Thursday, May 31, 2012


Bernice Bobs Her Hair, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s satirically comic, finely observed 1920 short story about feminine identity in the emergent jazz-age, can be read in less time than it takes to watch this exceptional made-for-TV short film adaptation. A movie clocking in at a little over 48 minutes, Bernice Bobs Her Hair is a disarmingly witty little film that offers more food for thought, first-rate performances, snappy dialogue, and keen period detail than most films three times the length and ten times the budget.
Shelley Duvall as Bernice
Veronica Cartwright as Marjorie
Bud Cort as Warren
Dennis Christopher as Charley
Mark La Mura as Carpenter
Mark Newkirk as G. Reece Stoddard (with a name like that you just have to use all of it)

The moneyed idleness of finishing school girls and prep school boys on summer holiday in Connecticut is a ritualized flurry of status-defining social activities which have about them the contradictory quality of simultaneously relieving and heightening the boredom. The time is 1919; the very brink of flaming youth, flappers, jazz, and silent movie vamps. While the conventions of mannered society are stringently observed by young and old alike, those teens fumbling most uneasily on the verge of adulthood can’t resist exercising their newfound independence through small acts of social rebellion.
Among the debutante set, this means engaging in (and trying to navigate one’s way through) behaviors that walk a tightrope between popularity-enhancing daring and ostracized-by-one’s-peer-group scandalousness.

It’s August, and all-around “fun” girl and social hub Marjorie Harvey (Veronica Cartwright) is having her summer fairly ruined by visiting cousin Bernice (Shelley Duvall). In contrast to the well-liked Marjorie who has mastered and understands the seemingly endless little gambits and ploys a girl must practice in order to convey availability through the highly contrived appearance of unavailability, Bernice is dull to the point of distraction. A well-heeled socialite from Eau Claire, Wisconsin, Bernice nevertheless suffers from shyness and an overabundance of the kind of genteel femininity that was swiftly becoming passé in the pre-flapper era of the early '20s.
"Bernice, girls our age divide into two groups: there's the ones like me who like to have a good time, then there's the ones like you who just love to sit around and criticize us for it![sic]"

An eye-opening conversation overheard by Bernice (“I didn't mean to listen…at first”) between Marjorie and her mother (Polly Holliday) compels the visiting cousin to grudgingly allow herself to be taken under Marjorie’s wing for a thorough personality overhaul. What follows is a cross between Pygmalion, the finale of Grease, and the “Popular” number from Wicked, as Marjorie coaches Bernice in all the finer points of being a sought-after modern woman. As the summer progresses Marjorie proves herself a master educator… but does Bernice perhaps learn her lessons all too well?
So, you think you can dance?

The distancing effect of Bernice Bobs Her Hair’s period setting works to the film’s advantage, allowing for a kind of clear-eyed, dispassionate assessment of  laughable social mores not always possible (or welcomed) when the lens of satire is trained on contemporary fads and trends. Additionally, the notion that one’s parents and grandparents might have been plagued by the same adolescent insecurities and pressures to conform that we’ve experienced provides both historical perspective and reinforces the cyclical nature of human behavior.

When Bernice Bobs Her Hair first aired in 1976 as part of the PBS The American Short Story anthology series, the film was viewed through the prism of mid-70s second-wave feminism (those years when the initial strides of Women’s Lib began to take root, culturally). With films like Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974), The Stepford Wives (1975), and A Woman Under the Influence (1974) reflecting the evolving cultural prominence of women in the 70s, the duplicitous, restrictive, male-centric behavior of the young women at the center of Fitzgerald’s story appeared foolish, outmoded, and as unlikely for a comeback as the bustle.

Well, here we are in the year 2012, and the litany of silly “how to get a man interested” rules and stringent feminine “dos” and “don’ts” at the center of Bernice Bobs Her Hair (each presuming some innate female inadequacy) look positively dignified in light of the self-loathing tyranny of today’s porn-star aesthetics (boob jobs, botox, and trout-pout); reality shows like “The Bachelor”; how-to-catch-and-keep-a-man books like “The Rules”; and pop star Rihanna’s turn-the-other-cheek-for-the-sake-of–a-buck brand of subtly sanctioned female battery.

