A Star is Born and the Promise of 1970s Feminism

In December 1976, Warner Brothers released the third film version of A Star is Born. This time the story was set in the world of rock music instead of Hollywood. The movie starred Kris Kristofferson as John Norman Howard, the rocker headed for a flame-out and Barbra Streisand as Esther Hoffman, the struggling songstress on her way up. Ahead of yet another music-industry based version due out later this year with Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga, the 1976 film is now streaming on Netflix.

AStarisBorn1976.jpg

The movie itself didn’t receive much critical acclaim when it was released. Roger Ebert gave it a reluctant two-and-a-half star review. He didn’t buy–not for a single minute–Streisand as a struggling singer, but he loved her voice. Movie-goers flocked to see it, though. A Star is Born grossed $80 million at the box office, which made it the third highest earner of 1976. The movie’s theme song, “Evergreen,” topped the pop charts, and won an Oscar for best original song.

I watched the movie last night on Netflix, probably the first time I’ve seen it in 20 or 30 years. I saw the movie in the theater at least once when it came out, maybe more. I bought a cassette of the soundtrack, and I still have it (and play it). I’ve probably seen the movie on video, too.

I’ve never been sure why I like the movie so much. I’d never been a huge fan of the music of Kristofferson or Streisand. I think it has much more to do with that particular time–the mid-1970s–and the movie roles Streisand chose. I’d enjoyed her foray into screwball comedies with What’s Up, Doc? and For Pete’s Sake. (Of course, there was The Way We Were, but I found the heavy drama annoying.) I liked Streisand’s quirky characters, the strong women who knew their own minds.

As Esther Hoffman in A Star is Born, Barbra Streisand portrayed a very modern woman, talented and driven, who assumed she could have both a great career and a satisfying personal life. She didn’t intend to compromise on either. The best thing: she was totally confident in her abilities. She knew who she was, with or without John Norman Howard.

Esther Hoffman personified the goals of 1970s feminism. During that decade, gender equality seemed achievable. The National Organization for Women, founded in 1966, provided support for challenging legal inequalities. Women’s liberation groups offered consciousness raising and other tools for addressing more personal concerns. And after decades of languishing in various congressional committees, the Equal Rights Amendment finally passed through both houses of Congress and was sent on to the states for ratification in 1972. By 1977, the year after A Star is Born was released, 35 of the required 38 states ratified it.

Image result for era ratification 1977

In the first musical number featuring Streisand in A Star is Born, she sang “Queen Bee,” a song that blatantly trumpets women’s sexual desire as it calls for new ways of looking at women. And it includes some pretty great lines:

The queen bee, no way, and even tho’ they think they’re the kings
(escatological things)
Who are they foolin’? Playin’ at rulin’
It’s the queen behind the scene who pulls the strings
So, in conclusion, it’s an optical illusion
If you think that we’re the weaker race
Men got the muscle, but the ladies got the hustle
And the truth is staring in your face.

And tucked in near the end:  “Write me a sequel; Give me an equal.”

The feminist/equality theme of the movie continued with Streisand’s next big number, “The Woman in the Moon.”

Those opening lines:

I was warned as a child of thirteen
Not to act too strong
Try to look like you belong but don’t push girl
Save your time and trouble
Don’t misbehave
I was raised in a “no you don’t world”
Overrun with rules
Memorize your lines and move as directed

And notice Streisand’s wardrobe choice for that scene. The suit. The power suit. As more and more women headed into careers in the 1970s and 1980s, suits were their work uniforms of choice, signalling their insistence on an equal footing with men in the workplace.

What A Star is Born signals to me, then, is all the promise of 1970s feminism. It was a heady time of possibilities for women, with gender equality within reach. I’m reminded of that each time I watch the movie, every time I hear one of its songs (well, maybe except for “Evergreen,” which quickly turns into an ear worm).

