Human Flower Project
The Daisies Crop Up where Moviemakers Fear to Tread
The amazing Keith Howes brings us another phase of his research into the role of Asteraceae in filmmaking.
A shocking scene, from The Kiss (1896)
By Keith Howes
Cinema has dealt with the taboos from its earliest beginnings. The Kiss (1896) aroused all kinds of ire from moral watchdogs because its two (opposite sex, middle-aged, fully clothed) actors locked lips on screen for all the world to see. Since then, most subjects have been covered (and uncovered) in the movies, but some taboos simply refuse to go away.
I have undertaken a study of film history in relation to Asteraceae, the flower family that accounts for almost ten per cent of all angiosperms. (Now, there’s a word that was only given utterance - controversially- in Otto Preminger’s 1959 courtroom drama, Anatomy of a Murder. But let’s not go THERE. Yet.) I’ve found that most of the landmarks of filmmaking are attended by these flowers. My research into movies and daisies (beginning with the very first film ever made -1895) leads me to suspect that if their presence has any true significance it lies in two areas: Core (plot/character/morality/ethics/spirituality/sexuality) and Taboo (areas forbidden at the time a film was made or the time in which its story is set).
Here are some daisy-accompanied screen don’ts that were finally done in three films: one from 1968, very much a Broadway/Hollywood product, the other two relatively non-mainstream movies from 1971, one from the US, the other from the UK.
The first, Harold and Maude (1971) could probably not be made today (even with Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher). In the years between its release and subsequent cult following and today, the relationships, sexual and otherwise, between the young (and innocent) and the old (and degenerate) have become a no-go area except, perhaps, in a few later films of Woody Allen. It remains a film of minority appeal, but the minority that values it LOVES it. It is probably as honest as it could be without showing too much physical intimacy or nudity.
Even though this film was made a couple of years after Flower Power and Hippiedom had been ‘discredited,’ daisies permeate Harold and Maude. Their implication is unmissable: Love Knoweth No Laws. Daisies knoweth no laws either. They survive nearly every climate, terrain, poison, even nuclear explosion (Hiroshima, Chernobyl). Legislate all you like, condemn as you will: love, physical attraction, soul-touching transcend age, gender, species. Just because we don’t always hear about them doesn’t mean that some very unusual partnerships don’t exist right under our very noses; not all of them involve coercion and violence.
Sunday, Bloody Sunday, which premiered the same year as Harold and Maude, is a very different film in every regard, except that it too confronts an off-limits topic. Fairly slow, detailed, quiet, almost no humour, it involves plenty of taboo, though: Murray Head is having (at least) two simultaneous relationships, one with Glenda Jackson, one with Peter Finch. This was pretty much a first for an English language film, though there were hints of it a few years earlier in the decadence-soaked The Servant (Dirk Bogarde-James Fox-Sarah Miles).
Sunday, Bloody Sunday is not at all decadent, except to those who think anything ‘Briddish’ is automatically effete and not to be trusted. In fact, the film, directed by Midnight Cowboy‘s John Schlesinger, is mind-numbingly ‘ordinary,’ even dull—A bit like the daisies that turn up at key points in the film, all related to taboo.
Firstly, there’s the ratty chrysanthemum daisy in the pot which can be seen - totally incongruously- in the scene where the bisexual artist kisses the gay doctor. The plant is perched high on a shelf; looks half dead but it’s there.
Then, quite a while later we have a seemingly casual scene in which Glenda Jackson counsels a corporate executive who has been made redundant in the sudden economic downtown that has gripped the UK. (Yes, the film’s socio-political trimmings could not be more relevant to here and now).
Glenda Jackson as corporate counselor in Sunday Bloody Sunday (with marigolds)
The taboo nature of this exchange between Glenda an her client (the elegant and moving Tony Britton) turns on both his dialogue (washed up at 50-plus, needing a ‘face lift’ to pass to muster at job interviews, on the verge of a nervous breakdown) and what happens subsequently (they have sex together: very ‘unprofessional’ on her part, of course). The scene in her office in which he opens up his soul to her is played against a window upon whose sill sits some bright orange marigolds/tagetes: surely the only symbol of vibrancy in a room whose occupants are, in their own way, soul-sick and lost.
The film could stop at this point and it would still carry us away with its willingness to touch areas that are shocking or painful to some, beautiful and liberating to others. But no, there is still one more dangerous location for Schlesinger and his writer, Penelope Gilliatt, to explore.