If statistics on bullying, suicide rates, and girls opting for plastic surgery at ever younger ages are to be believed, I’d say, culturally speaking, young women’s attitudes about themselves and their bodies have taken several steps backward since the days when a girl only needed to brush up on the latest dance steps and apply a red jellybean to her lips to be a contender for popularity.
You'll be Popular...Just Not Quite as Popular as Me
Marjorie (Veronica Cartwright) and Roberta (Lane Binkley) prepare for the Country Club dance
The more things change, the more they stay the same. With few alterations in the actual behavior of the characters, Bernice Bobs Her Hair could be played out, as is, in any number of different eras, with merely a change in title:
1940s Bernice Wears Slacks to School
1950s Bernice Goes Out Without Gloves
1960s Bernice Buys a Mini Skirt
1970s Bernice Grows an Afro
1980s Bernice Gets a Mohawk
1990s Bernice Gets a Piercing and a Tattoo

As previous posts will attest, I am thoroughly besotted with Shelley Duvall. Here, as she did so artfully in Robert Altman’s 3 Women, Duvall brings an oddball stamp of pluck and silent self-regard to characters who, as written, would otherwise be pitiable or pathetic. Duvall’s Bernice may be socially withdrawn and ill-at-ease around members of the opposite sex, but it’s clear she holds an opinion of herself more solidly defined than that of her rather superficial cousin. Bernice’s willingness to undergo a personality makeover is born more of a kind of misdirected introspection (there’s a scene wherein she more or less encounters herself in male form—the reserved and judgmental ministry student, Draycott Deyo) than poor self-esteem.
Duvall's transformation from wallflower to man-trap is a delight 

I don’t believe there exists on film an uninteresting Veronica Cartwright performance. Splendid in Alien and Invasion of the Body Snatchers, as the vain and spoiled socialite of Bernice Bobs Her Hair, Cartwright displays a comic timing and command of expression and inflection that lends bite to her scenes of bitchiness and real humanity to those moments that reveal the coward behind the monster. Her scenes with Duvall are marvelously engaging in their chemistry.

The character of Yale undergrad Warren McIntyre is sketchily drawn in Fitzgerald’s story, but as embodied by baby-faced Bud Cort (the victim of Shelly Duvall’s betrayal in Altman’s Brewster McCloud, but better known for Harold & Maude), Warren is a mass of post-adolescent agitation and self-seriousness. Wearing the expression of one perpetually amazed by the depth of his own emotions, Cort mines pure comic gold in fleshing out an otherwise stock Ivy League character.
Unburdening himself to Bernice, Warren longs to reveal his true self by becoming a writer. Albeit under the deliciously loony pseudonym of Charlotte Van Heusen.
"I don't want anyone to know it's me. I'm in too much pain."

Someone once said that it’s the responsibility and privilege of the young to blaze new trails and challenge social convention, for in nonconformity lies progress. What’s fascinating to ponder is how significant a role hair and hairstyles have played in the shattering of social conventions throughout history.
The 1920s Bob re-imagined through the 50s and 60s
Louise Brooks, Jean Seberg,Twiggy, Peggy Moffitt (sporting Vidal Sassoon geometric)

As was the style of the day, the socialites in Bernice Bobs Her Hair sport mountainous piles of hair. The numerous scenes of women fussing and tending to their hair dramatizes the dichotomy posed by the narrative. Long tresses may be a badge of femininity and old-world gentility, but its need for constant care inhibits spontaneity and freedom. The short bob haircut requires minimal care and seems ideal for the more active modern woman, but its lack of society precedence and its too-close association with silent-screen “vampires,” brands the haircut instantly scandalous (aka, rebellious).
Braiding is a motif repeated so often in Bernice Bobs Her Hair that the ritual begins to take on the weight of metaphor - the braids come to resemble ropes tying the women to constrictive notions of femininity.

