Room For A Life


I think I’m the only who who likes the film A Life of Her Own.  No one else cared for this movie, not even its makers.  George Cukor, its director, called it a “horrible film,” saying he was forced to make it against his “better judgment.”  Its star, Lana Turner, referred to it as “this lousy picture.”  A Turner biographer noted that not even Cukor could “salvage” this flick; one Cukor biographer labeled it a “humdrum sob story”; while another deemed it “forgettable” and the “nadir of [Cukor’s 1950s] decade.”  The film was critically savaged on its 1950 release, by Bosley Crowther among others, and has since gone on to be pretty much ignored by everyone.

Except by Me.

So I guess I’m gonna have to do a salvage on my own.


Its makers didn’t even want to do the film.  Turner made it because, after a two-year suspension from MGM, she was under a contractual obligation.  Cukor did it to show MGM’s at-the-time new power moguls (Dore Schary, namely) that he was a “good soldier” who could do his duty and collect a paycheck.  Wendell Corey almost made the film, but he (deliberately?) made a nasty, needless crack at Lana’s expense and was (deservedly) booted.  Other talents involved were no doubt MGM hirelings, expected to do their jobs, no questions asked.  I’m sensing an absence of joy here.

Sure, the story’s a wet-hanky cliché:  A small-town girl (Turner) goes to big-town NYC and succeeds as a big-time fashion model.  She has an affair with a married man (Ray Milland), a wealthy Montana mining magnate married to a wheelchair-bound woman whom he feels he can’t leave.  Trials, tears, tempests, and then a tristely tender breakup between the two.  He returns to wife and Montana (!), she squares her shoulders to face an uncertain future.  Nothing new to see here, plot-wise.  It’s the subject of a thousand magazine stories, novelettes, romance flicks, Lifetime TV shows, probably even Internet copy-and-paste fodder.  Everyone involved with this cinematic rendering hated it, and the film flopped.  And no one watches it today.

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But damn it, I like it.  I not only like it, I think the film has merit.

So sue me, George and Lana and Wendell and Bosley and MGM.

I wonder if the universal dislike (discounting me) could be traced, in part, to it being described as a “humdrum sob story.”  Isn’t that a typical reaction to what’s known as the ‘woman’s film‘ genre?  Meaning those narratives centered on what are perceived as ‘female’ issues:  Family versus Career; Sacrifice versus Fulfillment; Marriage versus Independence; Struggles with Relationships; The Fickleness of Men (and Others); and the Emotional Turbulence caused by such.  The genre’s emotive throb, its examination of subjective experience, of the inner ‘world’ of feeling, and of the small, delicate intimacies implied therein, seem, implicitly, to arouse scorn.  In contrast are the big, noisy, ‘male’ stories of adventure, war, westerns, crime thrillers, and, oh, I don’t know, superheroes, spaceships, and spies⁠—all that fun action stuff⁠—that grabs you by the balls and ka-chings at the box office.

Nothing new here, either.  (And I do enjoy those big noisy films…)

But I wouldn’t discount A Life of Her Own, even if it is overwhelmingly Woman’s Film material, declared plum spang in the title.  The film bores in on that central fact of a woman’s film life, which is:  What IS a woman’s life?  What defines it?  What makes it her own?  Its title even echoes (although I don’t think deliberately) Virginia Woolf’s feminist classic, A Room of One’s Own, her philosophical examination of what a woman needs to be herself.  Which is⁠—her own space, her own support, her own determination of who and what she is.  So she can define her own life and live it as her life.

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Which is what Lily, Turner’s character, attempts throughout the film.  With more melodrama and less philosophy than in Woolf’s treatise, but the struggle, the effort, the determination to do so are what forms Lily’s saga.  Whatever happens to her is through her own decisions, for what she does and for who she is.

What I think viewers and critics react to in the film is its ‘outer’ presentation, determined (and limited) by its generic conventions, its time period (late 1940s), its American milieu, its rigid studio-system style, its whole era’s culture of assumption of what women are meant to be.  Mainly, that woman want Romance, although a glamorous (seeming) Career is also desirable.  You get that in the film’s first scene, as Lily waits for the train to the big city.  The cabbie who brings Lily to the station humorously asks if, once she makes it, she’ll be too important to ever come back.  Don’t worry, Lily replies, humorously, but with a touch of cool⁠—I won’t be back.


