[With another autumn upon us, a series on presences and representations of the season’s first month in American cultural texts. Share your fall connections in comments, please!]
On how biography adds compelling layers and questions to a forgettable romantic comedy.
I honestly tried to watch the 1961 romantic comedy Come September in preparation for writing this post, but after a certain early point I gave up. Even the Wikipedia summary of the film’s plot, and more exactly of who is wooing or leaving whom at any given moment, is almost impossible to follow; and on watching the opening the film feels more like an advertisement for Italy’s spectacular Ligurian coast than a coherent story. And the part that I did most fully understand, and that explains the film’s title, is more creepy than romantic: September is the month when American businessman Robert (Rock Hudson) annually escapes to his Ligurian villa with his Italian mistress Lisa (Gina Lollobrigida); but this year his visit is moved up to July instead, and when he informs Lisa of the change she cancels her imminent wedding to join Robert per usual. The course of true love and all, but not exactly the sweetest way to meet these two star-crossed lovers.
So not exactly a must-watch classic—but if we delve into the biographies of the film’s stars, it takes on additional and more interesting layers of meaning. For one thing, the film’s two young lovers are played by popular crooner Bobby Darin and up-and-coming ingénue Sandra Dee, and the story of their connection behind the scenes is by far the film’s most romantic: Darin and Dee met for the first time on set, fell in love, and were married that same year. Portrayed in the recent biopic Beyond the Sea (2004), with Kevin Spacey starring as Darin and Kate Bosworth as Dee, the marriage lasted seven tumultuous years and produced their son Dodd Mitchell Darin before the couple divorced in 1967. And no matter what the future held for these two, there’s something fascinating about watching two young performers pretending to fall in love while (we know) they were actually falling in love as well, and the romance between these two popular artists makes for a much more compelling story than anything presented on screen in Come September.
And then there’s Rock Hudson. It would be homophobic, narrow-minded, and just plain dumb for me to suggest that a gay actor couldn’t play a straight character, and of course Hudson’s entire career (much of it as the lead in romantic comedies) would belie that notion. Yet at the same time (and of course I’m far from the first to argue this), there’s something inarguably compelling about the reality that one of the most popular, traditional (that is, starring in the kinds of traditional love stories that were permissible and widespread in the buttoned-up entertainment culture of the 1950s) romantic leads in Hollywood history was throughout his life and career performing that sexuality, acting the part of a heterosexual sex symbol. Sir Ian McKellen argued earlier this year that when he finally came out as a gay man (at the age of 49), it made him a better actor; “my acting was disguise,” he put it, “Now, my acting is about revelation and truth.” Seen through that lens, and given that he never came out publicly during his lifetime (although his 1985 diagnosis with AIDS led to awareness of his sexuality shortly before and then after his death), Hudson’s acting was always a multi-layered, complex facet of his life, and one that lends another compelling layer to a film like Come September.
Next September text tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other fall texts you’d highlight?
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