Howard Hawks was a director who loved women — smart women.
So when, in a genial twist, he adapted “The Front Page” — a play by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur that featured two raunchy male leads — to include a female actor in his circa-1940 rendition, “His Girl Friday,” it did not later come as a shock to film critic Molly Haskell.
“This is one of my all-time favorite movies in the world, and I love screwball comedy in general,” Haskell said. “I always say, ‘I’m a film critic first and a feminist second.’ To me, the art of film and the integrity of the film are all-important, but male and female roles are one of the things that movies are about — the central thing, as far as I’m concerned. To me, it’s the most interesting thing in movies.”
The relationship between a male newspaper editor, portrayed by Carey Grant, and his best reporter, acted by Rosalind Russell — who happens to be his ex-wife, angling to leave the business to marry someone else — will be front and center during a talkback with Haskell on Sunday, July 7, following a screening of “His Girl Friday” at Pierson High School auditorium in Sag Harbor.
“It’s a very funny portrait of the newspaper business. It’s a valentine to it, but also a horrified critique of just what they’ll do, the compromises they make,” she said. “Today, something’s been lost in language in movies, and the delight in the repartee and the verbal resourcefulness of the characters.
“One of the things about Hawks — and one of the reasons it’s called ‘screwball comedy’ — is they were very physical,” she continued. “You couldn’t show sex under the restrictions of production code, so the physicality came out in a kind of boisterous activity. The women gave it as good as they got, which was unusual. Women had dialogue, too, and that’s what you get: this battle of equals, the battle of sex between equals.”
Grant is at his meanest, his funniest and his ruthless best, as Russell’s character tries anything she can to leave, Haskell explains in her dulcet Southern accent, reminiscent of her stomping grounds in Richmond, Virginia, where she first fell in love with movies — Hollywood films and then art house cinema, only amplified by her studies at Collège de Sorbonne in Paris, a “real paradise” for moviegoers, she said.
“On the Left Bank, particularly, there were all these little theaters and it’s still like that,” she said. “They’re these little theaters that seat about 200 people. You’ll have a line lined up for a specific film in the middle of the day, and you go down to this dark little cavern of a theater, and there’s no cell phones and there’s no popcorn. It’s just the temple of cinema.”
In New York of the 1960s, Haskell landed at the Village Voice as a theater critic and then a movie reviewer, at a time when the enthusiasm surrounding film was at an all-time high. She married fellow film critic Andrew Sarris and, for the next 43 years, they immersed themselves in the industry, Haskell going on to co-host “The Essentials” on TCM.
“This was before all these other platforms, so film critics became respectable, were read and respected, or argued with, or hated,” she said. “But film critics had an importance they hadn’t had before. It was music and movies that everybody was talking about. The New York Film Fest was started and there was a lot of art house cinema on the Upper West Side, and in other cities, too. People were seeing all these things and talking about them.”
For Haskell, her focus turned to an exploration of the male/female dynamic in film, with her landmark book “From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women” now in its third edition. “To me, what’s still interesting is roles of men and women,” she said, “but what I see is gone is that sense of the couple, the sacred couple that was the romantic idea of movies — even screwball comedy and film noir, where you had all these wicked women and unhappy endings. They were still anchored in that romantic fantasy.”
Even “His Girl Friday” did not stray too far from the charted course, with a conventional ending, Haskell said, deftly avoiding any spoiler alerts.
“One of the characteristics of the couple was that they defined themselves in relation to each other,” she said. “It would be things like, in ‘Casablanca,’ Ingrid Bergman says to Humphrey Bogart, ‘You have to think for both of us.’ Now, women think for themselves and that’s great — because we’re going to spend time alone and I see this in myself.”
She paused before continuing her sentence, referencing her husband who died in 2012 after nearly five decades of marriage.
“I’m so glad I learned to be alone when I was young, because I love being alone,” she said. “I mean, I miss my husband like anything, but I have a self that’s not completely defined by him.”
Both the #MeToo and women’s movements have certainly influenced filmmaking, she said, and the dialogue surrounding male and female dynamics on screen. “I think women are really supporting each other in ways that they maybe didn’t so much,” she said. “They talked a big game of it, but then there was also a lot of sense of competitiveness among women. I don’t think that’s disappeared, but the sense of solidarity is greater than when I was coming along.
“I’m just in awe of all the smart women; I just can’t get over it,” she continued. “Something great has been unleashed on the world, and it’s the brains of women.”
The “Really Funny” film series continues with a screening of “His Girl Friday” on Sunday, July 7, at 6 p.m. at the Pierson High School auditorium, located at 200 Jermain Avenue in Sag Harbor. A conversation with film critic Molly Haskell and moderator Wendy Keys will follow. Tickets are $10. For more information, visit sagharborcinema.org.