We learn more of Lily’s determination in the following scenes at the modeling agency, at which she had been invited by letter to apply.  What took you so long to get here, she’s asked, lack of confidence?  No, says Lily coolly, lack of train fare⁠—it took her six months to earn it, at every small job she could find.  Lily is following that proverbial American urge, to get up, get out, and get a better life.  No one questions the man who does it⁠—it’s expected⁠—but Lily’s quest is interpreted as something exceptional.  Even…questionable.

Those raised-eyebrow interpreters included MGM, which advertised the movie with a pursed-lip tagline:  “LANA…as Lily James…a girl who knew what she wanted…and almost got it!”  I wonder what’s implied in that “almost got it.”  Gee, could you read a double meaning here?  From the film’s inception, its makers assumed a squinched-mouth, narrow-eyed attitude, that Lily’s independent character deserves to ‘get it.’  The screenplay, loosely adapted from a Rebecca West story, was deemed by Production-Code overlord Joseph Breen as too “shocking and…offensive” due to its depiction of adultery, and the script was revised to slam it home that infidelity is wrong and its users must be punished.  Then the studio changed the ending from Lily committing suicide to a ‘happier’ one of Lily choosing to carry on, to which Cukor objected.  Because Lily hadn’t been punished enough?  Gee⁠—just what does a woman have to do to live her own life?

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Ironically, the issue, of a woman who makes her own choices, even if she suffers for them, is examined sympathetically, and non-punitively throughout the film (I’m guessing in the teeth of Production Code ire), by its screenwriter, Isobel Lennart (who wrote the initial script), Cukor, and Turner.  Considering that the movie was based on a story by a feminist writer, with a script written (initially) by a woman, directed by the so-labeled pre-eminent ‘woman’s director,’ and starring an actress strongly marketed to women⁠—could that sympathy be due to the film’s ‘feminine’ sensibility?  Despite their overt opinion that the film was a waste of time, I sense that Cukor, Turner, and company allowed the film its own space in its examination of a woman’s life.  They dig into the very core of the woman’s genre, what you might call its own psychological ‘room’⁠—that sense of a private, emotionally intelligent self, observant of, yet still separate from the busy outer world, through which she must still navigate and choose.

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I wonder how much Cukor really disliked the film.  Directors, producers, and actors usually don’t want to acknowledge their flops; they prefer to distance themselves from failures and forget they ever happened (and this film flopped big).  Yet Cukor directs his film with delicacy, empathy, and nuance; he doesn’t puff up the melodrama but searches for undercurrents of feeling.  Whenever Lily and Steve, her married lover, appear in crowded public scenes, Cukor’s camera centers on them, isolating, even protecting them within those busy cinematic rooms.  Whether in the ladies’ hotel where Lily resides, a swank restaurant, a small diner⁠—always with other people present, always with ambient clatter⁠—the two are yet enclosed, private, separate⁠—alone.  Their growing emotional intimacy is conveyed through that seclusion, Cukor’s camera allowing for their personal psychological space⁠—of how two individuals can insulate themselves and their feelings for each other away from the bustling outer world.

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But you also see how fragile this privacy is, how it’s dependent on that sense of an inner ‘room.’  Such as the contrast presented at the farewell fête a heartbroken Lily throws for Steve, who’s had to spend the evening with his sickly wife.  Steve arrives (literally) late for the party, which is crammed, strident, and horrible.  Passing through the rooms of Lily’s large apartment (its rent paid by Steve, which makes her in effect his kept mistress, and which caused much of that Production Code lip-pursing), the two can’t find a quiet corner to themselves; everywhere is the bustling mob, taking up room.  Their delicate balance, of finding the private within the public, has been irretrievably shattered.

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Cukor films many scenes in long takes, with little cutting, his camera observing, sometimes moving in and through whole rooms on a set.  We see how actors behave, watch how their bodies navigate space, how they interact with each other; we see how their characters exist in time/space/motion.  Cukor (whose career began on the stage) was sensitive to how cinematic space conveys ‘living’ space, layering his shots with dialogue and motion happening in congruence.  In a scene involving another couple, we watch how they reach the end of their affair via such private interaction:  Beginning in a restaurant and then moving into a cab, the two bicker, in hushed, overlapping dialogue, over a missed phone call⁠—she barely controlling anger, he suppressing annoyance; she wanting to probe and argue, he wanting to avoid it altogether.  The exchange is fast, brittle, indirect, almost a throwaway, yet full of buried meaning, as the whole sad, sour, and nasty trajectory of their relationship savagely bleeds through.

