Screening Classic Hollywood: “The Seven Year Itch” (1955) and the Puncturing of Hegemonic Masculinity

Billy Wilder is one of my favourite classic Hollywood directors. All of his movies–from Double Indemnity to Sunset Boulevard–crackle and snap with an energy all their own. Wilder had a keen eye for searing away the patina of conformity and niceness of American culture to lay bare the hypocrisy and rot beneath. While at first glance a comedy like The Seven Year Itch may not seem to have the same bleak outlook on the American psyche as some of his earlier films, lurking beneath the surface of this film, however, is an awareness of the fundamental shortcomings of postwar American society.

The film’s ostensible protagonist, Richard Sherman is a middle-aged man in a thoroughly middle-class life: he has a wife, a son, and a gray-flannel suit type job at a publishing house. Unfortunately, he’s miserable, his house is a prison, and all romance is gone from his marriage. After his wife and young son go to Maine to escape the New York summer heat, a bubbly, vivacious, and very blonde young woman (Marilyn Monroe) moves in upstairs, and he immediately sets out to seduce her and inject some new vivacity into his humdrum existence.

This being a Billy Wilder film, it’s almost too clever for its own good. It moves with an almost frantic pace, thanks in part to the twitchy, spastic energy that Tom Ewell brings to the role of Sherman. In fact, his performance verges on neurotic, in that he constantly twitches, grimaces, and indulges in fantasies that have no bearing in actual lived reality. Indeed, the juxtaposition of his fantasy self–as a sex-god who is irresistible to women–with his very plain real self highlights just how delusional he really is.

The Seven Year Itch also turns its razor-sharp wit on the fictions and myths that structured postwar American life. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Sherman has, on the surface, embraced everything that hegemonic American culture had dictated was “normal,” from the 9-5 job, a wife and son, etc. However, 1950s middle-class domesticity and the bread-winner role have left Sherman thoroughly alienated and disenchanted. He is surrounded by the trappings of midcentury consumer culture, but rather than providing him fulfillment, they become a prison and often cause him physical harm, as when he twice trips on his son’s roller-skate. His apartment is also full of the clutter of a consumerist culture, each piece of clutter highlighted by the film’s vibrant color palette.

What’s more, the older model represented by his boss Mr. Brady is no more satisfying. He is a gruff, rather blustering older man who feels even more entrapped by his years-long marriage to his wife. While Sherman wants to return to his wife and possibly find respite from the corrupting influence of the city (and nubile femininity), Mr. Brady embraces the freedom and even intimates that he might pursue an adulterous encounter while his wife is up north. Though the scene is obviously played for laughs, it’s an uncomfortable sort of laughter.

Thus, I would argue that The Seven Year Itch punctures the myth of midcentury hegemonic masculinity. It ultimately becomes not just a prison for the male subject, but a dysfunctional ideal that he cannot fulfill and which encourages him to destroy the things in his life that should matter: relationships with his wife, his child, and even what could be a great friendship “The Girl.” Men in this world are chronically unable to articulate their feelings in any meaningful or sophisticated way, and even the last shot of the film shows Sherman still fumbling about, a complete mess right up until the end.

Understandably, many modern viewers of the film find its gender politics disgustingly regressive, I think this is a rather reductive reading. Don’t get me wrong. I do think that a surface reading does support the idea that this is a deeply misogynist text that treats its female star as largely an object for the male gaze, something to be fetishized and largely ignored as an agent. However, there is also something disruptive about Monroe’s character, and the fact that she seems so blissfully unaware of the effect she has on men suggests that there is far more to her than meets the eye, a force that resists attempts to control her.

The Seven Year Itch ultimately reveals that beneath even the most seemingly misogynistic comedy lies a kernel of subversion.

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