Thursday, October 3, 2013

Just My Imagination (Running Away with Me): My Mortal Enemy by Willa Cather

Bette Davis, Elizabeth Taylor, Judy Davis
The Metzinger Sisters of Silver Scenes are hosting a classic film event,The Great Imaginary Film Blogathon - and this is my entry. Click here for links to participating blogs.

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In 1926, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Willa Cather published her eighth novel, a novella, really, titled My Mortal Enemy. Among the writer's many poetic works of prose fiction, the book earned a reputation for both its lean structure and dramatic plot. When I read it for the first time, I couldn't help but imagine what a powerful film My Mortal Enemy might be. Yet I also knew that, because of Cather's profound unhappiness with the film version of A Lost Lady (1934, starring Barbara Stanwyck), she hadn't allowed her other works to be adapted in her lifetime and that at the time of her death in 1947, the terms of her will dictated a ban on future film adaptations. Mostly because I saw in My Mortal Enemy's central character, Myra Driscoll Henshawe, a role that would provide a golden opportunity for the right actress to deliver a blistering tour de force performance, I was saddened that it would never be dramatized.

The tale unfolds from the point of view of its narrator, a young Midwestern woman named Nellie, who grew up enchanted by the local legend of a great romance that had taken place not too many years before she was born. Myra Driscoll had been the pampered only heir of her great-uncle, the wealthiest man in town. Though well-educated and handsome, Oswald Henshawe was of more humble origins, and the love that developed between the two was unacceptable to Myra's guardian. Myra threw away the certain inheritance of most of her great-uncle's enormous fortune when she defied him and eloped with Oswald. For young Nellie, Myra and Oswald's "runaway marriage" was "the most interesting, indeed the only interesting" story among those told on "holidays or at family dinners."

Myra had been taken in by her great-uncle when she was orphaned in childhood. He took her traveling with him to Europe, had her portrait painted by a noted artist, lavished her with clothing and jewelry as well as a riding horse and "a Steinway piano." She was spirited and witty and pretty and her guardian took pride in her. Though she enjoyed a close, affectionate relationship with him, she was also proud and willful. When he solemnly promised he would "cut her off without a penny" if she married Oswald, she didn't react immediately. Some months later, though, Myra went out on a sleigh-ride with friends and never returned. She and Oswald met at a pre-arranged time and place, were married with his parents and her friends in attendance and departed in the wee hours on an express train.

Drawing by Edward Hopper

The Myra we glimpse through Nellie's recollection of the stories she's been told all her life is passionate, impulsive, determined and full of self-confidence. The Myra we encounter when Nellie meets her in person is much seasoned by time and experience, and very worldly. Myra and Oswald return to the small town 25 years after their elopement and Nellie, now 15, is finally introduced to the couple she has idealized as storybook lovers. She meets Myra first and is both bewitched and intimidated by the still-handsome but heavier-than-expected middle-aged woman. Myra's "charming, fluent voice, her clear light enunciation" bewilders Nellie, who also notes that her "sarcasm was so quick, so fine at the point - it was like being touched by a metal so cold that one doesn't know whether one is burned or chilled." Oswald is less imposing though also charismatic, and Nellie is captivated by his "dark and soft" eyes, shaped "exactly like half-moons." She observes "something about him that suggested personal bravery, magnanimity, and a fine, generous way of doing things." Nellie was more comfortable with Oswald than Myra, "because he did not frighten one so much." By the time the Henshawes leave days later, it has been decided that Nellie and her aunt will spend the Christmas holidays in New York and stay at a hotel near Oswald and Myra's apartment on Madison Square.

