Sunday, January 13, 2013

Viewing Victims

I started this post several weeks ago with a simple task in mind: to do right by actor Charles Durning, who died on Christmas Eve. This wasn't easy as I thought it would be, as I soon came to the realization that I wasn't really a fan of his work. Epiphanies like that sometimes come with the writing process. I looked at the list of his credits and saw The Sting. I've seen that film exactly twice in my life, the last time about a year and a half ago, but didn't remember him being in it. Did some research and, oh, yeah, right, he was that character. Tootsie? Yeah, now that you mention it. Dog Day Afternoon? Um, let me check again...OK. Evening Shade? Well, yeah, his name was mentioned in the opening credits...My amnesia has nothing to do with Durning's acting ability. He was good in everything I just mentioned. Maybe too good. Or just too honest. Unlike other well-known character actors, Durning wasn't a scene stealer. Had he had a more selfish attitude toward his craft, I might remember his roles better. I kept searching the credits until I came to a 1973 episode of All in the Family that had always intrigued me, and that I now wanted to write about. So the rest of this post really isn't about Charles Durning. I'm just using him as a jumping-off point. As one who was in supporting roles for most of his life, I'm sure he'd understand.

The episode is "Gloria the Victim", one of two during the show's history dealing with rape. Charles Durning does a fine job as a police detective investigating the attack, but its' series regulars Carrol O'Conner (Archie Bunker), Jean Stapleton (his wife Edith), Rob Reiner (son-in-law Mike) and especially...

 ...Sally Struthers (daughter Gloria) who really shine here.

If you were listening carefully, you might have heard a few references to foot long hot dogs. In a subplot, Archie agrees to buy some from the Jeffersons, the black family that lives next door. At one point, right in the middle of Detective Durning's mock interrogation, Henry Jefferson, unaware of the family crises going on, shows up to inform Archie that there will be a bit of a delay. Durning overhears this, and decides to buy a few himself. I wish the person who originally posted this to YouTube hadn't edited the subplot out. Sure, it's trivial compared to the tragedy unfolding. But in real life, tragedy and triviality unfold in tandem all the time.     

Situation comedies are often criticized for presenting a problem, or series of problems, that gets solved in under 30 minutes, then is never mentioned again. This doesn't happen here, but what so intrigues me about this episode is that in 1973 there was still so much fear and shame surrounding rape that both Archie and an anguished Mike want it to play out that way. Solve it quick and have some hot dogs. Unfortunately, they solve it by not solving it. And as seen in concluding close-up of a devastated Gloria, they can't even take care of their own. A remarkable episode

The subject of rape was revisited in 1977, this time with Edith as the intended victim. Unlike the first episode, which came and went without much notice, this was an hour-long special (two parts in syndication) that was heavily promoted, and shown in advance to hospitals and police stations around the country. Titled "Edith's 50th Birthday", it's the better known of the two rape shows. In my opinion, it's also the inferior of the two. Jean Stapleton turns in an excellent performance, but the writing lets her down. As with the first episode, there's a fair amount of comedy. Now, there's nothing inherently wrong with that. I strongly believe comedy can be more than mere escapism, and, if you tell your story honestly, humor can arise out of even as serious a subject as rape. But some of the comic bits here (Archie dropping a bat on Mike's foot, Gloria pulling hairs off Archie's chest) seem better suited to a Three Stooges short. However, it's a key dramatic moment toward the end that I find really disappointing. More about that later.

Here's the set-up: Archie is over at Mike and Gloria's next door (the former occupants having moved to a deluxe apartment in the sky) helping them get ready for his wife's surprise party. Edith, though, found out about it ahead of time and in fact at her house alone baking the cake. She hears a knock on the door, and lets in a young man with a badge claiming to be a police detective. He locks the door and attempts to rape Edith:

 Edith Bunker was a beloved television character by 1977. Some people found the above scene so disturbing, they sent death threats to actor David Dukes, who played the rapist.

After she gets away, Edith runs to her daughter and son-in-law's house, where Archie attempts to calm her down and find out exactly what went wrong:

Traumatized by the whole ordeal, Edith refuses to leave the house, runs upstairs whenever she hears someone at the door, and becomes obsessed with washing and ironing clothes:

I'm sorry, but I don't buy that ending.

It's not that Edith shouldn't go down to the police station and identify her attacker. Of course she should. It's the right thing to do. But people don't always do the right thing. You can have a character in a movie or TV show exhibit exemplary behavior, audiences can applaud that exemplary behavior, but then walk right out of the theater or away from the set, and do exactly the opposite. What's accomplished exactly, other than living vicariously through a make-believe paragon? Gloria, with the advice and consent of her father and husband, does the wrong thing in the first rape show, but we get to see the reasons why she does the wrong thing, the environment she's operating under, what she's up against. We can learn from that and try to change that environment, to make it easier on victims of rape. Make it easier to do the right thing.

