Thoroughly modern Lily

From Edith Wharton to Candace Bushnell, Gilded Age novelists have chronicled the misadventures of romantic gold diggers. So why does the new film of "The House of Mirth" miss the point?


Carina Chocano
December 22, 2000 2:45AM (UTC)

Terence Davies, who recently adapted Edith Wharton's 1905 novel "The House of Mirth" for the screen, has said that he cast Gillian Anderson in the role of Lily Bart because a photograph of her reminded him of a painting by John Singer Sargent.

Anderson does, in fact, resemble the pale, rapacious turn-of-the-century socialites the portraitist made a fortune immortalizing. Sargent was not only the most fashionable painter of the time (he even has a cameo in Wharton's novel); he was also an astute social critic. Like his greatest influences, Goya and Velazquez, he was particularly adept at capturing the hard, predatory look of the rich, beautiful women he painted while at the same time catering to their vanity. His subjects, though extravagantly civilized, have a savage quality. They look like people who would stop at nothing to succeed.

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Gillian Anderson looks like one of those people. There is a grimness to her -- the fierce, determined look of someone who has compromised a little too much to get where she is.

But Wharton's Lily Bart, no matter how beautiful, would never have had her portrait painted by Sargent, nor by his fictional counterpart, the society painter Morpeth; there would have been no one to foot the bill. Sargent's sitters were the wives of very rich men -- something that Lily, despite her efforts or maybe because of them, never managed to become.

Early on, Lily tells Lawrence Selden that big parties bore her, but she attends them because it is "part of the business." Yet for all her bluster, Lily is a lousy businesswoman who chokes every time she comes anywhere near closing a deal. Lily, whose definition of success is "to get all that one can out of life," lacks the self-knowledge and the courage to acknowledge that she may have to sacrifice her romantic ideals in return for wealth and status -- or vice versa. As a result, she winds up with nothing. What's poignant about Lily is not that she fails to achieve her goal, nor that she has an unwitting hand in her own failure: It's that, as she finally realizes, "There had never been a time when she had had any real relation to life."

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Davies' choice of Anderson for the part of Lily shows just how completely he failed to grasp Wharton's heroine. First, whatever her qualities as an actress, Anderson is just not beautiful enough to play Lily. This is not meant to be unkind: Beauty, charm and the willingness to entertain others were Lily's only assets. Anderson, who is also too old to play Lily, comes across as cold, stiff and imperious. You never get the sense that she would stoop to singing -- much less doing anything else -- for her supper. Anderson is what people used to call handsome, whereas Lily was foxy in every sense of the word. She was also, of course, a blond.

If ever there was a book that disproved the notion that beauty is only skin deep, it is "The House of Mirth." For Lily, her beauty is the prism through which the world sees her and through which she sees the world. Beauty is her cardinal trait. Her character and her destiny are shaped by it. Without it, she would have been someone else entirely -- namely, her poor, plain and unmarried friend, Gerty Farish. Gerty, a pivotal character in Wharton's story, was omitted from Davies' adaptation. Yet without girls like Gerty, there could be no girls like Lily Bart. Gerty is the standard against which Lily defines herself. "She likes to be good," Lily says of Gerty early on. "I like to be happy."

That Lily equates money with happiness, that she believes her beauty and personality alone should ensure both and that she understands that goodness is the surest path to poverty, is precisely what makes Wharton's "The House of Mirth" so contemporary. Lily did not simply, as advertisers like to say, "enjoy the finer things in life." She was a single-minded junkie. "I am horribly poor," she tells Lawrence Selden near the beginning of the story, "and very expensive. I must have a great deal of money."

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Davies -- perhaps in an effort to make Lily "likeable" -- fails to dwell on this aspect of Lily's character. Her greed and her desire for constant adulation are never addressed in the film. Davies also neglects to mention the sense of entitlement that her beauty has inculcated in her and glosses over her own complicity in her financial ruin. Instead, he draws a sad picture of a tense and lachrymose innocent who is brought down by her own scruples and sense of fair play in a world that has none.

We are now are chin-deep in what the New Yorker has been calling "the New Gilded Age," and yet, inexplicably, Davies has rendered a staid, irrelevant period piece from Wharton's timeless satire of the era that inspired the comparison. Meanwhile "Sex and the City" creator Candace Bushnell (who has rather vaingloriously compared herself to Wharton) has struck one mass-market nerve after another exploring the same territory. Her stylistic shortcomings aside, Bushnell understands something that Davies either doesn't recognize or would prefer not to acknowledge: Where money and beauty are involved, not a lot has changed between men and women in the past 100 years.