Madison Square painted by Paul Cornoyer, circa 1900

Once in New York, Nellie falls instantly in love with the couple's apartment in a brownstone on the north side of the Square. She enthusiastically takes in every detail - including long velvet curtains "lined with that rich cream-colour that lies under the blue skin of ripe figs." She is dazzled at the celebrity-studded New Years' Eve party the Henshawe's host, and enthralled when an opera star sings an aria from Bellini's Norma to piano accompaniment. But she also observes first-hand a darker side to the Henshawe marriage.  After spending a pleasant day with Myra in Central Park, Nellie notices in her friend what seems an "insane ambition" when the woman offhandedly reveals deep bitterness that her lifestyle isn't at all grand enough to suit her. Then, finally, Nellie walks in on the pair in the midst of a ferocious quarrel. Myra has found a key on Oswald's key-ring that he cannot or will not explain to her satisfaction. Already, Nellie is aware that a young woman of Oswald's acquaintance has given him a gift of topaz cufflinks and that, to avoid Myra's jealous wrath, he had asked her aunt to pretend they were a Christmas gift from her. As Nellie and her aunt leave New York, Myra makes sure to tell them that she knows the cufflinks were not a present from the aunt, "I was sure to find out, I always do," she says. Nellie will not see the Henshawes for another ten years and when she does, it comes as a complete surprise.

At 25, Nellie ventures, without much conviction, to a West Coast city (reminiscent of Los Angeles then) to teach. She takes rooms in an apartment-hotel and once there finds that the Henshawes are living in the same building. Their circumstances are much reduced and Myra, now a wheelchair-bound invalid, is dying. Oswald, who holds a low-paying job with the city while also carefully tending to his wife, looks far older than his years. Myra appears to Nellie "strong and broken, generous and tyrannical, a witty and rather wicked old woman." Those traits the younger woman had admired and disliked before seem to have become ever more pronounced.

As death approaches, Myra grows more demanding and difficult, as does her hostility toward Oswald. She is openly suspicious of him and seems to blame him for her every discomfort and complaint. On one particularly bad night she laments that she must "die like this, alone with my mortal enemy..." Nellie, chilled as she listens to these bitter words, reflects that "...violent natures like hers sometimes turn against themselves..." 


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I’ve envisioned many actresses in the role of Myra Henshawe.

A rich, multifaceted character like Myra would have tantalized Miss Bette Davis during her heyday. With William Wyler in the director’s chair, Davis had turned in three outstanding performances – in Jezebel (1938), The Letter (1940) and The Little Foxes (1941), all of them earning Best Actress Oscar nominations for her, and Jezebel bringing the gold statuette. And all three characters possessed traits in common with Myra – spoiled, impetuous Julie, manipulative Leslie Crosbie and fierce Regina Giddens. So, with Wyler directing Davis, a screenplay by the Epstein brothers and/or Howard Koch, and an evocative score by Max Steiner, My Mortal Enemy could easily have been another stellar Warner Bros. release during Hollywood’s Golden Age. While Warners might’ve been inclined to put George Brent or Herbert Marshall in the role of Oswald, the studio’s best bet would’ve been Paul Henreid. It seems to me, though, that another actor from another studio, someone like Lew Ayres, would've been a better fit.

I’ve also imagined My Mortal Enemy as a Technicolor production from the 1950s starring Deborah Kerr and Gregory Peck. Kerr’s lofty poise and ability to convey tumultuous emotions (Black Narcissus, From Here to Eternity, The Innocents) would've made for an interesting take on Myra, who was as haughty as she was passionate. Gregory Peck would have had no trouble portraying gentle, magnetically attractive Oswald. A good pick to direct might’ve been John Huston, who so often and successfully adapted literary gems (The Maltese Falcon, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre). Huston also devised the vivid color concept of Moulin Rouge (1952) and directed both Kerr and Peck in popular films of the 1950s.

In the late 1960s, My Mortal Enemy could’ve provided a high profile vehicle as well as a solid follow-up to Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? for Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. The characters were within their individual ranges, but "Liz & Dick's"  tabloid notoriety and worldwide superstardom at the time might well have overpowered the actual characters and story. Perhaps with Mike Nichols, who directed Virginia Woolf, at the helm, My Mortal Enemy could’ve been one of those memorable transitional films that bridged the shift from the studio era to the age of “easy riders and raging bulls.”
Meryl Streep, Jeremy Irons, The French Lieutenant's Woman


Meryl Streep was well established by the 1980s, and a complex and meaty role like Myra would’ve seemed tailor-made for her remarkable talents. Teaming her with Jeremy Irons, her co-star in The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1981), would’ve worked well. On the other hand, there’s the superb but relatively underrated Judy Davis, who emerged with My Brilliant Career (1979) and A Passage to India (1984), earning a Best Actress Oscar nomination for the latter. Davis possesses, along with an ability to express the deep anguish of a divided soul, the vivacity and sharp humor integral to Myra’s personality. I would pair Davis with William Hurt and put them under the direction of Martin Scorsese, who later rendered a moving and meticulous adaptation of Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence (1993).

