Monday, March 29, 2010
Fear of Flying with Amelia
I watched the movie Amelia the other night and was totally transported found myself in another time, place, and maybe even another soul.
I didn't expect to like it particularly. After all, we all know the story, and although I've always been as curious as the next guy about Amelia Earhart, I didn't think there was anything transcendent about her. There would be lots of flying, there would be Hilary Swank in another androgynous role, there would be the aging Richard Gere, and then there would be the flight that never returned.
All the same, I love to think about that period--the fashions, the cars, the slang and the pop culture. In those days, my own parents were very young, and I have seen pictures of them in this time frame. I relish the old movies on Turner Classics that are like little time capsules of the day--the wisecracking newspapermen, the women in those tight-fitting hats and bee-stung lips--the sense of American urgency to get out of the Depression and grow up. (That the next step was World War II, the Eisenhower 1950's and the decadence of succeeding generations never occurs to anyone.) It was hopeful; it was innocent. In this movie, it is also lush and beautiful, a landscape of the rich and celebrated. That was the side my parents didn't see.
Even though I know it to be false, I was particularly taken with Swank's version of Amelia Earhart. She came over as extremely feminine, even with her bobbed hair and mannish aviatrix attire. She seemed sexy and soft. She even looked beautiful. I went to the Internet for photos of the real Amelia and, yes, there was an elegance about her. Her smile, which I had always thought of as blandly wholesome, actually made her look authentic and accessible.
It was easy to watch the love scenes (it is always easy to watch Richard Gere do love scenes, by the way). They looked so natural, so comfortable--you might say they looked to be made for each other. And she was just as good with Ewan MacGregor, who played her paramour, Gene Vidal. I loved it when she stated her ideas about independence in marriage and her need to be free. Without the connection to flying, I always felt the same way, and wonder if there are not a number of women who perceive love and marriage in this way. It is never framed this way for us; we are told that men have a need to wander in love and that women on the other hand fall in love and stay there, demanding slavish loyalty "forever." This is a topic that is much discussed, but seldom do the women who don't buy the mythology speak up.
I liked the visuals in the movie, but it was probably the underlying story that moved me most. Earhart was courageous, but we are all as courageous as we need to be. She was one of a kind in her time and place, and if not the only one, at least the most visible and one of the most accomplished. That she was a friend of Eleanor Roosevelt was news to me.
As luck would have it, two days after I watched Amelia, PBS rebroadcast its American Experience segment "Amelia Earhart" for my delectation. From it I learned that the real Amelia Earhart was not so much a pilot as a public relations phenomenon. She came around with the right looks at the right time, a zeal for flying more than a natural gift for it, and there was something about her that caught the eye of the country's foremost promoter, G.P. Putnam. I had seen footage of the real Amelia with this stodgy-looking older man and always wondered what, if anything, she saw in him. With Richard Gere in the role it is much easier to envision true love between them--but in the newsreels of the day the relationship reads as business and finance, pure and simple.
It was not simple and not exactly pure. According to the offspring of one of Amelia's aviatrix rivals, Putnam had a plan to make money off a female flier and offered contracts drawn up heavily in his favor to the selected women who might apply. He was turned down by quite a few before Earhart accepted. He wanted to make a star, and she wanted to be one. Her resemblance to the young Charles Lindbergh was not lost on the brilliant publicity man. She wrote that in the initial interview she attempted to come across as bland a mediocrity as she could. No matter; he saw what he wanted in her and they forged a partnership that would become a marriage.
That the movie Amelia doesn't capture this element of reality doesn't bother me as apparently it did bother the critics when the movie came out. I found the character of Amelia Earhart compelling enough to give the actress Hilary Swank permission to portray her as a heroine, at least of her own story. I didn't think the movie lacked challenge and excitement. There is excitement in her approach to life, in her joy in flying, in her unique grasp of the business of making money to support a passion, in her fearlessness in the face of great personal risk.
She was a role model in her day, and remains so even with the questions she left. There is much we will never know about the real Amelia, but we know that she was larger than life and the choices she made will always be subject to interpretation. That alone does not necessarily make fodder for big, beautiful romantic movies. But it supplies us for substance for any number of books, films, documentaries, and even one glorious fairy tale. I don't know about you, but I love to think about reality after I've been drenched by romance.