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There have always been women who participate in their own commodification, but in a culture of extravagant, decadent affluence, succeeding at it becomes a popular dream. Davies, in a well-intentioned, well-indoctrinated, post-feminist way, delivers a Lily-as-victim of a cruel and bygone era. Bushnell, who has obviously been paying attention, sees Lily everywhere she looks right now. Who wants to be a trophy wife? Quite a few people, apparently.

In an essay about the redesign of U.S. currency, Adam Gopnik calls the new bills "metamoney." He argues that the reason nobody seems to like money's new look is because "we are disturbed ... because it uses the traditional satiric devices of exaggeration, displacement and oversimplification, and therefore seems to be offering some kind of comment on the Old Money. It seems to be getting at us in some obscure way."

This argument can be applied not just to new bills, but to new fortunes as well. The period at the end of the 19th century gave rise to a new American upper class whose wealth seemed unthinkably vast. Never -- until the turn of the 20th century -- had a select few amassed such vertiginous fortunes so quickly. People lined up outside the Standard Oil offices to catch a glimpse of John D. Rockefeller. Money seeped into the American imagination. Millionaires became folk heroes. How did they do it? Most people didn't have a clue. Most people still don't. Meanwhile, the whole nation was drunk and blunted on champagne wishes and caviar dreams.

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New fortunes, when they are as enormous and as looming as they are now, tend to cause a commotion in the national psyche. They permeate the atmosphere, they get in the water, they demand attention, they create insecurities and disturbances. They get at us in some obscure way.

One friend of mine, who grew up in New York, described it like this: "You walk down Madison Avenue and you see things. Eventually you start to like them. Then you realize how much they cost."

And things, particularly in the cities where money looms largest, cost a lot. Luxury items have always been marketed predominantly to women, and the women who can afford them invariably become luxury items themselves. In his 1899 critique of upper-class values, "The Theory of the Leisure Class," economist and philosopher Thorstein Veblen wrote, "The dress of women goes even farther than that of men in the way of demonstrating the wearer's abstinence from productive employment. It needs no argument to enforce the generalization that the more elegant styles of feminine bonnets go even farther towards making work impossible than does the man's high hat. The woman's shoe adds the so-called French heel to the evidence of enforced leisure afforded by its polish; because this high heel obviously makes any, even the simplest and most necessary manual work extremely difficult."

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Women may no longer wear bonnets, and high-heeled shoes may no longer be seen as hindrances to employment, but the fact remains that "the more elegant styles" are outside the reach of most working women simply because they require more money, more attention and more leisure than the average working woman can afford. This is their point. Even seemingly inexpensive trends can mark class differences. Last year's "bare-legs" look is an example. In New York, unless you could afford to take cabs or limos absolutely everywhere, you would freeze. Only rich women could get away with wearing short skirts and no stockings in the dead of winter.

Fans of Bushnell's work and of "Sex and the City," the TV series inspired by her first book, may not live, dress or date like her characters, yet they manage -- in large numbers -- to understand and identify with what she's talking about. It seems there are few people any more who are not obsessed with money. In fact, it's rare to open a magazine and not come across an article lamenting the way that money has seeped into romance like damp through plaster, staining and soiling it beyond repair. Men with little money write about the unreasonable economic demands made on them by women with little money. Women with little money defend their impossible economic standards while grieving that men with money hold them to impossible beauty standards. Women with money (these are more rare) complain that men with no money eventually resent and leave them. Magazines from Forbes to Harper's Bazaar devote pages to the surplus of available Silicon Valley gazillionaires and provide instructions on how to snag them. Cosmopolitan argues that it is just as easy to date a rich man as a poor one. The Forbes 400 list includes information on marital status. Even Bust magazine, in its latest feminism issue, features a story on "trickin'" -- or how not to give away the milk when the cow's still for sale.

This has to do less with the the gap between men's and women's wages than with access to what people call "real money." Rick Rockwell, the "multimillionaire groom" on Fox's "Who Wants to Marry a Multimillionaire?", was ridiculed not only because he went on TV to find a bride, but because he was not a "real multimillionaire." Not since Wharton's time has the bar for what counts as "real money" been as high as it is now. And it seems that comparatively few women outside of the entertainment industry have or exercise the ability to make the kinds of fortunes others dream about.