And the movie’s ending is a stark reminder that big change doesn’t come easily. There are setbacks and tragedies. But maybe, in the end, “they can hold back the tide, but they can never hold the woman in the moon.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

Prisoners in Paradise

Natalie Crouter, a forty-six-year-old American wife and mother living in the Philippine Islands, sat down at the end of an evening in late October 1942 to write in her diary. She recounted a school pageant, which her two children, Fred and June, participated in, celebrating both Halloween and Thanksgiving. Natalie was especially moved by the Thanksgiving portion of the show, which retold the familiar story of the first Thanksgiving feast at Plymouth Rock. This year in particular, she felt a personal connection to the tale of people in a strange land worrying about food, getting along with an alien population, and just surviving.

Natalie ended her diary entry that evening lamenting that “we are waiting for America.” Her contemporaries may have regarded those five words as an opening phrase that would end “to win this war.” In the fall of 1942, Americans waited, hoped, and prayed for the United States to win its arduous battle against the Axis powers of Germany, Japan, and Italy. But American women did not wait in idleness. They expressed their patriotism and support for the war through action, taking up a variety of work ranging from riveting in airplane factories to enlisting in the armed forces to serving donuts and lemonade at USO socials.

In many ways, Natalie Crouter waited for victory just like other American wives and mothers. She kept a close eye on the activities of her two children, monitoring their progress in school, keeping track of their health, and discussing the war and its possible implications for their future.

A smart and resourceful woman, Natalie adjusted to doing without materials and foodstuffs, substituting new items into her family’s wardrobe and diet to replace the unattainable ones. She generally expressed optimism for a decisive Allied victory, but at times she despaired because it was taking so long.

The longer the delay, Natalie knew, the more likely she and her children, confined to a concentration camp, would die.

Coinciding with their attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the Japanese struck at other American territories, including the Philippine Islands. The Americans living there were trapped. When the Japanese invaded and occupied the islands in January 1942, the Crouters became enemy aliens. To prevent sabotage and humiliate the Allies, the Japanese rounded up all Allied civilians, including women and children. The Japanese viewed them as hostages, valuable bargaining chips.

Natalie, her husband Jerry, and their two children were interned along with about five hundred other civilians in Baguio, a mountain resort city north of Manila on the island of Luzon. Altogether, close to fourteen thousand American civilians spent about three years as prisoners of the Japanese.

The Crouter family was relatively lucky, since they managed to stay in the same camp. But to frighten and demoralize their captives, the Japanese decreed “no commingling” and forbade families to live together. Natalie and the children lived in one barrack, with Jerry housed separately. Visits were allowed, but touching was limited. Family life was altered, strained, with the children struggling to adjust and make sense of their new reality. Fear was a daily companion.

The Japanese understood what they were doing. They not only had hostages, they had compliant hostages. The adults in the camps proved reluctant to overtly resist Japanese authority. Parents like Natalie and Jerry did not want to risk any retaliation that might be taken out on the children.

To find out what happened to the Crouters and other Americans, you can read

or my own,

978-0-7006-1003-7

which opens with Natalie’s story. The cover photo was taken in the Baguio camp, before the worst of the wartime deprivations took hold.

An edited version of Natalie’s diary was published in the 1980s:

Image result for forbidden family crouter

 

 

 

Learning to Write in Scene

This past week I attended the Write-by-the-Lake writers’ workshop and retreat, run by UW-Madison’s Continuing Studies. It’s the second time I’ve attended the workshop, and I’m convinced that it’s worth the investment. A nice view of an actual lake is part of the experience, though there was so much learning going on, I didn’t pay much attention to the scenery.

WBTL 2018

I signed up for Ann Garvin’s session on plotting with urgency. If you don’t already know Ann, she’s the author of three novels, the genius behind Tall Poppy Writers, and the founder of The Fifth Semester writing program. She has a day job, too, as a professor of health at UW-Whitewater.

The workshop was populated mostly by fiction writers–and two of us nonfiction writers. I’m still working on my writing style, trying to get my stories to appeal to a broader readership, so I thought learning about urgent plots would be just the thing.

And it was. Every day when I left the workshop, my head was stuffed with new information and ideas. One of the most valuable lessons I learned was the necessity of writing in scene, which is the current way of saying show, don’t tell. That sounds so easy, but it’s a challenging thing to pull off. Each scene not only has to immerse the reader in that particular moment, but it also has to crackle with tension, which usually has to do with a character not getting what they want. And it has to have an integral connection with the plot. We learned about all those things.

