You might strongly favor the opinion that Reese Witherspoon’s films are the only reminder you need to prove that the culture is still going to hell in a hand basket.
You might be wrong. Not about the culture, but about Witherspoon . . .
The simple fact is that Reese Witherspoon films, much like their male chromosome counterparts, are among the most intelligent films written these days. Understanding them, which requires thoughtfulness and research, is a prerequisite to enjoying them. Sure they’re lightweight fluff; filled with stock characters, cut-and-paste gags, and all the politically correct social engineering a Hollywood script can muster, but they’re lightweight fluff written by guilty pseudo-scholarly film buffs, and that pseudo-scholarship, enhanced by the guilt, has produced some pretty interesting results.
To put it simply: Sweet Home Alabama is Breakfast at Tiffany’s with a happy ending. No more cold-blooded reality from Truman Capote. Be done with Thomas Wolfe, my angel. The perfect justification for lingering post–9/11 depression, Sweet Home Alabama is a movie that defiantly declares, “You can go home again!”
In Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Holly Golightly traipses around Manhattan in the first flush of the birth control era, single, swinging, and so far unimpregnated by the many amorous suitors that she slyly suggests she’s having, narcotizing her deep sense of melancholy with old Johnny Mercer tunes and of course, “breakfast” at Tiffany’s. Her struggle between the “mean reds” and “the blues” is solved neither by drinking nor recreational pharmaceuticals (the opiate of her more enlightened friends), but by going window-shopping at Tiffany’s, the diamond store.
Tiffany’s represents a solid, proud, wonderful place that she aspires to have one day to call her home, but it never happens. Holly has no interest in jewelry, she claims, “Except of course, diamonds.” The only time she steps foot into Tiffany’s, however, all she and Paul can afford is to have a Cracker Jack’s ring engraved, which she puts on her finger at the end of the supposedly happy film. When Holly’s old husband from Tulip, Texas shows up (played, interestingly enough, by Buddy Ebsen), calls her by her real name of Lulamae Barnes, and pleads with her to come back to the farm, Holly refuses to go. In her famous identity-crisis speech in the taxi-cab, Hepburn screams, “I’m not Holly Golightly! I’m not Lulamae Barnes! I don’t know who I am anymore!” She then gets strong advice from Paul and decides not to fly to Brazil but instead stays in the city, loses and then finds her self-symbolizing “Cat” with a romantic glance at Paul, and we are led to believe the happy couple are singing in the rain as the story ends.
But the book is much bleaker: Holly ends up getting pregnant by the Brazilian politician named José, who later abandons her at the airport when he discovers her connections to Sally Tomato’s mafia. She loses the baby, loses and never finds her cat, and the novel ends, unlike the film, with Holly realizing she’s just a wild animal with no place to call home. Aren’t you glad the sixties are over?
But if the “mean reds” were the problem for Holly, then for Melanie Carmichael the mellow yellows are the answer, because Sweet Home Alabama treats the main character’s depression with Prozac.
Now, thirty-two years later, Reese Witherspoon is Holly Golightly with a blonde ambition: her real name is Melanie Smooter, country girl come to town from Pigeon Creek, Alabama. After seven years of strenuous effort to reconstruct herself as a Kate Spade-like fashionista named Melanie Carmichael, she finally has her breakout show on the eve of becoming engaged to the mayor’s son, one Andrew Hennings.
Andrew arranges to open Tiffany’s late that night in order to give Melanie a personal showing of every single diamond in the store. As soon as he says, “Pick one,” with his “I’m-so-perfect-you-can’t-resist-me” charm, we know he’s D.O.A. For Melanie, like Holly, has skeletons in her deep southern closet that need dealing with. She too has been previously married, and she too must now finally leave Jake in order to marry Andrew, the man of her dreams.
Melanie flies back home, rediscovers her wild child innocent youth, realizes she still loves Jake, and decides at the last minute to stand by her man, who has now made a name for himself in the glassworks industry. In a sly reversal of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, it is Melanie who abandons Andrew (the politician) not at the airport, but at the altar. He ends up, as the credits roll, married to a Vanderbilt.
We also discover that Melanie was once knocked-up by Jake in high school, and also lost the baby. The end credits show pictures revealing that Jake and Melanie have another child, replacing the first one that was lost.
Andrew’s nastiness as a politician is mostly deflected into the character of his mother, played by the icy Candice Bergen, but the implication is clear: Andrew is the real politician, who like José in the first film (and like the leading beau in Witherspoon’s Legally Blonde franchise), needs more of a Jackie than a Marilyn, and so really does not want to marry Melanie despite being in love with her. In Birmingham they may love the governor, but they do not love the mayor’s son, even if he is the future president. And here is where it gets interesting.
