The Question of “The Hours”

If someone had told me even a few years ago that Nicole Kidman, Meryl Streep, Allison Janney and Julianne Moore would all play lesbian or bisexual women in a movie that would generate rave critical reviews and be the frontrunner for the Oscars…I’d have asked if them if they wanted an extra pipe with that crack.

Yet here we are in 2003 faced with that very scenario. The Hours–debuting in limited release on December 17th and in theaters nationwide on January 10th–is a movie based on Michael Cunningham‘s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the same name, which follows a day in the life of three women in different time periods: Virginia Woolf (Kidman), in the middle of writing “Mrs. Dalloway” in 1923 England; Laura (Moore), a suicidal housewife and mother in 1951 Los Angeles whose repressed sexuality manifests itself one day in impulsively kissing her female neighbor (played by Toni Collette); and Clarissa (Streep), a New York literary editor in 2001 who lives with her female partner (played by Allison Janney) and her daughter (played by Claire Danes), but is secretly in love with her ex-lover who is dying of AIDS (played by Ed Harris).

The Hours has already earned seven Golden Globe nominations, including best motion picture, best director, best screenplay, best actress (for Kidman and Streep), best supporting actor (for Ed Harris), and best musical score, and is likely to garner several Oscar nominations as well.

On the surface, this film seems like a great leap forward for lesbian and bisexual visibility on film: A-list actresses playing complex characters grappling with issues of (lesbian) sexuality. Almost all who have seen it so far have praised The Hours as a moving, well-written, and well-acted film. The Hollywood Reporter, for example, enthusiastically recommends it because “the themes of repressed desires, longing for happiness and the need to face one’s demons ring clearly in all three stories.”

But delving deeper into the story, I’m reminded less of “Mrs. Dalloway” and more of the classic tale of the tragic lesbian in “The Well of Loneliness.”

The film opens with Woolf”s suicide and, although it can only go up from there, each of the stories is, as the Hollywood Reporter describes it,”haunted with the specter of suicide.”The characters are reportedly very realistic and multi-faceted, but the thread of despair and depression that connects each woman’s story is reminiscent of the days in which lesbians were commonly portrayed as sick or mentally imbalanced. Julianne Moore has described her character Laura as “almost underwater. She’s not a person who’s even present in her life. Her deep unhappiness is the state of her being.” According to Meryl Streep, her character Clarissa has more options and gets to be “more emotional” than the other two women because of the time period in which she lives, according to Streep, but she’s still a lesbian in love with a man–hardly a happy scenario even in contrast to the other two women’s more distressing situations.

Director Stephen Daldry maintains that one of his motivations for making the film was to highlight the everyday heroism of women, since “often the heroics in women’s lives are underestimated, or put into the background by the heroics in the lives of men. Obviously, the struggles are enormous and profound; just as important, if not more so.” While this statement is true enough, by putting so much emphasis on the “struggles” of women’s lives and then associating this with issues of sexual orientation, is The Hours breaking down stereotypes–or reinforcing them?

It is a hard question to answer, since the film does appear to thoughtfully explore issues of sexuality and oppression and to raise important questions about the cost of repressing one’s sexuality. The high-profile actresses attached to the film and the sheer force of the Oscar momentum will likely attract audiences to the movie who might otherwise skip such a film, which means The Hours is likely to give these issues broader exposure than a million well-reviewed-but-little-seen indie films.

So if The Hours contributes to raising the awareness level of the American public around these issues, even just a little, isn’t that a good thing?

Yes, of course it is, but….in the context of so few mainstream films with lesbian or bisexual characters, The Hours may raise everyone’s consciousness and still leave the average viewer with the strong impression that homosexuality and bisexuality lead to depression, suicide, and constant struggle. It’s an easy conclusion to draw if mainstream films are the only exposure you have to the lives of lesbian and bisexual women–which sadly still applies to many Americans.

Although most of the professional film reviewers have overlooked this connection in their rush to praise The Hours, it has been mentioned in a few reviews like the one by Steve Sailor of United Press International, who noted:

“This movie offers the dubious and disturbing conceit that insanity and homosexual inclinations are deeply linked. Moreover, it portrays, perhaps inadvertently, English novelist Virginia Woolf’s words as a cultural virus passing her mental misery and bisexuality from writer to reader, then from mother to son, and finally from boyfriend to girlfriend.”

Lesbian and bisexual women don’t have special dispensation to only see the happy events of their lives portrayed on screen, of course, and obviously there are lesbian and bisexual women who experience depression and suicidal tendencies. But it seems unfortunate that this particular emotional state is such a dominant force and overarching theme in one of the few high-profile Hollywood films to seriously explore issues of lesbianism and bisexuality.

It also doesn’t help that the writers/director chose to resurrect the tired old lesbian-incest link by having Kidman’s character kiss her sister (played by Miranda Richardson) in a non-sisterly way. It doesn’t matter if the kiss was supposed to more representative of the strong bond between the sisters than anything sexual, it smacks of exploitation and reinforces the “ick” response to homosexuality.

Interestingly, the official web site for the movie (which is otherwise very comprehensive and well-done) doesn’t once mention the lesbian or bisexual aspects of the women’s storylines in the plot summary or the character descriptions (although it is mentioned in the reviews included on the site), except for a quote from Streep which happens to name Clarissa’s lover, Sally, thereby giving away the gender as female.

But the site does quote Kidman at length about how she was particularly drawn to the film because of the relationship between Woolf and her husband Leonard, how she “was fascinated by her love for Leonard and his love for her and what they gave one another. I think she felt tremendous gratitude to her husband for being so tolerant of her.” And the site also devotes considerable space to the explanation that “one of the most moving aspects of Laura’s story for Moore is the complicated relationship she had with her son, one that had an affecting resonance for the actress because she herself has two young children.”

In other words, the website emphasizes motherhood and heterosexual relationships and minimizes the lesbian sexuality in the film as much as possible without outright lying about it. No small feat for a movie in which every one of the main characters is involved in some kind of sapphic activity.

But in the end, few in the gay community are likely to argue that it is not a positive event when a film that deals so openly and sensitively with issues of lesbianism and bisexuality garners so much praise and visibility in Hollywood–as evidenced by the fact that The Hours made GLAAD’s list of this year’s Media Awards for best film, which is bestowed annually upon movies that provide “fair, accurate and inclusive representations of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community and the issues that affect our lives.”

To many, just the fact that the movie explores these issues so sensitively, and with such a high-profile cast, gives a rare de facto legitimization to lesbianism and bisexuality that overrides any negative aspects of the movie, especially since overall, the film clearly comes down on the side of promoting understanding and tolerance. Its also hard to argue with the power of the Star Factor, which Allison Janney inadvertently illustrates when she comments in an interview: “we were doing a scene where [Streep] was on camera and I was in bed with her and I have my back to her, and I just went, ‘I’m in bed with Meryl Streep!’ It was truly a wonderful moment.”

But will the image of Streep and Janney in bed together be strong enough to overcome the lingering impression of a parade of unhappy lesbian and bisexual women in The Hours? We may never get a clear answer, but the question is at least worth considering.