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Do women in classical Hollywood cinema ever truly speak for themselves?
In Echo and Narcissus, Amy Lawrence examines eight classic films to show how women's speech is repeatedly constructed as a "problem," an affront to male authority. This book expands feminist studies of the representation of women in film, enabling us to see individual films in new ways, and to ask new questions of other films.
Using Sadie Thompson (1928), Blackmail (1929), Rain (1932), The Spiral Staircase, Sorry,Wrong Number, Notorious, Sunset Boulevard (1950) and To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), Lawrence illustrates how women's voices are positioned within narratives that require their submission to patriarchal roles and how their attempts to speak provoke increasingly severe repression. She also shows how women's natural ability to speak is interrupted, made difficult, or conditioned to a suffocating degree by sound technology itself. Telephones, phonographs, voice-overs, and dubbing are foregrounded, called upon to silence women and to restore the primacy of the image.
Unlike the usage of "voice" by feminist and literary critics to discuss broad issues of authorship and point of view, in film studies the physical voice itself is a primary focus. Echo and Narcissus shows how assumptions about the "deficiencies" of women's voices and speech are embedded in sound's history, technology, uses, and marketing. Moreover, the construction of the woman's voice is inserted into the ideologically loaded cinematic and narrative conventions governing the representation of women in Hollywood film.
In Metamorphoses, book 3, Ovid tells the story of Echo and Narcissus. Echo has lost the power to speak, having been cursed for shielding a philandering god from his wife. She spies the handsome Narcissus in a forest. He spurns her even though she turns his words into declarations of love: "May I die before I give you power o'er me," he declares, and she replies, "I give you power o'er me." Rejected and desolate, she hides in caves, wasting away until "only her voice and her bones remain: then, only voice for they say that her bones were turned to stone." Narcissus is also cursed when an unsuccessful suitor asks the gods to make Narcissus feel the pain of unrequited love: "May he himself love, and not gain the thing he loves!" When Narcissus, tired from the hunt, lies near a pool, he sees his own reflection and falls so deeply in love he cannot be moved from the spot. He too pines away: "No thought of food or rest can draw him from the spot; but, stretched on the shaded grass, he gazes on that false image with eyes that cannot look their fill and through his own eyes perishes." Finally, "death sealed the eyes that marvelled at their master's beauty."1
Thestory of Narcissus is frequently used to describe the image's seductive power. However, in Ovid's original myth the story of Echo and Narcissus interweaves issues of sight and sound, vision and speech. In fact, it is the relationship between Echo and Narcissus that sets into play the series of oppositions the myth works through. Echo longs to speak to Narcissus but can only repeat his words; Narcissus gazes at his reflection in the water and becomes so enamored he drowns in his own image. Echo's story comes first in Ovid's tale because it is impossible to imagine Narcissus without accounting first for a series of crucial absences that make his consuming fascination with the image
possible. Narcissus begins by rejecting other people, women (Echo) and then men. But even when he is alone (watched by Echo) speech is the one thing that could break his absorption in the image, language the medium that could explain the image's status as reflection. It is only by eliminating the possibility of speech that Narcissus's immersion becomes logically possible. And so Echo fades away, unable to contact Narcissus once he ceases to speak, sound's absence established as a precondition for the image's irresistible allure.
The story of Echo and Narcissus is a cautionary tale warning against what is conceived of as the unnatural and dangerous separation of sound and image, woman and man, hearing and seeing—oppositions that are in many ways fundamental to the ways we think about film. Both Echo and Narcissus are ravished by perception, subjected to obstacles of expression or comprehension, and ultimately die from the missed connections.
