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boxcar-bertha

My top ten reasons why Boxcar Bertha immediately was a favorite the minute it came out, and stayed in the “I Heart This” category:

  • Memorable love scene
  • Horrible death scene
  • Released in what was for me the thick of the “Sixties”
  • Symbolizes the “Sixties” very adequately
  • Grandpa was a union organizer
  • Great-grandpa was an abolitionist
  • I love David Carradine because of “Kung-fu” on TV
  • In this role, Barbara Hershey reminds me of a girl I knew in Venice, CA
  • I adore Barbara Hershey
  • “Life made her an outcast. Love made her an outlaw.”

Bertha Thompson’s daddy is a crop duster, and a rich guy makes him fly even though the plane is in bad repair. Now she’s a homeless orphan, a real survivor with both guts and luck, caught in the Great Depression. She keeps running into union organizer Bill Shelly, who is characterized as a “nigger lover,” among other things. Bill is always getting the shit beat out of him by people who disagree with his politics.

They both ride the rails. Using her feminine wiles, she helps Bill and his friends escape from a chain gang. The set a car on fire on the railroad tracks so the train has to stop. They take all the money and steal the train. There are plenty of fights, car chases, crashes, fires, robberies. A newspaper story about their criminality offends Bill. To show that he’s a revolutionary, not a common crook, he decides to take his share of the loot to the union hall. Bertha amuses herself by holding two well-dressed men at gunpoint, ordering them to stand up, sit down, etc. This may have been Hershey’s finest cinematic moment, and I mean that in all sincerity.

Hershey and Carradine have both said that the sex was unsimulated, as in, they were really doing it. The movie was made at the peak of their real-life love affair, and it shows.

Bill’s sore spot is poked when people keep reminding him he’s no longer a union man, but now a common criminal. They get caught trying to kidnap a raiload tycoon. Bertha escapes, Bill is sentenced. He’s back on a chain gang again, still getting shit beat out of him.

Bertha is picked up by a woman who turns out to be a madam. An anthropologist rents her time and asks a bunch of questions. She’s reunited with Bill. They kiss, the G-men break in and capture him and nail him to side of boxcar. They put writing over his head, obvious Christ symbolism, you know, like the scroll at the top of some crucifixes. A black guy surprises them and shoots all of Bill’s enemies. The train starts to move, and he’s still nailed to the boxcar. Bertha runs alongside, “Don’t take him, don’t take him.” It’s an unforgettable image, like in Rabbit Proof Fence where the mothers run after the government goons who take their kids away.

Given the Jesus analogy, it’s kind of weird that Barbara Hershey later portrayed Mary Magdalene in The Last Temptation of Christ, which, come to think of it, was also directed by Martin Scorsese. Boxcar Bertha has been called “Scorsese’s exploitation flick” and he played a small part it in, as a john in a brothel. It was produced by Roger Corman, who taught Scorsese what a $600,000 budget can do. The script was loosely based on a book, Sister of the Road, which was loosely based on the life of a real person, but apparently didn’t have much in common with her at all.

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I adore Juliette Lewis. If she’s in it, I’ll watch it. Here, she’s Beth, who along with girlfriend Deb (Uma Thurman) spends evenings hanging out at a bar, hoping to get lucky. Beth lives with her daughter Amber, the coolest kid, who is into baton twirling. Deb lives with her mother Virginia (the splendid Gena Rowlands).

One night at the bar, Deb has a short conversation with Rick, who not only has eyes like Patrick Swayze, but actually owns a house! But the next night, he ignores her. She totally throws herself at the guy, so pathetically desperate that Beth can’t help being embarrassed for her. Rick grudgingly allows Deb to come home with him and it’s raining when they get there – always a bad sign, in a movie. They sit around and drink beer for a bit, but he doesn’t make a move, and suddenly she blurts out, “I give an incredible blow job” and proceeds to devour him. They wake up on the floor, where he says, “I’m fine.” She wants to move to the bed and continue the action. Reluctantly, he takes her to bed but the action doesn’t continue, he just wants to sleep. She does manage to get a conversation going, in which he discusses home handyman projects. In her mind, she’s already moved in and helping him remodel.

Meanwhile, Deb’s mom and her guy Nick are having a whole different kind of conversation about Virginia’s house, which he encourages her to fix up a little if that’s what makes her happy, to go ahead and spend some of her hard-earned money on things that please her. These two are in late middle age, maybe even old, and they’re amorously affectionate. You don’t see a lot of this in movies, but it sure looks good. They’re sweet and considerate with one another, and talk freely about their former spouses. There’s a lovely moment when Nick shows up at the diner where Virginia works. She spots him, sitting in a booth, and does a little bounce on the balls of her feet -visibly perking herself up – before going over to take his order. He shows her a brochure for a place he has picked out in Florida for them to retire to, together.