To be fair, the second show did do a good job of showing the psychological toll from such an attack. That was, in the sense, the moral of the story. But they wanted an additional moral. Women should report their attackers. Unfortunately, if they're traumatized, as is clearly the case with Edith, they're less likely to do so. How to reconcile these two morals in less than a minute and a half? By resorting to that hoariest of dramatic devices: the slap-epiphany. Or the slapiphany, if you will. This episode did put a novel twist on the slapiphany by having the scales fall from the eyes of the slapper rather than the slappee. But is screaming at someone that you're ashamed of them, as Gloria did to Edith, really the most effective form of therapy? Actually, people do do that with loved ones who may be emotionally unstable. That it works in this case is where the false note lies. Also, hugging a person immediately after slapping them. Though it's not uncommon in movies or on TV, ever see it in real life? I know. It's just a sitcom. Pure fiction. But if you're going to insert reality--in this case, rape--into a sitcom, I expect people to act realistically.

Maybe they did. Maybe it was the first episode that was unrealistic. Maybe neither was. Maybe both were. Maybe it's an impossible subject for a sitcom, and we should just applaud the effort and not concern ourseves with the results. You can decide for youselves.

Just don't forget that it's the rapist, not the victim, who's really in the wrong.


  1. Kirk, I was an "All in the Family" viewer and don't remember either of those rape episodes. I wonder if when I saw them listed in TV Guide I just didn't watch. I would have known ahead of time they'd be upsetting.

    As for Charles Durning -- and I know your post isn't specifically about him, but I think you're selling him short. Perhaps your idea that he wasn't a scene stealer is true of some of his work, but what about as the loudmouth, obnoxious governor in "Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?" or a great turn as a private investigator in "Sisters," the Brian DePalma film. The first time I noticed Durning was in a 1975 TV movie with Maureen Stapleton, "Queen of the Stardust Ballroom." The characters were having an affair. They were middle-aged, not pretty young people. When Bea (Stapleton) introduced him to her grown children she said he was a mailman. He said, "Being a mailman is what I do, it's not what I am." I believe I lived that line the rest of my working life, not defining myself by my job, but as the person I was. And I traced that to seeing the movie.

    Okay, that's meandering around the subject, but perhaps someday you'll see Durning in a movie and say, "Gee, the guy was better than I thought."

    1. Hmm...My views on Charles Durning seem to be more controversial than my views on how rape is portrayed in the media.

      Postino, I do think Charles Durning was a good actor. By saying I'm not a fan of his work I guess what I meant was, if I'm looking at a movie listing and I see that, say, Jack Klugman is in it, it piques my interest. Durning not so much. I don't know why that is. I've written recently that this blog has evolved into an examination of pop culture. But that may be a bit too pedantic. It's really about my own reactions to pop culture. It's all subjective. If I wanted to (and someone wrote me a check) I could come up with some pretty good reason why Charles Durning was not just a good, but a great, actor. But it felt little too much like a chore to do that (especially free of charge), when it didn't feel that way about other people I've written about. And to feign enthusiasm about someone (I know you're not asking me to do that, postino, but, you never know, there may others reading this that want me to do just that) makes little sense. Incidentally, that line about the mailman is great. Any idea who wrote it?

      A couple of years ago, I did an "In Memoriam" for Don Meredith. Someone in the comment section asked me why I didn't do one for Elisabeth Edwards, who had died a couple weeks earlier. I think that person must have thought I was slighting Edwards by not writing about her. In fact, I eventually turned that slight into the subject of a whole post. I realize then that some people may see this blog differently than I do. In a way that's kind of flattering, and since then I've tried to come up with something to say anytime someone notable dies (even if that threatens to turn this in to a death blog.) I just can't do it on an equal basis. It would seem as though I like everybody all the time. I ain't Jesus.

      One last comment about subjectivety. I grew up watching Jack Klugman (I know you didn't mention Klugman, Postino, but he's on my mind) Durning, though he was around while I was growing up, was a more sporadic presence, usually in movies where something else held my intention rather than his own performance. I love character actors. I love supporting actors, and think they should get much more attention than they do. I just had a difficult time doing so in this case.

      By the way, postino, how's all the ABOVE for meandering?

  2. All in the Family set a standard in treating heartbreaking subjects in a humorous and realistic manner. Each of the main characters reacted realistically yet staying in character to increase the poignancy of Gloria and Edith' trauma. Very well done.
    Charles Durning is one of the finest character actors of his generation. Durning was a staple in film and TV from the early 70's until his death and while I may not have liked some of the characters he played such as "Spermwhale" Whalen in The Choirboys there wasn't a film or TV series that wasn't made better by his presence. here is role for whch he was nominated for a 'Best supporting Actor" Oscar

    1. ALL IN THE FAMILY, Mike, is one of my 10 favorite sitcoms of all time. That it could treat serious subjects while remaining consistently funny is amazing.

      Charles Durning was probably the best thing about THE BEST LITTLE WHOREHOUSE IN TEXAS, a movie I found otherwise horrid, especially Dom Deluise (whom I normally like.) And those bedroom scenes with Burt Reynolds and Dolly Parton, watching too frogs mate is more erotic.

    2. That should be TWO frogs mate.

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