Wednesday, February 9, 2011
Eli Wallach received a well-deserved 'Lifetime Achievement' Oscar this year for his prodigious career. He's probably best known for playing Tuco, the 'ugly,' of 'The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.' But in his first role, he won a BAFTA Award for Best Newcomer in a curious, genre-defying movie directed by Elia Kazan: 'Baby Doll.'
'Baby Doll' came about via a collaboration between Kazan and Tennessee Williams, and was adapted from one of Williams' one-act plays, '27 Wagons Full of Cotton.' The plot is simple. Archie Lee Meighan, played by Karl Malden, is a typical Southern cotton-ginner - what do I mean by 'typical'? His middle name is Lee - that should give some indication of his pedigree. Archie Lee is a middle-aged Southern man in the 1950's - bigoted, close-minded, and of the opinion that what the man says and does is right. He's in an arranged marriage with the virgin blonde beaut Baby Doll (Carroll Baker), who's promised (by her father, who speaks for her on his dying bed) to relinquish this one card she has over Archie Lee on her 20th birthday, which happens to be in two days. Until then, Baby Doll sleeps in a crib, the one relict piece of furniture in their decrepit antebellum mansion, and Archie Lee spies on her through holes in the plaster.
Besides this...healthy marriage, Archie Lee must contend with a newcomer, the Sicilian Silva Vacarro, played wonderfully and roguishly by Eli Wallach. Vacarro has a newer, more efficient cotton-gin, which threatens Archie Lee and his business, so, in a desperate effort to preserve his economic edge, he sets fire to Vacarro's gin. Vacarro, shrewd Sicilian that he is, suspects arson. In order to prove it, he sets about the task of extracting evidence in the form of an affidavit from Baby Doll - he does this in a wily and menacing manner; this is when his performance really shines. He woos Baby Doll, he preys on her. He evokes all the mannerisms of a sexual predator, and terrifies Baby Doll - only to have her laughing, in the palm of his hand in another scene, seemingly fallen for his irrepressible optimism, his casual charms.
And then, he chases her through Tiger Tale in a game that's an amalgam of Hide-and-Go-Seek, schoolyard romance, and a sexually charged scene of predation, winding up with her cowering in the attic as its rafters give way, hiding from and trapped by Vacarro until he forcibly extracts her affidavit. As if this doesn't play enough of a game with the viewer's appraisal of the characters' characters, Baby Doll succumbs to a version of Stockholm Syndrome, falling for Vacarro, who she implicitly comes to view as her only way out of a loveless, sexless, passionless wreck of a marriage and a dilapidated mansion. In a scene that's heavy with humorless humor, tension, and impotent rage, Baby Doll, Vacarro, and Archie Lee sit down for supper, all parties aware of what has transpired, yet Archie Lee allows himself to be jerked around, goaded, and teased by Baby Doll and Vacarro. Karl Malden plays the humiliated husband masterfully: he emanates the rage and indignity of debasement, made all the worse by the fact that he's suffering it at the hands of a woman and foreigner.
To me, Archie Lee represents the white and male hegemony of the Old South, and how even in the 1950's it is dying and crumbling to ruin, yet struggling to maintain its facade of dominance. The direct metaphor is Archie Lee's home, Tiger Tail, which, in its heyday, was once a magnificent plantation house. Now, though, it's dilapidated, emptied of furniture and substance. Its walls are crumbling in, and it barely supports its own weight, let alone the weight of its human inhabitants. In a way, one can almost feel sympathy for Archie Lee as Baby Doll and Vacarro prance around him with mocking grins. He's been ruined economically, reduced to crime, and living in a ruin on land that must once have been fertile and verdant; now, it's dust and mud. He's been humiliated and emasculated, as I said before, by a woman and a foreigner, after living a life in built on the assumption that white men are the masters. Is he a product of his conditions, and does his lot justify his vile nature, his bigotry, his criminality? I would say no. But it is at least understandable that a man in his position would be moved to some sort of desperation. Like much of the South at that time, there is much to be pitied and reviled in him. If only he could accept that many of his preconceptions were wrong, then perhaps he could survive in the new world that's been foisted upon him and continues to change. Instead, though, he chooses to remain in his world, to call on his friends to enact their own version of justice on those who upend the social order. And for that sin, that inability to change, to introspect and see the problems and obstacles that one has imposed one's own life, Archie Lee meets his downfall.
The movie is quite captivating due to the protean characters, who flit back and forth between adjectives. Just as we think a character is a certain way, they switch direction on us. Vacarro, for instance, comes off as a creep, then a seducer, then a gallant knight out to rescue Baby Doll - and then a self-interested businessman. Likewise with Baby Doll, who swings from an innocent nymphet, to a frightened, hurt little girl, and then to a scornful woman who proudly, contemptuously relishes Archie Lee's humiliation and debasement. It keeps the characters interesting, and, in a sense, makes them more realistic. When Vacarro talks about the ghosts that inhabit Tiger Tail, he may be do so simply as a step in his plot to steal an affidavit from Baby Doll. However, he talks so convincingly, so eerily, that we are left to wonder: does some part of Vacarro really feel this way? Does he believe in ghosts, even while using them as a tool to scare an impressionable, naive 19 year-old? People are complicated and have motivations that are more often than not obscure and multifaceted. Although the inscrutable nature of the individual might be slightly exaggerated in 'Baby Doll,' it is its implication that makes the characters simultaneously beautiful and disturbing, and makes for a rich movie experience.
Edit - There are two other things to note about 'Baby Doll.' The first is that the Baby Doll nightgown received its nickname from the movie - Baby Doll, the character, constantly wears one. The second thing to note is that another actor made his debut in this movie - Rip Torn.