Thursday, March 22, 2012


Let me tell you a fairy tale. Once upon a time there was a film producer who believed that movies didn’t have to appeal to the lowest common denominator or always chase the fastest buck. (I told you it was a fairy tale.) In all likelihood under the enchantment of some evil sorcerer, this producer was possessed of the radical notion that films could inspire tastes rather than follow trends, and that motion pictures, in spite of being a populace medium, held the potential for the broader exposure of culture and the arts. From such chimerical fancies was born The American Film Theater (AFT): a limited-engagement subscription series of films adapted from great plays. Over the course of a year these films would screen for one or two days only, two performances each (a matinee and an evening show), after which the films would be withdrawn from release (“Forever!” as the ads intoned). And they lived happily ever after.

OK...OK, we all know I’m not literally speaking of a fairy tale—but I might as well be, given the inconceivability of such an artistically altruistic idea even being broached in today’s Hollywood. The producer in question was the late Ely Landau (producer of the acclaimed 1972 Martin Luther King, Jr. documentary- King: A Filmed Record…Montgomery to Memphis), and The AFT, his cinematic vision of a cultural Camelot, lasted but a brief two years (1973 – 1975) , but managed to produce a lasting film legacy of 14 marvelous plays with once-in-a-lifetime casts.
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I was in high school in 1974 and remember wanting to buy a subscription to a season of AFT very badly. But as the films were screened on Monday & Tuesday evenings exclusively, the whole “It’s a school night!” issue rendered the entire matter a closed book as far as my parents were concerned. I did, however, have the AFT poster on my bedroom wall and made myself fairly miserable staring at the diverse catalog of filmed plays offered (A Delicate Balance, The Iceman Cometh, Luther, Lost in the Stars), imagining all that I was missing. 
The film I most wanted to see was the adaptation of Jean Genet’s The Maids; not because I knew anything about Genet, but because two of my all-time fave rave actresses: Glenda Jackson and Susannah York, were playing the leads. Well, it may have taken 29 years, but The Maids has finally been released on DVD, (in fact, the entire AFT collection - Click here for info: AFT on DVD ) and with it, my adolescent patience rewarded, at last.
Glenda Jackson as Solange
Susannah York as Claire
Vivien Merchant as Madame
With America's history so resolutely mired in slavery, institutionalized racism, and rarely acknowledged socioeconomic imperatives (the rich need the poor); we in the U.S. tend to prefer our domestics sentimentalized (think Shirley Booth in TVs Hazel, Alice on The Brady Bunch, Mr. French in Family Affair, or any TV program in which the "Just like one of the family!"message is reiterated). The social inequities of status or income are never addressed unless crouched in the most cloyingly emotional terms (US domestics work for love, not least on TV), and any expressed resentment or hostility toward one's employer is thoroughly out of the question. The only time we Yanks seem able to relax and enjoy a thoughtful, honest depiction of the precarious servant/employer dynamic is when we're able to put an ocean between us, and even then, only when the events are safely ensconced in the past.
Does it interfere with our appreciation of beautiful surroundings, meticulously maintained,
to consider the lives of those who are paid to keep them that way?

Americans may find a film about white employers and black domestics uncomfortable, but few really expect anything else. Indeed, domestic workers of color are such an accepted cultural conceit that an entire film (1987's Maid to Order) was built around the satiric premise of a white family coveting the status symbol that comes from having a white maid (Ally Sheedy). Since the vast majority of major motion pictures produced in America are for and from the perspective of the white gaze; Stateside domestics (being people of color) are rarely given much emotional dimension. Their role is either to reassure and comfort audiences by being the grateful recipients of white largess, or be the non-complaining supporters of the status quo, happy in their lot. 
Because we reserve humanity for white characters, the oppressed class system hierarchy of European aristocracy in things like Downton AbbeyGosford Parkor Upstairs, Downstairs, are the only environments in which we allow ourselves to listen to the voices of the oppressed from a humanist, non-political perspective. As a country, it seems we find it easier to identify and empathize with the subjugated masses when they're white.  
Although denied by the play's author, Jean Genet, The Maids is popularly believed to have been inspired by the notorious real-life crimes of Lea and Christine Papin; two maids who brutally murdered the wife and daughter of an employer in 1933 France.