By the early 1990s, adaptations of Willa Cather’s fiction for television had begun to surface. Perhaps the ban on “film” adaptations did not, technically, apply to broadcast media. A PBS production of O Pioneers!, starring Mary McDonnell, appeared in 1991 and a Hallmark Hall of Fame adaptation of the same novel followed in 1992, starring Jessica Lange. In 1995, the USA Network aired a TV-movie version of My Ántonia, the second novel in Cather’s Prairie Trilogy (after Pioneers), starring Jason Robards and Eva Marie Saint. Finally, in 2001, the third book in the trilogy, The Song of the Lark, was adapted for PBS, starring Maximilian Schell and Alison Elliot.

Following the death of the last living executor of Willa Cather’s estate, Charles Cather, in 2011, The Cather Trust dropped the prohibition contained in her will against the publication of her letters and the adaptation of her fiction to film. In April 2013 Knopf published The Selected Letters of Willa Cather. A dramatization of My Mortal Enemy, it seems, might actually come to pass one day. Cate Blanchett, now in her early 40s, is still young as well as old enough for the plum role of Myra. But the possibilities are endless - and fascinating.

Cate Blanchett by David Downton

22 comments:

  1. I wish these movies had been made, especially the Bette Davis version! Myra sounds like a great character.

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  2. Amy, I recommend reading the book to get a true sense and the full impact of Myra. It is only 85 pages in length and beautifully written.

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  3. It's obvious that Cather's novella has inspired your rich imagination. I almost ache to see the creative talents you wrote of giving their all to the work.

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    1. "My Mortal Enemy" is one of my favorite of her novels and I've loved it for a long time. I'm hoping a dramatization does eventually occur - though I shudder to think what Hollywood might make of it these days.

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  4. LE,
    I'm finally getting back over here to see what you've been up to. You've been up to a lot! ha ha

    Such an interesting topic and you've put so much research into this one then your thoughts on the subject were such a fun read. Love your idea about Peck and Kerr in the 50s remake. (And like, Amy the Bette version sounds grand. But Bette in anything is always entertaining, good or bad.)

    See ya soon!
    Page

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    1. Hi Page, Good to hear from you again. With the Bette version, I felt I had to stipulate Wyler, otherwise a lesser director of that era might've been tempted to make a "soap" of it.

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  5. "My Mortal Enemy" is a great book that I've read a couple of times, though not in recent years - it has a punch that devastates. I remember thinking years ago that it would make an excellent film (I hadn't known about the Cather ban). Maybe, she was right. It would have been quite easy to have turned the film into a melodramatic weep-fest, which is probably what she was afraid of. If they make it today, I hope it will be done by an independent production that would capture the essence of Cather's book - in a cinematic/poetic way, without pumping up the theatrics, which is what might have well happened in earlier days, especially if someone like Selznick got a hold of it. "My Mortal Enemy" could make a wonderful film.

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    1. Willa Cather's prose is quite lyrical, emotionally evocative and often cinematic. Hard to equal (as with Fitzgerald, Flaubert, Nabokov). "A Lost Lady," sadly, wasn't up to the task. As for "My Mortal Enemy," I think either a high-end (artistic) indie release or an HBO production would be the best (maybe only) route. All I ask is that it not star Gwyneth Paltrow, Julia Roberts or Sandra Bullock.

