I recently read Mindy Kaling’s piece about the modern romantic comedy, in which she wryly reveals the casual, formulaic misogyny that constrains women’s roles in those movies. The species of women that populate rom coms these days, she writes, do not exist in real life: The Klutz, The Ethereal Weirdo*, The Woman Who is Obsessed With Her Career and No Fun at All, The Skinny But Gluttonous Woman, and so forth. I chuckled, because it’s true, right?
And then last night I watched a thirty-year-old romantic comedy I hadn’t watched in years. (There are spoilers everywhere in the post, but come on — this movie was released in 1981, and the statute of limitations has long since expired on the spoilers.)
This may seem a bit Get Offa My Lawn, but watching this movie again made me realize that sometimes, things really were better in the good old days. In Continental Divide, I was treated to Blair Brown’s portrayal of Nell Porter, a bald eagle researcher and — gasp — multi-dimensional human being. I’m stunned to say it, but Nell Porter does not fit into any of Kaling’s categories. She is obsessed with her career, to be sure, but is quite a bit of fun. She’s portrayed as something of a weirdo, because she lives alone in a cabin in the Wyoming wilderness, but there is nothing at all ethereal about her. She is not particularly skinny, and she does eat goulash, which Belushi’s character prepares for her after she’s spent a long day out with the eagles.
Belushi’s character, Ernie Souchak, is an investigative reporter from Chicago who’s poked his nose into some dangerous corners, and needs to leave town for awhile. So his boss sends him to Wyoming to do a story on the crazy bald eagle woman who lives in the wilderness. Hilarity ensues, of course, as the chain-smoking, plump Souchak tries to navigate the Rocky Mountains with an external frame backpack. His fortunes take a even darker turn when a bear steals part of his cigarette stash. Nell, initially outraged at the intrusion on her solitude and her work, softens — as she must, if this thing is going to go anywhere. She shows Souchak the ropes, leading him to “the oldest church in America” — a glorious view over the mountain range — when he unwisely refers to her wilderness as “God-forsaken.”
You know how the modern genre would handle this. The roles would be reversed. Nell would be the city girl, the Outdoors-Are-Icky, High-Heel-Wearing workaholic whose rough edges are slowly worn down by her time with the mountain man. She would never stop complaining, and would never become even slightly competent in the mountains, but would eventually give up her city life to be with her man. (The only time we get the competent woman and childlike doofus male is in sitcoms about everyday family life, because then we can saddle the woman with all the responsibility for imposing the oppression of normality on the man.) We get none of that nonsense in Continental Divide. Instead, we get this:
Each party is competent in their own sphere. They meet each other as whole, multi-layered people in their own right, but whose lives are inalterably located thousands of miles apart, in completely different worlds.
Ernie eventually goes back to Chicago, where we see him — not Nell — suffering the sadness of his lost love in a genuine and vulnerable way, as he’s unable to really get back into his very successful old life. He eventually does, though, and we see him removing Nell’s photos and replacing them with photos of the corrupt political figure he’s long been targeting in his work. His boss is peeved at his depression, because dammit, he’s got a paper to run and his star reporter is lovesick. The boss’s wife tries to sympathize, but as she states, she can’t be expected to give up her career and move to Chicago for Ernie. “Why not?” demands her husband. “You gave up everything for me, and you have no regrets.” This casual dismissal of his wife meets with a long, meaningful stare.
We never see Ernie truly resent the pull Nell has over him. When he finds out she’s in Chicago to give a talk about bald eagle conservation, he blusters to his boss about being over her — immediately before he tries to smoke a cigarette butt-first. Nell never gives in, never gives herself up, and Ernie is forced to meet her where she is. For his part, Ernie declines Nell’s suggestion that he move to Wyoming and write a book. He likes his short columns better.
The ending is the best. They get married, dashing off vows while running for Ernie’s train back to Chicago, still not having resolved their geographical issues. Ernie gets on the train. “See you when the snow melts,” says Nell. They reach for one last kiss, but don’t quite get it done.
And that’s it. Together, but separate. No one loses their life’s work, no one gives it all up for love.
I don’t think modern audiences could tolerate this egalitarian vision of relationship. True love demands a sacrifice, doesn’t it? In today’s culture, the woman’s sacrifice to true love is her self. The man’s sacrifice is to the god of domesticity, and that sacrifice is the demand of home, family and monogamy that he be responsible.
I like Continental Divide’s theory of love and gender much better than this one. Or this one. Maybe there will be lonely days, longing, and wrenching goodbyes. But is that any harder than living together in the same house, one partner grieving the loss of their calling, and the other partner feeling required to try — and probably fail — to make up for that? (Before you jump all over me, no, I don’t think that every relationship where the partners give things up to live together is like this. But it would have been for these two.) Continental Divide‘s theory of relationship involves complexity. It does not involve the casual and blanket dismissal of who women and men are. It is not reassuring and simple.
I find it sad that thirty years later, we’ve mostly decided we can’t handle such complexity. Oh, sure, there may be exceptions here and there, but I can’t imagine Mindy Kaling convincing studio executives to end the movie this way if it had been filmed today. So I’m thankful for 1981.