From Reverence to Rape Critical Essays

Molly Haskell


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Implicit in From Reverence to Rape is a belief that the director creates the film and shapes the images. Particularly powerful are the “auteurs,” or great directors, whose work is easily identifiable because of recurring themes and/or idiosyncratic visual markers. The controlling nature of the director’s work is inherently masculine, and when the films are merely extensions of a patriarchal mentality, they victimize both genders, according to Haskell. When they shape a different vision, however, films are at their best. Directors such as D. W. Griffith in the 1920’s, for example, tended to select leading ladies with strong personalities, and stars such as Theda Bara, Gloria Swanson, and Lillian Gish were allowed to modify these archetypes, enriching the roles with subtlety and complexities. In the 1930’s, Hollywood imported European director Ernst Lubitsch, who showed spunky women in as much control as men. Howard Hawks and George Cukor, whose works spanned the 1930’s and 1940’s, emphasized themes of mutuality, portraying the exchange of gender roles and traits as beneficial to both men and women. Haskell maintains that even in the declining years of the 1950’s, directors such as Douglas Sirk, Otto Preminger, and, in their later films, John Ford and Billy Wilder created classic films that broke through stereotypes and gave women an interior life. Haskell perceives these directors as having a passion and affection for women that allows them to create images outside their male egos.

In contrast, directors of the 1970’s view women as “satellites” to themselves and project all their own fears and adolescent traits of vanity and narcissism onto their female characters, resulting in the real and metaphorical “rape” in Haskell’s title. European auteurs, in their view of woman as mysterious “other,” project similar images: Jean Luc Godard’s love-hate relationship, Francois Truffaut’s self-destructive women, Ingmar Bergman’s pedestal. Yet the Europeans, too, have exemplary exceptions: Roberto Rosselini and Michaelangelo Antonioni’s sensitivity to women’s issues, Bernardo Bertolucci’s understanding of women’s erotic fantasies, and in the 1920’s, Carl Dreyer’s feeling for the plight of women.

Haskell associates the decline of positive images with the collapse of the studio system in the 1960’s. In prior decades, studios promoted a mystical relationship between star and public. Glamorous stars achieved a larger-than-life image. Great actresses such as Gloria Swanson and Lillian Gish in the 1920’s and Greta Garbo, Bette Davis, and Joan Crawford in the 1930’s and 1940’s had a presence that transcended stereotypes,...

(The entire section is 1100 words.)