Friday, August 26, 2016

My Unresolved Childhood Crush on Hayley Mills

Paul Chabas. September Morn (1912). The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
I am searching for my gestalt with Hayley Mills. When I was a kid, I had a potent and heavy-hearted crush on her even though she was nearly ten years older than I. And of course she lived completely beyond my sweltering province: she wasn't merely English but an ethereal being of the movie screen.

It's fundamental to the psyche to distinguish between those personages who are real in our lives and those who are the Olympian gods of our time—celebrated actors, athletes, politicians, and now we have people who are famous just for being famous. In Greek mythology the gods have generally not fared well when they sought the company of mortals, and mortals do well to keep their heads down altogether and not display such hubris as to seek the attention of the gods. Odysseus's voyage home should have taken a fortnight but it was stretched out by angry gods to ten years.

With an attraction to a real person I evolve and commit or marry, and maybe I could live happily ever after. Or perhaps a funny thing happens on the way to the altar: conflicting gravitational forces tear my would-be partner apart, and she explodes in the manner of certain stars in which the outer rings of mass create a pretty but vacuous ring nebula, and the inner mass collapses into a white dwarf, a feeble remnant of the great star that she was—much Sturm und Drang leading into the bathos of fizzling nothingness.

I outgrew all my other movie star crushes. I expect that somewhere in the massive ouvre of Freud, or perhaps in the work of some Kübler-Ross of love and heartbreak, there is some natural course for adolescent and pre-adolescent crushes like:

  1. Infatuation,
  2. Obsession,
  3. Frustration & Depression,
  4. Boredom, and
  5. Disinterest.

However the natural progression of a crush goes, it is a painful working-through, at the end of which I don't feel so much pain but perhaps a bit of embarrassment for what, in retrospect feels like foolishness.

And don't I still get crushes as an adult? I hide my crushes and their foolishness better, but if I'm alive and engaged with the world, I notice people and take a special interest in some of them. With those crushes that are on real people in my life—as opposed to the mythological characters seen only through a device— it's always possible that stage three could turn out to be 3. Discovery & Reciprocation, in which I find that the feeling is mutual.

But I work through most crushes, and they become quiet, poignant, and private memories. For some I will never lose my fondness, and from time to time I turn them over in my mind like old photographs from happy times. Yet somehow I did not work through my crush on Hayley Mills, and it has stayed with me, dormant, but unfinished. I haven't had my gestalt with that one.

What really killed me was when Hayley Mills came of age, I was still a child. She made her transition from the Disney films to films made for adults. Although these films for adults made in the late 1960s were, by today's standards, extremely mild, I was nevertheless not permitted to see them at the time. As a result, Hayley Mills moved out of the mythic world that I was allowed to visit, and that's probably how that crush went into suspended animation. I doubt the same thing has happened to fans of Emma Watson as she moved from her Harry Potter career into a career of her own. I'm no expert on her films, but those I have seen have allowed her to hang on to a surprising amount of modesty for a young woman in a Hollywood film.

Most actresses who are new to the film industry are apparently put in a position of having to expose their breasts in the movies if they are going to survive in Hollywood. Almost every big-name Hollywood actress has nude scenes in films early in her career. It's only after she builds an audience that she becomes immune to requirements for gratuitous nudity. So a lead actress in a typical movie has enough experience and audience backing, that she won't provide the film's erotic content, but a lesser known, supporting actress will take up the slack. However, Emma Watson's fan base follows her from the Harry Potter days, so she has managed to avoid these requirements.

Hayley Mills as Pollyanna (1960).
Hayley came from an acting dynasty. Her father was Sir John Mills, who appeared in over 120 movies, and her mother, Mary Hayley Bell, was also an actress as well as a writer. Hayley's older sister, Juliet Mills, has also enjoyed a long career on screen.

Hayley first appeared in a British film, Tiger Bay (1959), with her father, and that performance earned her not only a BAFTA Award for Most Promising Newcomer but notice at Disney that led to her getting the part for Polyanna (1960), and that made her a star in the US. In The Parent Trap (1961), she played a pair of twins, which demands a lot of an actor and often raises their skill level a notch or two. For example, when Jeremy Irons won an Oscar™ for starring as Claus von Bulow in Reversal of Fortune (1990), he thanked not only his director, , but he also thanked David Cronenberg, who had directed him as a set of twins in Dead Ringers (1988). "Some of you will understand," Irons said of his gratitude to Cronenberg, and what I understand is that the playing of twins under Cronenberg's direction made Irons a better actor.