One of my favorite exchanges in the F.Scott Fitzgerald short story didn’t make it to the film.

Marjorie’s mother is trying to make sense of the fuss Marjorie is making over Bernice not fitting in with her social crowd. From where Marjorie’s mother sits, there’s not much to be gained in the shallow approval of people who scarcely seem interested in you in the first place.
Mrs. Harvey: “What’s a little cheap popularity?”
Marjorie: “It’s everything when you’re eighteen!”

And so it is. The world of an eighteen year-old will undoubtedly expand, but for that brief moment in time (which can feel like an eternity) when one’s entire universe is inhabited exclusively by immediate family and the kids you go to school with, the petty concerns of popularity and peer acceptance can take on the importance of world-turning events.
There's no way to watch Bernice Bobs Her Hair without acknowledging, time and time again, how little has changed in the realm of human interaction since 1920. Whether this is comforting or disturbing news is another matter.
Bernice: "My philosophy is that you have to either amuse people, feed 'em, or shock 'em!"
Those words, written in 1920, could literally be Lady Gaga's mantra.
A World on the Verge of Change

Copyright © Ken Anderson


  1. Ken, a delightfully articulate post on a wonderful film I haven't seen in a number of years but remember fondly. Reading it not only brought it all back to me, but added dimensions I didn't recall. Your post was full of fascinating social, behavioral, fashion, and character observations! How right you are that Duvall and Cartwright, both tremendous actresses and both perfectly cast here, play off each beautifully. Their rivalry, the conceited and self-centered Marjorie's manipulation of naive Bernice, and Bernice's ultimate revenge make for a most engaging viewing experience.

  2. Why, thank you very much! I really love just about everything about this adaptation (short stories often make such great films...perhaps because of the economy of narrative). Duvall and Cartwright can do no wrong, and indeed, there is considerable food for thought in this lighthearted but pointed coming-of-age film.
    You make a good point in noting Marjorie's "manipulation" of Bernice. At first glance it appears as if she is acting in her cousin's best interests. It's easy to forget that it's all motivated by Marjorie's self-centered lament: "She's RUINING my summer!"
    Thanks, R.D.

  3. I do believe that the National Film and Sound Archive (Australia) has a print of "Bernice Bobs Her Hair" in storage. I'm not certain how likely it would be for this film to see the light of day, as "short features" (or is that long shorts?) aren't exactly the easiest films to programme.

    1. Hi Mark
      If they have it on DVD in Australia, it would be well worth your while to check it out. Made for the small screen and rather diffused and grainy, you really wouldn't be missing much not seeing it in a theater. Here it used to be (still is?) shown in schools. I think you're a fan of Shelley Duvall, and she's excellent here. It would be Doubly enjoyable for you, since you also are a fan of Veronica Cartwright in "Invasion of the Body Snatchers."

  4. Excellent post on a shamefully forgotten piece of work. I think director Joan Micklin Silver is way overdue for rediscovery. A true independent filmmaker she fought long odds to make terrific 1970s features like "Hester Street" and "Between the Lines" in which she took chances on young actresses like Carol Kane, Gwen Welles and Lindsay Crouse. I also loved her now almost impossible to see early 1980s HBO film "Finnegan Begin Again" with wonderful work by Robert Preston and Mary Tyler Moore.

    1. I'm so glad you brought up director "Bernice"s director, Joan Micklin Silver. A huge oversight on my part as she is also responsible for the marvelous screenplay adaptation. She was certainly a director who showed great promise with "Hester Street", which I loved, but I haven't seen any of her other works, nor is she much discussed these days. A point of interest I recall from the 70s was Silver's wish to examine in "Bernice..." the ways in which women compete with and betray one another over specious social dividends.
      Appreciate your sharing your knowledge of this director's work. I'm going to do a little searching for those titles myself!