If ever there was an artist about whom the words “non-threatening” and “comforting” most definitely do not apply, it is the late, great, poet/novelist/playwright/activist, Jean Genet. His theatrically incendiary play The Maids (written in 1946) and is an acerbic, absurdist treatise on identity and class struggle that plays out like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?  and The Killing of Sister George crossed with Harold Pinter’s The Servant.
In the ornately fussy, Louis XV furnished apartments in the aristocratically ritzy Place Vendôme district of France, two embittered live-in domestics work out their hostility toward their mistress (and their own self-frustration for enduring such servitude) by routinely engaging in a ritualized pantomime whenever she is away. Alternately taking on the roles of employer and servant, the maids—Solange (Jackson) and her sister Claire (York)— literally lose themselves in this cathartic ceremony of (self)contempt and emancipation that strives, always unsuccessfully, to culminate in the make-believe murder of Madame.
Truth Games
Madame/Claire: "You only EXIST through me!"
As the film begins, the exaggerated passions of the playacting maids are running at a particularly feverish high, as it appears that their fantasy plotting has begun to take root in the real world. Emboldened by the early morning arrest of Madame’s lover (the result of incriminating letters anonymously mailed to the police by Claire) and invigorated by this small sign of efficaciousness in lives of servile invisibility; the maids determine on this day to make actual, the much dreamed-about, never consummated, death of their beloved/detested Madame.  
Claire: "Now I will order the world about!"
Though not overtly fond of Theater of the Absurd, I do have a penchant for the manner in which art can thrust to the forefront that which is rarely spoken of and scarcely acknowledged about the human condition. Like so many of my favorite films (Robert Altman’s 3 Women, Ingmar Bergman’s Persona, Hitchcock’s Vertigo, and Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan), The Maids is about masks, role-playing, and the flexible quality of identity. We each wear masks and play various roles throughout our lives. Often with such regularity and acuity that it can become difficult to remember just what it was the original mask was meant to conceal. Meanwhile the shifting power plays in our day-to-day lives and relationships only serve to reinforce the ever-alternating positions of supplicant and master we find ourselves in. The Maids cleverly uses the banal protocols of domestic servitude (where the feelings of contempt/gratitude/anguish ambiguously co-mingle) to dramatize the interdependent manner in which the way we are perceived by others can come to define the very selfsame ways we see and regard ourselves.
Solange: "When slaves love each other it's not love."
Claire: "No, but it's just as serious."
The '70s was the era of the male "buddy picture," yet, paradoxically, it was also a time (albeit, short-lived) when interesting actors like Glenda Jackson and Susannah York could land major roles in fascinating projects like this. Certainly a film with an all-female cast (Madame's lover is briefly, wordlessly seen) is notable in any era, but because the '70s boasted such a remarkable breed of versatile, intelligent, and unique actresses (Faye Dunaway, Jane Fonda, Genevieve Bujold, Shelley Duvall), I'm especially thrilled that two of my favorites were paired in a feature. 
Playing sisters of different temperament (and I gather, intelligence) both Jackson and Susannah infuse their complex characters with considerable emotional depth, making palpable the pain behind the often high-flown language. Jackson is dynamic, as always, but the late Susannah York, with her despairingly throaty voice and wounded eyes is even better than she was in They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?

 Vivien Merchant (Alfie, Fenzy) manages to capture the conflicting characteristics of dominance, condescension, and vulnerability in the theatrically self-dramatizing character of Madame 

For all its perception, perhaps what’s most brilliant and surprising about The Maids is how terribly enjoyable it is. As a fan of bitchy repartee, I love the film’s near-poetic verbal battles of hurled invectives and raging hostilities. I also take great pleasure in how the film veers, with unexpected bite, into dark comedy. But what I most thoroughly enjoy and what brings me back to The Maids again and again is the finely-honed suspense and dramatic tension which propels the plot along its barely-tethered-to-reality course. There’s a considerable amount of anxiety mined from the current of madness and potential for violence that runs beneath the central conflict of The Maids.
"Naturally, maids are guilty, when madames are innocent."
As the predicament of the maids grows ever perilous, we find ourselves drawn into the paranoia of inanimate objects conspiring to betray them. It is a fact of a maid's day-to-day existence that the dust on the mantle and the unpolished mirror will stand as silent accusers of a job incomplete. When conspiring to kill one's employer, how many small details can be similarly neglected?
Class Distinctions
There are so many ways for The Maids to be interpreted, so many levels upon which it works, it’s like watching a new film every time you come back to it. An intelligent, eccentric film, I can’t imagine it being to everyone’s taste (the intentional theatricality of the language and performances can prove distancing, if not confounding); but it is one of those films which rewards each visit with even more information and overlooked details. Both in performance and theme. I think it’s an absolutely brilliant, moving work made surprising accessible by the combined efforts of everyone involved in this film adaptation...chiefly the outstanding performances of Glenda Jackson and Susannah York. 
"The revenger is always born of the maids."

Playwright of The Maids, Jean Genet, passed away in 1986. A fascinating artist with an even more fascinating life, this is one of my favorites of his many quotable quotes:
"I'm homosexual. How and why are idle questions. It's a little like wanting to know why my eyes are green."

Signature of Susannah York received at a 2005 performance of her one-woman show, The Loves of Shakespeare's Women
Copyright © Ken Anderson


  1. Very interesting reading, as always. These filmed plays (none of which I have actually seen yet!) seem like preserved gold nuggets from a time gone by that we'll never experience again. How wonderful that they are seeing the light of day again on DVD. Britain has a long, storied history of servants deciding to bump off their employers. Not long ago, I was reading up on the grisly story I'm about to provide a link to (just to Wikipedia, nothing potentially dangerous or off the beaten path.) Your article today reminded me of it. Amazing that no one ever made a movie out of it, especially now that there is a contemporary bookend to the tale!


