I have been catching up on movies and reading. One of the films I saw this week is The World of Henry Orient, based on a 1958 novel of the same name by Nora Johnson. It is a teenage girl buddy movie about Gil and Val, two upper middle class fourteen year olds in New York City, who develop a crush on a famous pianist, Henry Orient, played by Peter Sellers. Comedic and not so comedic adventures ensue, and by the end of the movie, the girls are delivered to the threshold of adulthood.
Other memorable female bonding movies I can recall are Thelma and Louise, Heavenly Creatures, and if you look for something closer to the Henry Orient era, The Trouble With Angels by Ida Lupino. In the previous two the women end up dead, or lesbian criminals, and in Angels one of the characters decides to become a nun, not a pathological event, but noteworthy for its eschewing of the world of makeup and boys which would be considered “normal” or at least usual in most movie universes. The girls in Henry Orient despite their problems are very healthy and normal. This lack of pathology usually associated with female buddy films is quite fascinating in itself, and may be due to the fact that the characters don’t deviate from a hetero-normative path. However, the villain of the film is one of the girls’ cold, cruel mother. So female pathology is responsible for some of the narrative drive of this film after all.
The world of the girls reminded me of the neurotic yet understandable teenage universe of Salinger, without the angst though, and much more like the melodramatic universe of Douglas Sirk, he is the man who made all those movies in the fifties that look like Hallmark cards. Todd Haynes paid homage to him in his movie Far From Heaven. Anyway, how this normalcy in the characters achieved? Mostly through the character of Henry Orient, who is an exotic dark creature with a vaguely Italian and Indian accent. In keeping with Henry’s character, the girls go as far as to pretend they are Chinese slaves and run around in peasant hats and light candles in front of some heathen God. This is all in the spirit of playacting, as they stalk the hapless Orient, who is trying to seduce a woman from Connecticut! One of the girls is a talented pianist and adores Henry because he is a famous pianist, but it turns out that he doesn’t practice and performs quite badly. Now before you dip into your Edward Said to talk about the film, you should know that Henry Orient is really from Brooklyn, and even loses his exotic accent at a stressful moment. He is playacting too, it allows him to indulge his favorite sport-skirt chasing, and the image seems to work for the persona of a famous pianist.
This rather enjoyable film manages to be subversive and conventional at the same time. And it is well-made in that fifties kind of way. And God knows what else it can tell us about the fifties, feminism and race relations.