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Kiss My Lass: The Role of Women in Three Edward Burns Films

I think I’m the only person in the Western World who thoroughly enjoyed Edward Burns’ No Looking Back (1998). Not only did I feel it was a thoughtful examination of the working class blahs, but it was a big step in how Burns profiled women — a subject that’s as interesting as his movies. This is really why I’m interested in seeing Burns’ latest feature –Sidewalks of New York.

As a director, Burns’ views of women represent the guy: The person who didn’t take a Politics of Sexuality class in college and who didn’t grow up seeing women in business suits. Even in the alarmingly sexist She’s the One (1996), the movie feels authentic because the guy’s myopic view is expressed. He just happens to be living the city life.

Take away the environment in his first and third movies, The Brothers McMullen (1995) and No Looking Back, and Burns appears small-minded. Don’t even ask about She’s the One. In the context of small-town men rooted in Catholic doctrine and Elk lodges, the women in his films are a reflection of those values. The sexist criticism against Burns is further dissolved by the discovery that some women in his movies display maturity and pluck, especially in No Looking Back.

The Brothers McMullen presents two very strong female characters, though the plot focuses on the titular Irish siblings: Jack (Porky’s star Jack Mulcahy), a 33-year-old high school basketball coach who has an extramarital affair; Barry (Burns), an aspiring screenwriter who refuses to believe in true love; and Patrick (Mike McGlone), a devout Catholic, who has a crippling fear of the future.

The female characters in McMullen inspire their men to change, and as a result, most don’t make any choices. They send out a vibe and wait for the guy’s response. Three characters are really hurt by this. Barry’s girlfriend (Maxine Bahns) suffers from being terribly underwritten. We know little about her, and thanks to Bahns’ Redwood-like performance, we have no idea why Barry finally tries commitment. Jack’s mistress (Elizabeth B. McKay) isn’t even needed. McKay has a few scenes and her character is built on a shaky foundation of lust. Patrick’s fiancée basically annoys him into realizing that no amount of financial and social stability equals happiness.

However, not every woman gets fenced in. Jack’s wife, Molly (Connie Britton) may tolerate her husband’s cheating, but she’s no moron. When Jack stalls in confessing about his affair, Molly asks when he became a ‘fucking coward.’ Also, Molly proves her strength by attacking Jack over his indecisiveness to have a family, something he once wanted.

The other notable female character with a backbone is Leslie (Jennifer Jostyn), the neighborhood girl who brings Patrick out of his cocoon of doubt. As the two become friends, and eventually lovers, Leslie’s independent, upbeat attitude provides the perfect anecdote for Patrick’s self-flagellating despair. On the brink of marrying into a life of Catholic burden, Leslie re-evaluated herself and became a pro-life activist and vegetarian. Her actions speak volumes about the value of the self: You are in control of how you feel, not God.

Part of the reason why Burns’ viewpoint can be overlooked is because of the film itself: Shot on a shoestring budget in his parents’ house, this tale comes from the heart and soul. In She’s the One, Burns has the production values, the high profile cast and NYC locales. With the low budget impact gone, Burns’ attitude doesn’t fit. It’s like setting Stranger Than Paradise on Rodeo Drive. Regardless of setting or cast, the movie’s treatment of women is a feminist’s nightmare.

The story revolves around brothers Francis and Mickey (McGlone and Burns) and their relationships. Stockbroker Francis is cheating on wife Renee (Jennifer Aniston) with Mickey’s ex-fiancé, Heather (Cameron Diaz). Cabby Mickey meanwhile has just entered a whirlwind marriage with a passenger (Bahns) and is struggling to keep it from failing.

But those aren’t the only problems. Renee seems like a sophisticated, intelligent woman, or at least her dress indicates such. That’s why it is so difficult to understand why she puts up with Francis, a selfish, insulting lout (he chastises Renee for using a vibrator during their endless sexual ‘down cycle’). Renee wants to save the marriage, but there’s nothing to save. No hint is offered that Francis and Renee ever loved each other. Only when Francis asks for a divorce does Renee show some strength (‘I’m not crying, I’m leaving’), but not before coming across as a buxom punching bag.

