Pushing the Frame: When Your Favorite Actress Tangos with Taboos

Pushing the Frame: When Your Favorite Actress Tangos with Taboos

I am someone whose favorite actresses are, for the most part, dead, departed, immortal on the silver screen only: I am referring to golden age Hollywood divas such as Clara Bow, Marlene Dietrich, Greta Garbo, Jean Harlow, and Myrna Loy.  My list of living breathing favorites, if I must admit to having one, includes Nicole Kidman, Julianne Moore, Kristen Scott Thomas, Marisa Tomei, and Kate Winslet. 

 Kidman, Moore, and Winslet in particular have taken on some interesting, even unconventional, roles.  Kidman, for instance, conquered titillating and kinky in her performance in Stanley Kubrick’s 1999 film Eyes Wide Shut.  As Virginia Woolf and Laura Brown in Steven Daldry’s 2002 film The Hours, Kidman and Moore respectively have both played lesbians-on-the-brink.  And Winslet more than pulled off eccentric and quirky as Clementine Kruczynski in Charlie Kaufman’s 2004 film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

In more recent years, however, this triumphant trio has done what one might call, instead of pushing the envelope, pushing the frame, taking on roles in films that call for taboo scenes that depict either sex with a minor or incest.  In the 2004 film Birth, Kidman’s character Anna engages in sexually suggestive scenes with a 10-year old boy, played by Cameron Bright, whom she believes to be her dead husband Sean reincarnated.  In the 2008 film The Reader, Kate Winslet’s character Hanna, who is every bit of 30, initiates a love affair with the 15 year-old schoolboy, Michael Berg. 

But what prompted this post, in fact, is Julianne Moore’s role in Tom Kalin’s 2007 film Savage Grace, which was released on DVD not long ago.  In this film she portrays Barbara Daly Baekeland, the hopeful starlet turned socialite who married the grandson heir of the Bakelite plastic fortune and wound up having a sexual relationship with their only son, Antony, in what was allegedly a last ditch effort to cure him of homosexuality. The film takes its title from the biography of Barbara written in the early 1980’s shortly after Antony’s suicide (though some have raised the possibility of murder) on March 20, 1981.  By midway through the film, once Antony reaches adulthood, scenes suggestive of sexual tension between mother and son become more frequent, until they finally culminate in the final scene, the climax if you will, in which Deborah straddles her son and engages in intercourse with him.  Moments later, in accordance with actual events from November 17, 1972, Antony murders his mother in the kitchen of their London flat, calls the police, and orders Chinese carry-out, Lo Mein to be exact, no joke. 

Of all the films briefly discussed in this post, Savage Grace shocks and disturbs the most. There is something so genuine, tender, and effortless about Moore’s performance; try as she may to orchestrate perfectly all personal and social events in her and her son’s life, Moore’s Barbara seems oddly more victim than perpetrator of the circumstances of her life.  And yet we so plainly and instantly recognize how immoral, unethical, and criminal her behavior is. I wonder how Moore felt as a mother herself portraying such a troubled and sinister maternal figure.  Savage Grace provides some redemption by counterpoint to the depiction of Joan Crawford in Frank Perry’s 1981 film Mommie Dearest.  And it’s definitely worth a watch.

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