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  6. Lady Eve, a superb exploration of Willa Cather’s "My Mortal Enemy" and the history of challenges in adapting the story for cinema. I have read the author’s “prairie trilogy”, as well as "One Of Ours", but her novella is an intriguing discovery for me. The rich material, with an absorbing character arc, would prove challenging and engaging for any actress. However, some of the descriptions bring Bette Davis immediately to mind: her "sarcasm was so quick, so fine at the point - it was like being touched by a metal so cold that one doesn't know whether one is burned or chilled." I also find the description of Oswald Henshaw, with his soft and captivating dark eyes, brings to mind two actors you didn’t mention: Montgomery Clift and Timothy Dalton (during his Heathcliff period). Both actors had a similar dark beauty and could communicate a sensitive, long-suffering spirit. I think, ultimately, I would choose either Tyrone Power with Rita Hayworth, the pair should have made more films together, or Meryl Streep with Jeremy Irons, The French Lieutenant’s Woman haunts me still. Thanks for allowing your imagination to run away with you, and for sharing the journey (I put "My Mortal Enemy" on hold through my library).

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    1. Gypsy, Generally Myra is seen as an unsympathetic character, though I saw her as more sympathetic in my most recent reading. The best actresses can evoke both the darkness and the beauty of a character - which would be a requirement to portray Myra. Your casting ideas are interesting. As you know, I'd cast Tyrone Power in just about anything, but it would've been interesting to see him as the long-suffering, if not entirely faithful, husband to something of a hurricane of a woman.

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  7. Beautiful essay Lady Eve, as well as a fine exploration into the possibilities of actors for the roles. Since English actors are so common these days playing American roles, and harkening back to the 60s, I could see Julie Christie as Myra, with Alan Bates as Oswald, or that under-appreciated actor Terence Stamp, a trio right out of Far from the Madding Crowd.

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    1. Christian, My very first casting thought for the role of Myra was Anne Bancroft (this was many years ago and likely inspired by her performances in "The Miracle Worker" and "The Graduate"). For some reason your mention of Julie Christie reminded me of that. You are so right about Terence Stamp. He should've had a much bigger career - though, in the end, he has certainly had a long one with some very fine roles in films large and small. The roles he should've had could be the subject of another post on "imaginary films."

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  8. I've never read "My Mortal Enemy", but I've put it on my library "list". I read Cather's "My Antonia" just a few months ago, and loved it.

    Your post is beautifully written. While I think Cate Blanchett or Meryl Streep would have been fabulous in this role, I wish - WISH - it had been done with Bette Davis.

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    1. "My Mortal Enemy" is one of my very favorite Willa Cather novels - along with "Death Comes for the Archbishop" and "The Professor's House" (particularly the section titled "Tom Outland's Story") - and would love to know your reaction when you've read it.

      I do think Bette and Mr. Wyler could've fashioned one of her finest performances and one of the great films of the late '30s/early '40s from Miss Cather's masterpiece of a novella.

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  9. Wonderful, just wonderful. I have never read this book, but am on my way to Amazon right now. Oh, those great romances that fizzle.... Viv and Larry, the Duke & Dutchess, Lucy & Desi, Sonny & Cher...... (good call on Liz & Dick, but I think Liz should have played Oswald & Dick Myrna).

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    1. Hmmm, some of those ill-fated romances you mention are greater than others...and as for Liz & Dick - ha! - and no comment...

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  10. I agree with you: the possibilities are endless and fascinating! I'd love to watch any of the adaptations you imagined, especially the ones made during Hollywod's golden age.
    Don't forget to read my contribution to the blogathon! :)
    Kisses!

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    1. Thanks, Lê, I'll be sure to read your contribution (it's taking me some time) - I'm sure it's imaginative and original, as always.

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  11. Eve, As I was reading you article I kept thinking Liz Taylor would make a great Myra, so I was glad to see you had her in your list. I was at first surprised by Deborah Kerr as a selection however, the more I thought about it the more I could see her in the role. Interesting stuff!

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    1. John, So glad you mentioned Deborah Kerr. When she first occurred to me I wasn't quite sure, but like you, "the more I thought about it the more I could see her in the role." Bette and Liz seem "naturals" in their different ways and different eras - and I think Judy Davis is brilliant and could play just about any part. I also like Christian's suggestion of Julie Christie.

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  12. I adore this novel. I can't pick it up without re-reading it almost every time. It's getting to the point where I have to hide it.

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    1. I've read My Mortal Enemy several times, too. It has fascinated me from the first. So glad you stopped by.

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