The Beguiled is visually beautiful. A large white Virginia mansion sits surrounded by majestic trees dripping with moss. The women who inhabit this home are outfitted in gowns that would put Scarlett O’Hara to shame. Each scene, shot in gauzy, low light is mesmerizing, giving the entire film a dreamlike quality. Yet that exceptional cinematography cannot save a film whose storyline is demeaning to women. That the director is Sofia Coppola and the cast predominantly women only adds to the disappointment.
“I think just the power between men and women, which we can all relate to, is at the heart of the story,” Coppola said on the CBS Morning Show, explaining why she decided to do a remake of the 1971 film which starred Clint Eastwood. The earlier version did poorly at the box office after being marketed as a “hothouse melodrama” – “One man…seven women…in a strange house!” That setup, a group of women competing for the attention and love of a man, never falls to draw an audience, one reason why ABC’s The Bachelor is now in its 21st (!) season. Still, whether during the Civil War or in current time, seeing women scratch and claw each other to win a man is unseemly.
Seven women, ranging in age from seven to 40, are holed up in the Farnsworth Seminary for Young Women, practicing their handwriting and studying French while trying to ignore the Civil War raging around them. The youngest girl, Amy (Oona Laurence) is gathering mushrooms in the forest when she happens upon a wounded Union soldier, Colonel McBurney (Colin Farrell). She helps him back to the mansion where he collapses. The school’s head, Miss Martha (Nicole Kidman), decides they should tend to his injuries before turning him into the Confederates. He’s placed on a bed in the music room which is kept locked. Miss Martha strips off his clothes and sponges away the dirt and blood on his body, her movements and facial expressions making it clear it’s been a long time since she’s seen a man. She also cleans out and stitches up the wound in his leg.
When he regains consciousness, McBurney tells the women he recently arrived in America from Ireland and, being short on cash, was paid to take another man’s place in the Union Army. Fighting for a cause he knew little about and didn’t believe in made it easy for him to desert when he was wounded. He wants the women to know that he’s not their enemy. (Eastwood’s character told the women he was a pacifist.) The women soon band together to protect McBurney from being turned in when Confederate soldiers stop in to check on Miss Martha and the others.
Colin Farrell and Kirsten Dunst
Although Miss Martha keeps telling McBurney he’s not a guest, he’s soon joining them at the table for dinner. The women dress for each occasion like they are dining with a prince. McBurney doesn’t disappoint, enjoying the food, particularly Amy’s mushrooms, and flirting with each woman. Although Miss Martha tries to keep things professional, there’s no doubt she’s attracted to him, too. But the major contenders are Edwina, the school’s second in command and teacher played by Kirsten Dunst, and Alicia, one of the older students played by Elle Fanning. McBurney plays one off against the other until his manipulations backfire with disastrous consequences.
Despite the fact that the film is set during the Civil War, Coppola made the curious decision to jettison one of the characters, a slave, Hallie, played in the original by Mae Mercer, which sparked some fascinating and heated exchanges with Eastwood’s McBurney. Hallie and the women (a cast headed by Geraldine Page and Elizabeth Hartman) dressed in work clothes, not ball gowns, and toiled in the fields in order to supply their food. In Coppola’s version, not only do we wonder where all the mansion’s food comes from (aside from Amy’s mushrooms), but also ponder who spends time washing and ironing all those dresses?
Coppola’s work was recognized with a best director’s award at Cannes, which certainly is a boost to women directors battling for equity in Hollywood. And the cast (which also includes Angourie Rice, Addison Riecke, and Emma Howard) delivers strong performances. Too bad the plot didn’t present women in a better light.
Photos courtesy of Focus Features
Jai Williams and Charlene Giannetti spent six months visiting 40 plantations in Virginia, taking tours and talking with the families and the professionals tasked with caring for these historic properties. Their new book, Plantations of Virginia, has just been published by Globe Pequot Press. Virginia has produced eight presidents and three of those – George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison – were Founding Fathers whose leadership and inspiration were critical to the birth and success of the new country. Their homes, Mount Vernon, Monticello, and Montpelier, remain the crown jewels and should be experienced by every American for their historic value.
But there are many other plantations worth a visit, including the grand mansions located along the James River. Like so many other areas of the country, Virginia has become focused on preserving its history, which, in many cases, involves saving and restoring these homes and surrounding grounds. These “works in progress” have fascinating stories to tell.
Jai and Charlene talk about what became for them a transformative journey, researching and writing Plantations of Virginia.
How did the two of you come together to write this book?
