Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Sisterhood in THE POST and THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS

Two movies. You may not think it, but they have more in common than just two extraordinary actresses in the lead roles.  The movies have a sisterhood. In both films, there is a big house and in that house, a man is doing very bad things. He must be exposed. He must be stopped. In both films, a woman will be the hero. In Steven Spielberg's journalism drama, based on a true story millions of us baby boomers remember, is THE POST.  I feel like I've grown up with Meryl Streep.  I've been a devoted fan since she started her film career in the late 1970s and went on to wow audiences as the most Oscar nominated performer in all Hollywood history.  With that said, her work in THE POST is peak Streep. Two people are dealing with a current U.S president who feels that a free press is the enemy of the people.  The two people are Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee, played by Tom Hanks, and his boss, Washington Post publisher Kay Graham, played by Meryl Streep.  Graham is the first woman publisher of a major American newspaper. Her beloved husband was in the publisher position.  It went to her after his death.  The controversial Vietnam War wages on.  Young American men are dying. It's a war we cannot win. The truth of all this has been kept from the American public. The New York Times scoops the story of a government cover-up and the Washington Post is forced to dig in and give newspaper some competition.  Insecure Graham has been focused on lifestyle features, like covering a White House wedding. Bradlee wants to do harder, serious journalism. The Pentagon Papers reports will be one of the hottest, most controversial stories of the decade.
Bradlee is a gracefully macho character, a sophisticated man with many connections. When first we see Katherine "Kay" Graham, she's not yet comfortable in the skin of her publisher position. Keep in mind that, during this era, women still hungered for equal opportunities and equal respect. Kay is forced to prove herself at a most critical time in American history and a most critical time in the history of America's free press. There was a White House administration in place that would exclude members of the press from doing its work unless it wrote flattering things about the administration.
Meryl got one of her 86 Oscar nominations for Best Actress for THE POST. She deserved it.  Jodie Foster won her second Best Actress Oscar for the crime thriller, THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, directed by Jonathan Demme.

Within the late four days, I saw both films on HBO channels.  In both films, we see female characters striving to prove themselves while constantly under the strict male gaze and while often being the only woman in a room full of men.
Look at the brilliant FBI cadet Clarice Starling in THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS. Notice the frequency of tight close-ups of men observing her in a competitive work situation.  Whether law enforcement co-workers or dangerous convicts behind bars or the creepy villain holding a woman hostage in a well, Starling is often the only female in the shot.
Now look at Kay Graham in THE POST. She's an intelligent, poised woman but she has not yet found her voice as the boss.  The first scene with Bradlee and Graham (Hanks and Streep) is a breakfast meeting in a swanky restaurant.  Kay walks in, hands filled with a briefcase and a load of paperwork. She spots Ben seated at a table. As she walks over to him, she clumsily knocks over a restaurant chair and apologizes to people seated at other tables.
She is the only woman in room. No gentlemen, and there are quite a few, offer to help her pick up her dropped items. Ben does not stand up politely as she approaches his table. She's outnumbered by men who do not notice her.
Notice the times Kay enters a room, like the board meeting with the bankers, and she's the only woman. Notice they really don't listen to her. She doesn't walk with them, she walks behind them.

This will change as Kay finds her voice, grows some brass ovaries and reports on an irresponsible president instead of concentrating on celebrity lifestyle reports.

Ben knows Kay has this strength in her. In their restaurant meeting, she's passive and he's dominant. You'd think he was the boss. He's a green light. She's a yellow light. He keeps going. She halts. She progresses at a reduced speed. He challenges, irritates and motivates her to be the publisher, to make the hard decisions, to be the leader. He tells her how much she has at stake. He tells her the truth.

In Spielberg's THE POST, Ben Bradlee is to Kay Graham what Dr. Lecter is to Clarice Starling in THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS.  He irritates and motivates Clarice Starling. He tells her the truth. He knows what she has at stake.

Both men respect the intelligence and accelerate the drive of a woman who can overcome a bad force in a big house.  For Clarice, it's a killer in a shabby house of horrors. For Mrs. Graham, it's a president in the White House violating the Constitution of the United States. Both men, Ben Bradlee and Dr. Lecter, help a woman distinguish herself.

I understood and connected to Meryl Streep at Kay Graham.  When Ben Bradlee tells his wife that Kay has decided to publish, even though the government may threaten her with jail time, the wife calls Kay "brave."  Ben scoffs at the word. But, his loving wife reminds him that he's a man, a man of privilege. If he's fired, he can easily get another job. But Kay is the first woman in a job that she never planned to have.

As a black person in America and in a few workplaces, I've had to prove himself and very often work twice as hard to make half as much as a white guy with a smaller resume, I understood the invisibility that Kay felt early in THE POST. I know what it was like to not feel good enough, to not feel that my opinion mattered, to feel that executives were looking past me.  When that's been your reality for a long time, it takes some newfound muscle and speed to break that barrier.  I saw THE POST in a New York City theater. When Kay finds her voice and, faced with a bunch of mansplaining businessmen in her dining room at night, shuts them up by declaring, "My decision stands, and I'm going to bed," I wasn't the only one who cheered and broke out into applause. The whole audience did.

Check your HBO listings or check them out on DVD. I highly recommended the feminist sisterhood in both Steven Spielberg's THE POST and Jonathan Demme's THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS. And if I owned a retro movie theater, I'd put two films about the same newspaper on a double bill -- THE POST and the story that followed, Alan Pakula's ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN. The same newspaper, the same editor and publisher, the same U.S. president.

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