(Welcome to Classically Contemporary, a series where we explore the ways in which new releases echo classic Hollywood.)
Director Paul Feig is no stranger to reference and parody, with the strongest example being his 2015 James Bond-esque Spy. Feig enjoys playing with classic film genre and his best representation of the past is found in A Simple Favor.
Based on Darcey Bell’s novel, A Simple Favor follows mommy vlogger, Stephanie Smothers (Anna Kendrick), who falls into a fast friendship with the beautifully acid-tongued Emily Nelson (Blake Lively). Emily seems to have a wonderful life, but when she goes missing Stephanie quickly learns she didn’t know much about her new (and only) best friend.
This article contains spoilers for A Simple Favor.
Emily Nelson: ‘40s Icon in 2018
When the film’s first trailer debuted, many people noticed Emily’s penchant for suits, a fashion decision Lively has continued on the film’s press tour. The look denotes a high-class sophistication from the minute the character steps out of the rain in a pinstriped suit, but there’s an added dose of masculine appropriation. Emily sauntering through a graveyard in a suit jacket with nothing underneath is akin to depictions of a sharp-dressed Satan in a zoot suit. It’s easy to draw comparisons to the likes of Katharine Hepburn, but Emily’s fashion sensibilities are in line with German actress Marlene Dietrich in the 1930 feature, Morocco.
Morocco tells the story of Amy Jolly (Dietrich) who the audience meets in a smoky cabaret. She’s singing “Give Me a Man Who Does Things” while rocking a suit and top hat. To the club’s patrons, she’s the man who does things. As she walks through the bar, tantalizing Gary Cooper, Amy plants a kiss on the lips of a woman. Shocking audiences in the ‘30s, Amy’s androgyny was a flagrant disregard for gender roles. Like Emily, appropriating male dress lets the character flaunt male freedoms. Emily tells Stephanie powerful men will walk all over you and Emily’s wardrobe reminds audiences she’s as powerful (and in many cases smarter) than her male counterparts. Her dress is subversive, co-opting one gender to enhance the other.
When Emily returns home, supposedly from the dead, her look changes. Gone is Amy Jolly’s androgyny and in its place is a ‘50s-era homemaker holding a martini. Emily mocks Stephanie’s simpler wardrobe while evoking the Donna Reed aesthetic of a happy homemaker. Parallels are also drawn to Loretta Young, a well-regarded actress known for her old-fashioned mores. Like Stephanie, Young would place an “oopsy jar” on her sets, forcing co-stars to deposit money into it after cursing. Robert Mitchum, Young’s co-star in 1948’s Rachel and the Stranger, paid $20 up-front to keep his language dirty. Young represented the pristine world of Old Hollywood, whose artifice would be denigrated by the counterculture as the ‘60s arrived. For Emily, evoking Loretta Young is an insult to her husband, Sean (Henry Golding), but it is also the script’s way of digging at the male-created stereotype of the happy homemaker, one who is presentable at all times, waiting for her husband, and being sexually available.
The Plot Thickens
The film directly calls out the studio era when Stephanie asks Sean if he’s trying to “Diabolique” her, referring to the 1955 French thriller wherein the wife and mistress of a man plot his murder, only to have his body disappear. Diabolique ends with the wife literally scared to death upon seeing her husband’s dead body rise from a bathtub, only to reveal he and his mistress are working together to kill the wife for insurance money. A Simple Favor’s trajectory is similar, as it’s revealed that Sean and Emily are working together to fake her death.
The plot also hearkens back to a pair of 1940s noirs starring Gene Tierney, starting with 1944’s Laura. Laura follows a detective investigating the disappearance (and presumed murder) of Laura Hunt, played by Tierney. Dana Andrews’ Detective Mark McPherson soon learns Laura was never really dead, mimicking Stephanie’s discovery that Emily is alive. Stephanie and Mark are both drawn to what each beautiful woman represents, only to discover the surface denotes something much darker. Like Tierney’s Laura, Emily is idealized by Stephanie and Sean. In fact, like Laura, who haunts her film from a portrait and later appears to return from the dead, Emily is referred to as a “ghost” who haunts Stephanie, leaving messages for Stephanie and returning to the Nelson home to redecorate her closest.
Emily’s scheming is also derivative of Tierney’s 1945 feature Leave Her to Heaven. Emily, like Tierney’s cold-hearted Ellen Berent, only loves one thing. For Ellen it’s her husband, Richard (Cornel Wilde) and for Emily it’s her son, Nicky (Ian Ho). And neither woman wants her place in their respective men’s lives usurped. Emily pulls a gun on Stephanie, determined to stop Stephanie from raising Emily’s son similar to Ellen setting up an elaborate suicide so her down-home sister, Ruth (Jeanne Crain) will be blamed and be unable to marry Richard. In both features, the sweet, average woman is situated as the invader. Stephanie is the quiet mommy compared to Ruth’s garden-obsessed earth mother.
Other comparisons abound within A Simple Favor, including Peyton Place and Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte also pop up in the feature. Added together, A Simple Favor does an excellent job of subtly taking Old Hollywood’s aesthetic and applying them to women. Where the Old Hollywood actress was reliant on their persona, A Simple Favor takes these personas back, reminding us why they’re iconic and how they’ve changed for modern audiences.
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