Tag Archives: sex

‘Baby Doll’ reveals how far we’ve come and how little has changed

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John Prosky as Archie Lee in ‘Baby Doll’.

by Stephen Sachs

When the movie Baby Doll was released in 1956, it was the film’s sexuality that drew all the attention.

Time magazine called it “possibly the dirtiest American picture ever legally exhibited,” and the film was condemned for lewdness by the Legion of Decency.

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Cardinal Spellman

The week before Christmas, Cardinal Francis Spellman, New York’s rigid archbishop at the time, pronounced from the pulpit. “Dearly beloved in Christ, I have a statement to make. I am anguished to learn of a motion picture that has been responsibly judged to be evil in concept and which is certain to exert an immoral and corrupting influence on those who see it. The revolting theme of this picture, Baby Doll, and the brazen advertising promoting it constitute a contemptuous defiance of the natural law.” Essentially, he admonished, it was a sin for any Catholic to see the film.

Today, mainstream movies depict sexuality in ways that make Baby Doll look quaint. But in 1956, when the red-hot charge of “un-Americanism” was being branded on anyone or any idea deemed remotely threatening, Baby Doll was more than a movie. To many, it was a threat.

For me, the deeper, more insidious threat dramatized in Baby Doll is not about sex. Yes, Baby Doll is sexy and steamy and seductive.  Yet more than that, Baby Doll is sadly relevant to the systemic racism and anti-immigration paranoia still seething in our nation today.

It’s easy to now snicker at Spellman’s condemnation that Baby Doll was “immoral” and “evil” in 1956.  But that same righteous judgement of sex and morality is echoed in the right-wing ideology of Christian Conservatives today. Throughout sections of our country, views of sex have not changed much since 1956. Neither have opinions on race or immigration.  Turn on Fox News and witness the rise of the dangerous, white supremacist, anti-immigrant views of the Alt-Right.

In Baby Doll, Archie Lee is a Southern white male, a middle-aged, cotton gin owner whose business is failing. He is financially drowning, struggling to stay afloat. Archie Lee is a traditionalist, set in Old Southern Ways , baffled and overwhelmed by the shattering realization that what has made his family and his land flourish for generations is now no longer working. His once-stately mansion and plantation is, literally, falling apart around him. Decomposing. He is afraid. And he is angry.

Today, Archie Lee would be a Donald Trump supporter.

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John Prosky (Archie Lee) and Daniel Bess (Silva) in ‘Baby Doll’.

Enter Silva Vacarro.  The Italian who now runs the cotton gin across the way. Silva Vacarro is an immigrant.

In Tennesee Williams’ early years, there was a significant immigrant population in the Delta—notably Syrians, Chinese, and Italians. Italian farmers first came to America through the port of New Orleans and worked in cotton and sugar cane fields. Many suffered from the same system of discrimination that kept African Americans in poverty long after slavery was abolished. From the south of Italy, Sicilians immigrated to the Delta, settling in towns where they established new businesses of their own, in competition with local farmers. These hardworking people inspired multiple characters in Williams’ plays, including Silva Vacarro in Baby Doll.

To the white male Archie Lee, Silva Vacarro is the immigrant outsider who has come to this country to steal what Archie Lee has worked so hard all his life to preserve. The immigrant is the invader, hellbent to corrupt Archie Lee’s American Dream into a nightmare. The immigrant is the problem. Sound familiar? Listen to the anti-immigrant ranting at any Donald Trump rally. Illegal aliens are vilified as murderers, drug dealers and rapists.

In Baby Doll, the dark immigrant is also a sexual threat.  Silva Vacarro targets Archie Lee’s young bride, Baby Doll, who has refused to consummate her marriage to her husband until she turns twenty in two days. This, of course, dramatizes the classic fear of the bigoted white male in America: the dark man stealing his woman. In Baby Doll, the dark man seducing the blonde virgin white girl is every racist white man’s nightmare come true.

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Lindsay LaVanchy and John Prosky

But Archie Lee has recourse. He has “friends” who know how to take care of dirty outsiders like Silva.

I! Got position! Yeah, yeah, I got position! Here in this county! Where I was bo’n an’ brought up! I hold a respected position, lifelong! –member of the— Yes sir, on my side‘re friends, longstandin’ bus’ness associates, an’ social! See what I mean? You ain’t got that advantage, have you, mister? Huh, mister? Ain’t you a dago, or something? Excuse me, I mean Eyetalian or something, here in Tiger Tail County?

Archie Lee’s “friends” who know how to take care of people like Silva is an obvious reference to the Klu Klux Klan.

Silva aligns himself with black workers and asserts his right to work and succeed as an immigrant in this country. He’s here to stay. He’s not going anywhere.

I’m a dark man and a Catholic in a county of Protestant blondes —disliked, distrusted, despised. You call me ‘dago’ and ‘wop’ like you call your workers ‘nigger,’ because of a difference in blood. But I came here with a purpose. You can’t freeze me out or burn me out. I’ll do what I came to do.

No one in Baby Doll — not even the well-seeming Silva — is wholly good. Each, in their own way, are manipulative, vindictive, selfish, in some cases mean. But none of are purely evil either. They are complex human characters struggling in a drama of social, sexual, and cultural politics taking place in a specific state in our country in a specific time in our history.

But racism and anti-immigration phobia in this country are timeless. Deeply planted and tilled into the soil of our nation’s history. They are the worms and repellent insects in our national garden that survive in the dark fetid soil under rocks.  Always there, hiding in plain sight, just below the surface. Plays like Baby Doll — and the terrifying propaganda of the current election campaign — turn the rock over and expose the distasteful vermin underneath — and, because we are all citizens of this country, remind us that they are ourselves.

