, Marilyn Monroe, Kim Novak, Jane Russell, Elizabeth Taylor, Shirley MacLaine, Sophia Loren, Joan Collins, Susan Hayward– you get the idea. Movies were vehicles for their glistening stardom. Stories were for saps. Themes were for milquetoasts. Meaning was a joke. They even dubbed the voices of actors who couldn’t sing in musicals! Who cares if that’s really her voice? It’s the illusion they were selling, as pernicious as Hefner’s Playboy images.
Grace Kelly was physically transcendent, of course, but we know that her personal character was less than charming. She married a rich prince and was a bit of an ogre to her own children. From a purely physical point of view, she was probably the most singularly attractive of the bunch, but she was a gold-digger. Marilyn Monroe always seemed to be watching to see if you were impressed or not. I could never believe a single scene in which her character experienced physical desire. It was always “look at how sexy I am! Do you think I’m sexy? What if I do this?” Shirley MacLaine was interesting in “The Apartment”, but that was almost exclusively because of Billy Wilder’s direction. She was also in “Sweet Charity”, which is unforgivable. And I can’t not think about her wacky ideas about reincarnation when thinking about her.
Natalie Wood did star in some interesting movies, “Rebel Without a Cause”, “Splendor in the Grass”, and, later, “Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice”. I even liked her in “The Great Race”, trotting around in her bustier. She was the advance guard for a new generation of actors, like Katherine Ross, Ali McGraw, Candace Bergen, Faye Dunaway, that would bring a deeper level of authenticity to their roles and their personal lives. In a bustier? Okay– perhaps not.
The others? Meh.
But Shirley Jones was different. There was a moment in “The Music Man” when her character, a librarian named Marian Paroo, had the goods on a bunko artist, “Professor” Harold Hill, who had come to her small town to sell musical instruments, lessons, and band uniforms. She had the goods and, mysteriously, failed to act. She even agreed to meet Hill at the local romantic spot, a walking bridge over a creek. But instead of virtuously and righteously nailing him for his lies, she thanks him, for bringing some life to her life, for exciting her, for shaking her out of the doldrums and the antiseptic small town morality she was suffocating in. She even acknowledges that she can’t expect a traveling salesman to settle down to a life, presumably, of commitment and fidelity, but she doesn’t care. It was enough to feel intensely, even if only for a short time. She sings “Then There was You”: he rang her bell.
For Hollywood at the time, there’s a lot of code there: it is subtly implied that they consummated their relationship. The scene doesn’t make any sense unless you understand that. But this being a musical, there are no concerns about inconvenient or unexpected consequences.
She wasn’t looking at him to assess his reaction– are you blown away by this blonde-haired voluptuous beauty? — like Marilyn Monroe does to Tony Curtis in “Some Like it Hot”. Nor, be it noted, was she shocked and a little repelled as Candice Bergen was in “Carnal Knowledge”. No, she was knowing, and accepting, and interested, and even– dare I say it– kind.
In the later movie, “Silent Night, Lonely Night”, she adds a dimension: she takes responsibility for it. That’s a bit old school. She takes responsibility— Candace Bergen, later, accepts fault– but Shirley Jones’ character owns it.
Much later, Ione Skye, in “Say Anything”, takes the initiative: she joyfully jumps John Cusack. And then tells her dad about it.
When I say she “added a dimension”, I mean to that hazy area between an actor’s performance and her real personality. If you check Jones’ biography, you will find that it plays out largely in harmony with that screen presence: apparently, her first husband, Jack Cassidy, told her on the day they married that, after 7 or 8 or 10 years, he would inevitably cheat on her with some other young beautiful actress. She says she didn’t mind. That almost weirdly echoes her performance in “The Music Man” and in “Silent Night, Lonely Night”.
The world has changed.
Like I said, there’s a lot of code here. Remember– this is the early 1960’s. You could not imply directly that the two had a sexual relationship of any kind, except in very subtle ways. Is it implied when Marian makes the comment about knowing that he isn’t going to stay? After what we had together? And that quiet complicity with the male gaze– Shirley Jones– Mitzi Gaynor was another actress like this: someone who knew she was attractive to men and felt good about letting it play out.
Just because we connected doesn’t mean I have the right to chain you down.
Today’s actresses are far more talented, almost without exception, than the stars of the 1950’s and 60’s. Alicia Vikander, Lea Seydoux, Jennifer Lawrence, Carey Mulligan, Rachel Weisz, Jessica Chastain, Saoirse Ronan, Amy Adams: all of them are better actors than Shirley Jones, or Marilyn Monroe, or Ali McGraw, or Faye Dunaway, or Doris Day, or Katherine Ross.
Most of them are wasted on inane Hollywood productions– so perhaps things have not changed as much as I wish. Because I was a bit unjust to the early Hollywood films. The one thing they did back then that is rarely done today: hire a real writer to create the story. Some of those older movies are strikingly well-written.