In all, Hayley Mills made six films for Walt Disney before she moved on with films for more mature audiences. In seeking out my little gestalt, I've set out to watch some of these. Last night I saw Take a Girl Like You (1970)—by which time Mills was 24—based on a novel by Kingsley Amis. The movie is a sex comedy, but Mills's character, Jenny, is virginal and determined to stay that way until marriage. The setting predates any semblance of feminist consciousness, so Jenny gets incessantly browbeaten for not "putting out" by her piggish boyfriend Patrick, played by Oliver Reed. Patrick really doesn't seem to enjoy any aspect of Jenny's company other than the potential that one day she might give in. Both Jenny and Patrick teach school, but they have a friend among the landed gentry, Julian, played by Noel Harrison. Julian shares Patrick's view that women should join the party, for this is the age with the Pill and no disease that couldn't be cured by a shot of penicillin in the butt, but he is much less crudely spoken about it than Patrick.

Take a Girl Like You is the second English movie I've seen in which a north-south cultural rivalry is apparent. In this case, the South is synonymous with London and its environs, and it implies all the sophistication that comes with living in one of the world's great capitals. Consequently the southerners have an exagerated perception of northerners as a simpler, less-refined folk. Conversely, northerners perceive southerners as puffed-up over an overrated status. The movie opens with Jenny, a northerner, on a train to the south, and her sexual conservatism is repeatedly associated with her northern origins.

In A Hard Day's Night, the first Beatles movie, Ringo out on his own in London brushes up against some rude locals, and he yells at them with a derogatory tone in his voice, "Southerners!" (A Hard Day's Night is for not extra charge on Hulu, and if you join me on Hulu, you can get two weeks free.)
Wikipedia says an article in "The Economist (15–21 September 2012) argued that the gap between the north and south in life expectancy, political inclinations and economics trends was growing to the extent that they were almost separate countries" (Wikipedia), so this north-south distinction appears more serious than comedy movies make it appear.

As for me and my unresolved crush and the frustration of the movie gap, watching Take a Girl Like You was a small step forward. It isn't jealousy that compels me to see these movies that I missed over forty years ago, but the need to partake of the vision of the beloved. I'm reminded of the time that I babysat a trio of labradors, one of which, Tina, went into heat. One day a German shepherd somehow got onto the property despite my best efforts to keep the perimeter secure, and by the time I caught them in flagrante delicto, they had bonded enough to make several litters. The neighbor's dog, Morgan, desperately wanted to get in on the action as well when I drove through the main gate, and I managed—almost at the expense of getting bit—to thwart him. So Morgan went to the yard of the neighbor on the other side, where he had a much better view, and wept loudly with a cry that sounded disturbingly human as he stared at the newlyweds who were now stuck together like an eight-legged pushmi-pullyu.

My reaction to Mills's perfunctory and demure nude scene was nothing like Morgan's frustration. It's more like a simple, dispassionate almost to the point of disinterest, need to see. Instead of feeling denied as Morgan did, I feel vicariously within the experience. That is what film does: a movie is a montage of several shots (or short pieces of film) with an accompanying soundtrack that creates and sustains a dream state in its audience. (A typical film comprises 1250 shots of about 5.5 seconds in duration. A tightly cut action film will have more shots with a shorter duration—Resident Evil 2 (2004), for example, has an average shot length of 1.64 seconds, meaning that there's a cut, or a jump in position, every two seconds or less. Yet whether a film features long slow mise en scène shots or an almost stroboscopic series of scenes, the desired end result is the same: the sustaining of the dream state.)

By watching this film that I was denied because of my youth when it came out, I begin to work on the closure I would have had years ago. Mills's nude scene is brief and demure—no more than upper back, really. Likewise, the sexuality isn't seen but implied by the before and after blocking.

My therapeutic plan to bring this primeval crush to a close lies in watching what 1970s, post-Disney Mills films I can find, then I will transformed her from a boyhood crush into just yet another actor whose work I admire and whose screen presence I enjoy. That sounds like a come-down, but it's the working through that we really need. That's how we grow with the mythological system that we enjoy in the 21st century.
Hayley Mills and Firdous Bamji, her partner in career and life, at the Kennedy Center, Washington, DC, May 1997 (detail). Photo by Virgil1966. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.