The Color Purple vs. Tess

Marriage is not just about two people becoming one – it’s also about two movie collections becoming one. And although there is plenty of overlap (the corner of our living-room contains a large pile of our duplicates!), there is plenty of contention – Chris will defend Pulp Fiction with vigour, while I would prefer to argue for the artistic merits of Showgirls. As a result, it provides the opportunity for both sides to be exposed to films we might not otherwise have seen. It’s unlikely Chris would have sat down to watch Barbarian Queen 2: The Empress Strikes Back, and I too, have now seen movies I would previously, in all likelihood, not have pissed on had they been on fire.

The results of this cross-pollination do vary. I think Chris now accepts that Barb Wire is not entirely about Pamela Anderson’s tits, while I will concede in return that Out of Africa has got some of the most beautiful photography in cinema history. Though I still have not, as yet, agreed to watch Beaches – these things take time, and we have only been married for four years, after all. Besides, that one is best saved for a day when I suddenly need to acquire a large number of ‘martyr points’ very quickly… 🙂

Immediately on watching The Color Purple, I was struck by a number of similarities to Roman Polanski’s Tess. Both are historical dramas, based on well-respected literature, following the struggle of a young woman to find happiness, despite the best efforts of a male-dominated world to prevent her. Both stars were hardly known as actresses before making the film – one film for Goldberg, a handful for Kinski, with few seen outside Europe. And both directors found themselves stiffed by the Oscars, having to wait for another chance. It was a further 22 years before Polanski won for The Pianist, while Spielberg wasn’t even on the short-list, despite Purple’s eleven nominations. He’d finally be honoured for Schindler’s List, eight years later – a film which is a masterpiece of manipulation, and which I abhore completely.

Tale of the Tape
The Color Purple


Steven Spielberg

Whoopi Goldberg

154 mins










Oscar noms

Oscar wins



Roman Polanski

Nastassja Kinski

190 mins




But, of course, there are differences, not least in the motivation of the film-makers. Over the decade prior to The Color Purple, Spielberg had established himself as the master of ‘popcorn cinema’, with Jaws, Raiders and E.T. all huge, popular hits. But Spielberg was uncomfortable in this niche, and apparently yearned for something more. He found it in a Pulitzer-prize winning book by Alice Walker, after both Quincy Jones (who’d eventually create the soundtrack, the only time John Williams hasn’t composed the score for Spielberg) and Kathleen Kennedy pressed him to read it. I’m not certain quite what it said to a man whose father was an electrical engineer and mother a concert pianist, but Walker was paid $350,000 for the rights.

In contrast, Tess is largely Polanski’s memorial to his late wife, Sharon Tate, slain by the Manson family in 1969. She had told her husband that Hardy’s novel would make a wonderful movie, and gave him a copy of the book. Almost a decade later, he’d give the same copy to Nastassja Kinski, and the finished film bears the simple dedication, “For Sharon”. However, one suspects Polanski waiting to make the film until ten years after her death was perhaps not just a period of mourning. Thomas Hardy died in January 1928. The then-active Berne Convention provided copyright protection for fifty years after an author’s death. Shooting on Tess began on August 7th, 1978. Do the math.

The Color Purple (1985)

Rating: C+

Dir: Steven Spielberg
Star: Whoopi Goldberg, Margaret Avery, Danny Glover, Oprah Winfrey

It says a good deal about the qualities of the film that the character of Celie (Goldberg) is exactly the sort of doormat whose presence in a film usually irritates Chris enormously, yet manages to enthrall her totally here. Celie is married to “Mister” (Glover) – that’s all she ever calls him – and puts up with an endless stream of abuse, both physical and mental, before finally finding the strength to rise up and leave him, and make her own way in the world. This takes a while, and eventually becomes a bit tedious, not least because Spielberg is a good enough film-maker not to need this level of overkill. We see Mister treat Celie badly once, we get the picture, but it does help that Goldberg brings much more to her role here than she has ever managed since. Much the same could be said of Oprah Winfrey as Sophie; both have since become caricatures of themselves, in the world of lame comedies and talk-shows respectively, which is something of a shame.