Like the film viewer, Narcissus "sees" at one remove, seeing not what he loves directly but its reflection. Although the sound of a voice or the persuasiveness of language could correct Narcissus's misapprehension, in Ovid's tale sound, like vision, is equally subject to the dangerous disjunction between intention and execution, meaning and perception. Echo's speech has been fragmented. She has lost control of language (the ability to choose words) and cannot initiate sounds. She "could neither hold her peace when others spoke, nor yet begin to speak till others had addressed her."2 Even the sound we hear when Echo speaks is not "Echo" but a representation of sound, not a person speaking but the acoustic reflection of a person. Like the reflection in the pool, an echo is defined by a fundamental absence: what we perceive is not an entity but an illusion, the reflection of what once was. In Ovid's story, sound and image already partake of the absence Christian Metz (1982, pp. 5868) has argued is a key element in cinematic pleasure, the cinematic sign indicating not its presence but its absence, the sound and image apparatus eliciting desire for that which can never be grasped. In cinema, everything we hear and everything we see isn't there anymore. It is an echo and a reflection.
Although they are interdependent, the stories of Echo and Narcissus are not fully parallel. On the one hand, it seems Echo suffers more. (At least Narcissus sees his ardor returned.) More important, there is an implicit hierarchy in the myth (one that has been carried over to writing about film) wherein the image is depicted as more compelling than sound. This hierarchy becomes explicitly gendered in the course of the narrative. The man's tragic obsession with the image is more important than the woman's problems of expression, her death simply preparation for the grand climax of his death. Woman and sound are allied on the "weak side" of the story.
In classical Hollywood film and much that is written about it, the sound/image hierarchy survives intact. The image is assumed to be the source of enchantment, "the dream screen," the object of the "all-perceiving Eye." Sound, like Echo, seems to fade away—if it is mentioned at all. The "gender-
ing" of the image and the sound track has been a key issue in feminist film work, from the widely discussed "male gaze" of the camera to the postulation of "femininity" in theories of film music.3 As in Ovid, the mutual dependence of sound/image is essential to cinema and, as with Echo, a woman's voice is at the heart of the matter.
In this book I shall attempt to disentangle certain issues of sound and gender by focusing on the representation of women's voices in classical Hollywood cinema. The term "woman's voice" used in this work condenses three issues: (1) the physical ability to make a sound, which is then reproduced through cinema/sound technology, (2) a woman's relationship to language or verbal discourse, (3) her possession of authorial point of view, as in the author's "voice." The first two are frequently and too easily collapsed in the term "speech." It is necessary to separate them because often the simple act of producing a sound is made impossible by the intensity of patriarchal pressures brought to bear on the women in the films I shall be discussing.
However, before we can understand the representation of women's voices in film, we have to understand the system in which these voices are placed. Sound in film is itself a kind of echo, re-presented and reproduced, never actually "there." Part of the ideology of sound reproduction from its beginnings has been the belief that the sound-recording apparatus constitutes a neutral, transparent conveyance of "real" sound, that it is "merely" a conduit or a medium. So it will be necessary first to briefly reexamine the ideology of sound reproduction from its inception.
The central subject of sound recording in the nineteenth century was the voice, reflecting a widespread urge to preserve the individual and the domestic scene through automatic mechanical reproduction apparatuses.4 Yet ideological assumptions about the human voice—beliefs inextricable from sound's technology, uses, and marketing—have always been shot through with assumptions about gender. The "human" voice is always either male or female, and issues of women's speech have been central to controversies surrounding the development of all sound technologies, from the introduction of loud-speakers, which allowed women to speak to large public gatherings, to the advent of the telephone, radio, and the phonograph. It is the history of the phonograph, I argue, that most precisely comprises the prehistory of sound in film, because it is the phonograph's ability to record and play back sounds precisely the same way time and again that most closely parallels the cinematic image's perpetual reanimation of motion. Radio and telephone technology were fundamental to the creation and development of the phonograph (and the role of gender in the commercialization of each is quite marked), but both telephone and radio are concerned primarily with the transmission of sound. Where issues involving the radio and telephone industries overlap with the history of sound reproduction and ideologies of gender, they will be discussed in depth. Given the extensive prehistory of sound reproduction, it is
clear that when women in film finally did speak, the technology that allowed them to be heard brought with it half a century's worth of ideological baggage.
It is important to remember that the experimentation and research necessary for the realization of sound film was merely an offshoot of the sound-reproduction industry as a whole. The sound industry grew parallel to the rising image industry and rivaled its competitor both as a business and as a popular cultural institution. When sound was connected with the image track in sound film, it brought with it its own history, markets, and ideology.
