The Member of the Wedding
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* Reprinted by permission of Donald Bogle from his film reference work, Blacks in American Films & Television: An Illustrated Encyclopedia (Simon & Schuster)
Southern writers like Lillian Hellman and Carson McCullers have sometimes focused on the complex relationship between southern white women and the black women around them. At times while reading such writers, we sometimes feel almost as if we've caught sight of protected white women just as the precise moment when they've suddenly stopped dead in their tracks and taken notice of the world around them. Near the center of this world is a strong black woman who has cooked or cleaned, nurtured or reprimanded, soothed or berated the white females she has had to work for. Such is the case in The Member of the Wedding (1953), the screen adaptation of McCuller's famous novel and play in which the great Ethel Waters had her finest screen role, repeating the part she had originated on Broadway as the one-eyed cook Berenice.
Her hair white, her weight well over 200 pounds, and with a black eye patch in some scenes, Waters looks like a magnificent monument that moves us, whether we like it or not, simply because of its durability and presence. Today some viewers may be put off by the fact that her character Berenice expends most of her energies and wisdom on two white children - the teenage girl Frankie (Julie Harris) and her little cousin John Henry (Brandon de Wilde) - stoically helping the girl on the rough road to maturity. At one point, she tells Frankie, "Child. Child. Berenice knows. Berenice understands. And now Berenice wants you to sit on her lap so she can quiet you down." No matter how much it might grate us that Waters is not permitted to deliver lines to a troubled black child, the actress herself speaks with a conviction that we know is genuine.
But the Waters characterization - and McCuller's script - go futher. For here is a rare attempt to provide some glimpse of a black woman's life independent of the white world for which she works. In what is very nearly a soliloqy, Water's Berenice speaks of her experiences and the man she loved more than any other, Ludi, who has died. In closeup, the camera stays on her lustrous face as she gives a perfect reading. It is moving and effective, a great performance by a great actress in one of cinema's true mythic moments. Yet it's a sequence that acting teachers and film historians seem to have forgotten altogether. In another scene when Berenice tells the young Frankie, "We go around trying first one thing, then another. Yet we're still caught. Just the same," she brings in something outside the script, no doubt her own troubled personal experiences, deepening the lines with her knowing stoic readings. She gets far closer to the truth of her black character's experiences than do all the actresses in The Color Purple, save perhaps young Desreta Jackson.
Then, too, there are Water's brief scenes with the young actor James Edwards, as her foster brother, Honey, a troubled young man happiest when away from the white world's dictates and simply playing his horn. Edwards understands jazz musicians and how their art saved their lives. He understands restraints and repressions. "Times like this," he says in a moment of torment, "I feel I gotta bust loose or die." Sometimes stern or impatient with Edwards, Water turns and faces him at crucial peak moments, and the screen lights up with two splendid black performers, the old guard one-time vaudevillian with the new guard intense method-style actor, each bringing the best out of one another and distinguishing dialogue that in other hands might seem rigged. Of course, one wishes that the movie had been more about these two. Because it isn't is a reason why some black audiences might reject this picture altogether. But there is more here of black lives in disarray and in control than in most films of the period: it's hard to think of any other movie of that time in which black actors had a chance to relate so tenderly and sensitively with one another. Clearly worth seeing for Water's big performance and Edwards's brief one as well as those of Harris and de Wilde. Well worth seeing also for what it suggests rather than flat out states.
Later versions of McCuller's play were done for television, with Claudia McNeil playing Berenice in 1958, then Pearl Bailey performing the part in 1982.
Producer: Stanley Kramer
Director: Fred Zinnemann
Screenplay: Edna & Edward Anhalt, based on the play and novel by Carson McCullers
Cinematography: Hal Mohr
Editing: William A. Lyon
Music: Alex North
Art Direction: Cary Odell
Production Design: Rudolph Sternad
Cast: Ethel Waters (Bernice Sadie Brown), Julie Harris (Frankie Addams), Brandon De Wilde (John Henry), Honey Camden Brown (James Edwards), Arthur Franz (Jarvis), Nancy Gates (Janice), William Hansen (Mr. Addams), Dickie Moore (soldier), Hugh Beaumont (minister).
by Donald Bogle