(& scroll down to read my literary sleuthing posts)
Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Sunday, March 2, 2014

“The sun’ll COME OUT tomorrow”----Bet YOUR bottom dollars that Nora Ephron hid ANOTHER subtle Austenian subtext in plain sight (and sound) in You’ve Got Mail!

Today, I’ve got another “You’ve Got Mail at the gym” story, a bookend to the anecdote I recounted in 2012….

…shortly after Nora Ephron’s sad death, about the interwoven Pride & Prejudice/Much Ado About Nothing subtext Ephron hid in plain sight in her film. This new wrinkle is positively spooky (in a good way), and if it doesn’t raise Ephron’s filmmaking higher in your estimation, then I’ll be very surprised!

First, here’s the spooky part: earlier today, my Facebook friend Laurel Ann Nattress (author & mistress of the popular Austenprose blog) posted about watching You’ve Got Mail for the billionth time, and I chimed in thusly: “When I first saw it in the movie theater I enjoyed it, but really really grossly underestimated it, it was truly Austenian in presenting itself as witty fluff, but actually being filled with powerful allusions to Austen and Shakespeare, as well, of course, as prior films.”

Today at the gym, as I surfed channels in search of distraction from 40 minutes of cardio, You’ve Got Mail appeared on the E Channel, as if by fate! I smiled at this coincidence, and bowed to the TV gods’s command that I spend my 40 minutes watching a chunk of Nora Ephron’s masterpiece for my billionth time as well. The film was in the middle of the scene at the supermarket checkout counter when Joe “rescues” Kathleen (to her chagrin), and so I knew there was at least an hour to go, sufficient for my planned 400 calorie amble.

But I had no clue that within 5 minutes, I’d be presented with compelling additional evidence of Nora Ephron’s subtle erudition and cinematic discretion, over and above what I have noted previously, which would have me eager to get home to begin to write this post.

My “Ephroniphany” came at the end of the next scene--in which the super-creepy Fox dynasty (Joe’s grandfather, father, and various very young “siblings”) gathers in a salon to listen to young Annabel sing “Tomorrow” from Annie. Here’s a brief YouTube clip, I urge you to watch it now before reading further, and see if anything leaps out at you, as it did for me for this time, in my (perhaps) 16th viewing of that scene over the past 15 years, the first one in which I saw something special:

To assist you even further, here is the description of that scene from Ephron’s screenplay, to show you that she faithfully shot the scene as she had originally written it, showing that it was not an improvisation:

An elegant East Side apartment.  Schuyler, his youngish French wife, Yvette, Nelson, Gillian and their child Matt, and Joe are sitting and listening as Annabel sings Tomorrow.
ANNABEL (sings) The sun'll come out tomorrow, bet your bottom dollar that tomorrow, there'll be sun --
Joe is on a loveseat with Matt.  Gillian lifts Matt up, sits down in his place next to Joe and plunks Matt into her lap. Nelson is already seated in a chair in front of the loveseat and can't see her without turning around.
As she continues singing, Gillian moves her hand next to Joe's leg.  Joe edges away.  He looks around the room, sees Nanny Maureen standing behind the couch.  He stands, offers her his seat.  She sits.

So, with my prompting, did you see ANYthing surprising there for the first time, too, as I did?





So what was the “subtle Austenian subtext hidden in plain sight (and sound)” in that little scene, that was worthy of that high accolade in my Subject Line? After all, on the surface, this scene seems to be in the film solely as background for Joe’s characterization, showing us why Joe is not (yet) a gentleman at this stage of the film, prior to Kathleen transformative reading him the Chivalry Riot Act in the restaurant a few scenes later.

I.e., given the dubious paternal role models Joe grew up with—with both father and grandfather utterly morally corrupted, caricatures of  “sugar daddies” who unashamedly revel in siring children on women less than half (or even a third) their age, who clearly are not their soulmates----it’s no surprise at all that Joe’s motto is “It’s not personal, it’s business.” –and we can also understand why The Godfather sways his life, and tune our ears to hear his “go to the mattresses” as a reference not only to the necessity of making war in the boardroom, but also to the (dishonorable) tradition of lechery of Fox men in the boudoir. 

So far so good. But now, I suggest to you, that’s only half of all there is worth noticing in that scene! This time, I saw something else, a quiet little drama unfolding in the background, where the mise en scene gives the audience no explicit hint to pay any particular attention to it. I am talking about the little game of musical chairs that unfolds on the love seat, as young Annabel sings her little heart out.

