11 December 2006 | DAHLRUSSELL
A truly Great Film - a woman's film that rivals Peck's "Mockingbird"
We'll know we've "arrived" when people can get past the casting of Jeanne Crain as a woman of color. There ARE mixed race women who are as light as Jeanne Crain, but because of the "one drop rule," in 1949 they were, and often still today are -considered "black." In today's multi-cultural society these women often embrace their heritage, but the issues they face remain sadly the same today in many facets. Example: African Americans who are educated are often told they are "talking white."
There is a reason that "she's passing" became an understood term. Very light skinned women & men in the early part of the 1900s DID try to do what Pinky here does.
I was really encouraged to see the scene with Nina Mae McKinney next to Frederick O'Neal, next to Jeanne Crain, all playing "black folks." THAT is the reality of miscegenation in the South, and that is what people still have trouble with: sometimes race is not just black and white. It is uncomfortable and true. (McKinney is marvelous, and fills every second of her screen time, whether she is removing a pebble from her shoe or coyly playing piano on top of a fence.)
I sadly find this film completely relevant today. These conversations of segregation and intermarriage are STILL going strong. There are African Americans who talk about "white women taking our men" or people of all races saying, "stay with your own race." This is segregationist, this is racist, and it still exists very strongly in all racial communities.
Dorothy Dandridge and Lena Horne- both beautiful & talented - are often mentioned as possible contenders for this role. They simply were NOT light enough to pass for white, it hampered their careers, and they have both acknowledged that. Hollywood in general likes their races obvious, casting is still largely done by type and stereotype, no matter what race even today it would be hard to find an actress of stature who identifies herself as black, but who can totally pass as white; the market doesn't hire these women.
Type casting is still the norm. Even my dark skinned actress friends have been told they don't "talk black enough" in auditions. Ethel Waters and Ethel Barrimore here, both fine actresses at the top of their game, were both type cast here in roles that they've basically played several times before; it is only the script context that made this special.
Jeanne Crain had enormous courage to portray this role. Not only is she perpetually faulted for being a white woman playing this role, but she risked her career, some people questioned her heritage in a racist age. That is a tribute to the reality and sensitivity she brought to the role, and her acting, which is often maligned because she had reserve. Her "under acting" is actually the preferred style today in TV and film. She was ahead of her time.
Part of why Crain is not liked much today is that she was a 40s type that is not valued today. Restrained, ladylike, mature in mindset, "high minded" - this is what she represented, and these things are not looked for in leading ladies today. What she represents has gone out of fashion; it was going out of fashion even then, and Kazan valued grittier, dirtier types like Brando. Kazan, who initially labeled her an impassive beauty queen, eventually credited her fine work.
This movie is sensitively done in all respects with really great performances top to bottom. It is not glossy or simple, neither race is solely good or solely bad. It is a disservice to have the only DVD commentary done by someone who clearly still does not like the film and doesn't appreciate the complexity of Crain's work here. That a New Yorker thought the court trial didn't look real because people were all fanning themselves shows he has never spent time in the south in a public gathering place.
This film is galling and aggravating, and unfortunately still very real. This is not a fun film, it is a great film, that speaks just as much to attitudes held today as it did then.