Charlene: About five years ago, my husband and I began dividing our time between New York City and Alexandria, Virginia. Although we had lived in Washington, D.C. in the 70s, we hadn’t spent much time in Virginia. So we began to explore Virginia’s history and a great deal of that history, particularly about the Civil War, can be discovered by visiting plantations. Our country continues to grapple with slavery’s legacy and that issue certainly played out in the state’s plantations.
Jai: I’ve lived in Virginia for quite awhile now and you are subconsciously immersed in history wherever you go. After visiting various plantations with my mother over the years, I began to realize that the tours were often glorified to be ones of “happier times” for all and additionally some narratives were specifically left out. I felt that those stories needed to be told, even if briefly to include all persons involved in plantation life.
How did you select the plantations you visited?
C: Of course we had to include the crown jewels – Mount Vernon, Monticello, and Montpelier – the homes of our Founding Fathers. We also knew we wanted to visit the plantations along the James River, including Westover where the HBO miniseries John Adams starring Paul Giamatti was filmed. Andrea Erda and her family still live in this magnificent home and she was very gracious showing us around and talking about Westover’s history. After that, we broadened our search to every corner of the state and were rewarded with some amazing finds, including some plantations that are now mere shells but being renovated in order to preserve their history.
J: Virginia is thriving with plantations both publicly and/or privately owned. Others listed in text were either no longer standing or unavailable to contact, although the information stated as such. Because of this, a list was compiled and we reached out to each plantation individually to ask their permission to come and tour, photograph, and write about their history.
Can you tell us how you gathered your information?
C: Before each visit, we read all the information that was available in print and online. We took the tours, some provided by volunteer docents others by historians with extensive knowledge. We learned not only about the specific plantation, but about how the home and its inhabitants – both the family and the slaves – were affected by the Civil War. We also focused on the architecture and, if the structure was being restored how that work was being done. The amount of research involved in these restorations is amazing and those who work on these projects are truly design detectives.
J: Sites like the National Register of Historic Places as well as the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, Historic Register were researched alongside information provided by each plantation’s docent, website and text. To make sure that the information was correct as some reports were written in the 60s, 70s, and 80s on the aforementioned sites; we provided each plantation with a copy of the text before we submitted it to the publisher for a final fact check.
Jai, You took the photos for the book. Can you tell us how you approached that part of the assignment?
J: With the exception of a few plantations such as Montpellier, Mount Vernon, etc., photographing each plantation was therapeutic. At times, being in a place that held so much untold history felt heavy, especially as the book developed. Regardless of how each story was told by the docents, capturing the house, its interior, and grounds, my goal was to provide each reader with an opportunity to draw their own inference based on the text. Furthermore, shooting towards the end of the year (autumn/winter) removed, in my opinion, the lightheartedness sometimes conveyed when these same places are shot during the (spring/summer).
It seems these plantations are now used in different ways. Can you explain?
C: Many are strictly preserved as historical sites and attract thousands of tourists each year. Families still live in some of these homes and we were fascinated that young children were being raised surrounded by such rich history. A few have been turned into inns or operated as bed and breakfast places. These provide another experience for those who wish to truly immerse themselves in history. And then there are those that are being brought back from rubble, determined individuals on a mission to preserve history.
J: While others have been turned into event places and offices for staff.
What was the most surprising discovery?
C: For me, it was what I learned while touring Montpelier. The home of James and Dolley Madison had passed through many hands and was last owned by Marion du Pont. With each owner, the buildings and grounds underwent dramatic changes. When Marion died, her heirs transferred ownership to the National Trust for Historic Preservation, an organization that vowed to return Montpelier to what it had been during Madison’s lifetime. Visiting Montpelier, I learned more about Madison, known as the Father of the Constitution and the Architect of the Bill of Rights. And his wife, Dolley Madison, was a huge celebrity in her time and the first President’s wife to be called the First Lady.
J: Two things: First, that many tours would either omit or gloss over the slavery aspect. However, plantations like Poplar Forest, Sully Historic Site, Monticello and a few others give dedicated slave tours in addition to their regular tours. Hopefully, other plantations will consider adding something similar as there is interest and to tell the whole story, certain voices cannot be omitted.
Secondly, how interconnected plantations were in Virginia. Numerous owners built or inherited more than one plantation over the course of their lives, particularly among those considered Virginia royalty such as the Carters, Berkeleys, and Tayloes.
What did you discover about the slave experience at these plantations?
