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Women As a Mystery: The Chapman Report (George Cukor, 1962)

If we take it too seriously, The Chapman Report can be a nasty, nasty film. Remember all those Hays Code “Don’ts” that clearly stated crime must always be punished? Well, in this film a woman is raped (after all even in the Sixties, “don’t” meant “no”) and the rapists are completely forgotten. When this woman later commits suicide, the film’s approach is sentimental, but pitiless: no funeral, no real epitaph. One character goes as long as to suggest that, because of her irrepressible sexual urges, this is the best that could have happened to her.

Science and its object

However, even immoral fiction can be enlightening in helping us understand context. And the film says a lot about the 1960s and the way movies supposedly opened up in the treatment of sex after the softening up of some Hays Code rules. This was George Cukor in 1962, chosen by Zanuck to direct a film about female sexuality (based on an Irving Wallace best seller) presumably because he had been so good with female stars in the past and and had directed another famously mysoginist film in the 30s, The Women (“It’s all about men!”).

Unlike The Women, there are men in this film: the title refers to Doctor Chapman, a Kinsey-like scientist that is writing a report that intends to look into women’s sexuality and turn it into a series of statistics tha can help us understand them a bit. Women’s sexuality is presented as a mystery “we”  (and that means everybody in the audience) want to know more about. Of course it is not very clear this will be very useful: from the very start, a competing scientist (played by Cukor regular Henry Daniell, a man who, come to think of it, resembles the director) warns against such attempts at digging too deep into women’s minds and raises the issue that the problem with the report is that one cannot turn “love” into statistics and suggest that it is not a good idea that women think too much.

In both cases, women characters are treated as objects whose experiences are analysed and re-framed into the male experience: it must be so comforting to men that the purpose is so clearly stated, particularly after they see how it all turns out. This is scientific, you see. Actually, women did not have much of a say in the writing or making of this movie, as they didn’t in the way Hollywood represented them or created narratives around them. The “women” in this film are a reflection of men’s anxieties or power agendas. In trying to be daring or shocking, the film is only reinforcing stereotypes.

Four women

Most of the film is about four women who agree to be interviewed by Chapman, who all share a “sexual history”, which for Hollywood was odd: they strive towards sexuality. Kath (Jane Fonda) does so cautiously, Teresa (Glynis Johns) does it foolishly, Sarah (Shelley Winters) does it mistakenly and Naomi (Claire Bloom) recklessly. In the end they all have themselves to blame.

Jane Fonda (shrill in her dramatic scenes but very effective in her more introspective ones) did not really warm up to her hostile, brutish, war hero husband, so she believes she is frigid. During the interview with the Chapman assistant, her case elicits his curiosity. It is typical of the film’s attitude that confidentiality and the distance between the scientist and the women are not respected and this does not seem to be problematic at all. The interviewer will propose marriage and she will hesitate until told that her presumed frigidness was actually a very proper sense of morality. This was among the earliest roles for Fonda, close in spirit to the one she played in Period of Adjustment. It is a great example of the “soft” Fonda.

Winters is vulnerable as a woman who is tired of her ordinary life as a housewife with a dull husband and seeks love in the arms of a pedantic, arrogant, married stage director. The film does acknowledge that her life may be a bit boring, but has something to say about how frustrating the call for adventure can be. She is bluntly humiliated, none of her issues are resolved and the most she can hope for the rest of her life is to be “forgiven” by her husband.

John’s sections are played for comedy and they show a presumptuous, arty woman who becomes intrigued by semi-naked athletes on the beach and picks up blond hunk Ty Hardin. Actually, she does not seem a female stereotype in language and demeanor as much as the older queens in Andy Warhol’s My Hustler and one is tempted to read this character in gay terms as she tries to “hellenize” a dumb object of desire. Finally she realises that sex was never really what she wanted.

And if you think these are problematic, consider the Claire Bloom character, a drunk and a “nymphomaniac” who flirts with dangerous men forgetting any inkling of self-esteem. She is often shot in the shadows, sometimes from behind, usually looking down, unable to stop her shame. She is the one who gets raped and then commits suicide while Cukor only seems interested in pathos. Actually all women are very good in their “confession” scenes, all shot using very long close ups, but Bloom is extraordinary throughout, and maybe the bitter after taste the film leaves is largely due to how good she is in conveying a dreadful range of emotion.

But this is the point: in doing something so bad so well, the film really provides a very good map of how Hollywood tried to deal with modern representations of women. Cukor may have thought he was being sympathetic, and the choice in 1962 was tough: largely, it was either this or Baby Jane or camels.

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