14 June 2013

Revisiting Jane Pittman

Where to start, Lena? Where to start?

Even before she won the Tony Award on Sunday, my friends and I were looking forward to seeing Cicely Tyson on Broadway in Horton Foote’s play The Trip to Bountiful. Ms. Tyson’s stage appearances are exceedingly rare — indeed, when I saw a poster for the show, I supposed that it was a made-for-TV adaptation on a cable network. That in itself would have been something, but the reality is that, on Sunday afternoon, I will be sitting in a room with Cicely Tyson herself, and she will be doing what she does better than just about anybody else who ever drew breath: acting.

In anticipation, my friends and I took a look at the film that pretty much sealed Ms. Tyson’s destiny, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, from 1974.* She had already won an Oscar nomination for Sounder, which I’d seen during its initial release, in 1972. Somewhere along the line, I realized that I’d seen her even earlier, in a guest appearance on The Courtship of Eddie’s Father, which tweaked the audience’s racial consciousness by presenting her as a potential love interest for Bill Bixby, who was white. In the context of a sitcom geared mainly to children, that was a form of consciousness-raising, and pretty daring. But it’s really from Miss Jane Pittman onward that it seems most clear that Ms. Tyson was not going to squander her gifts in the service of piffle.

Shortly after winning the Tony Award on Sunday night.

It’s true that not many other name actresses could have played such roles as Harriet Tubman and Coretta Scott King, and fewer still could have played them as well as Ms. Tyson did. But, give or take the occasional “Coffee Achievers” commercial on TV, she seems to have made a decision to take on projects that mattered, and especially those that spoke to the experience of black people in America. In so doing, she helped other Americans to understand that experience.

And so she was Kunta Kinte’s grandmother in Roots — not a big role, but an important one. Even more recently, in The Help, while playing what might look like a stereotypical “maid” role, she revealed the precarity of a woman’s position in a hierarchy that’s based not only on race but also economics, where personal relationships aren’t enough to ensure security.

But what of Miss Jane Pittman? My friends had never seen it, and I hadn’t seen it in three decades, at least. Surely I remembered the movie through the filter of those subsequent performances, and the hazy memory of the boy who sat in front of the television set. Was Miss Jane Pittman — and Cicely Tyson’s performance — as good as I remembered it?

The answer is emphatically yes.

The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, based on a novel by Ernest J. Gaines (which, as a boy, I ran out and read shortly after seeing the movie), portrays the 110-year life of a Louisiana woman, from slavery to the Civil Rights Movement. As depicted in Tracy Keenan Wynn’s screenplay,** Miss Jane’s survival depends in large measure upon her failure to take action. Those who stand up for themselves — the freed slave Big Laura (played in the movie by the singer Odetta); Laura’s son, Ned; Jane’s common-law husband, Joe Pittman; and young Jimmy, an associate of Martin Luther King, Jr. — come to violent ends. She waits and waits for “The One,” the leader she has prayed for, but to no avail. It’s not until the end of her life that Miss Jane takes political action, in one of the most memorable scenes ever filmed for television.

With Michael Murphy (left) as a reporter,
and Beatrice Winde as Lena.

Cicely Tyson portrays Miss Jane in all but the first few years of her life. This gives her a lot to work with as an actress, a range of emotions and experiences, but it also poses challenges, notably physical ones. Makeup artists Rick Baker and Stan Winston help her to surmount many of these, with age makeup that’s — still — just about the most convincing I’ve ever seen. The massive wrinkles are no latex mask: they move as Ms. Tyson moves, and they become, with her, the embodiment of a woman’s life.

But there are other physical challenges, too, mostly associated with making sure that Miss Jane is the same woman in every scene of the movie, even those in which she’s played by another actress, Valerie Odell (lovely and utterly unaffected). One tiny gesture has always impressed me, not least because many of my women relatives do the same thing: the way Miss Jane pounds her fists against the back of any loved one who embraces her.

It’s mostly through an absolute economy of gesture, however, that Ms. Tyson conveys Miss Jane’s extreme old age. She is spry, and yet she is weary — and once we’ve seen her history, we understand why. There is no movement to spare, and thus none of the quaveriness that some actors use when playing old age. She’s frail, but still proud, and one of the most telling moments in the film comes when she waves away her friend Mary (Elinora B. Johnson). She’s impatient to take the most important steps of her life — by herself.

She hits the right vocal notes, too, turning her voice to a soft rasp, maintaining a credible accent, and above all savoring certain words until they turn to poetry — the way so many little old ladies in the South tend to do.

