The 1939 movie Wuthering Heights, directed by William Wyler and based on Emily Brontë's 1847 novel, flirts with subjects that were considered to be unacceptable for audiences in 1939. After all, what is more alluring than being a voyeur to taboo? Could you imagine the stir amongst right-wingers if a love story about interracial incest were to be promoted on national television as "coming to a theater near you"? Fox News would have a heyday. It was hard to watch 1939's Wuthering Heights and not think of the characters that Emily Brontë devoted so much time developing. Not only does the film omit an entire generation, but it also does not give an accurate portrayal of the difference in Heathcliff and Cathy's races. When young Heathcliff arrives in the film, he appears older than the novel's Heathcliff. He also appears more ethnically different from his adopted family than Laurence Olivier's Heathcliff. This may have been intentional to illustrate Heathcliff's metamorphosis into a "gentleman." And Heathcliff's age discrepancy between the book and the movie probably served to mask the incest issue. Brontë was much more overt in allowingreaders to understand that these children were raised as brother and sister. The film downplays their sibling relationship.
We as a society have taken a winding path to the left. Just look at some of today's most popular television shows. Will and Grace features a gay man in one of the title roles. A so-white-she's-blue-Miranda is very graphically getting it on with Blair Underwood, LA Law's first black lawyer, on HBO's Sex in the City. And as far as incest goes, I am pretty sure Cletus from The Simpsons is married to his first cousin. They have more children than shoes. We as citizens of the twenty-first century take all of this moral decay with a grain of salt on our popcorn as we sit glued to our sofas for this week's installment of any, or all, of the aforementioned sitcoms.
But think about it, interracial incest. The definition is difficult. The term "interracial" is self-explanatory; but add the word "incest," and you have to assume blended families are involved. This is the case in Wuthering Heights. As mentioned, Heathcliff (Laurence Oliver) is of a different origin than the arista-guided Catherine (Merle Oberon). Everyone in the story who sees their true relationship takes for granted that it could never blossom into marriage. But not only are the colors of their skin and hair different, they were raised as brother and sister, as played by the young Rex Downing and Sarita Wooten. This fact takes a back seat in the minds of the story's players as to their incompatibility. This is most certainly due to the fact that inter-family marriage was almost a necessity during Brontë's time. Just like on The Simpsons, this practice was common among cousins, but not siblings.
This idea of interracial incest is so difficult that a single example of the one topic is still elusive, even in 2003. I am sure I will see something on IFC in a week that fits perfectly, but for now I am required to look at two recent movies that take on these sensitive subjects rather than one. Monster's Ball (directed by Marc Forster and released in 2001) serves as an illustration of interracial relationships, and The Royal Tenenbaums (directed by Wes Anderson and released in 2001) is a case study on blended family incest.
Halle Berry received an Oscar for her portrayal of a black woman who finds an unconventional lover (Billy Bob Thornton) in the white, redneck, death row guard of her doomed husband. Her life is complicated enough that she should not have to just walk away from her boyfriend's father after he makes an abominably racist remark. But turn and walk she does. I believe this scene where Peter Boyle plays an angry, ill, racist father illustrates that even now some people are not as far along that path going left as we might hope.
In The Royal Tenenbaums, Luke Wilson's Richie Tenenbaum is in love with his adopted sister, Margot, played by Gwyneth Paltrow. The feeling is mutual, but both realize the stigma involved. Margot even resolves that their love will be their crosses to bear despite their heartbreak. This is reiterated when Royal (Oscar-nominated Gene Hackman) says, "But she's your sister" over and over. But by the end of the movie, the audience is led to assume that their love is stronger than society's rules. After all, "she's adopted."
I have to admit that I enjoyed both Monster's Ball and The Royal Tenenbaums much more than Wuthering Heights. It has nothing to do with the time frame in which it is set or the soundtrack or the actors. The reason the two newer movies appeal more to me is the fact that they are not based on novels that I have read, but rather screenplays that I have not. I had no expectations. I did however enjoy watching the subtleties of the interracial incest taboos come across the screen in black and white. But did they come across to the audience in 1939? I doubt it. This is due to clever casting and omissions of the content of the novel. Literary scholars of that time must have been aware of the liberties that were taken when the novel was adapted into the screenplay. But to those audience members who had never read the book, the film could play out as a simple love story with talented actors. Ignorance is bliss.