Format: Turner Classic Movies on rockin’ flatscreen.
Women in Love was one of those movies that has been unfindable for me since I started the Oscars lists. No library in my network has it; NrtFlix doesn’t have it. It’s not on any streaming service I can find. Because of this, I was thrilled when it showed up on TCM. When I finally track down a rarity, I tend to watch it right away. In the case of this movie, I have to wonder why it was so hard to find.
This is not because Women in Love is a great or even a good movie. It’s overlong and filled with the kind of excess that can only exist in a Ken Russell film. No, it’s about this film’s unique place in film history. It is the first time an actress won for a role that included nudity. It was Ken Russell’s only nomination. It was also one of the first mainstream movies to feature full-frontal male nudity. I don’t get why films with multiple nominations—and a win—get so lost. Sure, it’s not a great film, but it has history.
The movie is based on the work of the same name by D.H. Lawrence, which will mean a few things. We’ll hit some of his themes, like industrialization and its attendant dehumanization. We’ll get moments of artistic expression and spontaneity as well as ideas of emotional distance and connection. And sex. Lots and lots of sex. That’s what Lawrence was most famous for, after all.
Ursula (Jennie Linden) and Gudrun Brangwen (Glenda Jackson) head off to a local wedding. While there, they encounter two men who will become central to their lives. Gudrun is taken with Gerald Crich (Oliver Reed), the wealthy heir of the local coal mine owner and the brother of the bride. Ursula finds herself attracted to Gerald’s best friend Rupert Birkin (Alan Bates).
What follows is a twin romance where our two couples start from the same place and go in vastly different directions. For Ursula and Rupert, romance blossoms into eventual marriage and a love that becomes all-encompassing for the two of them. For Gerald and Gudrun, it’s less a romance than it is an antagonistic partnership that includes sex. There’s no real love between the pair even if there is physical attraction. This relationship eventually comes to a tragic and terrible end.
In truth, though, Women in Love was notable in the year(s) of its release (1969 in the UK, 1970 in the US) for two specific scenes. The first involves Rupert narrating how to eat a fig, demonstrated by his at-the-time girlfriend Hermione Roddice (Eleanor Bron) and then a second method demonstrated by himself. The entire sequence, filmed with a group sitting around an outdoor table at a picnic, is one of the most erotic moments of the film, particularly because in Rupert’s world, the fig is a clear stand-in for the female genitalia.
The second scene also involves Rupert, this time with Gerald. Rupert is convinced that there are many different types of lifelong attachments and love. While he wants a lifelong romantic relationship with a woman—eventually that woman becomes Ursula—he believes that a similar sort of attachment can be made with a man. What comes of this is a nude wrestling scene between Rupert and Gerald. It’s probably the most homoerotic mainstream scene filmed to that point, and almost certainly maintained that status until the beach volleyball scene in Top Gun. I’m curious as to how the sweaty, grunting, naked Oliver Reed played to audiences at the time. I don’t see the appeal of the man; he looks to me for all the world like a life-sized LEGO minifig.
I suppose I should talk about the actual nominations here. It’s probably Ken Russell’s most coherent direction, which is likely what earned him the nomination. That’s kind of sad, though, because Russell is always at his best when it seems like he’s directing the film through a haze of mescaline. I guess the screenplay is decently adapted as well. It doesn’t do a lot for me, though. I find most of the characters to be annoying, dull, or pointless and while the conversations attempt very much to be enlightened and airy, they mostly just feel like pretentious assholes speaking pretentiously about their own spiritual ennui that exists despite their massive wealth.
It’s Glenda Jackson who won, though, and I’m honestly not sure why. I admit that Jackson rarely does anything for me. I’ve liked her once or twice before, but usually I don’t understand the appeal of her. I find her almost uniformly cold and distant, a cinematic ice queen that seems perhaps appropriate for the character Gudrun becomes, but on the surface doesn’t fit well for something that is at least marginally a romance. There’s something about her that screams posh and arrogant to me. That can be effective, but it also makes me wonder just how much that’s her and how much is acting, especially because it seems like that’s all she plays. Maybe it’s the ubiquitous pageboy haircut.
My real question is why Alan Bates was ignored. He’s the best and most interesting thing in the film. Bates seemed to be overlooked more than was right, and this is a case where I think I can argue successfully for a nomination for him. Seriously, he can have Ryan O’Neal’s place.
Ultimately, it’s a big so what. While it’s lavish and pretty, it doesn’t have that edge of insanity I not only expect but crave from Ken Russell’s work. Couple that with a star I don’t really like and Oliver Reed’s made-entirely-out-of-rectangles physique, and there’s too much here I just can’t get behind.
Why to watch Women in Love: Figs.
Why not to watch: It’s almost impossible to care about any of the characters.