The movie’s climax is briefer than I’d remembered it. I won’t say much about it here, however, because I suspect that, for those seeing the first time, it will seem a little lifetime in a single scene, just as it seemed for me. So many things are going on here, and at this point the viewer’s adrenalin may be pumping so that the details are heightened and time seems to move at another pace — just as it happens in moments of shock or thrill in our own lives.

I will venture to say that, since viewing Miss Jane Pittman for the first time, water has never tasted the same to me.

Ms. Tyson won two Emmy Awards for the movie.
Somehow, it seems 20 wouldn’t be enough.

The movie meant a great deal to me perhaps least of all because I was a diva-mad kid, or because Ms. Tyson’s performance possessed a kind of grandeur that, while not what most people think of as operatic, was always inherently musical. Her work is imbued with the grace that comes to those who hear music that others don’t, and that some people call spirituality.

On a more personal level, the movie gave me a glimpse of another side of my own family story. Miss Jane spends most of her life in and around plantations near Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where my grandfather’s family owned plantations. Early on I developed the peculiar anxiety of liberals whose ancestors owned slaves: it’s a question that can be summed up as How bad were we? And it’s a question that our white families can never answer satisfactorily. So, timidly, in fits and starts, we go looking for the truth elsewhere.

Directed by John Korty, a specialist in made-for-TV movies, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman fits proudly alongside big-screen films of the 1970s: it possesses the naturalistic seriousness, the maturity, the confidence of Martin Scorsese’s or Francis Ford Coppola’s work (if not quite their flamboyance). And thus it doesn’t try to romanticize or deny the experiences of former slaves.

Some aspects of those experiences are touched on lightly or not at all (sexual exploitation, for example, isn’t mentioned), but there’s a clear-eyed look at the violence (including a massacre of freed slaves and the lynching of a black schoolteacher by Klansmen), the hardships and the privations. We see Cicely Tyson herself chopping sugar cane in the Louisiana heat, and we must instantly understand that it is brutal work.

The movie doesn’t rub our noses in the awfulness of Southern whites (as Roots tended to do), but it doesn’t provide false comfort, either. Ultimately, you realize that no matter how “nice” your ancestors may have been, and no matter how gentle the gentlemen and ladies, the very system they upheld was cruel, and wrong, and there’s no way around that. Miss Jane Pittman helped to open my eyes, and especially when I look at Ms. Tyson’s subsequent career, I have to believe that’s one reason she took the job: not merely because it was a juicy role but because it would matter.***

So now she is turning to The Trip to Bountiful, and with her that story becomes a story of the migration of Southern blacks in the 20th century from rural areas to cities — and of the consequences of that migration. These things happened to white people, too, and it seems that this is the first time Mr. Foote’s play has been performed with black actors in the leading roles. (Ms. Tyson is joined onstage by Cuba Gooding, Jr.; Vanessa Williams, and Condola Rashad.) As I’ve often noted, Mr. Foote’s work holds special meaning for me because our family backgrounds are so similar, to the point that I (and above all, my mother) sometimes feel that he wrote about us.

That “us” will now be a black family, and I will be invited to see myself and my loved ones in them, even as I am invited to appreciate the ways in which their lives weren’t like ours. Art is supposed to help us to understand the thoughts and feelings of other people — and Cicely Tyson is at it again. You can’t make me believe that’s an accident.

Going to Bountiful, via Broadway, with Condola Rashad.

*NOTE: Another star of Miss Jane Pittman, the late Beatrice Winde, appeared in Mr. Foote’s The Young Man from Atlanta on Broadway, when I got to know Mr. Foote. Winde plays Miss Jane’s friend Lena, the mother of Jimmy, the activist.

**Tracy Keenan Wynn was the grandson of comedian Ed Wynn and the son of actor Keenan Wynn, who played, among many other parts in a long career, the white racist magically turned black in Francis Ford Coppola’s Finian’s Rainbow.

***We watched Miss Jane Pittman not long after learning of the death of the actress Jean Stapleton, who around the same time took a television role — that of Edith Bunker, on All in the Family, of course — and used it to teach the audience something about women’s lives in a changing America. We may tend to look back at 1970s television as frivolous, and much of it was, and yet it’s striking to look back and see how many artists brought seriousness of purpose to pop culture, precisely when I needed it most.

GENERAL NOTE: Watching Cicely Tyson and her co-stars on The View the other day, I was struck by the way they refer to her as “Miss Cicely,” a sign of their respect for her. I like that: it may be as close to a knighthood as America can offer its finest actors. I’m a feminist, though, so I’ve used “Ms.”

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