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An 'Essential' point of view

By Steve Persall
Published March 10, 2006

Molly Haskell probably smiled at Sunday's Academy Awards results when Reese Witherspoon and Rachel Weisz carted off Oscars for playing women with backbones and agendas that often put them in conflict with their men.

That's the way Haskell, 66, has conducted her scholarly career as a film critic through five decades, writing about an industry that is mostly run by and for men. Her 1974 book From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies has never grown outdated, remaining an indispensable work of film analysis.

No filmmaker or movie star was safe from Haskell's campaign against the madonna/whore image of women perpetuated by Hollywood. Haskell needled men who relegated female movie stars to love objects, deeming their attitude "one of the more common and less endearing manifestations of the eternal adolescence that hangs on the American male who, by the time he is mature enough to appreciate a woman, is almost ready to retire from the arena.''

Words that resonate and humble, even 32 years after she wrote them. Haskell never stopped dissecting the film industry's approach toward women in writings for the New York Observer and the Guardian. Now she has a television forum, joining Turner Classic Movies for the fifth season of The Essentials, which returns Saturday.

What makes a movie essential to Haskell?

"Essential is what's considered sort of mandatory viewing for anyone seriously interested in movies,'' she said in a phone interview. "They're movies that have stood the test of time. A few may be a little controversial, but usually a strong segment of critical consensus has voted for them.

"They're also movies that are both hugely entertaining and artistically accomplished. They manage to be the best of Hollywood; works of art that are fun, and fun films that are works of art.''

One of her essentials is David Lean's 1945 adaptation of Noel Coward's Brief Encounter, starring Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard as strangers who meet at a train station and may begin an affair.

"It's a weeper, but it's a classic of the genre,'' Haskell said. "It's brilliantly structured, even deceptive.

"You see this ordinary couple sitting in a car in the beginning, then they become extraordinary and we come full circle back to that scene. Sort of the way Hitchcock does things, showing you something objectively at first then subjectively at the end when it's charged with emotion.''

Brief Encounter was filmed in black and white, with actors whose names mean little or nothing to most viewers today. There's no overt sexuality and certainly none of the violence or profanity.

"It looks funny to young people today, I guess, because it's so repressed,'' Haskell conceded. "But that's where the power of it comes from, that nothing ever really happens.''

Haskell joins Hollywood Reporter columnist Robert Osborne to present and discuss 30 classic films ranging from My Fair Lady to The Hustler. Osborne knows their history well after a half-century of reporting on film. Haskell will weigh in on their relevance, their submerged meanings and their contributions to that rape/reverence dynamic.

"That's what she does so well,'' Osborne said in a telephone interview. "Molly always makes it a point to open my eyes to something new. Her whole take on movies is so much more intellectually based than mine. She also reads things into movies that I don't always see. I'm not sure the filmmakers always saw those things.''

Not surprisingly, Haskell won't allow her presence to be merely a demographic tool.

"I'm not just there to bring a woman's voice, but also to bring an orientation toward women's roles,'' Haskell said. "There are about 10 movies with themes I can bring out that may not have been dealt with before.''

Looking back at vintage movies is one thing. Looking back at the 1970s when Haskell wrote From Rape to Reverence makes her wonder where the roles of women in film, before and behind the camera, will go next.

"I was discouraged in the '70s but that era almost looks more interesting now,'' she said. "You had a lot of strong women - Glenda Jackson, Sissy Spacek, Jessica Lange - who may not have played anything remotely feminist, dealing with contemporary society, but they were strong women. Now it's the difference between Cagney and Lacey and Sex in the City.

"Don't get me wrong: I love Sex in the City but it's this whole kind of narcissistic feminism which is about the power of purchasing, buying handbags and Manolo Blahnik shoes. Maybe that's not fair, but this is rejection of the word 'feminist' by a lot of young women, and there's not a push or protest. It may change if all these states start acting against abortion. Maybe it'll be a wakeup call."

Steve Persall can be reached at 727 893-8365 or

[Last modified March 10, 2006, 08:20:54]

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