Notice first how Joe is seated next to the little son of his father’s fiancée, the cute boy who so memorably spells F-O-X Fox. Then notice that Gillian inobtrusively picks her son up, and sits down next to Joe with the boy now in her lap, keeping her eyes on the young female performer the whole time.

So far, no big deal. But then, Gillian puts her hand on Joe’s thigh, and Tom Hanks gets that same look on his face that he had in Big when he stuffed his face with caviar and then spit it out a minute later. It takes him about two seconds to spring up from his theretofore comfortable seat, whereupon his place is just as promptly taken on the love seat by Nanny Maureen. And Annabel’s song proceeds to its conclusion.

Now…on first viewing of the movie, this maneuvering would all appear to change little in the arc of the storyline. Joe’s getting spooked when his father’s fiancée makes an unmistakable sexual advance to him just adds to the air of lechery that hangs over the room, in grotesque contrast to the little girl singing an inspirational Broadway standard. If anything, it makes us see Gillian as part of the moral cesspool chez Fox, another degenerate sensualist without redeeming value as a person.

But then, upon repeated viewings, can you think outside the box, and see any reason why we might interpret those seat-changes very differently? Hint---what do we know from the second viewing onward that might alter our perspective?

I’ll tell you now, if you haven’t already picked up on my hints on your own---not too much later in the film, Joe’s father is going to surprise Joe with his explanation of why he has abruptly parted with his fiancee, news that doesn’t seem to have caused Father Fox much distress. I.e., Joe learns that Gillian has eloped, and the comic shocker, that elicits surprised titters of laughter from a typical audience, is that she has eloped not with a younger man, as Joe expects to hear, given Gillian’s subtle grope on the couch, but with another woman, and what’s more, the other woman is Nanny Maureen!

So…here’s the exquisite irony which Ephron has so cleverly and expertly hidden in plain sight in that scene. Once we are armed with the hindsight that Gillian and Nanny Maureen have already entered into a lesbian relationship before we hear about  it along with Joe, we can suddenly see Gillian’s fondling of Joe not as a crude come-on to him, but as a daring ruse designed to make him so uncomfortable that he will immediately leave his seat, so that, not accidentally, it can be filled by Nanny Maureen, who thus winds up sitting right next to her secret lover on the love seat—and the three of them on the couch—mother, son, and mother’s lover---are seen as the future family that will be created offscreen after the elopement!

This double meaning is so Austenian, and so Shakespearean, that it dazzles me that Ephron has managed, for 15 years, to hide this subtext in plain sight (and sound) for 15 years, without, as far as I can ascertain, any commentator on the film ever pointing out  this marvelous screenwriting/directorial maneuver!

And I will now explain why I keep adding a reference to plain sound in this scene—you need only think about the lyrics of the song “Tomorrow”, in order to grasp the other half of Ephron’s diabolically clever joke on her audience:

The sun'll COME OUT tomorrow
Bet your bottom dollar that tomorrow there'll be sun
Just thinkin' about tomorrow
Clear away the cobwebs and the sorrow till' there's none
When I'm stuck with a day that's grey and lonely
I just stick up my chin and grin and say oh
The sun'll COME OUT tomorrow
So you got to HANG ON TILL TOMORROW, come what may!
Tomorrow, tomorrow, I LOVE YA, tomorrow
You're only a day away!

Do you get it?----“come out”! Even in 1998, the slang phrase “come out” had long been established as the most common description of a gay or lesbian person publicly revealing their same-sex love orientation! Indeed, “tomorrow” being “only a day away” (meaning, within a few scenes, in the timeline of the film), Gillian and Maureen will then “come out” to the world, and openly show their love to each other! And when they do, their lives will no longer be “grey and lonely”, because Gillian and Maureen have decided to end the charade, and find true love with each other, and the Fox fortune be damned!

No wonder Gillian smiles a little Mona Lisa smile after Maureen sits down beside her--- it’s obvious that the decision to elope has already been made, and she is quietly rejoicing in being able to sit right next to her beloved, the woman who has already, in the disguise of a nanny, been co-parenting her little boy. And very soon she knows she will no longer have to tolerate sex with the grotesque Fox, Sr., or, for that matter, to tolerate even the humiliation and frustration of Joe’s casual, sneering arrogation of authority over her own son! Soon he won’t be spelling F-O-X anymore, except, maybe, when reading Aesop’s Fables! And if Gillian and Maureen have managed to save any money from their time with Fox Sr., then perhaps we can think of Gillian like Aesop’s fox, who tricks the vain crow out of good cheese which drops from his mouth as he (like Annabel) sings.

