The Most Liberal Movie of All Time: “Pleasantville”

“Must be awful lucky to see colors like that. I bet they don’t know how lucky they are.” – Pleasantville

For the last three decades, conservatives running for office have been painting a vision of the America that looks a lot like the 1950s. Ronald Reagan, an actual movie star from the era, was the first to do so in his 1980 campaign for the presidency. Thirty years later, Republican candidates for president are still linking their opponent to the ‘60s counter-culture and representing themselves as the candidates who will bring back the post-war era. Their vision of America is a sun-drenched suburban street, a traditional two-parent household, and church on Sunday. What they promise is a return to an America that is clean, safe, and…pleasant.

This is the world of “Pleasantville,” a broad, liberal response to conservative efforts to idealize the ‘50s. Tobey Maguire plays David, a modern-day teenager who spends his days at school getting lectured about scary modern problems like HIV/AIDS, car crashes, and global warming. At home, he has to listen to his divorcee mother, a victim of the spike in divorce rates that resulted from the sexual revolution, argue with his father about custody of him and his twin sister, Jennifer (Reese Witherspoon). It might be too much for one boy to handle, but David has an escape: every night, he watches his favorite TV show, “Pleasantville,” a sitcom from the ‘50s that is rerun on a TV Land-type channel. The show is in the mold of “Leave it to Beaver” or “Father Knows Best.” Commercials describe it as full of “family values” and as a “flashback to kinder, gentler times.”

But when David and Jennifer get magically transported to Pleasantville and now have to play the roles of Bud and his sister Mary Sue, the filmmakers establish the town as a literal representation of the America they think conservatives would create if they could. Here is how they see Pleasantville:

  1. There is literally no world outside of it. In geography class, Jennifer (now Mary Sue) is taught that the roads in town are all circular and lead back to Pleasantville.
  2. The town cannot comprehend the notion of defeat. Their basketball team, for example, has not only never lost a game, but its players have never missed a shot.
  3. There are no homeless people.
  4. There is no sex.
  5. People seem to only eat meat, cheese, and carbohydrates. A cheeseburger is by far the most popular meal.
  6. All the books are blank.

David represents the typical Republican voter. At the start of the film, he dreams that if we could only return to those post-war, pre-counterculture values, all would be well in the world. Although “Pleasantville” was released in 1998, these talking points are still trotted out by Republican candidates today. Consider as evidence this speech by former Senator Rick Santorum, in which he encouraged President Obama to “man up” (reinforcing traditional gender roles), decried the treatment of Vietnam veterans at the hands of anti-war protestors (a bizarrely antiquated anti-counterculture myth), and promised a return to Christian values.  I am sure that Santorum would love the Pleasantville that David and Jennifer are dropped into. But not for long. Soon, their modernity rubs off on the town, and chaos ensues.

Of course, it starts with sex. In a clear nod to the sexual revolution of the 1960s, Mary Sue sleeps with a local boy up at Lover’s Lane. He shares the news of his conquest with his buddies on the basketball team, and immediately the cracks begin to show: all of a sudden, none of them can hit a jumpshot. Next thing you know, all the kids are doing it, and that’s not all. They are reading books, and thinking about a world outside of Pleasantville. In this terrific scene, David piques their curiosity.

(start at 3:43)

I love how writer/director Gary Ross uses Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five” as the background music. It’s a jazz piece in a non-traditional time signature. In other words, it’s a song that evokes the breaking of convention. In this scene, you can almost feel the beat generation being born.

And it’s not just the kids whose worlds are opening up. Perhaps no archetype in the lore of the 1950s has progressed more than the domesticated wife and mother. Joan Allen plays Betty Parker as a repressed love child, waiting to be awoken. She peppers her daughter with questions about what all the kids are doing up at Lover’s Lane, and in this memorable sequence, Mary Sue gives her mother the sex talk. Minutes later, the sexual revolution begins in Betty’s bathtub.

(slightly NSFW)

The tree bursts into flames, and as the citizens of Pleasantville find their passion and leave “pleasant” behind, they burst into color, as well. The townsfolk are a bit perturbed by the new sexuality of the young people, but they seem more alarmed that women are actually hanging out at the library. In their eyes, sex is tolerated because it conforms to their pre-conceived gender roles. Women with brains are another story altogether. The final straw occurs when Betty’s husband George arrives home to an empty household. Betty is mysteriously absent, but, more importantly, so is his dinner:

Up until this point, we haven’t seen much that’s wrong with Pleasantville. Things were a bit stiff, but David and Jennifer loosened everybody up, and nobody seemed to mind too much. But as the women in Pleasantville break free from their roles, the men decide to take a stand, and we finally see the dark underbelly of the fantasy of the ‘50s. Town leadership fears a true deviation from the accepted social order, and the citizens of Pleasantville follow suit. Here, we start to see the citizens of Pleasantville as the filmmakers intended: as a bunch of small-brains who are afraid of new ideas and don’t know how to think for themselves.

The town reacts to the recent changes in behavior – the sex, the music, the art – by creating new laws designed to quash the revolution of free thought and speech. The mayor presents these new laws along with representatives of the Chamber of Commerce, a telling choice that indicates the filmmakers think Republicans see free thought and equality as a threat to the economy. As these conservatives try to hold onto the values that they feel made their town (country) great, they resort to segregation, oppression, and fear-tactics:

And this is the point. The filmmakers take us back to the ‘50s to dispel the fantasy propagated by the Republican party – that it was an era of innocence. According to “Pleasantville,” what lurked beneath the idyllic vision of suburbia was pain and oppression. Republicans forget that during that great post-war period, women were confined to the household or held up as sex objects (and nothing in between), many blacks couldn’t vote, and artists were branded as Communists and black-listed.

Gary Ross shows us that this vision of the American dream, so revered by the GOP, is a subtle and insidious form of fascism, in which conformity quashed individuality – and prejudice and fear consumed our democracy. In “Pleasantville,” Ross shows us how far we have come and suggests that the last thing we need is a return to the past.

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