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The Awful Truth | The Nation

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The Awful Truth

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It's a familiar parlor game to ask one another to name our favorite movies. For those who take movies seriously, the answer can mean anything from deepened friendships to feelings of betrayal. Yet specific scenes often mean even more than specific titles: Cherished movie scenes divulge more personal truths than entire films, which, with their narrative plenty, can easily obscure an embarrassment of personal fetishes, obsessions and fears. Knowing this, and for reasons that are perhaps more voyeuristic than intellectual or political, we asked a handful of women to describe a scene in a movie that they felt provided the best insight into the relationship between the sexes. As expected, the answers were far-ranging. They were also, by turns, funny, caustic, cynical and generous. It would be presumptuous to think that these scenes reveal everything about these women, save that each looks at movies with her eyes wide open, and quite a few of them had sex on the brain.

Special thanks to Alison Mann.

About the Author

Manohla Dargis
Manohla Dargis is the film critic for Harper's Bazaar and film editor for the LA Weekly.

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FRANCINE PROSE

, novelist.

The very first scene in Jean Renoir's Rules of the Game when the flier lands after his daring and dangerous flight and notices that the married woman he loves isn't there. Suddenly all his accomplishments seem like nothing. He has no interest in the reporters and the huge adoring crowd; it all seems like ashes. I first saw the film when I was 20 and I didn't get it. I thought, What's wrong with these people, why don't they just do what they want and say what they want? I've seen it again probably about every five years, and each time it makes more sense to me. I have to say that my second choice is the scene from Vertigo in which Jimmy Stewart realizes that he can turn Judy into Madeleine. That was a revelation. I thought, Oh my God, there's this incredibly fetishistic imprinting that goes on and people really do have their type and the actual person behind the type doesn't matter. There's some physical thing that goes on and men are looking for something in women that has nothing to do with who the women are. I saw that at about the same time as Rules of the Game, and let me tell you, I got that one right away.

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ESTHER DYSON

, pundit and author of Release 2.1: A Design for Living in the Digital Age (Broadway).

My all-time favorite is when Jack Nicholson finally kisses Faye Dunaway in Chinatown, because it's funny as well as incredibly passionate. He's got that Band-Aid on his nose and we've been waiting for this to happen for a long, long time. They don't hop to the kiss the first time they see each other, it comes quite late, it makes it much more interesting, there's a lot more tension. It took a long way to get there and it's clear it's not going to be easy, either. The kiss doesn't resolve anything at all. I love that whole movie, it's so rich and so evil.

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NELL IRVIN PAINTER

, historian; author of Sojourner Truth: A Life, A Symbol (Norton).

I have so much trouble going to movies because I spend so much of my life surrounded by white people and being "on" that it's not entertaining to go to the movies and see a lot of white people unless it's a really good film. For a movie to touch me it either has to have intimacy or black people in it. There are several moving scenes in Passion Fish. The male lead, Vondie Curtis-Hall--he's the handsomest man in the world. Whoa. Certainly he's the sexiest male in the world. I like the scenes with the white guy and his children because some of the happiest moments I've seen with my husband are those with his children. Those were nice scenes, but every scene with Alfre Woodard and Vondie Curtis-Hall--just lovely.

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KARYN KUSAMA

, filmmaker. Her first feature, Girlfight, shared the top award for best dramatic feature at this year's Sundance Film Festival; it opens later this summer.

There's a sexual frankness and open chemistry in the second getting-to-know-you scene between Piper Laurie and Paul Newman at the bus station in The Hustler. What's beautiful is that it's clear that she's quite intelligent, might even have a handle on him being less intelligent. You also get the sense right away just from the way that she drinks, and what happens to her rapidly as she drinks a lot, that she's really messed up. It's very powerful to see Paul Newman struck by her instead of the floozies he later meets. There's something very real about him attempting to coexist with this woman and accept her tenderness and offer his own.

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LIZ PHAIR

, musician.

One of the truest relationships is between Margo Channing and her boyfriend in All About Eve. They are totally in love but you don't necessarily know that in the beginning. You're not given assurances, until that moment that I love--being a kind of fiery woman in a relationship myself--when he's got Margo on the bed after she's come into the audition. Eve has performed brilliantly and your heart is sinking and Margo is pretending like she doesn't know and is smoking her cigarettes and he grabs her and throws her on the bed and he's shaking her and saying, "I love you! Don't you get it? I'm in love with you." He's telling her, to her face, who she is. It doesn't matter how heinously she behaves, he is in love with her. Her. It can't be Eve, it can't be the next person just like Margo or better or younger, it's her. So often there's a sort of mathematical way that Hollywood does things. You can always tell who's going to get together and who's not. This is a movie about a woman who is behaving monstrously and a man who is being an ignoramus, but they love each other and nothing in the plot can damage that. You don't have to be a good girl to be loved, you don't have to behave the way Hollywood formulas want you to behave. I find that inspiring.

