In 1971 actor Clint Eastwood tried to show his range by starring in the Civil War-set story of a cowardly Union soldier wounded and tended to by a boarding school of repressed women with secrets of their own. Despite being a box-office dud The Beguiled has gone on to have a cult following and declarations that it’s both feminist and misogynist, a dual reflection of the times with second-wave feminism defining the remainder of the decade in which it opened.
Last week Lost in Translation director Sofia Coppola was announced to lead a remake of the former Eastwood vehicle, with stars Nicole Kidman, Coppola alumnus Kirsten Dunst, and Elle Fanning set to star as three of the boarding school residents. In a landscape built on the corpses of films made and remade, Coppola’s Beguiled remake could finally set the proper tone the original film failed to achieve, as well as continue Coppola’s unspoken compendium devoted to confined women.
The Beguiled started out as a Southern Gothic novel by Thomas Cullinan. As a genre, the Southern Gothic tradition served to showcase characters’ reactions to the growing conservatism in the South in the wake of the South’s loss during the Civil War. Thus, characters in Southern Gothic novels dabbled with taboo topics like homosexuality or, in The Beguiled‘s case, women caught between expressing their desires for sex while remaining chaste in conjunction with gender and societal norms.
The women of the Farnsworth School that Confederate soldier John McBurney (Eastwood) meets express a veneer of class and elegance increasingly corrupted through their growing attraction to their new house guest. Like Miranda in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, McBurney is the first man the young girls have spent any time with, and thus it’s unclear how much of their attraction stems from anything other than his maleness, a topic in conflict with the growing fear of rape at the hands of wayward soldiers. The school’s headmistress, Martha (Geraldine Page), hides the girls from any passersby – like Rapunzel in her tower – and in one tense moment the threat of rape by brigands seemingly trying to do a good turn becomes a real possibility.
On top of their fears and isolation the girls’ various secrets are revealed, all of which represent perceptions of both femininity and the South. From the overly promiscuous Carol (Jo Ann Harris), whose sexuality might be due to her low breeding, to the in-breeding assumed of the South through the relationship between Miss Martha and her brother, and the presumed frigidity of the meek Edwina (Elizabeth Hartman), all the women harbor secret fears, personalities, and desires waiting for the perfect catalyst – or man, in this case – for which to reveal themselves.
But this doesn’t come through as clearly as it should in Don Siegel’s 1971 tome; it’s obscured by the presence of its star, Eastwood. Coming off a series of spaghetti Westerns and a musical bomb, Eastwood tried rehabbing his image with The Beguiled, yet his ladies’ man persona ends up creating a vein of misogyny. As with the other film he starred – and directed – in the same year, Play Misty for Me, The Beguiled often plays out like a pulpy depiction of “The Clint Eastwood Story” with a cadre of beautiful women – both young and old – doing their damndest to get into Eastwood’s breeches, and when that doesn’t work….well, there’s a reason they say “hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.” The star’s personality and sexuality becomes the focus, not the lives of the women themselves.
This is where Sofia Coppola’s light shines upon The Beguiled‘s future. Notice the announcement for this project centered around the actresses playing the Farnsworth girls, not who’d play McBurney. Considering Coppola’s history of female-centric tales, this bodes well for the film’s prospects. In fact, one could say Coppola’s worked on something similar to The Beguiled already, in her 1999 theatrical debut The Virgin Suicides.
Also based on a novel, by Jeffrey Eugenides, The Virgin Suicides also focuses on a group of confined young women dealing with finding the proper means of expressing their sexuality. Where the women of the Farnsworth school are protected from the outside world by a teacher, the Lisbon sisters here are confined by their overprotective mother (Kathleen Turner). Eugenides’ book and Coppola’s movie are set in the same period as when Eastwood’s Beguiled was released, and both movies comment on Women’s Liberation, in the moment and with the benefit of hindsight. The Beguiled shows second-wave feminism as something to fear, while The Virgin Suicides shows it as a revolutionary period smothered by conservative values.
The Lisbon girls could very well have attended the Farnsworth school, just move the events forward 100 years. Each Lisbon girl corresponds almost perfectly with the various females in The Beguiled: Lux (Kirsten Dunst) is as promiscuous as Carol, and all the girls have connections to the quiet Edwina with their repressed desires for a man and freedom outside their home. There’s even a McBurney counterpart in teenage dream Trip Fontaine (Josh Hartnett).
The distinction lies in how Coppola treats the girls in her story vs. Don Siegel. The Beguiled of 1971 is about Eastwood, with the women a ravenous horde desperate to please until he shows his duplicitous nature. When they finally get their revenge, they’re little more than a cabal of witches, bound to the Southern mysticism of suggestion and magic. McBurney is a flirt and a coward, a genuine cad, but the audience is left wondering if his death was really the proper punishment for him. As for the women, we’re only given snatches of their history through conversation and flashback, with an eye towards exposing their presumably true natures.
A director like Coppola pushes the onus on the females in her tale, leaving a male figure like Trip to act as a metaphor or at least an unattainable get society won’t let them have without serious repercussions. We’re meant to see their isolation as the confining pressures of society, something The Beguiled only hints at with the girls cooped up in the house. Though the framing narrative is from a male perspective, the narrator acknowledges his inability to truly define who the girls truly are. Like The Beguiled, we’re presented with snippets, but these snippets feel more well-rounded because the girls dominate the film.
In the end, this whole project could just boil down to a better novel to adapt, but Coppola’s deft touch as a filmer of women could do a lot towards taking The Beguiled out of mothballs, away from the confused confines of the 1970s, and turn it into a taut, engaging exploration of femininity in the South.