There's an episode of "Sex and the City" in which Bushnell's heroine Carrie has her credit card cut in half while she's attempting to purchase a pair of Dolce and Gabbana shoes. The shoes in question are a pair of powder-blue mules with a feathery pom-pom on top. Like every piece of clothing Carrie buys or wears on the show, they are fantasy items: expensive, impractical and laden with sexual connotations. Like everything else in her wardrobe, the shoes make you wonder how she can possibly afford them.

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To Carrie's rescue comes Amalita, a woman who lives off her rich, jet-setting boyfriends. Amalita charges the shoes to her boyfriend-of-the-moment's card and sends Carrie off with a kiss. Later, when Carrie runs into the woman and her friends at a bar, she gets herself an invitation to Venice. The financially strapped Carrie wonders (in her inimitable rhetorical way), "Is there a line between 'girlfriend' and 'prostitute'?"

Ultimately, because she is our heroine, Carrie decides that for her the line does exist, and she declines the invitation and resolves to avoid Amalita in the future. In that, Carrie is a modern version of Wharton's Lily, whose failure to get what she wants (she blows at least three chances to marry a fortune) could be either the result of her moral upbringing or of her naiveté. It is never really clear what keeps Carrie or her three best friends from going "pro." Marriage-obsessed Charlotte comes closest; the only difference between her and the "professional girlfriend" is that she is not willing to sacrifice anything in return for her never-ending reward.

Carrie, who has chosen a notoriously low-paying creative profession, craves luxury as much as Lily does, and she denies herself nothing, even if it means racking up the debt. When it comes down to it, she doesn't have the stomach to face the intrinsic hypocrisy of her life. The things she wants cannot be acquired virtuously -- no one who is unwilling to cross a few moral lines can afford $500 shoes. What really keeps Carrie and Lily from making the deal they need is confusion -- the unresolvable conflict between their longing for romance (what they'd call "love") and the reality that they can't afford to feed their desire for luxury without cutting a deal with a rich man.

Maybe I'm naive, but it seems to me that a decade ago when the economy was busting, things were different. I don't remember a single instance throughout my 20s (except for birthdays) when a guy I was with did so much as pick up a check. It would have seemed not only strange but vaguely repellent. The few times that an older man tried to impress me with his Porsche (the few times that an older man tried to impress me at all), I laughed. When I was 26, I had a boss who -- during a meeting in which we were supposed to discuss an overdue raise (I was making $26,000 a year, and routinely working until 9 p.m. and at least one weekend day) -- asked me what kind of guys I dated. "You should date a rich guy," he said. "I could introduce you to people." I was taken aback less by the inappropriateness of the comment than I was by the idea that anyone still thought that way. I could blame this on my youth instead of the Zeitgeist, but I do believe that in times of economic prosperity, more women are more likely to want to "marry up."

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When I was growing up, I dreamed of amassing piles of money in some independent, singular and highly visible way. Money represented freedom and power. Most of all, it represented the ability to avenge every wrong ever done to me. It would be at least ten years before I learned there was a name for the kind of money I wanted -- I wanted "fuck-you money."

There's a character in Bushnell's recent book "4 Blondes," Janey Wilcox, who is modeled on Lily Bart. Janey goes from Hamptons summer house to Hamptons summer house trading on her good looks and willingness to please. She too wishes that she could afford her own house one day -- because that would "show them." In the end, Janey gets her wish in the form of a Victoria's Secret modeling contract. Even Bushnell, in the end, tries to let her characters have it both ways. Where Wharton saw the opportunity for satire and tragedy, Bushnell concocts a fairy tale.

Recently, I met a guy who makes millions of dollars a year because he patented a process through which some people can get a special tax break. A few decades earlier, his father had outlined the steps for making a certain real-estate transaction that has since become the standard for the industry. His father would have been laughed at for attempting to patent this process. It would have been like Starbucks attempting to patent the milk-steaming process. It takes a certain kind of person to parlay an idea for a tax loophole into intellectual property. Wealth, this guy told me, was a matter of choice. And I had simply chosen not to be wealthy. It's the kind of story that brings the real psychology of capitalism into stark relief.

From this perspective, the ultimate tragedy of Lily Bart is not just that she lives in a world that values her only for her ornamental qualities, nor that she is complicit in her commodification, nor that she is ultimately victimized and scapegoated by the society on which she depends. Seen from this perspective, the tragedy of Lily Bart is that she had everything she needed to succeed -- that is, to land a rich husband who could give her the luxuries she craved --and she just couldn't go through with it. She knew what she wanted, and it lay within her grasp, but she just wasn't tough enough to pay the price.

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Carina Chocano

Carina Chocano writes about TV for Salon. She is the author of "Do You Love Me or Am I Just Paranoid?" (Villard).

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