Tuesday, February 1, 2011

As Long As We're Talking Movies . . . Films That Spoke With a Social Voice

Hey, hey, it's Dr. J. again. If you didn't have a chance to take a look at yesterday's post, you might want to . . . I started thinking about movies that came from books. While on that subject, my mind just started wandering over some of the movies that I really enjoyed through the years and then became aware that there were quite a few that were very overt in talking about social issues that were current in the 50's and 60's.

Believe it or not, there really was a time when drugs weren't nearly so obvious in American life and the incidence of drug use in America's teen population was almost non-existent. Morphine, opium and heroin were the street drugs of choice, and most social change advocates were taken up more with the devastation from alcoholism than from drug addiction. But it was there as we all so well know, and there were some in Hollywood who had the moxie to make movies about the problems. One such movie hit the viewing public very hard. Frank Sinatra starred in The Man With the Golden Arm and not only was the subject matter raw and a punch in the collective gut, but few ever expected to see Ole Blue Eyes playing something so uncharacteristic as a drug addict. Frank was so serious about this role that he lived for a time with recovering drug addicts in order to authenticly depict the terrors of drug withdrawal known as "cold turkey." It sent shivers down America's spines.

And speaking of alcoholism, there were those in Hollywood who weren't necessarily opposed to drinking, but they were against alcohol abuse. One of Hollywood's best starred Jack Lemmon and Lee Remick in The Days of Wine & Roses, depicting the love affair and marriage between the two main characters as well as their descent from social drinkers to alcoholics. It is not a Happily Ever After kind of film but it was real life and hit the American movie goer right between the eyes. It got all kinds of Academy Award nominations and they were all well-deserved. I don't think I will ever forget the sense of helplessness I experienced as a young woman watching this family fall apart. It was some of the best acting either Lemmon or Remick ever did. If I remember correctly, Lee Remick earned a number of awards for her portrayal.

Then there is the whole issue of race. Few who were alive in the 50's and 60's can forget the upheaval over racial desegregation, the Watts riots in Los Angeles, and the horror of killings, cross-burnings, and state national guard units facing down unarmed marchers in Selma, Alabama and throughout the South. Yet there were other racial issues that Hollywood had the moxie to depict in movies, two of which were taken from Broadway smash hits and which have become movie classics. Few Americans have missed South Pacific and its delightful music, dancing and fun antics that took place during the waning years of World War II. Yet this movie was cutting edge in dealing with the interracial relationships between Lieutenant Joe Cable (John Kerr) and a Balinese girl he wanted to marry, as well as Lieutenant Nellie Forbust (Mitzi Gaynor) and her love affair with a French planter whose children had been born to him and his Asian wife. The love songs were beautiful, but the biting lyrics of several songs dealt directly with prejudice--"You Must Be Carefully Taught" as well as "How Far Away, Littlerock, ARK"--as well as the struggle that Lt. Forbush had accepting those children into her life and her future.

Gangs and the racial conflict inherent were really beginning to make themselves known and West Side Story was right in the forefront telling that story. Based on Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet, this smash musical detailed the harsh realities for a young couple, one who was the leader of the Jets, an Anglo gang, and his lady love, the sister of the Sharks, the Puerto Rican gang. As in the Shakespeare tale, this story had no happy ending and for Americans who loved the music, the stark reality of death and hatred depicted there made people aware of the racial struggle in a way most could no longer avoid. Two of America's most popular actresses starred--Natalie Wood and Rita Moreno. Rita won a Best Supporting Oscar for her role. One still hears the music from this story, and it is my hope that the present generation can once again grasp the true destruction that hatred can create.

Not many people today remember that the post-war years were alive with lots of social and political issues. Almost immediately after WW II ended in August, 1945, the problem of rebuilding Europe and Japan as well as the desire of Jews to return to the Holy Land became front page news stories most every day. Leon Uris' novel Exodus told just a little bit of the story of the clash between the occupying forces in Palestine and the Israeli pioneers who were seeking to establish Israel as an independent nation. This did indeed happen in 1948, but the troubles weren't over and this book/movie was a shock and surprise to thousands who really didn't understand what was going on. Starring Paul Newman (at his most hunkyest) and Sal Mineo (who was America's great teen idol at the time) this movie got rave reviews and lots of notice at the movie theaters. Most Americans have forgotten that only five years after WW II was ended, the United States became embroiled in a "police action" known as the Korean War.

I truly applaud those in the entertainment industry who have taken the "bull by the horns" and dared to bring instructive and socially upsetting movies to our theaters. We still have some of that going on today and there are really some very thought-provoking movies making an appearance. Certainly movie makers like Robert Redford and others who have become campaigners for social change and environmental awareness are trying to use their clout to make a difference. I am sure you can think of some of your favorites which have had an impact on you or on society. Why not share? Until next time . . .


Tracy said...

It's funny that I normally don't go in for the "Deep" themes when watching movies but all of those are just so great.

And you didn't even say that South Pacific holds a special place in your heart since your hubby proposed when you guys were watching the film! :) Awww

Chris said...

Guess Who's Coming To Dinner definitely spoke with a social voice. Ah, Tracy & Hepburn...

Tam said...

While movies have changed and the big taboos are not quite so big, I still feel that when it comes to black/white interracial couples they are few and far between. You can get away with Hispanic white because hey, maybe she just has a great tan, but I think there is still resistance to putting Halle Berry or some of the other great black actresses in a romantic movie with a white leading man, or Drew Barrymore and Taye Diggs or some other AA hottie.

Hopefully one day it won't be so unusual but I remember some comedian saying someday everyone will be brown because there will be so much mixing, it will just be a big world of cafe au lait. That would be fine by me. :-)

Hmm. On a tangent. I'm afraid I'm not much of a movie buff but think you covered some of the big ones that really made a difference.

Kris said...

Erm, I'm mainly a action flick chick. I feel so ashamed. *hangs head*

And I have to tell you the story about my father and his reaction to watching Avatar, which as you are probably aware has messages about colonialism and environmentalism, etc.

Unlike others who came out of the theatre raving about the animation, my father comes out saying 'That's the best mining movie ever! It's too bad they didn't win in the end.'

My father the miner. We're so proud. LOL.

Dr J said...

Tracy: You're right about the personally important aspect of South Pacific--just didn't think a marriage proposal during the movie had anything to do with "social change" although it certainly changed my "social position" as a married lady. LOL.

Chris: Thanks for mentioning "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner." As the last movie Spencer Tracy made as well as setting America on it's racially prejudiced ear, it was of critical importance. Probably made Sidney Poitier's career more than most people realize. I thought of including this one but couldn't include all of them.

Tam: Your remarks are so "right on!" We have not come nearly so far as we should--and Hollywood is really a bunch of collective wooses for avoiding this in their movies. Hopefully the day will come when some of our great AA actors will be paired with persons of all racial extractions.

Kris: Loved your comment. And we all have loved ones that somehow really miss the point. And thanks for reminding us that "Avatar" had some messages we could all pay attention to.

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