Female Filmmaker Friday: Used People, 1992 (dir. Beeban Kidron)
I had never heard of this movie until I started working at Warner Archive Collection last year and when I saw that they had a movie with Marcello Mastroianni in it, I just had to watch it. I finally got around to watching it earlier this week and discovered that it was in fact directed by a woman (Kidron also directed To Wong Foo among other things). I’m glad I waited so long to watch it because I’ve learned a lot in the last few months from things I’ve read and conversations I’ve had with women and I think I wouldn’t have appreciated this movie as much if I had watched it earlier.
There’s a lot going on in this film, and while there is sort of an over-arching plot, it’s mostly just a bunch of sub-plots with everyone involved, so I’m just going to go through the characters and tell you why I love them.
Shirley MacLaine plays Pearl Berman, a widow after 37 years of marriage (the film takes place in 1969 – right before the moon walk). She’s not very upset of the death of her husband (for reasons revealed later). In contrast, her grandson Sweet Pea (Matthew Branton), is deeply upset by his grandfather’s passing and begins to tell everyone that he is invincible because the spirit of his grandfather is protecting him (this we later find out has a lot to do with his mother, which I will get to in a bit). The two of them make nice contrasts in the ways in which grief manifests itself. Everyone in the film is Jewish and I believe it is set in Queens, so MacLaine gets to do a really great accent throughout the film. At her husband’s funeral, Pearl is hit on (sort of) by an Italian man named Joe (Marcello Mastroianni) and agrees to go on a date with him – much to the chagrin of all her friends and family. Pearl is a great example of a woman who had little-to-know choice about how her life went and is acutely aware of what that has meant for her. I did a Movie Quote of the Day a few days ago of her explosive monologue wherein she explains this to one of her daughters. It’s a great moment where you realize that life has change a lot for women – from 1942 to 1969 to 1992 to today. It’s a shame we’re still not quite equal, but we’re getting there.
Marcello Mastroianni plays Joe, who comes to Pearl’s husband’s funeral and asks her to coffee. We find out later that Pearl’s husband was going to leave Pearl and the kids, but Joe convinced him he needed to give it one more try and that he should learn to dance because that would add the spice he needed to his life. We see this scene at the beginning of the film – Pearl cooking a second dinner for her husband who has come home later, the two dancing, Pearl’s hard exterior melting in the romantic moment. When Joe tells the story, we go even further – we see Joe seeing Pearl and we see him fall in love. He waited all those years for her, having fallen irrevocably in love in that moment and now that he has a chance, he won’t let it go. His arc throughout the movie involves breaking down Pearl’s exterior, slowly, so she can enjoy life again. I think this could have come across as creepy and aggressive in lesser hands – but Kidron’s direction coupled with Marcello’s easy charm, make it romantic. He goes slowly and helps her let go of all the baggage and unhappiness she’s been carrying for years and years and in the end convinces her it is never too late to be happy. Marcello is just as adorable as you would expect.
Marcia Gay Harden plays Norma, one of Pearl’s daughters. A few years before the film’s actions, her youngest child died of Sudden Infant Death and she was so distraught from grief that her husband divorced her, leaving her alone with their oldest, Sweet Pea. In dealing with her grief, Norma has taken to watching movies in theaters over and over and over. She’s covered their house with clippings from movies and she even dresses as famous characters (Marilyn in The Seven Year Itch, Audrey in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Faye Dunaway in Bonnie and Clyde, and Mrs. Robinson from The Graduate). After the death of her father, her son begins to act bizarre as well. Eventually, this leads to some dangerous deeds and Norma has to talk with him. He mentions that his father left him too, that his brother died on him too. In that moment, Norma realizes the selfishness of her grief, and the two bond. She also tells him that just because you are a bit strange, does not mean you are crazy. There’s a lot of interesting dismantling of stigmas and discussion of coping in this film, but it’s done with such a light touch that it never feels heavy or preachy.
In one great sequence, Norma goes to see The Graduate, we see her memorizing lines and then later she picks up Joe’s son-in-law Frank (Joe Pantoliano) at a bar – using nothing but Mrs. Robinson’s lines. This later turns out to be a ploy to convince Frank, a psychiatrist, to stop seeing her son behind her back. Harden’s impersonations of the characters she’s imitating are all so spot on it almost makes me want to see her as Mrs. Robinson in a stage version of The Graduate someday.
Kathy Bates plays Pearl’s other daughter Bibby – who is also divorced, has two kids and lives with Pearl. Throughout the film, it is clear that she was the black sheep throughout her childhood and even in adulthood is considered the lesser of the daughters, or at least that’s how she feels. Bates is always good, and she’s given great material here, dealing with the scars from our childhood that we carry into adulthood, the complicated feelings of love towards our parents, but also the resentment that can fester from treatment that may not have meant to be malicious, but hurt just the same. Bibby comes into her own, makes a new plan for her life and even insists on being called by her real name – Barbara – by the end of the film.
Lastly, I wanted to talk about my two favorite characters: old ladies and best friends Freida (Jessica Tandy) and Becky (Sylvia Sidney) – this was one of the last films either of these actresses ever made. These two ladies are always arguing and paying each other back 75 cents that they owe each other. They’re two women who have known each other for over 60 years and they act like it. Freida has decided to move to Florida and Becky wants to move into a new retirement home being built down the block. The bulk of their screen time is spent debating the two, or trying to see which one had and/or has the hardest time. They also give advice to the younger people – including Pearl – left and right. Both of these women are some of my favorite actresses ever and it’s always so great to see women of this age in a movie. They’re not caricatures; they’re best friends heading towards the end of the line and trying to find the best way possible to do it. We need more movies where we see female friendship in all its stages: from its inception like The World of Henry Orient, to its early days like Frances Ha, to its middle days like Thelma and Louise and its twilight days like these ladies.
Posted on June 27, 2014, in Female Filmmaker Friday and tagged 1991, Beeban Kidron, Jessica Tandy, Joe Pantoliano, Kathy Bates, Marcello Mastroianni, Marcia Gay Harden, Matthew Branton, Shirley MacLaine, Sylvia Sidney, Todd Graff, Used People. Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.
I have to see this movie!
This was my favorite movie when I was 11 or 12. I must have seen it half a dozen times or more. What a great film. I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately. Thank you for bringing it back.
I LOVE this movie. Marcia Gay Harden should have gotten an Oscar for this.
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