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'Professor Marston and the Wonder Women': La Différence to the Rescue

By Michael S. GoldbergeriBerkshires film critic
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I was a terrible grammar school student. Bored out of my mind, I survived the droning lessons by drawing cars and baseball stadiums. It also didn't help that I was rather sleepy in class, the result of loving, liberal parents who allowed me to watch old movies on TV way past a growing boy's acceptable bedtime. The one exception to this unsatisfactory scholasticism was reading. I got straight A's. 
 
But when the teacher asked me to tell the class why I was such a good reader and I answered "comic books," I was immediately shushed out of my First Amendment rights.
 
That's pretty much changed. Good teachers encourage kids to read, read, read, whatever it is: food labels, billboards and yes, even comic books. I was especially fond of "Superman," "Richie Rich" (the poor little rich boy) and "Little Lulu." Beats me, that last one. Maybe Lulu put me in touch with my feminine side, a subject dramatically, intellectually and engagingly dissected in writer-director Angela Robinson's "Professor Marston and the Wonder Women."
 
What immediately came to mind as the fascinating biopic unreeled, beginning with Dr. William Moulton Marston's days as a heralded psychology professor, was how many second-tier, illustrious people there are: folks who did something major, but who are now all but forgotten.
 
Oh, how fleeting is fame, especially if said celebrity was attended by no small amount of disassembling controversy. The origins of Marston's super heroine, "Wonder Woman," might render less tolerant souls aghast.
 
Marston, a Harvard Ph.D. and freethinker in many connotations of the term, was married to Elizabeth Holloway, an archetypal feminist of her day. He devoted most of his scientific research to quantifying and qualifying La Différence. Decidedly pro women's rights, in the course of developing a systolic blood pressure test that laid the groundwork for John Augustus Larson's invention of the lie detector, he became convinced that women were, in many areas of pursuit, more honest than men. From this deduction emerged "Wonder Woman."
 
One might then whimsically defend Professor Marston's unconventional lifestyle — which included his wife, the co-inventor of the prototype polygraph test, as well as Olive Byrne, a young lab assistant and daughter of feminist royalty — as a necessary component of his research.
 
It's one of the few instances in movie biographies where the more salacious aspects of the story are not dramatic license taken to pepper up a script, but actually true.
 
So be warned, ye who prefer that certain aspects of sexual behavior be treated with a modicum of discretion. Part of Marston's theories, elaborated under the heading of DISC (Dominance, Inducement, Submission, Compliance), might seem to the skeptical viewer as just a sophisticated way of dabbling in a realm that brought the curious yellow into theaters showing "Fifty Shades of Grey" (2015). Such is not the case. However, though I'm confident a genetic test wouldn't inform I was more than 3 percent Puritan, I did find some of this stuff, well, kind of icky.
 
It is a bit arduous to wrap your brain around the strands of ideas that went into the creation of Marston's über feminist. The film matter-of-factly informs he was fond of role playing in connection with his explorations of the psyche, with a special emphasis on restraint using ritually tied ropes. Voila! The inspiration for Wonder Woman's Lasso of Truth. "Suffering Sappho!" as our defender of truth and justice famously exclaims. Or, as my Aunt Sadie might've mused, "Who'd a thunk it?"
 
Thus the viewer is put in the position of challenging Jack Nicholson's Col. Nathan R. Jessep's opinion in "A Few Good Men" (1992) when he vociferously declares that we "can't handle the truth." Fact is, though Marston's cogitations ostensibly led to morality lessons via comic book entertainment for generations of children, the backstory is anything but kid's stuff.
 
The fictional character is actually but a byproduct of auteur Robinson's sociological survey of attitudes toward women from the years just following female suffrage until the early 1950s.
 
We are once again reminded how difficult it is for humankind to shed its stone age of the mind when it comes to accepting progressive reality. Embodying the intriguing ball of psychological wax from whence the greatest lady superhero sprang, Luke Evans is provocative as the perennially upbeat and enthusiastic Marston, a dedicated if not entirely altruistic proponent of feminism. Assumedly helping keep that smile on his face, Rebecca Hall is cynically superb as Elizabeth, and Bella Heathcote is sympathetically vulnerable as the triangle's novitiate.
 
As Amazon hadn't yet delivered my time machine, I couldn't read my review before entering the theater. Therefore, expecting something much different, "Professor Marston and the Wonder Women" left me educated, but also a bit hogtied and hornswoggled, so to speak.
 
"Professor Marston and the Wonder Women," rated R, is an Annapurna release directed by Angela Robinson and stars Luke Evans, Rebecca Hall and Bella Heathcote. Running time: 108 minutes

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