C: Learning about a slave’s life on the plantations was always the most sobering part of the journey. How a slave was treated varied depending upon the plantation’s owner. We heard many horror stories which brought to mind scenes in the Oscar-winning film 12 Years a Slave. It was disappointing to realize that Washington, Jefferson, and Madison, despite their battles for independence and human rights, all kept and never freed their slaves. The Marquis de Lafayette, who was instrumental in helping America win the Revolutionary War, couldn’t understand how his fellow patriots and friends were slave owners.
We also found that slavery continues to be a difficult topic in the state. While some of the plantations were very upfront discussing this part of their histories – many had special exhibits and even asked for the public’s help in locating descendants of slaves – others said they preferred we skip that part of their stories. Of course, we didn’t and that often meant digging deeper for the facts.
J: There are many narratives left to be discovered.
Mount Vernon, Monticello, and Montpelier are perhaps the most visited plantations in Virginia. What should people focus on when they visit these three sites?
C: There’s so much to focus on with these three plantations. Plan to spend a full day at each. Monticello and Montpelier are close together so spending a weekend in that area of the state will allow, not only enough time to see these homes, but also provide a side trip to Virginia’s wine country. There’s even a bed and breakfast featured in the book- The Inn at Meander – where you can stay. The guides at Mount Vernon, Monticello, and Montpelier are very knowledgeable, so taking the tours is a must. Ask questions! We never found a query that stumped one of these guides. Besides learning about the actual buildings, visitors learn about these three figures who had a major impact in setting up our democracy (including, of course, the Electoral College!)
J: Visit their libraries! There is so much information available to those interested and although you may have to set up an appointment, it is worth it.
Many of these plantations have undergone serious renovations. What is involved in restoring these homes and grounds?
C: Meticulous attention to detail. We were impressed with the amount of research involved. Experts are consulted about paint colors, fabrics, and the materials used inside and outside the home. Sometimes help comes from unexpected places. During one renovation, a mouse nest was discovered in a wall. The creature had used a piece of the home’s original wallpaper for its bedding. The restoration team was able to recreate that wallpaper for an authentic look.
J: Colonial Williamsburg is often used as a standard for checking information, dating objects, etc.
How were these plantations affected during the Civil War?
C: Virginia was in the thick of it during the Civil War. Many homes were occupied, sometimes by Confederate forces, but also by Union soldiers. What often happened was that the family would flee, leaving behind slaves to manage the property. When the families returned after the war, they often found that their homes had been virtually destroyed. Some were rebuilt, others abandoned.
J: As the economic tide changed, many homes were unable to recover and were either sold for meager prices or left behind altogether. Sadly, many were used as hospitals in which floors were painted black to cover the blood-stained wood to grounds being used as unmarked cemeteries.
Patrick Henry’s Scotchtown
Do any of the personalities you write about in the book stand out?
C: I didn’t know very much about John Tyler, who became our 10th president after the death of William Henry Harrison. Tyler named his plantation “Sherwood Forest,” seeing himself as a latter-day Robin Hood. He had two wives, his second wife, the much younger Julia Gardiner, was the daughter of a New York senator. Although Julia turned down his first proposal, after he saved her during a tragedy on a naval ship, she agreed to marry him. A slave owner and Confederate supporter, Tyler would never be recognized for any of his contributions to the nation until 1915 when Congress build a monument in the cemetery where he and Julia are buried.
J: A few such as Patrick Henry who lovingly dealt with a wife who was mentally ill. Or William Berkeley who was exceptionally cruel to his slaves. And of course John Hemings who was an excellent carpenter.
What do you hope people will learn from reading this book?
C: After reading about the history of these 40 plantations, we hope that people will be inspired to visit many of them. We’ve grouped them together geographically, so spending a weekend in one area will allow for visits to several. Reading about a plantation’s story beforehand will allow a richer experience once the reader actually sees the real thing. We hope our book will start people on a journey. We applaud the many dedicated professionals who are working so hard to preserve these buildings and their stories. We can’t move forward until we truly understand where we have been. And the timing has never been more urgent for all of us to educate ourselves about this part of our nation’s history.
J: Whether you are passionate about history, architecture, slavery/slave accounts, or military involvement there’s something for everyone in this book. More importantly, to the public institutions and private families who make a conscientious decision to keep Virginia’s rich history available to all.
How did writing this book affect you?
C: I’ve always loved history and researching and writing this book has fueled my desire to learn even more. I was most affected by the people stories. We take so much for granted, our access to clean water, food, heated homes, health care, convenient transportation. Despite the grandeur of many of these homes, living was often a struggle. So many women died young in childbirth. We also heard many times of women who had died of “a broken heart.” (When that term was used to describe Debbie Reynold’s death, we were reminded that tremendous grief can indeed take its toll.) Living through the Civil War was horrific. So much destruction, so many lives lost. It was never easy to hear stories about how slaves were treated. It brought home how much work we still have to do to mend race relations in our country.
