Misery loves company. The first time that phrase made sense to me was when a friend tried to get me to join the carnival with her. I know it sounds like a bad joke. But, in the 1980’s, my friend, Gina, tried to get me to join the carnival. I think we were in Fountain City, Wisconsin. She and her boyfriend had been carnies for all of three months. I went with her parents to see them. Her parents were going to try and wrench their child back to reality and I went for a visit. On the ride home with them, I told her parents that she had tried to convince me to join them and her dad said, “Well, misery loves company.”*
The theme song was Love Lifts Us Up and the end scene is Richard Gere carrying Debra
Winger out of the factory low class girls were doomed to never escape unless they could snag a “Pilot” from the local flight academy.** The film is An Officer and Gentleman (1982).
Our plucky working-class factory girl Paula Pokrifki (Winger) became a working-class hero to the girls left back at the dream-crushing factory. But, really what was so heroic about showing up every year at the academy to greet the new recruits with the express purpose of marrying a pilot? OK, so she says, it’s actually “to meet interesting people.” (I think that must be the reason why Monica Lewinsky became an intern.)
Paula might be one of the most vapid characters every created by Hollywood. We have no idea what aspirations she has other than to do a better job than her parents. Meaning she wants to get pregnant by a pilot after he marries her and not before and have to settle by marrying some townie bush leaguer like her mother. Paula is the product of a pilot seduction gone wrong 22 years before.
The actor Grace – Miss Dramatic-much – Zabriskie plays Paula’s mother. The two have a heated exchange about the perils of trying to trap a Pilot. (The only thing the women in this town talk about are the flight candidates and how to get one or how one screwed them over. ) Shrieking she counsels Paula that to keep Zack “she will say or do anything and god help you then, Paula!” The upshot is Paula admits she would say or do anything to keep Richard Gere. (Really, in 1982 anyone would have.)
The only reason Debra’s character, Paula, is at all redeemable is that her friend is such a big skank. Her friend Lynette, played by Lisa Blount, pretends to be pregnant to get Sid, Gere’s sad sack friend played by David Keith, to marry her. But, the plan falls apart when he proposes only after deciding to leave the academy thus ending Lynette’s hope of a middle class life. She dumps him and he kills himself. Hence, skank.
By contrast, you don’t realize Debra sold her soul to an emotionally unavailable man – who will end up banging the first woman pilot he works with. Paula says, “I want to fly jets”. But, what she really means is rescue me from this god-forsaken town because I don’t have the balls to do it myself.
Gere’s, Zack Mayo, has grown up in an even more depressing world inhabited by a drunk and abusive father who screws hookers in front of him. When Zack leaves his father to enter the academy he says, “I am going to fly jets.” And, he does. The relationship to watch in the film is between Zack and his staff sergeant, Emil Foley (Louis Gossett, Jr. garnered an Oscar for his performance). Foley is the good father Zack never had who turns him from a selfish jerk in to an officer – and, I guess a gentleman.
There is another, better film with a scene of a woman being carried – albeit it kicking and screaming – out of a factory. In Norma Rae (1979) Sally Field gives the performance of a lifetime as a working-class girl who fights the good fight and starts a union in her factory. This is big picture stuff – workers right’s and being a better person – not the puny dreams of marrying up.
Norma Rae is one step away from being trailer trash. She has sex with a married man at a local hotel and is then unceremoniously beaten by him. It is at this moment she meets Reuben, played by Ron Leibman – a union organizer who has landed in her god-for-saken town. But, instead of marrying Norma Rae, Reuben inspires her to put her livelihood and safety on the line to make conditions better in the mill she and her entire factory work at. He sees Norma as the big fish he needs to rally the workers. His belief in her helps Norma become someone she hadn’t ever imagined – a hero.
If you can watch the scene where little Sally Fields stands on a work table and holds the sign “UNION” over her head to get the attention of her fellow workers without choking up you’re heart is made of pure stone. Sally, we really, really love you! (The film was directed by Martin Brest, black- listed during the McCarthy hearings.)
For the romantics out there fear not. In Norma Rae, Sally stills gets a guy (Beau Bridges at his dreamiest) and makes a friend who alters the course of her life for the better (Ron Leiber at his dreamiest). Bottom line, girls, if you are going to be carried out of a factory to a better life make sure it’s by local law enforcement. Love Lifts Us for real! ***
* Gina did eventually come to her senses and returned home and enrolled in college. Where I did follow her.
**As a first generation college graduate even I had wished some guy who was better than me, would save me, too. Independence can be a lot of work and what with college loans jet pilots can be very appealing.
*** Our mom was a union organizer and after this movie came out we called her “Norma Rae” instead of “mom”.