After one lousy night with Rick, Deb browses through a catalog and picks out an engagement ring. Totally disregarding the fact that he’d obviously wished she had disappeared overnight, and didn’t even want to have breakfast with her, she’d undauntedly continued to abase herself, inviting him over for dinner. On the evening of this “date,” she prepares a big spread and gets all gussied up – and of course, he never shows. Her out-of-control neediness gets even worse. She sits in her car staking out his house, crying, till finally he arrives home alone. Next day she calls in sick and hangs out at the bar, where she runs into her mother’s boyfriend Nick, who manages to cheer her up a little. Later, when Nick doesn’t show up to meet Virginia, Deb harangues her about how stupid she is ever to believe in men. But there’s a good reason why Nick stood her up – he had a heart attack and died. Virginia’s grief is wretched. He wasn’t just some guy she glommed onto, he was a real gent who genuinely loved her. Now, no more love, no more Florida plan, no more dancing to Sinatra.

Beth’s style is way different from Deb’s. In being superficial, just trying to have a good time, she handles life much more competently than her man-hungry friend. For example, there is some talk with the bartender about Beth sticking around after hours for some fun – but he insists it has to be there, he’s not going anyplace. But she gets a phone call and really has to go home, where her daughter is lonely, and threatening to call up the grandparents. Beth is not that desperate for male companionship, and puts her daughter first. Surprise – the bartender reconsiders, and says maybe he’ll swing by later.

Deb shows up at the bar, dejected and morose, and swills down several drinks. Rick shows up, and after she begs for attention, says if she wants to get laid later, that’s fine, but while he’s there he’s going to hang with his friends and shoot some pool. She makes a spectacle of herself dancing alone, something which only a few days earlier she had pounced on Beth about – “People think you look stupid.” Which Beth didn’t. But when Deb slinks around dancing alone, trying to attract Rick’s attention, she really does look stupid. She pesters him, pulling him away from his game, trying to get him to dance. She continues to make such a scene that he decides to split, which causes her to totally throw herself at him, clutching desperately. Disgusted, Rick says “You should sober up,” and leaves.

Deb says to the bartender, “What’s wrong with me? I really want to know.”
“Maybe you don’t see things so clearly.”
“Hey, fuck you.”

Of course this isn’t the only instance we’ve seen of Deb’s “hysterical blindness.” In the first scene, she’d told Beth about actually going blind at work, and being taken to the doctor, where her vision returned. This episode was caused by stress. During one of the bar evenings, some other women were putting Deb down because of her mother’s humble waitress job. But when she was mad at her mom for having Nick stay over, Deb went into the diner and did this pain-in-the-ass picky customer routine, to help make her mom’s shift miserable. There doesn’t seem to be any aspect of her life where Deb sees anything clearly.

After the debacle with Rick, Deb goes home to snuggle up with her sleeping mother. We’ve already seen Beth snuggling with her daughter. As always, the women are left to take comfort from one another, the men having done their typical disappearing acts. Virginia does, at least, take the loving advice Nick had given her before he died, and buys some nice new furniture for her house. She also has the sad reward of hearing from Nick’s son how happy the old man had been lately, and how glad his children were that he had found that happiness in what turned out to be his final days.

In the last scene, the two young women and little Amber frolic in the yard to the strains of “Girls Just Want to Have Fun.” as the bereaved Virginia looks on, smiling. Really, as we’ve seen so many times before in films and in real life, the world rests on the strong backs of women, while men are just an occasional blip on the screen.

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A really harrowing, twisted love story I wish I’d written.

Judi Dench is Barbara, a high school teacher near retirement, who does not suffer fools gladly, and who can quell an unruly class with a glance.

She forms snobby preconceptions about the new young teacher, Sheba, (Cate Blanchett) and makes some slighting and acerbic references to her in her diary. Later, after being accepted into the young woman’s family circle, Barbara confides in her diary, “I always knew we’d be friends”, a typical example of her very powerful ability to bullshit herself.

The friendship comes about when Barbara helps Sheba handle a situation where two boys are fighting.

When invited to Sheba’s home, Barbara finds her preconceptions crumbling. Sheba is married to a considerably older man, and has a teen daughter and 12-year-old son played by a real Down Syndrome actor. After lunch the mother, father and boy spend some time dancing, which Barbara characterizes in her diary as “a rather mortifying family tradition …. They do things differently in bourgeois bohemia.” Of course by now she’s head over heels in love with Sheba, and convinces herself that the family is just a prison that Sheba must be freed from, for a new, wonderful and authentic life with -who else? – herself. She is totally blind to the great aspects of Sheba’s family life, which is full of genuine love, as compared to her own emptiness and envy. (Barbara’s last name is Covett – ha ha. Sheba’s last name is Hart – ha ha.) Yet Barbara deludes herself in her diary – “Our lives are acutely similar in so many respects.”