And now we also can understand, perhaps, why, earlier in the film, Gillian, in response to Joe’s sneering remarks to her about her philanthropy (which is actually a sign that she is not a fortune hunter, but is trying to make lemonade out of the lemons of being the fiancée of an MCP monster), told Joe she was going to “harvest her eggs”. At the time, we all just heard that as Joe heard it, another frivolous hobby. But, now we can readily discern that if she was planning to leave Joe’s father and unite with Maureen, then Gillian would be in need of harvested eggs in order for them to achieve in vitro fertilization and have another child to call their own! She feels contempt for Joe, exposing for her and Maureen’s private amusement, his clueless unawareness of what is  soon to occur, that will liberate the two lesbian lovers forever from Fox domination. As in Austen novels, the men mostly don’t really listen to what the women are really saying, so Gillian can (like Miss Bates) tell Joe the truth about harvesting her eggs, and be safe from exposure. He may have put Kathleen Kelly “out of business”, but neither Joe nor his father shall be able to keep Gillian and Maureen from fulfilling their mutual love.

Now, isn’t that all just amazing? I still can’t believe I found it today, in the way that I found it. It’s so gorgeous. But that’s still not quite the end of what we can derived from Nora Ephron’s cinematic tour de force--- the capper is that I realized also that this subtextual Gillian-Maureen romantic relationship is another aspect of Nora Ephron’s homage to Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice in You’ve Got Mail. Not only, as many lovers of the film have long recognized, and as I’ve previously articulated in more detail, does the relationship between Kathleen and Joe recapituluate the Elizabeth-Darcy romantic arc, but now I see that Gillian and Maureen are a veiled representation of Charlotte Lucas’s secret and unrequited lesbian love for Elizabeth Bennet, a subtext which JA hid in plain sight in Pride & Prejudice, as I have posted a number of times during the past few years:

And there’s even more wonderfulness here, upon deeper analysis. I suggest to you that Nora Ephron has, by this particular subtext, exposed her readers’s prejudices, exactly as JA does in all her novels. I.e., if you reflect on it, there always was something not quite kosher in the way that the elopement of Gillian and Nanny Maureen is treated in the film—it’s presented  as a kind of grotesque reversal of expectation, their actions are not humanized, explained, or made comprehensible, let alone sympathetic. It’s a lot like the way that Mrs. Bennet is presented in P&P—a figure to be laughed at, for the delectation of Mr. Bennet’s (and the reader’s) sarcastic mockery. But just as insightful Austen readers have long understood that Mrs. Bennet is not a monster to be derided, but a woman in a potentially disastrous situation using all her resources to make things turn out okay, so too we can see  Gillian and Maureen in a much more positive light.

By the way, in regard to the struggle for gender orientation liberation, you may be interested, but I suspect not be surprised, to learn that Nora Ephron said the following to the Wellesley graduating class in 1996, 34 years after her own graduation:   “I want to tell you a little bit about my class, the class of 1962. When we came to Wellesley in the fall of 1958, there was an article in the Harvard Crimson about the women's colleges, one of those stupid mean little articles full of stereotypes, like girls at Bryn Mawr wear black. We were girls then, by the way, Wellesley girls. How long ago was it? It was so long ago that while I was here, Wellesley actually threw six young women out for lesbianism. “

What I’ve now demonstrated, is that Ephron must have at that very moment been deeply into the writing of the screenplay of You’ve Got  Mail, with this lesbian subtext, in some karmic sense to correct that injustice of an America in which, not long before, such beastly discrimination was practiced against lesbians, and was considered perfectly okay.

Now, isn’t You’ve Got Mail a kinder and gentler, as well as an artistically more complex, story, when we see Gillian and Maureen in a sympathetic light—as two women who escaped exploitation by male Foxes? This is quintessential Austenian irony, the kind which made her readers better people when we came upon rereading to better understand her cryptic didacticism.  So, bravo once more to Nora Ephron, who, like her role model, Jane Austen, was secure enough in her own artistic vision to not feel the need to heavy-handedly hit  her readers over the head with this message, but instead to leave it to readers with ingenuity and heart to find it out for themselves.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Goodness, that was A LOT of words to convey your thought that could have been explained in 2 sentences.