It would be remiss of me to gloss over my excitement at the news of Cynthia Nixon, serious acting’s token lesbian, signing on to play the problematic Emily Dickinson in a forthcoming Terence Davies biopic. Not to mention jejune. As someone who only started to care about Nixon after Sex and the City was over, it’s my job to get excited about this shit. Only the most cold-hearted of queers, still for some reason reeling about Nixon’s apparent faux pas earlier this year in stating that her own homosexuality was a choice, could have felt anything but rapture at the thought. However when I took a step back from news, the initial thrill died down, as well as nagging questions about what they’ll end up doing with Nixon’s hair (horrible dye, or horrible wig?) and I considered the facts. Not really the facts, actually, but the climate out of which this news comes. Mainstays of this climate include impassioned arguments about the ability of gay vs. straight actors to play straight characters, arguments about skin tone, films about disability that still use the outdated “inspiration” model, films featuring an Asian character played by a Caucasian actor done up in Yellowface, and general pointings-out of a lack of representational diversity in general. If an Emily Dickinson biopic at first looks like progress within this climate, on closer inspection, it ends up looking a bit desperate.
First off, we all know Dickinson’s life was just the slightest bit uneventful, and very largely, if not completely internal. Film has classically had a problem portraying internal life, and tends to rely on some kind of action to tie any kind of internal focus it has back into something that reads, if not linearly, at least somewhat like a story. In the best case scenario, Davies’ A Quiet Passion might look something like Cronenberg’s Spider. In the worst case scenario, it will look like Sarah Polley’s Take This Waltz, minus about two-thirds of the “action”. But it’s not the lack of palpable ‘action’ that’s troubling–this is something of a Davies specialty, at least the Davies of Distant Voices, Still Lives and The Long Day Closes. What’s troubling is the lack of potential scenes, compounded with the inevitable onslaught of conjecture about Dickinson’s alleged lesbianism and equally alleged virginity. Since whatever forward-moving plot could exist in A Quiet Passion will probably hinge on such conjectural thinking, one has to wonder why it is that Dickinson is the chosen subject of a lushly produced biopic, and if it’s perhaps a sign that we’re shying away from exploring concrete, documented lives rather than mostly imagined ones.
Consider the emotionally rich inner lives and sexually explicit outer lives of Langston Hughes, James Baldwin or (though not a poet proper) Billy Strayhorn, about whom mainstream biopics have not yet been made? Surely these lives offer a richer story (not to mention more salacious) than Dickinson’s own, which, translated into film language, could succeed best as a kind of stylistic experiment, filled with the visual equivalent of the dashes and gaps and stoppings-short of the poetry itself. But something tells me that’s not what Davies has in mind.
That said, the project will probably be interesting even as a failure, and I wish it well. But I do wonder what to make of these trends in dead people that seem to exist as blinking red lights to show us what, and who as a culture we’re ignoring in life, and in the present.