When I posted about navy blue Oscar dresses, Ann asked me, quite politely, whether High WASPs should be discussing such silliness. And the answer is, “Of course not.” We are supposed to write about matters of intellect and refinement.
Lucky for you all, my family knows when I need help. Herewith a post my from my father, the professor, reviewing “The Age Of Innocence” from a personal perspective. He addresses both Edith Wharton’s novel, and Scorsese’s movie of the same name. Any goofy editorial notes are mine. But you knew that already.
I will continue to write here about style. One does what one must. Thank you for your forbearance. And Dad, thanks for the substance, and for the fun discovery towards the end of your review.
The Age of Innocence: Wharton and Scorsese
My grandmother was born about 1870, married a wealthy New Yorker, was something of a grande dame (though not all that flamboyant), and died in her nineties, having lived a life quite like those depicted in “The Age of Innocence,” Edith Wharton’s novel and Martin Scorsese’s film. The novel and the film are both resonant.
At the turn of the century, when Wharton lived in the Berkshires, my grandmother spent a few summers there. Maybe they knew each other or met at a party. Yet there was a big difference between them. Edith Wharton led a complicated life and saw what was going on beneath the smooth surface of things . My grandmother, whose husband died in his early fifties, lived on as a widow for many decades, inhabiting to the end a world of imagined innocence. The pain and the comedy of that world equally passed her by. Or that is how it seemed to me.
That brings me to “The Age of Innocence” and New York in the 1870s. Wharton published her novel in 1920, fifty years after the fictional events took place and after World War 1 had overturned a complacent world. This story of Newland Archer’s infatuation with the glamorous Ellen, Countess Olenska, and his marriage, against his own deepest instincts, to the far more proper May Welland, is a tale of social inhibition and frustrated desire. But it is also a comedy of manners, informed by Wharton’s opulent imagination and narrative power.
Wharton introduces Mrs. Manson Mingott, grandmother to Ellen and to May, as a huge Cycladic idol, a female Falstaff, her plus plus plus size marking her as a life force and as the moral center of the story. The baroque hilarity of Wharton’s prose, set of course in an era before abundance of flesh came to seem a moral failing, could not be bettered. Mrs. Mingott, vastly corpulent, is a ruined Pompeii, still very grand though covered by the ashes of time:
“The immense accretion of flesh which had descended on her in middle life like a flood of lava on a doomed city had changed her from a plump active little woman with a neatly-turned foot and ankle into something as vast and august as a natural phenomenon. She had accepted this submergence as philosophically as all her other trials, and now, in extreme old age, was rewarded by presenting to her mirror an almost unwrinkled expanse of firm pink and white flesh, in the centre of which the traces of a small face survived as if awaiting excavation.”
I can only imagine, enviously, what it would be like to be able to write like that.
True, the comedy yields to sadness as the story works its way to a melancholy end. Ellen has gone back to Europe, though not to her disreputable husband; May has died after twenty-five years of marriage; and Archer arrives in Paris with his grown son, who has arranged — in the liberated manner of the new generation – for them to see Ellen. But Archer asks his son to visit the countess in her upper story flat without him. On a park bench, looking upward at her window, Archer imagines people in the room, among them “a dark lady, pale and dark” – then realizes, speaking to himself, “it’s more real to me here than if I went up.” A servant appears and closes the shutters. Archer walks slowly back to his hotel by himself. Even in this melancholy close, there remains a trace of the comic. Silly man, you think, what is the matter with him? He has traded in the flesh and blood of the actual world for fantasy: Ellen is more real as a nostalgic memory than as a living person.
However much the life of 1870s New York depended on strict codes of social behavior, however much it subdued real feelings in favor of conventional manners, Wharton understood that this way of life – which she had herself renounced, divorcing her mentally troubled and unfaithful husband; briefly keeping up an affair, already several years ongoing, with the bisexual Morton Fullerton; and moving to France where she died in 1937 — could seem like a safe harbor.
Not long after arriving in New York, Ellen says to Newland : “I want to feel cared for and safe.” And, “being here is like–like–being taken on a holiday when one has been a good little girl and done all one’s lessons.” And, of the house where she’s living, “To me it’s like heaven.” And, later, in a letter to Newland from the Van der Luydens’ very grand country house: “I feel myself so safe here.” This is not just a comic misperception of how things really are. Safety may lie in not knowing all that could be known. At least I’m sure that’s what my grandmother felt; and, growing up in that orbit and being a good little boy who did all his lessons, I suppose that in a way I did, too.
