Screening Room, Shut Up and Dance: Becoming Jane and Hairspray Evoke a Long Movie Tradition

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SCREENING ROOM By Frank Pittman

Shut Up and Dance Becoming Jane and Hairspray evoke a long movie tradition

For much of the last century, the most memorable moments in movies (and maybe in life itself) took place as people danced across the screen, alone or en masse, cheek to cheek or butt to butt, and finally lips to lips. The great movie musicals that still live in memory were sometimes overpopulated spectaculars, sometimes lowbrow operettas, but mostly they were love stories about couples who, although they might at first speak different languages, eventually managed to come together, bypass the messy business of talking and, instead, dance off in a pas de deux of love.

Musical romances, with Fred and Ginger, or Gene and Cyd, or even just Judy and Mickey, kept a couple of generations of moviegoers dreaming of falling in love on the dance floor. Filled with convoluted plots, great costumes, and kinetic excitement, they usually had little connection to reality. But they were beloved, and afforded due respect by the movie industry. From 1951 to 1968, half the Oscar winners were musicals. Then, as the 1970s plodded on their bounceless way, the movie musical as we knew it abruptly vanished. One explanation was simply that dancing in the movies was a stand-in for sex, and when sex became more explicit after the late '60s, movie dancing ceased to be a necessary surrogate. Last summer, however, a few films resurrected dancing as a mating ritual that permits couples to connect without leaving their clothes on the dance floor, reminding us once again of the traditional importance of dancing in the mating game, whether traditional or not.

While anthropologist Margaret Mead detailed courtship rituals of young people in Coming of Age in Samoa, probably no novelist has reported more wittily on the mating rituals of the Western middle classes than Jane Austen (1775-1817). In six immortal novels, Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, Emma, Persuasion, Mansfield Park, and Northanger Abbey, Austen explored the timeless emotions, social manners, and vagaries of village life in Regency-era Hampshire.

Now Julian Jarrold, using a screenplay written by Kevin Hood and Sarah Williams, has filmed a fictionalized biography of Austen, Becoming Jane. In it, they turn the life of Jane Austen into a Jane Austen novel. Becoming Jane is an earnest and richly detailed effort to connect what we know of Jane Austen's life with what we read in her books. All six have much the same plot: a virtuous, highly observant girl of modest means and modest beauty rejects the man of her dreams--for matters of pride, prejudice, or persuasion--right up till the last minute, and then marries him happily ever after. We read her books not for their plots, but for their insights about the effects people have on one another. No one reveals more than Austen about what it feels like to be human. The entanglements of life in her books are just as she must have experienced them. But the happy romantic ending didn't happen for her, and must be made up for in the film, which draws the romantic plot, many of the characters, and some of the dialogue from Pride and Prejudice.

Following the lead of some of Austen's more recent biographers, the film fleshes out a romance hinted at in her voluminous, lifelong correspondence with her sister Cassandra. The object of her romantic inclinations was Tom Lefroy, a well-connected but presently penniless young lawyer with whom she danced and flirted in their youth. Since Tom's uncle wouldn't let his nephew marry one so humble as Jane, Tom married someone else and went on to become Lord Chief Justice of Ireland. Austen stayed home and wrote her immortal novels.

Lefroy was described by Austen on first meeting as "the most disagreeable, insolent, arrogant, imprudent, insufferable, impertinent of men!" He was energetic and cocky, and his hobby was boxing. He's played in the film by James McAvoy, the Scottish actor who played Idi Amin's doctor and prime minister in The Last King of Scotland. …