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I like how Cukor gives his actors their own space, giving them time, and room, for shifting subtleties in feeling.  As when Turner smilingly sees her lover off at the airport, then walks, alone, down a long, shadow-streaked ramp, the camera holding on her as she quickens her pace, her face fragmenting into tears.  And Cukor lets his performers dig into their scenes, letting them reveal a character’s private world as contrasted with a public persona (it’s probably no accident that Lily works as a model, a job in which she’s constantly presented as a public image).  In one of the film’s rare, sustained close-ups, Margaret Phillips, as Steve’s invalid wife, describes, bittersweetly, how her happiness must depend (almost literally, as she’s wheelchair-bound) on her husband’s forbearance, how she must accommodate herself to those limits placed on her life and his.  Phillips’s delivery is beautifully done, letting us see the forced, cheerful façade she must put on for friends, family, and the world.  The role is small, perhaps unoriginal, but how much of this woman’s private pain is quietly revealed, her complex inner life opened to our scrutiny and compassion.

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The film is gorgeously acted by its actresses⁠—Cukor could really tune in to his female performers, giving them the room they need to delve into their characters’ lives, past surface cliché.  Especially in Ann Dvorak’s portrayal of Mary, an older model who befriends Lily, a smashing performance that strips Mary’s flesh and feelings down to her fine bones.  Once a top model, Mary’s wasted it all through booze, partying, and men, and she’s now in the dregs.  Dvorak makes Mary defiant yet helpless, limning her with sharp, spiky voice and gestures; Mary’s trapped herself inside a veneer of nervy sophistication but underneath she’s a rose with thorns.  I wonder if Dvorak was channeling her autobiography here—that of an exceptionally talented actress who, on the verge of major stardom, bucked studio rules and was quickly brought down.  For the short time she’s in the film, Dvorak gives us the whole, compressed life of this woman, and she’s indelible.  Mary may be desperate and self-pitying, but Dvorak is not—she’s as hard, clear, and cold as a diamond.

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The story sets up Mary as a loaded symbol (even more kudos to Dvorak for making Mary stand out as flesh and blood), meant as contrast, warning, and foreshadowing for Lily.  Could Mary’s ‘life of her own’ be where our ambitious small-town girl might now ‘get it’?  Further dense signifying is provided by the small glass-slipper ornament Mary gives to Lily as a gift—will Lily be another Cinderella who stays too long at the ball?  Yet Lily, even if she may not take Mary’s symbolic warning to heart, doesn’t blame Mary for her choices; within her heart Lily cares deeply enough to mourn Mary’s fate.  This tough young woman also has a private self, one not worn on a keychain and displayed like a trinket, but which, like a preciously guarded room, she keep for herself.

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As Lily, Turner may be a little too old and sleek to play a fresh-faced girl from the Midwestern stix.  But she dives right into this young woman’s ambition, bringing out Lily’s unsentimental strength, making her someone who knows she hasn’t chosen an easy path but has the guts to see it through (could Turner have been channeling her own autobiography here?).  Like Dvorak, Turner goes for the clear, sharp edge in her performance, which is why I thought the film’s changed ending worked.  Lily may be down but she’s not ready to be out (and she gets her own signifying moment when she breaks Mary’s glass ornament).  Lily taking charge of her life is how she would react; it harks back to the film’s beginning, of Lily at the train station, laden with ferocity and drive as she heads for the big time.  When the cabbie asks if he can later say that he once knew her, Lily doesn’t reply, only smiles knowingly.  “So long, Charlie,” she says—leaving Charlie to figure it out for himself.  Right from the start Lily is keeping some things for herself.

Yeah, I really like this film.

And to all those, including George and Lana and Wendell and Bosley and MGM, who don’t—so long, Charlie, too.

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So, I’m happy to report at least one other person likes A Life of Her Own:  Click here to watch a brief but excellent film analysis by Richard Brody at The New Yorker magazine, examining the film’s story, tone, and style.  Check it out.

Bonus Clip:  Lana Turner and Ray Milland seek their own private space in this poignant scene from A Life of Her Own:

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