J: Realizing that intersectionality is a necessity for progression to occur in a country that so many people from all walks of life call home.
Photos by Jai Williams
Top photo: Tuckahoe Plantation
Plantations of Virginia
Jai Williams and Charlene Giannetti
“America is the worst place for the Jews. Except for all the other places.” Shylock in District Merchants
What a year it has been for Shakespeare fans. Theaters celebrating the 400th anniversary of the Bard’s death have staged his works in many forms. The Folger Theatre (home of the Folger Shakespeare Library) last gifted us with the very humorous William Shakespeare’s Long Lost First Play (abridged), and now presents a contemporary version of The Merchant of Venice.
The title – District Merchants – is the first tip off that we’re not in Venice in the 1500s. Playwright Aaron Posner said that after reading a passage of Shylock’s about slavery, “it made me wonder how this story would function in post-Civil War America.” District Merchants is set in the 1870s in Washington, D.C., but the issues dealt with – immigration, racism, anti-Semitism, income inequality, and the marginalization of women – are incredibly relevant, particularly in light of our current presidential campaign. We see a society in transition. Virtually ever character in the play is on the outside looking in, eager to become part of the new order, but struggling to fit in. As one character says: “People like me don’t have the code. We’re not in the game, so we lose every time.”
Craig Wallace and Matthew Boston
The scenery signals the beginning of reconstruction, with massive columns and iron girders filling the stage and the sounds of building echoing throughout the theater. Shylock (Matthew Boston) is still a Jew, but rather than a Venetian moneylender, he’s now an immigrant who lost his wife and some of his children to disease during the long journey to America. He dotes on his surviving daughter, Jessica (Dani Stoller), but his anxiety to keep her safe threatens to stifle her emerging womanhood.
Shylock’s counterpart is Antoine (Craig Wallace), a black who proudly tells others that he was born a free man, a legacy of his father who fought and died a hero in the War of 1812. Although Antoine dresses like a prosperous businessman, he doesn’t have the resources of Shylock and borrows three thousand pounds to help his protege, Benjamin Bassani (Seth Rue), woo the wealthy Portia (Maren Bush). When Antoine fails to pay the money back on time, Shylock demands his pound of flesh. The dramatic court scene will determine the outcome.
Dani Stoller and William Vaughan
Shakespeare’s Merchant is still jarring to modern audiences; it’s portrayal of Shylock and its themes seen as anti-Semitic. Posner doesn’t water down these xenophobic comments, rather the audience gets a dose of what it’s like to withstand a constant barrage of slights and insults. During each performance, Boston points to someone sitting in the audience, asks the person’s name, then proceeds to use that name in a sneering, disrespectful way. (At the performance I attended, the person singled out was named David who admitted the barbs felt “nasty.”)
Shylock notes that during the reconstruction period in America, there were 1,500 Jews living in Washington, D.C. A parallel is drawn between the discrimination experienced not only by the blacks, but also by Jews like Shylock. The confrontations between Shylock and Antoine come off as a game of one-upmanship – who has suffered and continues to suffer the most.
(Left to right) Seth Rue, Dani Stoller, William Vaughan, and Maren Bush
The contrast between the haves and the have-nots plays out in the love affairs of the two young and seemingly mismatched couples. Lorenzo (William Vaughan), an uneducated and unpolished country boy, is attracted to the beautiful and intelligent, Jessica, who agrees to steal all her father’s cash and gold and flee with her beau to, of all places, Allentown, Pennsylvania.
Maren Bush and Celeste Jones
Meanwhile, Portia, who has conflicted feelings about blacks, is falling in love with Benjamin, whom she believes is white. Portia’s servant, Nessa (an excellent Celeste Jones), is loyal to her mistress but critical of her opinions. “She was born with blinders on and every day people tell her she has perfect vision,” Nessa says. When Benjamin finally tells Portia he’s black, Bush makes the most of the moment – her facial expressions changing from joyous to sadness several times before she delivers her final decision.
Despite the heavy themes, District Merchants has humorous moments, thanks not only to Vaughn’s antics as Lorenzo but also to Akeem Davis who plays Shylock’s mistreated servant, Lancelot. Director Michael John Garcés keeps this talented cast moving at a lively pace. There’s rarely a moment when we aren’t entertained or challenged by what we are witnessing on stage.
Photos by Teresa Wood
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