Tuesday, December 4, 2007

A Tale of Two Movies

Two notable movies were being shown at the same time in Springfield, MO, in the fall of 1966. Mike Nichols’ directorial debut, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, was playing at the Gillioz Theatre, while the Swedish art film, Dear John, was being featured at the Tower Theatre. Both of these movies raised eyebrows due to their explicit content, yet one created a community firestorm and the other played out its engagement with hardly any public comment at all.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? portrayed an older couple (Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor) who were hosting a younger couple (George Segal and Sandy Dennis) for drinks and conversation. The drinks were plentiful, and the conversation, especially between Burton and Taylor, contained some of the strongest and most obscene language ever presented on an American movie screen up until that time. (Elizabeth Taylor and Sandy Dennis went on to win Oscars for their roles in the movie.)

Dear John was about a sailor and his brief affair with a local girl. Most of the film occurred in bed, and the nudity was gratuitous and ubiquitous. There was, however, no bad language in the movie.

So, given the choice between raunchy language or complete, rollicking nudity, which raised the hackles of conservative Springfieldians?

Surprisingly, at least to me, the community railed against Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and said nary a thing about Dear John. Springfield is home to several religiously oriented colleges, including one that graduated Jerry Falwell and another that was headed by John Ashcroft’s father for many years. Those schools and some local churches managed to get a picket line going outside of the Gillioz Theatre that stayed active the entire time that the film was playing. The picket line had a real impact on the theatre, drawing free attention to the film that brought the crowds scurrying in to buy tickets and see what all of the hullabaloo was about.

When that was happening I had just started working at the Tower. My boss, “Mac” MacDonald was furious at all of the attention that the protesters were garnering for the Gillioz, and he angrily claimed that their manager had struck a deal with some of the local religious leaders. But regardless of how much he fumed and flared, Mac was not able to get anyone fired up about Dear John. “It just wasn’t fair.” I remember him lamenting, “It just wasn’t fair at all.”

(For those who have ever pondered the question of when American cinema came of age, I heartily recommend the first two films that Mike Nichols directed: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and The Graduate. Their power, clarity, and relevance haven’t faded in the ensuing forty years.)

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