Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: It’s Siblings Week at The A.V. Club, so we’re recommending movies about sisters.
The movie posters for the 1955 classic Picnic, based on William Inge’s Pulitzer-winning play, display a shirtless William Holden, with Kim Novak gazing up at him adoringly. The tagline: “From the moment he hit town, she knew it was just a matter of time!” The posters play up the movie’s main selling point: the unbridled chemistry of Holden, who at 37 was embarrassed to be cast in the beefcake role of drifter Hal, who captivates the teen queen of the smallest town in Kansas, Novak’s Madge.
Scratch the surface, though, and Picnic is really about the circuitous path families sometimes get caught in (hence the Pulitzer). Madge lives with her younger sister, Millie, and her mother, Flo, in the home they’ve had to turn into a boarding house to make ends meet. Flo is raising two daughters on her own after falling for an aimless, rootless, handsome man in a similar breed as Hal. When she sees her own daughter following the same path, she begs Madge to reconsider, because she knows how things are likely to end up for her daughter.
Parents often toss defining roles on their offspring, without realizing how limiting and long-lasting these molds are. Madge is the “pretty one,” Millie is the “smart one,” implying that Madge could never be smart, and Millie never pretty. For Millie and Madge, their pretty-but-dumb, plain-but-smart personas are almost the only ways they know how to deal with each other. From the start, Madge teases Millie over not having a date for the picnic, taunting, “Beggars can’t be choosers.” Even the neighbor boy Bomber tells Millie, “Tell your pretty sister to come out; it’s no fun looking at you.” Millie retorts by lashing out at her sister, “Madge is the pretty one, but she’s so dumb they almost had to burn down the schoolhouse to get her out of it.” Millie then sobs, “It doesn’t matter what name I call her. Madge is the pretty one. Nothing hurts her.” But Madge may be smarter than she seems when she muses: “What good is it just to be pretty?”
Even though the way they are destructively labeled often turns them against each other, the two sisters fare best when they turn to each other. A young Susan Strasberg, of the acting-studio dynasty, plays Millie with the kind of desperate helplessness that would befall someone like her living in a claustrophobically tiny town. As a writer, Millie is a stand-in for Inge himself (whose mother ran a boarding house in Kansas), when she says, “I’m going to New York, and write novels that’ll shock people right out of their senses.” As Millie despairs over never being pretty, and Madge over never being anything but, Picnic’s most resonating scenes are between the two sisters (although some of the sibling dialogue from the play was shortened for the movie): when Millie asks Madge how to talk to boys, and when Millie faces Madge the morning after the picnic. In the end, it’s only Millie who realizes what Madge must do to save herself, and Millie who will be the one to finally break the family’s cycle.
Availability: Picnic is available on DVD from Netflix or possibly your local video store/library. It also can be rented or purchased through VUDU.