Curmugeons: St. Vincent and Olive Kitteridge

Curmudgeons: St. Vincent and Olive Kitteridge
Howard Adelman
Why are curmudgeons so enjoyable in movies? Bill Murray is a perfect example of one in the current movie, St. Vincent. He plays the lead role of Vincent McKenna, an ex-Vietnam Vet who has become a heavy drinker, gambler and whoremonger. Is it because he reveals himself to be a reasonably loveable person after initially presenting himself as an irascible and objectionable grumpy old man? Though Bill Murray never rises to the level of a saint, which is how Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher), the boy next door in the movie, portrays him in the end, Vince does have a loving side which he mostly tries to disguise and hide.

In one review, Vincent McKenna was depicted as a misogynist. But an ill-tempered and cantankerous old man, who is clearly a curmudgeon, is not a misogynist. For a misogynist hates, dislikes and mistreats women. A curmudgeon is rude to everyone, or almost everyone indiscriminately. Further, there are also female curmudgeons; misogynists are by definition always males. Meryl Streep played a curmudgeon in August: Osage County. [See my blog – 13 January 2013] She was a real virago, full of belligerence and venom, spewing profanity at every opportunity. So was Olive Kitteridge in the four part TV series on HBO early this month adapted from Elizabeth.Strout’s thirteen short stories included in her almost-novel of that same name that won the 2009 Pulitzer Fiction Prize.

Contrasting a curmudgeon with a misogynist offers an excellent way to bring out the characteristics of the former, especially given the recent charges of harassment by two Parliamentarians in Ottawa and the far more serious scandal of Jian Ghomeshi, recently fired from the CBC. A curmudgeon always humiliates his or herself by their behaviour. In contrast, a misogynist belittles women and not just humanity in general. A misogynist need not be a cynic; a curmudgeon almost always adopts such a posture. A misogynist, always a male, upholds his masculinity by controlling, dominating and even beating women; he seems to need to humiliate women – mostly in private. A curmudgeon always seems to humiliate him or herself in public by their despicable behaviour. Curmudgeons lash out at the world while they really hate themselves most of all.

Misogynists are competitive and need to win their battles, especially when women are involved. A curmudgeon battles the wicked forces within which most of the time are the winners. Curmudgeons may insult others in a display of ruthless honesty, but they are hardest of all on themselves. Misogynists always blame the other, specifically women, for their own failures and shortcomings. While curmudgeons often express themselves in excessive profanity, and are usually rough, loud and abrasive, misogynists are often charmers who ridicule more than they insult, wallowing in derogatory more than profane commentary. Curmudgeons feel terrible about who they are and how they behave, but a misogynist suffers not an iota of guilt and will, to the end, profess his innocence over any claims that he mistreats women – often claiming, as Jian Ghomeshi did, that the women consented to or accepted such mistreatment and, in any case, deserved it.

A curmudgeon never justifies himself; a misogynist always does citing authority after authority in defence of the justification of his behaviour. A curmudgeon is a ruthless if insensitive truth-teller, indifferent to the pain those truths may cause others. A misogynist will deny, engage in equivocation, twist meanings and situations, and revel in gross distortions masquerading as Truth. If a curmudgeon is seen as the most despicable person around, a misogynist is often mistaken for a great and talented man, even a saintly knight. A curmudgeon will always do his or her best to hide, disguise and deny any charm they possess. A curmudgeon is often cold to intimacy, though not necessarily to sex as Bill Murray demonstrated. A misogynist is preoccupied with sex for sex is the highest expression of control and domination of the other. Whereas a curmudgeon appears certain of his opinions and acts in a cocky and self-centered way, a few scratches of the surface reveals that he or she is anything but and that the whole performance that seems built into their character, is really a mask. In a misogynist, the charm is the mask while hatred is the real expression of his character. A curmudgeon is not Janus-faced – he performs as disreputable as possible at all times, whereas a misogynist is a two-faced charmer in his public persona and a beast in his private lair. A curmudgeon is a miser in giving AND receiving. A misogynist appears generous in his giving but always expects more in return. For, in the end, the misogynist is a self-centered insensitive deep down lout while a curmudgeon is a lout only on the surface.