In Chapter 1 I focus specifically on how the ideology inherent in science and in the commercial models adapted to sell sound at the turn of the century influenced the development of sound technology. The early history of sound reproduction is a tangle of technological experiments, shifting marketing strategies, and questions about what the products of this technology were to be and how and to whom they were to be sold. Advertisements from early in the twentieth century suggest the range of pleasures the phonograph offered (constrained by what was thinkable, possible, and/or available to the public at a given time). More important, the commercial, legal, and scientific maneuverings surrounding sound reproduction in the late nineteenth century are indicative of ideological assumptions and pressures that in turn helped preconstruct the functions sound would be called upon to perform in film. I shall briefly show how the technological and commercial ideologies of the period, together with philosophical musings about sound and the voice common to the era, contributed to constructing a particular listener/subject and a particular way of inserting sound reproduction into culture.
Silent cinema had its own history of representing women's speech. In silent film, despite the privileging of the image, women were always represented as speaking subjects. By looking closely at a silent film that centers on a very vocal female character, we can see how the hierarchy of image over speech is constructed in silent film and how this privileging of the image affects the representation of women's voices. As an adaptation of a play based in turn on a famous short story, Sadie Thompson (1928) demonstrates the prose and theatrical narrative traditions that silent film could call upon in its representation of women. Genres such as melodrama place a high premium on women's speech as a means of achieving psychologically rounded characters, and yet I shall show how in Sadie Thompson the displacement of speech in favor of image has particularly insidious effects when the speaker is a woman.
The synchronization of voice and image ("talkies") exemplified sound film for producers and public alike and at first it seems that synchronized dialogue would present women's voices in a way fully equal with those of men. In Rain (1932) we see the opportunities opened up by the new combinations of sound, image, and dialogue—from the illusion of physical presence and visual depth the voice gives the image, to sound's ability to challenge the reduction of women to "spectacle" by providing "psychological backstories" that make
women characters rather than objects. But does the "technological equivalence" of sound film's presentation of women's and men's voices mean that women's voices in sound film function in the same way as men's? How does dialogue, now spoken rather than written, contribute to woman's ability to express her experience now that she is figured by both the image and the sound track? Are women allowed to speak the truth about their experience as women under patriarchy—to say how it actually feels to live the roles they have been placed in? Or is the combined weight of the sound film's theatrical and silent history too great?
The transition to sound film momentarily disrupted the traditional sound/image hierarchy. The requirements of sound demanded that film producers retool and rethink how films were made in order to accommodate the delicate new technology. Within a few years (roughly 192831) sound films were established as the norm and the new methods of production fixed. In looking at Rain (the sound remake of Sadie Thompson ), I want to see whether the significatory free-for-all of early sound films is still detectable once what might be called the "classical sound film" has been established and whether the more complex relationship between sound and image in this period allows women's voices to come into their own.
As the films discussed in Chapter 4 show, the establishment of sound film by no means instituted a system where women could speak on a level with men. The space created for women's voices in the films of the 1940s is fraught with tensions. While some of the fragmentation evident in these texts may be attributable to the film noir genre (which has been defined by its susceptibility to narrative fissures and crises in gender roles),5 I argue that in these films there is a disproportionate emphasis on women's voices as the source of textual anxiety.
In fact, when there is a crisis in the representation of women, it often manifests itself as a crisis in the representation of women's voices . This in turn is often expressed through a representative (and represented ) crisis in the sound technology. Just as assumptions about women are expressed through the use of visual and audio technology, when women challenge the status quo, the technology frequently exposes itself in its effort to repress them. In these films, ideology under pressure becomes technology under pressure. Consequently, in all of the films in Chapter 4 (and to a greater or lesser degree in every work mentioned), the woman's natural ability to speak is interrupted, made difficult, or conditioned to a suffocating degree by sound technology itself . In Blackmail, Notorious, and Miss Sadie Thompson, it is the very recording process that fractures a woman's body and voice into irreconcilable pieces. In Blackmail and parts of Miss Sadie Thompson the physical voice is not even the actress's own, as sound and image literally piece together an "ideal" woman.