When Baby Doll builds to its explosive conclusion, with the defeated Archie Lee hollering in anguish and being carted off to jail, it seems to be Williams’ intent to demonstrate that the era of Archie Lee is, if not over, at least changing. One of the last lines he says to the Sheriff as he is hauled away, is “I’m a white man. You can’t do this to me!”

Today, sixty years later, as the ethnic and cultural complexion of our country’s population continues to evolve into more widespread diversity, I want to hope that our tolerance will evolve with it. We shall see.

I was first eager to produce the west coast premiere of this new stage adaptation of Baby Doll — the first approved by the Williams Estate — because it offered the rare opportunity to present a “new” Tennessee Williams play never seen by our audiences.

I knew it would be sensual and poetic. I was surprised by how timely and relevant it would be.

Stephen Sachs is the co-founding Co-Artistic Director of the Fountain Theatre.

Baby Doll has been extended to Oct 30th.

New Plays, like Sex: Is Faster Better?

by Barry Martin

Two recent distressing experiences compel me shout from the rooftops to producing companies and directors – “Take your foot off the gas!” But since shouting from the rooftops would probably only get attention from SWAT teams, I think I’m better off posting it here.

“Venus in Fur”

In both of these situations I came to the theater excited, looking forward to seeing a play that I had read and loved. Case #1 was Annie Baker’s Body Awareness at the Aurora Theatre in Berkeley. Case #2 took place on Broadway—David Ives’ Venus in Fur at the Lyceum. I loved these plays on the page because of their enticing tensions, the interplay of characters with conflicting desires, their peak moments of humor and drama. I couldn’t wait to watch great actors make this text even more compelling for me. In both cases, I left the theater feeling cheated. It reminded me of my dad’s story of when he made a special trip to see Ted Williams play in a doubleheader and they walked him every time he came to the plate. Delicious anticipation without the payoff.

I will save several people the trouble of saying, “But wait, both of these productions have been highly successful, with large audiences, great reviews, and nominations for awards! These are top professionals at the peak of their talents!” All undeniably true. And yet these playgoing experiences were disappointing for me. Why? These plays failed due to the breakneck pace at which they were presented, especially in the first twenty to thirty minutes.

Allow me to digress long enough to say that when I am directing, I am obsessive about pace and rhythm. These are the two areas where I feel a director, working with skilled actors, can do the most to make the show sing. I am thinking about pace and rhythm from the first read through and I get demanding about it as soon as actors are off book. Most of us would agree that a good play is tight, there’s no flab. No one wants to see a play that drags, right?

At the opposite end of the spectrum, however, is a play that plunges forward so relentlessly that all sense of believability is lost. How can these people on stage possibly draw me into their characters and their story when they don’t seem to be listening to each other? Shouldn’t I be feeling that their words are born out of a natural human thinking process, rather than just pouring out in unblinking torrents?

I have formulated two theories in an attempt to explain this phenomenon:

  1. As old hands of stage work, we all know the best, juiciest stuff comes later in the play, so we’re eager to get past the boring first third that we’ve become overly familiar with while working up the production. We get lazy from that over familiarity and forget that most of the audience members will be hearing this for the first time, and they need to hear the words, absorb the meaning, and get into the flow of the story.
  2. We have become obsessed with the eighty to ninety minute play with no intermission because it’s hard enough to get people to buy a tickets in the first place and you won’t want them leaving thinking, “Wow, that was too long,” and we keep producing this way even though we know that’s really too long to make people sit without a break, and we worry that people’s bladders will explode so we race through the dialogue so the audience can see we’re moving it along as fast as we can. Besides, people really don’t want to be in the theater in the first place when they could be comfy at home watching reality television

What is the cure for this franticness?

  1. Put yourself in the shoes of the person seeing this play for the first time. Is the exposition being given the right amount of weight, so that the viewer will care when important things happen later? Are there natural pauses and silences in the dialogue where they belong when you’re “holding the mirror up to nature?”
  2. Get over the fear of boring the audience, or the fear of intermission—whatever it is that is causing the speed-of-light style. These people have paid a lot of money for a night at the theater. Do they loathe your play so much they just want it to be over as soon as possible? Most of the audience will not sneak out! Some plays are written as long one-acts and there is no natural act break—fine. Do it that way but give each scene, each moment the time it’s due. In each of the productions I described above, allowing for the proper amount of natural pauses and silences could not have added more than five minutes to the overall length of the play. Five more minutes might cause them to pee their pants, true— so maybe that old-fashioned intermission is not such a bad idea after all. There is no correlation between the number of acts, the number of intermissions, or the length of a play and its quality. I’ve looked at my watch five times during a ten-minute play, and been mesmerized for three-and-a-half hours by August: Osage County. Conversely, there may be a correlation between the length of time an audience can sit at one stretch and their ability to enjoy the play. Give these people a break! Literally!

I’d be a hypocrite if I didn’t say I’ve been in more than one dressing room where the most enthusiastic post-show compliment shared between the actors was “We took three minutes off of it tonight.” If every meaningful moment was given its due, that’s sweet. But I wonder about our level of self-respect as theater-makers when we present our work as if it is something painful, to be done with as quickly as possible, rather than something to be savored.

And besides, if there’s no intermission how can I get a drink?

Barry Martin is a writer, actor and director in the San Francisco Bay Area.