    1. Thanks, Poseidon. These AFT films are really something else. So daring to film these far-from-easy plays, but what a record to have preserved! I would recommend "Rhinoceros"...with Gene Wilder, Zero Mostel, and Karen Black. That cast alone makes it priceless.
      I read the story of the link you provided. Yikes! Whata fantastic tale never to have been dramatized! I'd never heard of it, but there does seem to be a long history, even in film,of the allegorical "revolution of the servants" Genet dramatizes here. It's almost a subgenre of film. Claude Chabrol did a wonderful film with Jackie Bisset and Isabelle Huppert along those lines (Le Ceremonie), and two films I have yet to see: "Murderous Maids" and "Sister, My Sister" are more literal film adaptations of the Papin Sisters crimes of the 1930s that is said to have influenced Genet. Pretty chilling stuff!
      Thanks, so much for the link and for your comments!

  2. Sounds great. Jean Genet is my hero!

    1. Ah, sounds like you pick your heroes well! He was such an amazing man. His real life rivals his plays for absurdist twists and unexpected outcomes. I think you would love this film. It really does his play proud.

  3. Hi Ken,

    I've had this in my Netflix queue for months but was letting it just gradually work it's way to the top until I saw that you had written a piece on it. I was curious to read your take but wanted to view the film independent of it first so zipped it to the top and had a chance to watch it today.

    Despite absolutely titanic performances from both actresses I found the film something more to appreciate than enjoy. I also liked Vivien Merchant's work although I thought it was a bit fussy. I had heard of the movie years ago and my main interest in it was the same as yours, the pairing of two such great actresses and on that score the picture delivers in spades but they are so sadly nuts and bitter it became wearing after a while.

    It helped me get more from the film being able to read your impressions. You certainly revealed more levels than I had found in the picture plus I was unaware of the background of both the production of the film as well as the basis for the characters, which I quickly googled and read their sad twisted tale.

    I agree with you about the dearth of distinctive actresses today. I wouldn't say there are none but often when they reach the years when they should be doing some of their most interesting work the really gifted ones are sidelined into supporting or mother roles. If this was the 70's a great actress like Diane Lane would be headlining major films as Glenda, Jane Fonda and Ellen Burstyn did at the time, not stuck in junk playing Superman's mom. The real irony is that she has always been a beauty and still is but because she has chosen to age gracefully she apparently is no longer being offered leads.

    1. Hi Joel
      So wonderful that you gave this forgotten film a look! Even if it was not a wholly fulfilling movie experience for you, I'm glad you got to see two of cinema's top actors paired during a peak period in their careers.

      I think my fondness for this movie is firmly rooted in it being yet another narrative involving role playing, identity and the like. As I wrote about "Secret Ceremony" those topics engage me in films in ways I can't always describe.

      And I agree with you about the under-utilization of actresses today. Diane Lane being a perfect case in point. It took television to give the Jessica Lange the kind of meaty role movies seemed unable to unearth for her.

      One of my favorite film bloggers, Joe Meyers, wrote two terrific pieces on the dearth of good roles available to seasoned actresses today, and why playing support to a super hero or James Bond is about as good as it gets these days.

    2. Thanks for pointing me to those articles Ken. It's so true that not just actresses such as Helena Bonham Carter, Emma Thompson (although she seems to have a good role coming in Saving Mr. Banks), Rachel Weisz (a personal fav) and Toni Collette aren't being offered parts worthy of them but even many of the younger actresses only have thin girlfriend parts available to them. A sad state of affairs.

      I have to say that playing a nothing character like Pepper Potts is just where Gwyneth Paltrow belongs and matches her talent level. I have seen precisely one film where I thought she was more than adequate, Emma, and will never understand how she is a successful, well regarded actress.

      Her mother Blythe Danner however is one of those actresses of almost limitless skill who Hollywood was never able to figure out how to spotlight properly and make the major star she deserved. Perhaps with her whiskey voice and unique style she was too individual and the more ordinary and common Paltrow is easier to slot into any average part.

    3. Glad you liked those articles. Such good points made.
      Although I am completely in your camp, I think I have to plead the 5th when commenting on Paltrow because I worked with her for a time and she was a real sweetheart. Let's just have your words do the talking there.

      As for Danner (name dropper that I am, I also met and like her a great deal) I fully agree that her talent always made me feel she should have had a bigger career than she did. Such a smart and individual screen presence among so many in the 70s.

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    1. Hi Gregory
      This is a film so few seem to have seen, I'm glad to know you're familiar with it (and its history, only when I was gifted with a copy of the play had I ever heard of Genet's desire to have the roles played by boys).
      Best of all, you actually "know" about this series of Landau films from experience. How wonderful it must have been. I have "The Iceman Cometh" in my Netflix list. Looking forward to it!

      I like your description of Jackson's screen presence. So apt! Did you ever see her in The House of Bernarda Alba?
      Thanks, Gregory. You DO have a broad scope of film tastes!

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    1. Wonderful if these posts in some way inspires you to think of a time you look back on fondly. And I know what you mean by therapeutic. Starting this blog has been like retracing the steps of where all my aesthetics were formulated.
      I' glad you've opted to share so many of your insights with the readers here.