The Bostonians (1984)
Character Name: Basil Ransom
Reviewed by Betsy Mahon (email@example.com)
"He (James Ivory) was one of the directors who casted me BECAUSE he liked my
work in Superman", is the way Christopher Reeve described the beginning of his
relationship with the Merchant Ivory film making team. Reeve was offered the role of Basil Ransom in The Bostonians, based on the Henry James novel of the same name. For the previous 20 odd years, the unlikely triumverate of the American director Ivory, the Indian producer Ismail Merchant and the German writer Ruth Prawer Jhabvala had been fashioning literary works into movies for the art house audience. In 1979, they had adapted another James story The Europeans into a successful film.
In his autobiography Still Me, Reeve writes: "Ismail could only afford to
pay me $100,000, less than a tenth of my established price at the time. I insisted that the money was not an issue, that this was the kind of work I ought to be doing, but my agent told me, 'If you do that picture with those wandering minstrels, it will be one foot in the grave of your career'. ...I cheerfully ignored their advice...."
In the film, Reeve plays Basil Ransom, a poor and politically reactionary Mississippi lawyer, who comes North seeking fame and fortune. He visits his distant cousin, Olive
Chancellor (Vanessa Redgrave) who has devoted her life and fortune to the feminist cause. At a suffragist rally, they are both taken with the talents of Verena Tarrant (Madeleine Potter) - Basil being smitten with her appearance and Olive with her eloquent oratory. The body of the film is the pitched (Olive, at one point, describes Basil as "our enemy"), but always genteel battle, between Basil and Olive for the heart and mind of the young Miss Tarrant.
Olive convinces Verena to leave her faith healer father and her vulgar, but socially ambitious, mother and to join her in Boston. There, Olive attempts to mold her into
being the voice of the feminist cause, while ensconcing her in her network of female friends. The rakish Basil, whose political philosophy is the antithesis of Olive's, pursues Verena from Boston to New York to Cape Cod in an attempt to win her away.
The movie climaxes on the Cape at the time of the American Centennial, when Basil forces Verena to make the choice between him and Olive Chancellor. Many of my favorite scenes take place along the Cape Cod shore where Verena alternates between enjoying the sun and sand with Olive and being courted by Basil. We see Olive's anguish as she comes to the slow realization that Basil is winning. At the end of the movie, Basil and Verena leave together minutes before Verena is scheduled to give a speech. Olive takes the podium, finally becoming the voice of the feminist movement as the lovers head off toward marriage.
On a deeper level, The Bostonians explores the themes of early feminism and
female friendship, that began in the late 19th century. The viewer is left to wonder if
there are lesbian overtones to Olive's "love" for Verena, or if she simply seeks to free her from the domination of men. As a young woman of limited means, Verena probably has few genuine options available to her. There is much appeal in the woman centered life offered her by Olive Chancellor. Nevertheless, she also obviously enjoys being swept off her feet by Basil Ransom. We are given a glimpse of the life style Verena would have if she stayed with Olive, but we have no idea of what her life will be like with Basil. Will she be placed on a pedestal on his Southern plantation or be condemned to a life of domestic servitude?
The characters of Olive Chancellor and Basil Ransom are a study in contrasts. The formidable Redgrave, best known for her radical politics and her role as Guinevere in
Camelot, stated this was "a very different role for me. Here is a woman who is shy, nervous and terribly self conscious, with tremendous difficulties relating to the world around her." She plays the role of the dour, old maid to the hilt. Redgrave shows us a strong, no nonsense woman whose life is devoted to the feminist cause, yet who
is extremely vulnerable when it comes to the prospect of losing Verena. While Christopher Reeve is at times overshadowed by Redgrave, he manages to hold his own and to make viewers see him as a displaced Southern gentlemen, rather than the man in the cape. He plays his role with a roguish charm, in juxtaposition to the deadly serious Olive. It is unclear if Basil actually has a political philosophy or makes one up to ridicule Olive and all she holds dear.
Like most Merchant Ivory movies, The Bostonians features meticulous attention to detail. The sets from Harvard College to Manhattan drawing rooms to rustic Martha's
Vineyard are impeccable recreations of life in the last part of the nineteenth century. The cast is rounded out with a delightful collection of characters: Wesley Addy as Verena's faith healer father, Jessica Tandy as Ms. Birdseye (an octogenarian who has been an abolitionist who has become a feminist); Linda Hunt as Dr. Prance, a physician who feels that most sexes could stand some improving; Nancy Marchand as a society matron
who is trying to marry her son off to Verena.
The Bostonians is in many ways Christopher Reeve's best film. Basil Ransom
is certainly the morally ambiguous character who he has always liked to play. Reeve told James Lipton on Inside the Actor's Studio that he liked the contradictions in Basil's role. "It's unclear if he's a chauvinist pig or romantic hero... I just decided my
job was to be as charming and romantic as possible and to let the audience see his arrogance." In addition, Reeve gave a very creditable performance as an unreconstructed Southern gentleman. His classical education and stage background prepared him more for this genre of movie than any he has made before or since.
The film was made at what was a happy time in Reeve's personal life. Much
of it was filmed on the familiar turf of New England and he writes of staying on his beloved sailboat Chandelle during much of the movie shoot. His partner Gae Exton was pregnant with their daughter Alexandra at the time. In addition, this was the beginning of his friendship with James Ivory, which would greatly influence his own directorial style. He continued his professional friendship with Vanessa Redgrave as well. In 1984, he
appeared with her and Dame Wendy Hiller in The Aspern Papers on the London
stage. The play, based on a Henry James novella, was written by Sir Michael Redgrave.
The Bostonians was produced for under $3 million and was initially released
only in so-called "art houses" in select cities. It was eventually released to a wider audience, paving the way for subsequent Merchant-Ivory films such as Howard's End and The Remains of the Day.
No screen version of The Bostonians could succeed without a Basil
formidable enough to hold his own in this tug of war. So it's a major and especially happy surprise to see how convincingly Basil has been embodied by Christopher Reeve, whose other non-Superman performances have displayed little of the ease and versatility that he reveals here. Janet Maslin, The New York Times.
Christopher Reeve, trading his Superman cape for a 19th century model, is
the soft spoken but strong willed Basil down to his toes. David Sterritt, The Christian Science Monitor.
Reeve manages a subtlety of delivery and tone, a complexity of needs and
background that is well beyond any of his previous work. Lewis Archibald, Aquarian Weekly
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