Scorsese’s Age of Innocence
Scorsese’s “Age of Innocence” surprised those who expected him to stick to the mean streets. What was this muse of the down-and-out doing in the upper class environs of 1870s New York? We look for consistency in our artists and writers and directors because consistency makes it easier to understand them. One film critic compares the social codes of Wharton’s people in Scorsese’s treatment to those of the Mafia. Even Scorsese seems to want to be more like himself than he seems: in an interview he described how he saw the story: “What has always stuck in my head is the brutality under the manners. People hide what they mean under the surface of language.” I hesitate very much at “brutality” though not at the claim that the surface of things fails to match up with the reality. It’s best to take the film on its own terms and not try to shape it into another “Goodfellas,” whatever Scorsese himself may think. Intention is not everything.
The film captures all of the pain in Wharton’s novel but less of the comic side. It could hardly do otherwise because so much of the comedy lodges in the dispassionate commentary of Wharton’s narrator. In the film, Joanne Woodward’s cool and witty voice-over fills in for Wharton’s as well as could be, but there is no recreating all the narrative flashes of wit and virtuoso descriptions that fall outside the ebb and flow of action and dialogue. In the novel, action and commentary are seamless. In the film, too much comic commentary would subvert the mood. And there is no way to reproduce visually Wharton’s vision of Mrs. Mingott as a ruined Pompeii. If this were heard as a voice-over, the actual sight of Mrs. Mingott would be an anti-climax instead of the visual treat that it is, not without comic flair — Miriam Margolyes plays the role wonderfully – but without the baroque overlay of Wharton’s prose. The novel and the film require different degrees of self-distancing.
At the same time, Scorsese and his film writer Jay Cocks add much of their own to the film, sometimes in the interests of accessibility, sometimes in a spirit of exuberant invention. In the novel, Archer’s son is named Dallas; in the film he is Ted. Dallas is a family name of the sort favored for male children in 1870s New York. Some of Wharton’s players are Lawrence Lefferts, Manson Mingott, Sillerton Jackson (a memory of Morton Fullerton here?) as well as Newland Archer and Dallas Archer. But viewers would probably have thought of the Cowboys had Archer’s son been named Dallas. This is an easy alteration, among several, to enhance clarity. More substantial and very engaging is Mrs. Mingott’s gaggle of Pomeranians, perhaps suggested by Wharton’s description of Mrs. Mingott’s “little hands” nestling “in a hollow of her huge lap like pet animals.” Pomeranians, Queen Victoria’s favorite dog, are the perfect choice for Mrs. Mingott and her sumptuous surroundings. Mozart is said to have dedicated an aria to his pet Pomeranian.
But the film’s most inventive move, unnoticed so far as I’ve seen by the critics, lies in its casting of the countess and May Welland, Michelle Pfeiffer as Ellen, Winona Ryder as May. In conventional iconography, made familiar by Sir Walter Scott, the blonde heroine is the virtuous innocent; the dark heroine, the dangerous and passionate outsider. Scorsese reverses these types. (Ed. note: Scott wrote Ivanhoe. I read it when I was 12. I remember nothing.)
In the novel, the “dark lady, pale and dark,” of Archer’s imagining reminds young Miss Blenker, at whose house the countess has been staying, of the dark and sultry actress Mrs. Scott Siddons: “I do love the way she does her hair, don’t you?” … Doesn’t she remind you of Mrs. Scott-Siddons…? ” In the film, Miss Blenker says instead: “I do love the way she does her hair, don’t you? It reminds me of Sir Walter Scott,” evidently to cue a savvy audience that fair and dark have been exchanged. (Did Scorsese and Jay Cocks intend this? If they didn’t — and it seems almost certain that they did — it’s an instance of genius stumbling onto good answers to tactical problems.) (Ed. Note: Are we surprised that it’s all about the hair color?)
The strawberry blonde, blue-eyed Michelle Pfeiffer as Ellen wears her hair in artful ringlets, like Scott’s Saxon heroine Rowena (in Ivanhoe). The dark-haired, brown-eyed Winona Ryder as May supplants the virginal blue-eyed heroine of the novel, to whom Archer sends a box of white lilies-of-the valley each day, whose wind-blown hair in one scene glitters “like silver wire,” and who wears her hair (like Michelle Pfeiffer’s), in “accumulated coils.” The reversal works beautifully: the innocent May Welland is an adroit schemer; the exotic Ellen Olenska, something of a naïf. Surface and reality are confused. Things are far off key. Nothing is quite how it seems or the way we expect it to be. On the one hand Scorsese transforms the novel; on the other he reinforces its overriding theme.
I’ve not looked this closely at a film before. Add it all together – script, technique, settings, soundtrack, costumes, hairdos, everything – and “The Age of Innocence” must be one of the best ever. Its sole Academy Award was for costume design.
The differences between “The Age of Innocence,” the novel, and “The Age of Innocence,” the film, are differences between art forms, the one, in this case, quite as good as the other.
Images: Amazon (yes, that is the Kindle edition. What?), Allstar Pics