Thursday, March 17, 2011

The Member of the Wedding (1952)

1 Nomination, 0 Wins

Ah, the domestic drama. Watching one is like riding a roller coaster: though its highs and lows are thrilling, at some point you will wish you had never gotten on board, and by the end you are emotionally exhausted and a bit nauseous. The Member of the Wedding is a deceptively simple little film, and this simplicity is what makes the film so explosive. Based on the novel and subsequent play by the great Carson McCullers, The Member of the Wedding stars Julie Harris, Ethel Waters, and Brandon De Wilde, all reprising their roles from the Broadway production, and is directed by the great Fred Zinnemann, one of American film's finest directors.

Julie Harris is the film's protagonist, Frankie Addams, a 12 year old caught in the land between childhood and adulthood. Frankie is struggling with her identity, desperately wanting to belong to something or someone. Julie Harris initially comes across as histrionic; within the first few minutes I was uncomfortable with what I thought was an over-the-top performance, and checked the film's running time to see how much more I had to endure. Ethel Waters plays Berenice, the Addams's maid, and I was further made uncomfortable by the stereotypical role of the African-American southern maid. The performance of the young Brandon De Wilde as John Henry seemed to be its saving grace, a performance made all the more remarkable by the fact that the scenes are long and without many edits, meaning that the excellence of the performance came directly from De Wilde, not from the editors, which is often the case with performances by children.

As the film progressed, I found myself slowly being drawn in and viewed Frankie less and less as a brat and instead as an entirely convincing character. Part of this difficulty may have been due to the fact that the 12 year old Frankie was being played by the 27 year old Julie Harris, and thus I believe I was subconsciously assigning the behavior to someone in their 20's instead of on the precipice of adulthood. Though Julie Harris's age is a distraction and a detriment to the film, it was well worth the sacrifice, as Harris is an absolute powerhouse in the role. The role is one of conflict; Frankie is not only on the edge between childhood and adulthood, but is also, as a tomboy, somewhere in the ambiguous territory between male and female. It is the performance of Ethel Waters that grounds the film, as she perfectly conveys the complete lack of surprise at even the wildest assertions of Frankie, telling us that she has heard it all before and we are witnessing a scene that has played out in some variation time and time again. In the current incarnation, Frankie ties her identity to "the bride and groom," her brother and future sister-in-law, insisting they will give her the identity she lacks.

The end of the second act (which I won't spoil) is a bit random, and I can't say I was completely satisfied with what comes dangerously close to a deus ex machina. The plot device is unnecessary; the development of the characters is so strong that an outside event is not necessary. It seems that the turn may have been an attempt to make this not just another incarnation of Frankie's search for identity, but it gives the ending of the film a falseness that is not evident in the rest of the film.

The Member of the Wedding is certainly not for everyone, and the unrelenting intensity does wear a bit thin at times. But the strength of McCullers's writing, matched with the pitch-perfect direction of Zinnemann and outstanding acting from the trio of stars makes The Member of the Wedding surreptitiously compelling and deeply moving.

Remaining: 3164 films, 880 Oscars, 5447 nominations

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