SANDRA BERNHARD

, performer.

The scene in Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice in which they're all ready to have their supposed tryst and they all just lose it. The guys can't get their hard-ons and the women all feel completely shut down. I think that probably sums up the relationship between men and women--the bravado, the come-ons, the possibilities, the fantasies and then, when it comes down to it, for a lot of people, this empty experience.

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MARGARET CHO

, comedian.

The relationship between Brandon and Lana in Boys Don't Cry was so what I want from young love, the love scenes were so beautiful. In a lot of love scenes today there's really a focus on people's bodies, you don't really see people's faces. The camera lingered on Lana's face in such a lovely way; it was so intimate, and, to me, that's what sex between men and women is about. It's so strange because the biological reality was that it was a woman and a woman, though not really. It was a wonderful way to express gender as being not biological but about your soul and who you are and who you feel you are. I cried from beginning to end because I wanted a boyfriend like Brandon Teena. I feel like a jaded viewer a lot of times, and when I can be really moved by something onscreen in that way it's really important, and I do think it has a lot to do with the fact that the film was directed by a woman. We do have a different perspective when it comes to sexuality, things are felt differently by the body and therefore expressed differently in our artwork.

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ROZ CHAST

, cartoonist for The New Yorker and illustrator for The Mink Was Already Dead: And Other Rationalizations (Workman).

There are so many great things in Annie Hall about the nature of falling in love, how at the beginning you're so totally in love and then what happens when it starts to turn. Part of the reason the lobster scene works so well is that Allen does the scene again at the end after he's broken up with Diane Keaton. He goes out with another girl and it's a repeat of the same thing. The lobster has somehow gotten away and he's having a panic fit, swinging around the broom. With Keaton it was so horrible yet so hilarious and wonderful. Here's the scene again with a woman who just says, Why are you making such a big deal about it? I was thinking about what movies take on the subject of male-female relationships best, and I was also thinking about Alien. The thing with Alien--and this has been said a million times--but the central horror in it is the idea of the thing growing inside you, which of course is pregnancy. In a way, it's the horror that a man must feel. Even though I have had two children, sometimes when I think about pregnancy, it does seem very alienlike to me. It didn't seem so at the time, but now when I think about it, I think EEW!

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JOAN CHEN

, actor and director.

The scene that came into my head was from The Bridges of Madison County. I was moved deeply by this one moment when the husband tells the wife that he knows she had other dreams, other wishes, and that he's sorry he couldn't give those to her. The husband is a tiny character, you don't even remember his face, but when he says that, you almost want to know his side of the story. He knew there were yearnings, one year or two years or a few years where she wasn't part of the family, where she was somewhere else. But he allowed it. She, of course, sacrifices the so-called greatest love because she doesn't want her husband to be ridiculed. The things we are willing to give up for this very mysterious, age-old union between a man and a woman--that moved me.

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JUDITH HALBERSTAM

, theorist; author, with Del LaGrace Volcano, of The Drag King Book (Serpent's Tail).

I like the penis-enlarger scene in Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery between Mike Myers and Elizabeth Hurley because it's this amazing moment where the guy is shown to be phallically insufficient and the scene proceeds anyway. In fact, the comedy and the romance purls from his being phallically insufficient, which I think is a new moment in heterosexual comedy. My theory is that Austin Powers is actually a drag king. He has fake hair, fake teeth, and the scene is all about the fact that he isn't a phallic male. He doesn't just come fully formed from Casino Royale, the James Bond films, the "carry-on" comedies. The reason you get an Austin Powers in the nineties is because of all of the alternative forms of male parody. In this age of male crises, when Susan Faludi is writing a tragic tome about the betrayal of the American male, it was refreshing to see that sort of betrayal turned into comedy, where the woman's desire is actually activated by the male's insufficiency. Critics bemoan the crisis in masculinity, but those same critics aren't aware of the rise in alternative masculinities in places like lesbian nightclubs, where there are these amazing drag-king performances that prove it's very, very easy to imitate masculinity. You have to tie the exhaustion of heteronormativity to the rise of alternative ways of being. It didn't just happen on its own. Austin Powers is the ur-text of the millennium.

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