Times sure have changed. This is something I think of often, mainly because I spend way too much time on social media. The immediate reaction to “problematic” movies (or whatever piece of art) is immediate and often excessive. But throughout history, whether we are talking about music, movies, or physical art, times change quickly. What used to shock us sometimes no longer does or what passed for kosher would be seen now as horrific. And sadly, I think that Rambling Rose, now playing on The Criterion Channel, might be the latter. After all, we are in a time of reactionary takes, especially when it comes to sex and sexuality on screen.
Rambling Rose, directed by Martha Coolidge, is deceptively simple, plotwise. Set during The Great Depression, the film follows the Hillyer family, who have hired Rose (Laura Dern) to be a domestic servant. Rose has escaped a bad situation in Alabama, where she had been forced into a life of prostitution. As with many films featuring a character with a wild or damaged streak, Rose throws life in the Hillyer house into near complete upheaval. In lesser hands, the film would have broken no new ground, and much of that is thanks to Coolidge and a team of extremely capable actors.
The script, penned by Calder Willingham (based on his novel), shockingly does everyone involved no favors. Given his writing history (including Paths of Glory, Little Big Man, and The Graduate), the screenplay for Rambling Rose is comparatively weak. But Dern’s repeated willingness to go big with seemingly no fear aids the audience in feeling for her. This is intensely necessary because Rose performs a few actions that could lead some to abandon her completely. After all, this is a young woman who develops a crush on Mr. Hillyer (Robert Duvall), invites strange men into the house in secret, and even becomes the first sexual experience for their young son, Buddy (Lukas Haas).
This is not speaking euphemistically in any way. Buddy is a 13-year-old boy who, after Rose is rebuffed by Mr. Hillyer, pesters her to touch her breast. However, it is Rose who both decides to be in Buddy’s bed for comfort and allows him to masturbate her before panicking and begging him not to tell anyone about their tryst. This is a particularly difficult scene to process, and I think that’s exactly the point. Buddy is eager to explore, but it is still, of course, inappropriate because she is a young woman and not a child. But there is more context to be had. Rose’s character and her troubled past slowly unfolds throughout the runtime and we come to see her as a woman who has never been cared for by men and she seems to unconsciously repeat the damage that has been wrought on her. Again, her actions are wildly inappropriate but are not played as vindictive or even completely purposeful.
The gaze of this film is particularly clever. Coolidge cleverly tells the story of a damaged, frightened young woman through the age-old framing device of a coming of age story of a teenage boy. Yet, Buddy is not the protagonist. It is Rose’s story, as the name would suggest. But we see her through many different eyes. Buddy, of course, is the most obvious. But this is also a feminist story. Possibly the most powerful relationship is between Rose and Mrs. Hillyer (Diane Ladd, Dern’s real-life mother). In a particularly powerful scene, after Rose being diagnosed as a nymphomaniac, Mr. Hillyer and a male doctor discuss the possibility of a hysterectomy to solve the problem. This happens with Mrs. Hillyer in the room, but the men discuss this horrific idea without a second thought to the one person nearby who could possibly understand. Mrs. Hillyer is an educated woman and, at numerous points, rails against unfair treatment of both women and people of color. But this scene is Ladd’s big moment. Although she has stood up to her husband previously, it is a different thing altogether to stare down two men at this time, and one of them a medical expert. But Mrs. Hillyer knows that she is in the right and is willing to fight on the right side, regardless of what they will think of her. It is also a great moment for Duvall who, upon realizing just how wrong he is, shows a tremendous amount of facial control, causing his features to move from their stone fixture to something much softer, a tear sliding down his cheek. In this moment, you see a man who loves his wife and is finally willing to listen. It is a powerful moment for those in the scene, and for Rose, just off screen.
Rambling Rose, make no mistake, is absolutely a challenging film. An individual viewer’s reaction, depending on experience and sensitivity, might be quite different. It is hard to escape viewing it from a gendered perspective. If Rose was a man and Buddy was a 13-year-old girl, well that would be a different movie. But, in this critic’s opinion, this is a difficult leap to make. Everything that Rose has gone through is locked in a time and place, but more than that, it is locked to a gender, in both expression and experience. Rambling Rose garnered Oscar nominations for both Ladd and Dern, and is worth watching simply for their powerful portrayals. Our current cultural moment might have reacted very differently, but looking back to both 1991 and The Great Depression will hopefully give enough context to move past these issues.