Renee’s mistreatment is slight compared to Burns’ handling of Heather. Besides sleeping with Francis, she also sleeps with the elderly (and never seen) Papa. The problem is we don’t know why she sleeps with both men. Is she afraid of commitment? Lonely? An overly eager mattress saleswoman?

Adding to the character’s ambiguity is that Heather paid her way through college via prostitution. There’s just one problem. Burns never clarifies if she ever left the profession. Heather lives in a lavish apartment and dresses like a Vogue editor, but we have no idea what she does. She says she works on Wall Street. Great, but what does she do?

The prostitution angle turns Heather into a dumping ground for bitter men, and turns Burns into every jealous boyfriend. Burns has such contempt for the character that some scenes exist solely to show her vileness. For example, Mickey left Heather after he caught her sleeping with another guy, a sight that spurred him to drop out of sight for three years. Why then, after picking her up in his cab, would he go into her apartment? He goes there to get his TV, but there is a better reason.

Mickey: I’m sorry, I guess the fact that I’ve always tried to behave like a decent human being has rubbed you the wrong way, hasn’t it?

Heather: Well, look where your decency has gotten you. You’re the only English-speaking white guy driving a cab in New York.

Mickey: …I’ve got to imagine is beats sucking dick for a living, though, huh?

Heather: Depends on whose dick it is.

Every female character is damaged in She’s the One. They either are extremes or deal in extremes, except for Hope who is saved by Bahns’ perennially emotionless acting. Even Hope’s co-worker (the barely seen Leslie Mann) mentions the possibility of a threesome to Mickey.

The movie’s last 20 minutes are a half-hearted attempt by Burns to atone for his shoddy treatment of anything with breasts. Heather dumps Francis for Papa! Renee refuses to take a regretful Francis back, opting instead for her portly ex-boyfriend! Even the boys’ never-seen mother leaves her neglectful husband (John Mahoney) to shack up with the Lilliputian owner of the hardware store! The resolutions are insulting, as if Burns is saying, ‘You can be independent, just be with a man.’

For No Looking Back, Burns wisely returned to the small town. The result is a dramatically strong film with a memorable female character. Claudia (a surprisingly good Lauren Holly) is waitress at a diner who lives with her fiancé, Michael (Jon Bon Jovi). Life for them is stable and predictable, which suits her fine. However, her attitude changes when her impetuous ex-boyfriend, Charlie (Burns), returns to town. Claudia, despite her best efforts, soon finds herself drawn to his roguish charms. Michael’s reliability, meanwhile, looks less appealing.

Burns doesn’t make Claudia into an object, which he can’t since she is the lead character. She’s the first woman since Molly in The Brothers McMullen with any substance. Even better, Burns doesn’t flaunt
Claudia’s depth. Instead, he lets her relationship with both men do the talking. Burns’ sarcastic, sometimes winding dialogue is kept to a minimum. And it works. Michael guarantees stability, but for Claudia that means staying in her dumpy, gray town, which the film suggests to be a life-draining prospect. The colors in No Looking Back are washed out and subdued. It’s like watching The Last Picture Show in color.

Though Charlie would be a hedonistic blast, Claudia simply does not love him, a feeling that is established when they have sex. Burns films them in medium long shot, using the motel room’s bathroom door as a frame. This is a shot of two people sharing emotional distance and disinterest, not love. Such genuine confusion in a female character is a first for Burns. Until here, his women seemed to devour men or stand by them unquestionably. Claudia is a welcome change, an average woman who wants to take the initiative in creating her own happiness. In the end, Claudia doesn’t choose Michael or Charlie, which is the ultimate compliment to her character. Who else knows what she wants than herself?

Creating Claudia shows Edward Burns no longer looks at women as attractive plot devices. He is learning that though biologically different, women and men are capable of emotions. With that lesson under his belt, one can only hope he’ll make better and more honest movies. In an era of special effects bombast and envelope-pushing independent films, Burns’ blue-collar rasp is desperately needed.

Pete’s Ratings

The Brothers McMullen
She’s the One
No Looking Back

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