Olive Kitteridge, another curmudgeon played brilliantly by Frances McDormand of Fargo fame, uses her harsh and direct manner to throw darts at the follies and foibles of the residents in her small New England town. But, like Bill Murray’s character, Vince, her harsh outer coat hides a warm heart beneath. Olive and Vince share another trait – they are both hurting and the deep pain needs a release. Ironically, Bill Murray also appears in the Olive Kitteridge mini-series as another truth-teller without the bitterness. He is a widower with whom Olive shares a friendship after her husband Henry (Richard Jenkins) of twenty-five years, a sweet-hearted pharmacist as the perfect foil for Olive, is in hospital with a serious stroke.

However, a sentimental and sweet partner is insufficient as a foil, for that person only provides sharp relief for the harsh cantankerous surface qualities of the main protagonist and his/her deep bitterness at the bad deal they got from life. Curmudgeons need a youthful foil as well to reveal the contrast between that disappointment and the hope of the next generation. In Olive Kitteridge, John Gallagher, Jr. plays that role as Christopher, Olive and Henry’s son who will not allow the big error in choosing the wrong wife the first time around to turn him onto a path of bitterness, but instead finds comfort and promise in a second choice, a woman with two children who counters the barbs of his mother with love and caring. In St. Vincent, Oliver, who misses his father whom his mother has just divorced because of his philandering, is mentored to fight the bullies at his school by Vince. If Vince is the older guide, Oliver plays the youthful one to the apparent misanthrope and bawdy Vince by uncovering the hidden courage, the deep and passionate love and commitment of the otherwise apparently cantankerous old curmudgeon.

There may be many sources for the deep pain of different curmudgeons – whether a love lost to disease or to alcohol and suicide – but it is this sense of loss and pain with which we identify and learn to see and understand the humanity and passion beneath the obstreperous exterior. If the acerbic wit provides the humour and comic relief, it is the tragedy beneath that draws out our increasing sympathy. But why does a sense of loss and mistreatment not turn Oliver’s mother, Maggie, played with terrific restraint and enormous determination by Melissa McCarthy, into a bitter woman? Henry, too, gave up his fantasies of a future without a bitter and acerbic partner for the young and adoring Denise Thibodeau (Zoe Kazan) who worked for him in his pharmacy. Further, Henry had the additional guilt of matching up Denise with his initially shy delivery boy, Jerry McCarthy (Jesse Plemons) who becomes her husband and, more importantly, an outrageous misogynist. The only answer I can provide is that the genre requires a long-suffering repressive stoic as relief for the long suffering expressive one. The curmudgeon is really a romantic who in his/her mind celebrates the best this earth has to offer while her ears and eyes witness falsity, corruption and suffering and his/her mouth denounces that which she sees and hears as betraying his/her utopian vision.

That is why August: Osage County cannot, in the end, be a classic curmudgeon film. It is a terrific film with two absolutely brilliant performances. Meryl Streep may play the mother, Violet Fordham, as a harridan, but her long-suffering others are her own daughters, particularly Barbara Fordham played by Julie Roberts in a superb recreation of a bitter and unforgiving daughter. She makes her alcoholic and drug-addicted mother’s deep-seated bitterness look like a wading pool. Further, the very same cynicism and rage that keeps the momentum of the drama so shrill, the battle between mother and daughter, is what makes the movie ultimately weary and a bit repetitive even with the dark shadow hanging over the whole dark troubled tale. Instead of compassionate relief, the profanity just increases in frequency and in the decibel count and there is no resolution to the rage. This is a serious film without the redemption of a curmudgeon comedy.

This explains why we love well-executed curmudgeon movies. Some may be superficial comedies performed exceptionally well as in St. Vincent. Others may reach for depth demanding much subtler skills such as Olive Ketteridge. However, they always have both comic and compassionate relief to the bitter stream of invective and sharp barbs.