[1948.1] Johnny Belinda

I will be watching all 5 nominees from 1948 before I move on to the next year. The goal here is to watch them and have an internal discussion among them to try to piece together a “history” of the year. Let’s get to it. 

Johnny Belinda, 1948’s ebullient story about a young, intelligent deaf-mute girl from a small town on the eastern coast of Canada, offered a daring exposé on the unraveling consequences of rape in a small town.

This film holds a special mantle on Oscar’s shelf as its release defiantly shirked Hays’ Code rules against immoral or inappropriate subject matter in film. Perhaps from 1948 forward, rules that once boxed a story in, no longer applied. What’s interesting is that rape is a notoriously murky subject matter to tackle. Johnny Belinda‘s take on the matter is diffused somewhat seeing as the film itself thankfully does not muse on rape and rape culture, but rather treats it as a plot and mood device. This decision allows stars Jane Wyman and Lew Ayres to absolutely shine. 

The film Johnny Belinda mostly handles tricky situations, rape and murder, as off-screen distractions, while allowing the after-effects of each event to flow through its actors. Jane Wyman, who plays the deaf-mute Belinda MacDonald, has 0 lines in the film and must display her emotions through facial and hand gestures; her eyes are deep and magnificent. Lew Ayres, as Dr. Robert Richardson, employs a technique seen later by William Hurt in Children Of A Lesser God, acting as both her and the audience’s “speech” partner. It’s a little less goofy in Johnny Belinda than in Children Of A Lesser God because the dialogue in the former assumes a lot more of its audience than that in the latter – perhaps it rightfully assumes that the audience can follow the interaction between speaking and non-speaking without perfect dialogue. Wyman earns her Oscar in how she handles an unwanted sexual advance without words, and for most of the film, without explicit expression.

The act of forcing oneself upon another for sexual and physical domination is older than the word itself. Traditionally, rape culture has been male-dominated, but as humans evolve physiologically, so do they psychologically; women have slowly come to subvert the notion that rape is reserved for man-on-woman (or man-on-man, for that matter). The margin between consensual and non-consensual wanes as technology increases access to different modes of communication and decreases the severity of the act itself. Men will direct the verb to his surroundings as he strongly defeats his opponent. “Man, did I rape that competition,” he might say. Women, might with utmost contempt claim rape if not totally satisfied with sexual performance, or if advances weren’t totally equally proportioned; unfortunately (for all sexes), sex can be frighteningly dangerous.

For Belinda, the frightening encounter opens the story up to several new character and plot dynamics. For one, the rape results in a child, the titular Johnny (though the movie’s title Johnny Belinda, which one would think is a single name. This title is strikingly ambiguous.) Two, the rape inadvertently leads to several murders directly related to one another; the town’s mood and dynamic shift and slide; remember this is a small farming town, where everyone knows everyone and every event, major or minor, is picked over ad infinitum. Scary then, when this town, built on x’s and o’s can’t decide what to do when a child appears and the for the mother, literally, mum’s the word. They assume it’s the doctor’s; they assume the deaths are unrelated. Turns out rape and deaf-muteness can’t work well together.

I’m going to hold my opinions of 1948 until I watch all five films. I’m sure Hamlet will prove to be a wonderful watch, and Bogart’s performance in The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre will have been of legend. I know almost nothing about the two other films, The Snake Pit and The Red Shoes, so they’ll be quite the fresh watch.


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