Less justifiable is perhaps the sterotyping on view: if you’re not both black and a woman, in this film you’re either a blithering idiot (whoops, there goes stepson Harpo, falling through another roof) or an utter bastard. It seems like political correctness run amok, even though the lesbian content of the book is severely toned-down, limited to one quick scene that doesn’t jeopardise the PG-13 rating. It’s certainly a fair point that, at the time this film was set, neither women nor blacks were truly “equal”. But even in comparison to other black women here, Celie is disappointingly passive. Sophie leaves Harpo rather than let him beat her; Shug (Avery) is a blues singer with a refreshingly modern approach to life; and even Celie’s sister, Nettie, is a missionary in Africa. Despite Goldberg’s fine performance, I’d probably rather have seen a film in which one of these complex, strong people was the central character, rather then Celie.

This is melodramatic stuff; I kept expecting Mister to tie Celie to the railroad tracks while twirling the ends of his moustache. Which might actually have been fun, it’s just that we expect more subtlety from Spielberg – and when we get it, the results are fabulous. In particular, the sequence cross-cutting between the lives of the two sisters in Africa and Georgia, climaxing with Celie finding herself holding a cut-throat at Mister’s throat. Just watch the way in which her hand trembles as she stands behind him; it’s a master-stroke, putting over a universe of feelings in one action. Even in the broadest of terms, moments like this prove Spielberg remains the master of “action cinema”.

But I wonder: was a Jewish man with a middle-class background perhaps the best choice to direct a movie centred on a poor, black, bisexual woman? Now, obviously there’s no reason per se why a film-maker should be constricted by his skin colour, but the liberal pandering here seems uncomfortably like a shallow Oscar-grab by Spielberg. It’s thus especially ironic that it was trounced at the Oscars, 7-0, by colonial epic Out of Africa, which largely reduces black people to set-dressing. In the end, I was unaffected by the film; I can certainly see and admire its strengths, but the flaws are too obvious for me to ignore. Guess this one will have to be filed alongside Pulp Fiction in the “Chris and I agree to differ” category.

Tess (1979)

Rating: A

Dir: Roman Polanski
Star: Nastassja Kinski, Peter Firth, Leigh Lawson, John Collin

Tess (Kinski) is the daughter of John Durbeyfield, a poor farmhand who learns from the local parson that he is related to ancient nobility, the D’Urbevilles. Though the parson never intends it to be taken serious, John and his wife order Tess to approach the lords of the D’Urbeville manor, and see if they will assist their ‘poor cousins’. From here spins off tragedy of Shakespearean magnitude, happiness eluding our heroine with the grace of a butterfly, as life spirals out of control until a finale of immense poignancy. I could do the entire review on the psychosexuality of this, filmed just after Polanski’s hurried departure from the States, while he was shagging Kinski, but is dedicated to Manson Family victim and ex-wife Sharon Tate. However, this really only adds background resonance to a stunning adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s novel about a woman and the men who bring disaster down on her innocent head: her father, her lover, and her husband.

So what is a chick-flick from the “all men are bastards” school of feminism doing in the TC Favourite Films? Long-time readers may remember my former fascination with Kinski and suspect that’s the reason; while that does explains why I saw it to begin with, it really has no bearing on my opinion. Even unbiased observers must admit Kinski’s performance is amazing, not least for her accent (much credit to dialogue coach Kate Fleming). Her character is passive yet strong-willed, a fascinating contradition, and her emotions flood every frame in which she appears. Spotting potential in the star of Passion Flower Hotel was a brilliant call by Polanski – even if I suspect he was not just entranced by her acting, if you know what I mean, and I think you do.

But in almost every aspect, it’s a fabulous and faithful work, though it would take someone far less talented than Polanski to screw up what, IMHO, is the greatest novel in the English language, a savage indictment of the religio-sexual hypocrisy prevalent at the time. Credit is also due to Peter Firth, for his finely nuanced work as Angel Clare, torn between love for Tess and his moralistic upbringing. Cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth died in production, but whether it’s his or Ghislain Cloquet’s photography, the results are lushly gorgeous – Brittany stood in for Britain, which was off-limits to Polanski. Phillipe Sarde’s music fits it to a T, and it is just a superb pastoral tragedy. I may prefer other Kinski films, but if I had to point to one and say “This is her best”, it would be Tess.