I find writing in scene especially difficult with the kind of nonfiction I write. Because of my training as a historian, I feel an obligation to stay true to the historical record. The scenes I write have to be factual. If I interject anything that can’t be verified by historical documents, I need to be clear between speculation and fact. Historian Simon Schama wrote a fascinating book about this boundary:

My task going forward is to make sure I write about dead certainties in a compelling way. That will be my summer.

 

 

 

Depictions of D-Day

As a historian who has written quite a bit about World War II (okay, three books), nothing looms as large as D-Day, Operation Overlord, launched on June 6, 1944. Allied forces stormed the Normandy beaches and fought their way east to Germany. The war ended in Europe in May 1945.

Into the Jaws of Death 23-0455M edit.jpg

(NARA)

What a lot of people today know about D-Day probably comes from Steven Spielberg’s 1998 movie Saving Private Ryan, which is lauded for its realistic depiction of the landing on Omaha Beach. And in 2001, fans of the movie likely tuned in to HBO’s limited series, Band of Brothers, to follow the exploits of Easy Company, the men who parachuted into Normandy. The series was based on Stephen Ambrose’s popular 1992 book of the same name.

Image result for band of brothers

While both of these projects benefitted from updated, modern filming techniques, the structure of their stories is decades old. Assemble a motley crew of men, give them a mission, and watch what happens. Sure, these newer film versions have vivid color and up close violence. But they don’t have the gritty black-and-white moodiness of the 1962 Darryl Zanuck epic, The Longest Day. And they don’t have John Wayne as Lt. Col. Ben Vandervoort, a real-life hero.

Image result for the longest day movie

All of these are Hollywood, and no matter how many claims film and series creators make for authenticity, they cannot be regarded as accurate history. Scads of books have been published about D-Day. One of the most recent–and one of the best–about soldiers’ experiences in Europe is Mary Louise Roberts’s What Soldiers Do.

What Soldiers Do

According to the book’s synopsis: “Roberts tells the fascinating and troubling story of how the US military command systematically spread—and then exploited—the myth of French women as sexually experienced and available. The resulting chaos—ranging from flagrant public sex with prostitutes to outright rape and rampant venereal disease—horrified the war-weary and demoralized French population. The sexual predation, and the blithe response of the American military leadership, also caused serious friction between the two nations just as they were attempting to settle questions of long-term control over the liberated territories and the restoration of French sovereignty.”

This view of D-Day and its aftermath isn’t likely to make it to the screen, big or little. But for those interested in a deeper understanding of World War II, Roberts’s book is essential reading.

 

 

The Things I Carried

Every academic semester ends in a rush–mad dashes off to final exam periods followed by grading marathons so grades can be posted in a timely manner.

Image result for posting final grades

I had one additional duty at the end of this semester. I had to clear out my campus office. I’d been doing a bit of it at a time throughout the semester. Pitching old, half-started research projects and unclaimed student papers. Giving away piles of books I’d accumulated over 25+ years of teaching. I saved my very favorite books for my students, bringing them to class to give away to anyone who wanted them.

I finally got down to a handful of books that I couldn’t part with. I’d acquired them while working on my dissertation, which launched my scholarly career. The dissertation that was never turned into a book. The first big failure of my academic life.

So on the last day I hauled stuff out of my office, I carried some things that reminded me of the highs and lows of my career. I carried a tote bag stuffed with copies of primary sources and books that document mid-twentieth century feminism. And I carried the briefcase my aunt and uncle presented me with when I earned my Ph.D. I used that briefcase every day I taught. It’s got a few worn spots now, and the locks have to be set to zeroes or they won’t open, but I still think it’s really spiffy.

If the books serve as a reminder of the disappointments, the briefcase represents the accomplishments. The things I carried out that day signified a balanced career.

office clean out.jpg

And just to keep it light, I posted this next to my office door:

Image result for elvis has left the building

Thank you. Thank you very much.