Daniel, the doctor, a man in his late forties, still handsome and, as far as the heterosexual marriage market goes, very eligible, goes to his nephew’s bar mitzvah. At the lavish party (in room decked out with yellow and white chrysanthemums, not in pots, severed from their roots this time and, though technically dead, having the appearance of life), his sister and aunt set in motion their plan to marry off Daniel to the divorcee they have placed next to him at his table.
Those of you who are not gay or lesbian cannot conceive of the strategies employed, often with the best possible motives and loving kindnesses, to make us normal, fit us into a mold. (Thank heavens, it never happened to me because I sent out such fearsome communiques of ‘Nothing Doing, Don’t Even Think About It’ that no relative or well-meaning friend was ever game to try.) For a lot of gay people, however, Peter Finch’s situation in Sunday, Bloody Sunday is all too common: harassment and manipulation set in motion by a refusal to see the individual and their particular needs and desires.
It’s a brilliant scene, all the more so as it follows on from the boy’s publicly acknowledged move from childhood to puberty in the synagogue: a most unusual location for films outside The Jazz Singer despite the presence of so many Jews in the film industry. Behold another taboo area!
And Jewish women acknowledged as such, very rare…at least until the appearance of Barbra Streisand as Fanny Brice, the Jewish comedienne, in 1968’s Funny Girl, the last of my three taboo-crunching movies.
Funny Girl, a daisy film? How could it be? One of the film’s central songs is ‘Second Hand Rose.’ Naturally, roses abound, and lillies, two of the three most durable and symbolic of all flowers across mancivilizations.
No prizes for guessing the third.
Daisies appear in Funny Girl just as it confronts a taboo. But wait, isn’t this, after all, a sweet family musical about a nice Jewish girl? Stop right there! Did someone say Jewish? As in ethinic? As in features that are not Aryan or guardedly Mediterranean?
More specifically, we’re talking noses here. The ones you blow; the ones you stick into other people’s business—and the noses you have altered in order to conform to a certain standard of beauty. Would Sophia Loren have had the international acceptance if she had retained her (slightly hooked) nose? Would Marilyn have satisfied the fantasy cravings of the movie-devouring public if she hadn’t removed the bump on her proboscis?
Easy to forget the controversy over Barbra Streisand’s (prominent) nose prior to and following her huge success in Funny Girl on stage (Tony winner) and in its screen transition (Oscar winner). Barbra Streisand, whose feature didn’t fit the parameters of Beauty, did not to subject herself to the knife. With much help from the make-up department and her lighting cameraman, of course, Barbra Streisand single-handedly transformed the female mystique on screen. A taboo was smashed.
How do daisies relate to that which hitherto could not be shown or spoken? You have to concentrate very hard and look very carefully to see them, and to work out why exactly the scene/s in which they manifest had shock value, both in the time of Fanny Brice (1920s) and of Barbra Streisand (the 1960s).
Daisy-dolled-up Fanny Brice (Barbra Steisand) gets the guy (Omar Sharif)—almost—in Funny Girl
What is the day of days for any woman, at least according to the magazines? Her wedding day, of course. The dress, the veil, the flowers, the bridesmaids. Barbra has all of these in Funny Girl, as well as a song extolling her as beautiful. This bride does carry a daisy posy and in her dressing room is a spectacular arrangement containing white shastas. The two scenes in which daisies crop up to me epitomize the core of the taboo surrounding Jewish women in wish-fulfilling entertainment of Fanny’s era and Barbra’s and very likely the one we are living in today—in the case of Funny Girl, the taboo of women looking different from the norm.
This taboo against original beauty, along with the others—cross-age relationships, the tyranny of youthfulness, and male-male kissing/tenderness – is still with us. Consider the new version of The Women; it frighteningly exemplifies in the calcified, child-like appearance of its star (and producer), very blonde. very pale, very blue-eyed Meg Ryan (whose favourite flowers in You’ve Got Mail were daisies and whose recently adopted daughter in her ‘real’ life is named…D A I S Y).
You tried, Barbra; you tried Ruth and Bud Cort; you tried Murray and Peter…but it needs three generations of exposure to difference and diversity before acceptance even begins to take root. As the supposedly new, liberated 2008 The Women shows, we’re still in the nursery.