Betty Grable hovers over the saucy young heroine in "Wish You Were Here" like a patron saint in nylons. Fifteen-year-old Lynda apes the gestures of the Hollywood starlet, finding in them a way to provoke the men who are trying to control her life. In an early '50s England where the Queen Mother and Evelyn Waugh hold sway, Grable's legs are Lynda's icons.
"It's a wonderful image to emulate," says David Leland, the British director-writer of the winningly eccentric new film, "except that you are not supposed to emulate it. As soon as you try to in real life, you are seen as 'loose.' And I don't think it's changed much since the '50s. It's very very clear now that anyone who is overtly happy with her sexuality, without necessarily being sexual, is seen as a threat."
Leland, who swings unpredictably from impassioned to irreverent, is well acquainted with images that reveal and conceal male sexuality. Having written the raunchy comedy "Personal Services" and coscripted the underworld drama "Mona Lisa," he is constantly exploring the tensions between the popular iconography of sex and what is considered to be acceptable behavior.
"Wish You Were Here," his directorial debut, joins those two films in forming a trilogy (however unintended) that examines the exploitative uses of sex in a repressive society. Listening to Leland's arguments, it becomes evident that his seeming preoccupation with carnal knowledge is anything but prurient.
"It's common parlance in England to say that anyone who gets into trouble 'gets caught with their knickers down.' So trouble and sexuality are automatically equated. And that runs from one generation to the next -- it's like the blind leading the blind. There's never been any kind of attempt to create a social ambiance where there is sexual tolerance, sexual understanding, sexual knowledge. Trying to relate a person's growth and development within the family, within the community, within the society. Then we scream about the immorality of AIDS and all that."
Like the two films that preceded it, "Wish You Were Here" evolved in part from a chance meeting that Leland had with Cynthia (Madame Cyn) Paine, a notorious brothel-keeper who specialized in satisfying the sundry fetishes of bureaucratic muckamucks. Their chats provided the raw material for "Personal Services" (through the thinly veiled character Christina Paine), with additional substance from interviews conducted with a range of people.
Paine's persona may have spilled over into the frisky character of Lynda, but Leland is reluctant to interpret "Wish You Were Here" as a prequel to "Personal Services." He prefers to see Lynda as capturing the spirit and struggles of his childhood, which he relates as a series of escapes.
Born the son of an electrician in 1941 on a road between two villages in the fenlands, Leland recalls his earliest years as "incredibly idyllic. We were surrounded on all sides by very wild countryside, incredibly flat, really strange land, and I divided my time between being at home and out with my grandparents in the fens."
Like Lynda, Leland had to come to terms with a father he describes as "remote."
"He had the whole preoccupation of parents during the war years. It bred in them a great material insecurity. The essence of parenthood was to provide. 'Our kids won't go short the way we did!' Which I think created an appalling sense of guilt when you were not grateful for all your parents provided."
To escape from a miserably authoritarian grammar school, Leland endeavored to follow his father's footsteps as an apprentice electrician. "That was like out of the frying pan and into the fire. It produced an even greater sense of guilt because I was doing it to please my father, to get him to acknowledge my presence and get some kind of emotional reaction from him. I ended up being more of a father to him. I used to fish a lot to escape from it all, and instead of the father introducing the son to fishing, the son introduced the father to fishing. And he almost took that over from me, supplanted me. Very strange."
Leland made the leap from electrical wiring to theatrics by picking up the banjo.
"Suddenly, the lads in the village were beginning to listen to jazz records. It was like music from another planet. We formed New Orleans jazz bands and played in Cambridge nearby. I started to meet a lot of students and realized I would have loved to be one of them. But without the sort of qualifications one needs for art school and the like, I looked for another route of escape. Suddenly acting flashed, and when it flashed it was like it had been at the end of my nose."
After he got an acting grant at age 21, Leland's career began to take root as he developed allianceswith such politically oriented theaters as the Royal Court. When he received a offer to write a series of TV scripts on a subject of his own choice, he came up with a quartet of films that probed the British educational system. The films, particularly the last one ("Made in Britain") about a skinhead who systematically and violently engineers his own downfall, generated a furor.
"Nobody had ever seen a character like that on TV before, portrayed in just that way. The film exploded a lot of myths, one of which was that kids who dress like that are monosyllabic idiots. So there were some people who only heard the curse words, and others who were deeply disturbed. I was accused of simply playing out my own unhappiness with my own education. Well, I was, but it's a common experience which you didn't necessarily need to have gone through to see what an appalling waste the educational system is -- judging it on its own terms -- which is success or failure according to how many exams you pass.
"Less than 20 percent of children come out of the British school system with negotiable qualifications. And the prevailing attitude, not only within educational circles but within society, is to say that that's because the kids are stupid. They can't express themselves and have nothing to express. I absolutely don't believe that. I proved that to myself, about myself. Most of the kids who end up in trouble are the most intelligent and articulate ones, the ones with the biggest axes to grind within themselves. An enormous amount of creative energy goes down such a destructive path."
The films won Leland two international prizes.
Leland believes it was his acting experience (screen credits include "Sunday, Bloody Sunday" and "The Missionary") that gave him an advantage in directing his first film.
"Having been an actor gives me a certain empathy," he says. "I tend to feel what actors are doing. I direct through sensation, and then feed them what they have to do. It's dangerous to show them what they have to do."
It was that empathy that fills the film debut of Emily Lloyd as Lynda. "She was a very willing actress, but I directed her a lot. Obviously scenes which were outside the realm of her experience, touching on areas of the sexual, were difficult. Whereas Lynda is very preoccupied with her own sexuality, I don't think Emily uses her sex at all. She's very self-assured sexually and is in no hurry at all about that part of her life. One way she was able to get past certain hurdles was to say 'That's Lynda,' which was a good defense mechanism. And we would talk about all of those issues very early on and worked them through in a humorous and very endearing way."
Emily was chosen through a painstaking paring down of dozens of hopefuls, many with credentials far surpassing those of the relatively inexperienced daughter of actor Roger Lloyd Pack. "It finally came down to five girls, who were all incredibly talented in different ways. The casting director wanted to cast the girl who plays the one that waits tables with Lynda, and told me if I didn't cast her in the lead she would come round in the night and shoot me ...
"So we screen-tested the five girls, with me reading the psychiatrist scene with them. I knew the scene backward, but Emily would always do something that would throw me. What tipped the scale toward Emily finally was her facility for doing things physically awkward and gauche."
As Leland finishes speaking, his 3-year-old daughter (he has two daughters from a previous marriage) emerges from the bedroom. "This is Rosie," says her father.
With a sunburst of blond hair and more than a little brass, Rosie could pass as a miniature Emily Lloyd. She crawls onto her father's lap to draw attention away from the interviewer. Bored, Rosie heads over to her Lego toy collection, which is strewn battlefield-style across the floor of their hotel suite.Trunks collide as Rosie rear ends a sports car smack into an elephant.
"It's Lynda's spirit of survival that I applaud," Leland is saying. "The same way when I see kids jumping and leaping and happy, and then I see them get hurt. I empathize with that most deeply, that sense of innocence betrayed. I think that kind of open exuberance is something I certainly expressed as a child, like Rosie. I think I walked into too many brick walls with thatkind of openness over the years, something which as an adult I now find very difficult to express. Yet you still survive through it all."
Jan Stuart is a free-lance writer specializing in the arts.