    2. Hey Ken: 'Between the Lines' is probably the best picture Silver has done - an account of life at a Boston underground newspaper in the mid-1970s just as it is being taken over by a corporation.
      I think it might be the first film about the counterculture generation looking back at its glory days in the late 1960s - it preceded 'Return of the Secaucus Seven' by three years and 'The Big Chill' by 6.
      In addition to Lindsay Crouse and Gwen Welles, the great ensemble cast includes Jeff Goldblum, Jill Eikenberry and John Heard. I don't know why this gem has fallen through the cracks. Perhaps it was due to the fact that Silver and her husband self-produced and self-distributed it ala John Cassavetes.
      I have a hunch you would love it!

    3. Hi Joe
      Yes, the film as you describe it, sounds very much like one I would enjoy. I have only the vaguest memory of it being released in the San Francisco area, and then, rather briefly. I know it's not available on DVD , but you may be sending me off to iOffer or eBay to hunt it down. Thanks for calling attention to a little -known-film!

    4. "Between the Lines" was finally released on DVD a year ago and can be found on Amazon. Enjoy!

  5. You make such great, perceptive points on the larger concerns of this film - our relations to our peers and family, the desperate push-pull of popularity, and desire for and fear of asserting one's real self--and particularly the pressures on young females negotiating this territory. I think you hit it dead-on in how this plays out in what you call today's "porn star aesthetics," and their implied self-loathing. How would someone like Bernice survive today? Wonderful post!

  6. Hello, GOM (my name for you)
    You're very kind and I'm glad you liked the post. For a very short film (and shorter story), there seems a wealth of things worthy of discussion within the rather lighthearted framework. I understand they still read this in schools today. I wonder myself how young girls today would perceive a character like Bernice. Especially given how pop culture and so many of the reality shows aimed at the young today (Jersey Shore) depict Marjorie's reprehensible kind of behavior as desirable, appealing, or as some form of "winning."
    Thanks again for visiting the site and taking the time to comment!

  7. Ken...can't thank you enough for the movies I have not seen. Dennis Christopher is the very definition of "adorable". I saw Breaking Away when I was 9 yrs. old.....and he is like Timothy Bottoms....a cute, charismatic actor whose career should have skyrocketed but didn't. ahhh, his blue eyes!! i'll have to look this up. I bet its only available as special order. :) thank you thank you

    1. Hi John
      The male cast in this very sweet film is surprisingly appealing, and if you're ever able to track it down, I'm sure you'll get a big kick out of it. Dennis Christopher is indeed adorable. I always think that Hollywood doesn't really know what to do with actors like Timothy Bottoms and Dennis Christopher. They type them and can rarely see beyond "boyish.
      As always, I so appreciate your enthusiasm about movies and your very kind words about the posts. Thanks for commenting!"

  8. I remember loving this when it was first aired, but haven't seen it since. Until tonight, when I stumbled upon it on YouTube! Still thoroughly enjoyed it, as I did your thoughtful review.

    1. Hi Thom
      I'm glad to hear it's on YouTube! it is a wonderful little movie, isn't it?Glad you came here to read my post, and thanks so much for your kind compliment!

    2. Yours is the only decent write-up of this little gem!

      I think I actually got more out of this film now than when I was a teen. May have to revisit others from this series, if I can find them. I remember being truly smitten with "Verna: USO Girl", starring a young Sissy Spacek, William Hurt, and...Sally Kellerman! Another that comes to mind - this was a "Movie of the Week" - is F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Last of the Belles", starring Blythe Danner. (It was probably aired to cash in on the Gatsby craze in the seventies.)

  9. The clothes alone are worth seeing, in addition to the acting. The only quibble I have is that Shelly Duvall's wigs look so fake.

    1. I have to take a look at the film again to check out Duvall's wigs. But I do recall that the costuming was pretty splendid all around.

  10. A Fitzgerald companion piece with a little more bite: "Under The Biltmore Clock", also made for PBS in 1983 for the American Playhouse series, starring Sean Young.