Problematic Film History: Crimes of the Heart

Welcome to a new feature at IceCream4Freaks: Problematic Film History! Each week, I’ll be discussing a well-regarded film of the past and the elements of that film which have aged the worst. This week: Crimes of the Heart

When films have elements that make you shudder, you always have to consider the context. What world do these characters live in? What year was this created? Were things considered more socially acceptable at this time? Sometimes, you can explain away the terrible elements, and other times, there’s Crimes of the Heart: director Bruce Beresford’s 1986 film about three sisters going through the emotional ringer in Mississippi.

The three Magrath sisters meet back at their family home following a series of misadventures. Meg (Jessica Lange) is a self-centered singer who left her Hollywood career after suffering a nervous breakdown. Lenny (Diane Keaton) still lives at the house while tending to their ailing grandfather who raised the three girls. Babe (Sissy Spacek) returns to scandal after shooting her abusive Senator husband. They reunite and reminisce while lamenting their mother’s long-ago suicide.

The film has some slightly problematic elements outside of the obvious. Meg is terrible and treats both of her sisters, especially Lenny, with flagrant disregard. She is not especially captivating of a character and goes out of her way to attempt to break up the marriage of a childhood friend (Sam Shepard). Meanwhile, Lenny is derided by her sisters for being a virgin or nearly one. They obsess over her shrunken ovary like it is a feature of her personality. I found Keaton’s portrayal of Lenny to be neuro-atypical, though I’m not sure that’s what was on the page of the original play or in the script. These are all small gripes in the scheme of things.

The problem is Babe. The crux of the action revolves around Babe’s shooting of her husband. He is seen to be emotionally abusive and is alluded to be physically abusive as well. The idea of a woman shooting her abusive husband isn’t new, but the lead up to the actual shooting is the problem. Babe confesses to Meg the tipping point for her crime was the discovery of an affair she was having with her African American neighbor, a 15-YEAR-OLD BOY! Not only does this fact get glossed over, the felony is laughed about.

When Meg talks to Babe about this, her incredulity is not about the fact that her sister is a pederast, but focuses more on the child’s race. When Babe tells Meg he is Black, she asks three times to confirm with increasingly demeaning terms for his race. Later, when pictures of the affair are produced, Meg laughs at the boy’s “maturity”, all the while viewing child pornography.

Worse yet, the solution to Babe’s predicament is to send the boy away from his family. His well-being is never considered, only Babe’s freedom from the potential of jail time. The boy leaves and Babe gets her freedom. Everyone wins except him.

It would be one thing if the film stuck to just the aspects of race and how it connected to mid-80’s Mississippi, but there is no time period where a relationship between an adult woman and a 15-year-old boy is acceptable. Just look to a film 20 years later in Notes on a Scandal. The affair in that film is never viewed as anything other than the crime that it is. Once it is found out, the woman is ruined and sentenced to prison. Babe has to settle for a pair of failed suicide attempts.

The film has plenty of interesting things to say about legacy, suicide, happiness as you grow older, and sisterhood, but all of it gets lost in this terror of criminally inappropriate behavior. The worst thing about the film is the quality of Spacek’s aloof performance. Her characterization represents one of the few purely enjoyable things about the film, but her character’s behavior skews the film.

Even with the added context, there is no situation where this was acceptable or even understandable. This wasn’t okay in 1979 when the play was written, it wasn’t okay in 1986 when the film debuted, and it’s not okay today. I highly suggest watching the film for the sheer amazement of what was considered a feel-good film about sisters. The only feeling I had after watching was to take a shower.

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