Fred Zinnemann’s The Member of the Wedding mystifies me. I’ve seen the film three times, yet I still feel no closer to understanding this deceptively dense, painfully poignant story of confused, wounded adolescence. In my time as a critic, I’ve grappled with such champions of cinematic esotericism as Andrei Tarkovsky, Jean-Luc Godard, and Michelangelo Antonioni. Yet this understated drama by a classic Hollywood director who did Westerns, noir, and war pictures is the one that leaves me confounded.
Based on the stage adaptation of Carson McCullers’ semi-autobiographical novel of the same name, the film takes place almost entirely in a single room in Columbus, Georgia with three characters: a young tomboy named Frankie (Julie Harris), her six-year-old cousin John Henry (Brandon De Wilde), and their black maid Berenice (Ethel Waters). Frankie, based loosely on McCullers, is only 12 (and five-sixths) years old, but she’s already 5 feet 5 (and 3/4) inches tall and looks twice that old. Trapped in an over-grown, androgynous body in a town full of pretty girls in nice dresses, all she wants is to “belong.” But where? Not at school where the girls her age exclude her. Not at home with an absent single father, an old maid from the segregated part of town, and a young boy who likes to dress as a girl (and looks better in a tutu and angel wings than she does). Her only hope is to run away with her older brother and his fiancée when they leave for their honeymoon. She doesn’t just love them, she might be in love with them: she wistfully declares them the “we of me.”
Though there are a few scattered scenes on the streets of Columbus—including a disturbing sequence where Frankie’s almost molested by a drunken soldier—the meat of the film takes place in the kitchen/sitting area of Frankie’s house where the three principals discuss the upcoming wedding. But the discussion soon becomes a battlefield, the site of Frankie’s slow-motion nervous breakdown in the face of an unstoppable, unknowable future—a future that might not need, want, nor require her. Frankie is seized by violent mood swings, bragging and laughing one moment, pulling a knife on Berenice the next. She fantasizes about joining a club one moment only to chase a group of classmates out of her yard soon after. Berenice patiently tries to calm her down, but she’s got troubles of her own, not the least of which is her troublesome son Honey (James Edwards), a trumpet-playing, troublemaking drunk who feels just as lost as a young black man in the pre-Civil Rights American South as Frankie does in a mannish, weirdly developed woman’s body.
Watching the film, one of the first things you notice is Zinnemann’s frequent use of sudden close-ups, a technique which preserves the claustrophobic atmosphere of the film’s theatrical origins. They work as an emotional microscope, lingering in the mind much longer than traditional close-ups in other Hollywood films of the period. I can still see many of them in my head: Frankie staring out of a window at night, occasionally glimpsing the moths beating their incessant wings against the mesh; Berenice glancing up towards the heavens as the recounts the night her beloved husband Ludie Freeman died; Frankie and John Henry silently weeping as Berenice pulls them to her bosom, singing all the while “His Eye Is on the Sparrow.” But the most painful close-up in the film is a simple shot of Frankie looking on in strained incomprehension as her older brother says “I do.”
The Member of the Wedding is rich for modern re-interpretation, especially with regards to sexuality. Modern readers could see in John Henry the makings of, if not a transsexual, then an effete cross-dresser; in Frankie we see the bourgeoning of a possible polyamorous pansexuality—not much of a stretch considering McCullers’ real-life bisexuality. Though it might be tempting to affix such diagnostic labels on these characters, doing so could result in missing McCullers’ overall atmosphere of personal discontentment. Of all the major characters in the film, only Berenice seems comfortable with her lot in life. Honey wants to skip town, John Henry wants to be a girl, Frankie just wants to be…anybody else.
Much of my vexation with The Member of the Wedding comes from its abrupt, anti-climactic ending. Following three tragedies—two inevitable, one completely unexpected—the film jumps forward about seven months to find a more mature Frankie getting ready to go on a date with a local boy. Dolled up in a nice dress, her previously wild hair all matted and combed, she seems bizarrely happy. Everything seems happy and picturesque. We hear her describe her beau to Berenice as “like a Greek god.” But when he shows up, he looks like a lumpy potato dropped down a flight of stairs. And unfortunately, he doesn’t seem much smarter. Has Frankie blossomed into the young woman she always wanted to be, or has she surrendered herself to the delusion of socially proscribed heterosexuality and gender roles? The film’s not telling.
But then, that’s The Member of the Wedding for you. For a film of such luminous, unforgiving insight into the mindset of a confused adolescent girl, it plays its cards close to the chest, not revealing its secrets or intentions. What is it trying to say? What was McCullers trying to say? I’m not sure.
Twilight Time recently released a wonderful Blu-ray transfer of the film, stuffed with a number of interviews, audio commentaries, and informative shorts. In trying to crack the film, I’ve watched them all. Yet like a mirage of mountains on the horizon, I still have a long way to go. The riddle remains unanswered.