But… she accidentally observes Sheba giving a blow job to a 15-year-old student, and calls her to account. Sheba tells the story – it’s partly lust and partly feeling sorry for the kid’s bullshit story of having a brutal father and some kind of messed-up mother. In flashbacks we see her meeting with the kid, screwing on the ground in the railroad yard, etc. “You’ve done my brain in,” Sheba tells the kid. That’s for sure.

Barbara tells Sheba she must break it off, and if she pays that price, Barbara will keep the secret. But the kid doesn’t want to go away. He sends Sheba obscene text messages, and shows up outside her house on Christmas, where they’re necking right there almost in the midst of her family.

Barbara is away visiting a friend or more probably, sister, who is sympathetic and tries to reach out to her. “I’m sorry about Jennifer, she was lovely.” and asks if there’s anybody special now. Barbara is all haughty about it.

Barbara visits Sheba, thinking she has given up the affair with the student. She talks about how in girlhood, she and her friends used to “stroke” each other. She insists that Sheba close her eyes and hold out her arm, which she caresses. Supposedly it is very relaxing. Clearly it’s giving Sheba the creeps, and she says that’s enough.

Barbara bitterly harangues Sheba about how stupid, misguided and deluded she is to be in love with the boy. Every cruel word is more applicable to Barbara’s own self-delusion in being in love with Sheba.

Sheba is really interesting. Even though this “friendship” has been forced on her, she seems to reach into a heart full of compassion and find genuine friendliness toward Barbara, making a virtue out of necessity. She is really warm and giving, such a together person that she manages to find a way to, at least partly, enjoy the coerced relationship with Barbara. She seems to have made an inner decision that she’ll try her best to feel compassion, and extend herself toward this lonely old lady. Which of course only encourages further encroachment.

In her diary, Barbara characterizes Sheba as “sweetly grateful.” “We are now entering a delicate new phase. We are silently and stealthily negotiating the terms of a life lived together.” Which is total bullshit, only she manages to see it that way. She tells Sheba her version of the Jennifer story, and thinks they have reached an understanding, that Sheba has made a tacit promise to leave her family and join Barbara.

But Barbara finds out that the affair with the student continues, and tells Sheba again that it must end – giving her an undeserved second chance, for which she of course feels that Sheba is profoundly indebted to her.

Then when Barbara’s cat dies, it’s bigtime emotional blackmail. She tries to make Sheba stay with her at the vet while the cat is euthanized, and help with the interment. But Sheba’s son is in a play, and the family is waiting for her, and she must go. There’s a big scene, with the husband blowing up, etc.

Barbara, utterly betrayed, sadly buries her cat all alone, thinking how badly she’s been used. “Jennifer said I’m too intense – meaning what, exactly?….. That I will go to the ends of the earth for someone I admire?” She really, truly believes that she is the only one who knows how to love deeply and steadfastly.

Having just buried the cat, she looks even older and more haggard than usual, face all blotchy with an assortment of colors, etc. Then a male teacher comes over, wanting to talk to her about Sheba. Has she ever mentioned him, and would Barbara put in a good word for him with Sheba? Aha – here is the perfect instrument of revenge. Barbara tells him that not only does Sheba not spare a single thought for him, she’s carrying on with a student. Then she sits back waiting to see how long the destruction will take. She still hangs out with the family, and is in fact there when the there when the student’s mother arrives and beats the crap out of Sheba.

Barbara gets called to the principal’s office and accused of having known about, and covered up, the teacher-student affair. Of course she staunchly denies this. But the principal has been talking with Jennifer, learning that she was so harassed by Barbara she had to take out a restraining order and ultimately, move away. He tells Barbara to resign. The boy makes threatening moves toward her, but she’s not the only one dealing with troubles. She goes to Sheba’s in time to hear the teenage daughter denouncing her.

Sheba’s husband wants her to leave, and she is now utterly vanquished, reduced to throwing herself on Barbara’s mercy, asking if she can stay for a while. She moves in, and a while later Barbara’s diary says, “This last month has been the most delicious time of my life…marvelous intensity…”

Sheba finds a diary page and tears the place up looking for more. She finds other diaries and freaks out, raging at Barbara, calling her, among other things, a vampire. Then, exhausted, she tries to straighten Barbara out, and show her how she misread the signs and misinterpreted the amount of friendship that Sheba was able to offer her. But the power of self-delusion is much too strong, and Barbara just doesn’t get it.

In a bathtub reverie, Barbara reflects on how impossible it is for people such as Sheba to understand the loneliness that makes the random touch of a bus conductor, for instance, into a major erotic incident. She’s totally oblivious to the fact that it was the exact same impulse that drove Sheba into the arms of the boy student. There’s no end to this woman’s ability to bullshit herself.

Sheba goes back to her husband, who of course accepts her, but of course there’s a huge scandal and she ends up doing jail time. Meanwhile Barbara, of course, finds another “love.”

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