Morbid Curiosity


The other day, a press packet turned up for something called A Winnie-the-Pooh Thanksgiving. Take a second to figure out why this should annoy you. Ding—that’s it, the Pooh characters are English. As English as public-school sodomy and bad teeth, at least one of which I’ve always assumed Piglet suffered from. In A.A. Milne country even the outsiders evoke a cozy, vanished rule-Britannia—with Kanga and Roo hailing from guess where, and Tigger clearly visiting from what was then still the Raj. (Whaddya know, he’s unruly; the artistic subconscious is a marvelous thing.) For this crew to celebrate an American holiday violates who they are as carelessly as sticking John Wayne in the House of Lords—although the Duke might not mind.

I know, I know. Par for the course—and A.A. Milne, who he? If you’re much under 40, Pooh and company have always worked for Disney anyhow, making them not only quasi-American but modular—meaninglessly available for whatever’s convenient. But children cherish specificity, and respond to organic worlds even if they can’t suss the circumstances that shaped them—in Pooh’s case, not just England, but obviously, and sweetly, the England of the 1920s. Despite travestying source material right and left, Disney itself used to appreciate the value of context. No more, though—fungibility is all.

The high-minded equivalent of A Winnie-the-Pooh Thanksgiving was the Christopher Reeve remake of Rear Window, which ABC aired last Sunday—and don’t think otherwise just because Pooh was not only willin’, but listed as executive producer. Actually, that gets the analogy backward. It’s Reeve who’s the human equivalent of a national holiday. And it’s the particulars of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1954 thriller that are being sacrificed to it. Revamping a classic is fine with me. Even if you can’t yet say, “Hitchcock, who he?” he’s not sacrosanct, and Rear Window‘s prescient themes of surveillance and voyeurism could easily be updated to speak to our time. To damn well holler at it, in fact, with Ken Starr in James Stewart’s part as the wheelchair-bound photographer with the broken hip who starts spying on his neighbors and Clinton subbing for Raymond Burr as the man Stewart becomes convinced is a murderer. Of course, that’s not why it got remade. It got remade because America’s most famous quadriplegic wanted to inspire us by proving he could still function as an actor, and given his handicap it was either this or The Man Who Came to Dinner.

If that sounds testy, then I’m sorry. I like Christopher Reeve, too; even before the accident that left him paralyzed, I’d never heard anyone say a negative word about him. He’s a decent, thoughtful man whose determination to keep practicing his craft is valiant. But with Reeve in the lead, Rear Window could have no subject other than the actor’s real-life heroism even if Hitchcock’s themes hadn’t been buried to praise it—at Reeve’s own behest, since he’s the one who wanted autobiographical elements added to the script for the sake of making a positive statement about disability. Not only did a lengthy prologue reprise his struggle to rehabilitate himself after breaking his neck—something irrelevant to the plot, but important to the therapeutic, triumph-of-the-human-spirit message grafted onto the sordid material. More gratuitous yet, the final scene gave Reeve what amounted to an Oscar speech at a soirée honoring his character—an architect in this version—for the “building” he’d managed to complete in the face of terrible odds. Yes, he thanked the little people.

But why drag Rear Window into it? If Reeve wanted to dramatize his own victory over adversity for our benefit, there’s no reason why he couldn’t have appeared in a thinly fictionalized, appropriately inspirational recounting of his experience—as stars who’ve survived breast cancer or a similar trauma often do, sometimes even as themselves. But remaking a prestigious title gave his lobbying artistic cachet, while underlining his resolve to be perceived as an actor rather than a victim. What acting he could do, he did well; although even his voice has been affected by his condition, the limited physical equipment at his command was put to resourceful and admirably unsentimental use. Not for a moment, however, did you forget the horrid fascination of knowing his afflictions are real. Watching him strain to deliver his lines expressively, your concern couldn’t help but be for the star’s well-being, never the character’s—even without the script blurring the distinction.

Reeve comes about as close to sainthood as you can get in America these days, but he’s also got a reputation for intelligence and taste. It’s hard to believe he never noticed that an upbeat, affirmative version of a story as jaundiced about human nature as Rear Window‘s was on the bonkers side. I haven’t seen the original in years, and can barely remember if Burr’s character actually did do in his wife or not. What’s stayed in my mind is what Hitchcock made sure would linger—the unsettling voyeurism and mania for control that ensues from Stewart’s enforced passivity, and his sexual jitters with Grace Kelly.

Since Reeve always wanted to be a more audacious actor than his cardboard roles permitted, I rather hoped he’d be daring enough to force us to dislike him in this one. Given how beloved he is, it would be thrillingly perverse. Fat chance—Hitchcock he’ll fuck with, being a role model he won’t. Instead, his remake took care to buff away the unpleasantness of the hero’s Peeping Tom predilections—even dispensing with the heart-stopping moment in the 1954 version when Burr finally realizes someone is watching, and, the accused turned accuser, stares balefully right at the camera. This version’s suspect was the usual snarling bogeyman, clearly more despicable than the hero: deck stacked, problem solved. But since the unpleasantness is integral to the plot, it kept cropping up anyway, albeit as an unintegrated distraction. Although for obvious reasons critics have minced their words, one reviewer did venture a complaint that Reeve’s surveillance of his neighbors had its creepy side; in terms of Hitchcock’s intentions, this is like complaining that Moby-Dick is ruined by Ahab’s loony streak.

As for the original’s psychosexual tension, which would be plainly inappropriate here, it was replaced by something superficially more optimistic, but actually more morbid. Near the fade-out, with Reeve and Grace Kelly sub Darryl Hannah in a romantic tête-à-tête, the star remarked that while he obviously couldn’t perform sexually now, he’d be able to “in a few more years.” Everybody knows that Reeve insists he’ll be completely healed someday, and how important this faith is to him. Everybody also knows no cure is yet in sight. Hearing his wishful thinking expressed as fact was both painful and appalling; at that moment, how on earth could we respond to him as a character, or to Rear Window as a movie?

To Reeve and a large chunk of the modern audience alike, that’s clearly a negligible distinction; the movie wouldn’t be worth belaboring if it weren’t so symptomatic. Recently, down where I live, a debate about high school productions of classic but insufficiently enlightened plays—the disturbingly violent Oklahoma!, for instance—included a serene suggestion that the students simply rewrite the shows to tailor them to current attitudes; that’ll do wonders for their education. These days, good citizens treat cultural readymades as expediently as the most benighted bizzer, equally gratified to put them to good purpose—and equally indifferent to their integrity. By those vapid standards, Reeve has actually improved on Hitchcock in adding uplift to a nasty movie. Nor does it matter that the results are artistically puerile, since art isn’t relevant to what this version is about; hell, entertainment isn’t relevant to what this version is about. Me, I’m all for Thanksgiving. I just wish my brain wasn’t always getting treated like the turkey.