In the suspense films of Chapter 4, women either talk too much or not at
all. (Echo can "neither hold her peace . . . nor yet begin to speak.") Either way the main female character challenges the status quo through excess. Those who are silent (Blackmail, The Spiral Staircase ) must be made to speak and those who talk too much must be silenced either by male characters (Notorious ) or men abetted by the cinematic system (Sorry, Wrong Number ). Telephones, phonographs, voice-overs and dubbing are foregrounded as sound technologies are marshaled to silence women and restore the primacy of patriarchy and the image.
The films in Chapter 4 also use women's voices to examine the relationship between sound and image. As an early sound film, Blackmail (1929) is a cinematic hybrid incorporating scenes shot silent and others recorded with sound. The film's suspense, turning on the absence of a woman's speech, can be seen as an interrogation of the moral force of sound film versus silents/silence. In Spiral Staircase, the murderer is depicted as a pair of eyes distorting, then killing, the women they see. (The male gaze at its most punitive.) Whenever the eyes appear, they overwhelm the image track and make explicit the killer's obsession with woman's "lack"—characterized at its most chilling in a close-up of a woman with no mouth. Only in Sorry, Wrong Number does the woman's voice challenge the power of the eye to organize the cinematic system, seizing control of the narrative by means of hearing and speech.
In The Acoustic Mirror, Kaja Silverman argues that classical Hollywood cinema never truly allows women to speak anything other than their own oppression; women's voices are subjected at every point to either male or institutional control. The film noir is particularly fertile ground for examining both the challenges posed by women's voices and the attempts to silence them. Except for Blackmail, all of the films in Chapter 4 were made within a few years of each other (194648) and all can be inserted into the suspense or film noir genres. The musical, with its emphasis on harmony, humor, and integration, would seem to be the genre farthest removed from noir's obsession with anxiety and transgression (despite the fact that the golden age of the Hollywood musical in the 1950s was contemporaneous with later film noir). The films of the fifties demonstrate an institutional desire to recuperate the threat of the woman's voice. The chapter on the 1953 Miss Sadie Thompson will allow us to test some of Silverman's assertions and at the same time see how Sadie Thompson fares in stereo, Technicolor, and 3-D, as spectacle reemerges as a central factor in the representation of women in body and voice.
Sunset Boulevard (1950) is perhaps Hollywood's most direct (yet paradoxical) version of the story of Echo and Narcissus, with the genders tellingly reversed. The wisecracking noir narrator relates his attempts to stave off the encroaching madness of a female Narcissus. His voice, too, lingers on after he has died. And like Echo, he is unable to break Norma Desmond's narcissistic obsession with her silver screen image. Like the other films discussed, Sunset Boulevard poses a running commentary on sound film; however, as we shall
see, when Echo becomes a man the sound/image hierarchy undergoes a radical shift. The woman's alliance with the image (Narcissus as ardent defender of silent cinema) brings her madness, not power. A new sound hierarchy is established in Sunset Boulevard as the synchronized voice of the woman is made subordinate to the disembodied voice of the male narrator.
The third kind of "woman's voice"—the authorial voice—combines issues of voice and speech as well as power. For a woman to possess the authorial voice in Hollywood films is rare, and To Kill a Mockingbird , the film I have chosen to illustrate the woman's authorial voice, was made in 1962, near what has been called the end of the classical period. Based on a best-selling novel by a woman, the film maintains the book's narrative point of view, seeing the story through the eyes of a six-year-old girl, and adds a voice-over narrator who is the child as an adult. To Kill a Mockingbird returns us perhaps more than any other film we've looked at to the voice as physical entity. How far can the charisma of a woman's voice on the sound track take us toward establishing a personal female subject within Hollywood film?
In film and mythology, Echo's voice is continually taken from her—by a jealous image frightened of her power, by a patriarchal system that wants to keep women silent. Is it possible for a woman to speak in classical Hollywood film? Can she be heard? Will Narcissus ever wake up and hear what Echo has to say?
Excerpted from Echo and Narcissus by Amy Lawrence Copyright © 1991 by Amy Lawrence. Excerpted by permission.
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