In the original Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Audrey Hepburn’s role was supposed to go to Marilyn Monroe. And in the original Wizard of Oz, Buddy Ebsen was originally cast as the Tin Man. As Metaphilm readers already know, Breakfast at Tiffany’s is the sequel to The Wizard of Oz, in which Audrey Hepburn plays an all-grown-up Dorothy in an Emerald City that is now colored Tiffany’s blue (and OZ is NY as surely as HAL is IBM, no matter how unintentionally the writer claims it to be). But if Oz is New York as a place, Oz is also the symbol for “ounce,” the measured weight of gold, and the reason why “yellow bricks” are the path that take us to the Emerald City.
If money can buy happiness, then New York is clearly the place to be. But Sweet Home Alabama wants us to consider the possibility that money may not be the solution to all our troubles. The symbolism of the story’s natural elements tells an interesting subtext that is worth bringing to the surface.
Through the character of Jake, the film seems very clearly to be undermining and/or overthrowing the hundred-year reign of the consumer diamond philosophy. The movie opens with a flashback of Jake and Melanie’s first kiss on the beach at age ten, in a thunderstorm that hits the beach with lightning, and that leaves a nature-made glass sculpture in the sand. This, we discover at the end of the film, has become not only Jake’s reason for meeting, kissing, and loving Melanie, it subsequently becomes his economic basis for survival.
He spends the seven years she is in New York trying to “earn” her love by creating a business called Deep Southern Glass. This is, of course, a reflection of the Biblical story in which Jacob (aka “Jake”) works seven years for the hand of Rachel, as told in the book of Genesis. But this also reveals Jake at work in a job that cooperates with God (or Mother Nature, if you prefer). He makes his living by placing steel rods in the sand and waiting for lightning to strike. These formations become the aesthetically beautiful basis of his glassworks business, though he also sells glass cups and dishes.
At the film’s penultimate scene, when Melanie discovers that Jake is the source of this rare beauty, he makes her an offer that parallels Andrew’s earlier offer in Tiffany’s: “Why don’t you and your friends look around, and see what you like.” And in this moment, we see nature’s glass win the love of the girl in a way that corporate-produced diamonds never can.
This is a slap in the face to Tiffany’s, and specifically, to the “Diamond Is Forever” campaign that makes 72 percent of all American men believe that their love is not real unless the token of marital fidelity is a rock that’s valued at two months’ salary. What you may not know is that DeBeers is the demon spawn behind this corporate mythology, and the real reason you never see DeBeers advertised as a brand of diamonds is because they control the majority of the market. They never need to show their hand, they need only to promote the illusion of the diamond as a universal truth. So all you should care about are the four C’s: cut, clarity, color, carats.
Marilyn Monroe, so integral to the story’s subtext, reinforces the DeBeers mythology perfectly:
A kiss on the hand may be quite continental
But it won’t pay the rental
On your humble flat, or help you at the automat
Men grow cold as girls grow old
And we all lose our charm in the end.
But square cut or pear shaped
These rocks don’t lose their shape.
Diamonds are a girl’s best friend.
Tiffany’s! Cartier! Tell me all about it. . . .
Here’s a hint, Marilyn: No, they’re not. And any company that can convince you that love isn’t real until you’ve spent one-sixth of your annual pay for a compressed piece of carbon, well, let’s just say that every sixty seconds a certain someone is born.
Anyway, if your engagement was all about “the way he bends his knee and looks softly into her eyes, and the way she gasps surprisingly as the tears of joy roll slowly down her face,” then you’re probably one of the 72 percent who have fallen for their shill. The divorce rate is 50 percent. Diamonds are forever. Connect the dots . . . diamonds are good business, and a high divorce rate is even better business. The corollary to the diamond being forever is that love is not. If diamonds are forever, then divorce is DeBeers’ best friend.
Jake and Melanie have walked away from Tiffany’s. They have left the emerald city for a home in their own glass village. They have gone back to their deep southern roots and their Deep Southern Glass, and are now tasting how the other half lives: the 50 percent of Americans who believe marriage is about making an otherwise completely irrational promise, and then spending the rest of their lives on the adventure of keeping it.
Jake and Melanie offer the audience the good, solid, down-home advice to boycott any corporation that attempts to script your emotional life, go and find the original love of your original life, and use your own natural history as love’s best signifier.
And that, my huckleberry friend, is something worth toasting in Hollywood.