Jeff Bridges plays Gregory Larkin, a Columbia mathematics professor who has recently written a book titled “The Absolute Truth,” dates and is unceremoniously dumped by supermodels like Elle MacPherson, and now seeks a mate.
While there’s nothing ground-breaking about that premise, it’s in the type of mate he seeks which is incredibly original: Gregory wants a relationship without sex, the kind in which the partners are, first and foremost, friends and confidantes. He puts a personal ad online stressing “physical appearance not important” (in the days before eHarmony and Match.com). At one point, he tells a disinterested phone-sex maven, “I just want to share my life with someone I’m not attracted to.”
Gregory’s ad is answered by Claire (played by Mimi Rogers). She’s not responding to the ad for herself – after all she is supposed to be the beautiful one who is also just married to the clingy-but-hot Alex (played by the under-utilized Pierce Brosnan) and wouldn’t need to pimp herself out in such a way. She replies for her frumpy, romantic-spinster sister, Rose Morgan (played by Barbra Streisand), who is also a Columbia professor, but in literature.
Gregory purposely picks Rose’s unflattering head shot from a stack of female photos. He sits in on one of her classes – a particularly pertinent class in which she discusses female archetypes (to her, they are “The Divine Whore;” “Medusa” and The Faithful Hand Maiden” – did they not have “Maiden-Mother-Crone” in 1996?). He is satisfied from what he hears that she, too, believes that love is an illusion and a mere romantic concoction.
In life, Rose is surrounded by beautiful women. Her sister. Her mother, (played by Lauren Bacall). In the beginning of the movie, we get a glimpse into Rose’s issues about her body and herself through her mother, who is critical, overbearing and completely unsupportive in any profound way. In fact, she makes Rose feel unlovable and undesirable. This movie touches very lightly on the issue of mother and daughter relationships, and how mothers can create a profound lack of self esteem in their daughters.
The Mirror had so much potential. The first half of the movie is filled with some genuinely-progressive dialogue. Oddly, most of it comes from the lips of Gregory Larkin:
I, too, believe it’s illusions about love and the emphasis on sex that separate people today. As you said, romance is a myth.
The addiction to beauty and perfection created by advertising feeds on people’s pathetic hopes. They don’t have their own opinions. The media tells us what’s beautiful.
Have you noticed that friendships last longer than marriages?
I can’t stand women who eat two bites and say they are full.
When I look at you, I see a woman unlike any other I’ve known before. Your mind, your humor, your passion for ideas. I’m very fond of you . . . [p]eople marry for sex or beauty. Are my reasons more insane than those?
What we have usually comes when all this nonsense is over. Most never get to where we are. They try to keep the sex going, or find another. Our relationship works because it isn’t physical.
And then, the movie is completely and forever ruined. They get married on Gregory’s terms: he wants a marriage of companionship and friendship, and he relays this when he proposes. Rose accepts the proposal because she feels no one else will propose (ugh). As soon as they are married, Rose wants sex-intimacy-romance and actually tries to change the parameters of their accord. Gregory remains steadfast in his principles, and says “l took every precaution to make sure there was no physical attraction!”
Gregory goes on a three-month lecture tour for his book while Rose utilizes this time to remake herself into what everyone else in the movie believes is a gorgeous woman attractive enough to rival her sister and mother and anyone else who may turn her husband’s head. If they truly wanted to enact the banal theme of ugly-duckling-becomes-prom-queen , then Streisand was hopelessly miscast. They needed to cast someone in which the remake was utterly astonishing; to me, there was little difference between the before-makeover Streisand and its aftermath. The movie was draped in too much soft focus and pretense for Streisand to ever be successful in that role.
At first, the movie seemed to tackle (in order to quash) the myth of beauty as a prerequisite to a happy relationship, but then suddenly and unnecessarily succumbed to and promoted the premise completely, unabashedly and perversely. Abruptly, Gregory wants Rose inevery way, but only after and because she makes herself seemingly pretty for him. He didn’t want to have sex with her or kiss her in a sexual way at all before her make over.
A secondary theme, just as sinister, involves the issue of whether a frumpy or unattractive or even just an average-looking woman can catch and keep a handsome man (or perhaps even any man). We have the first hint that maybe Gregory is too superior appearance-wise when, upon meeting Gregory, Claire states “if I knew you were this handsome, I would have responded for myself.” There is no mention of his character or politics or proclivities. It’s enough that he is good looking in that culturally reinforced way.
The movie includes an outrageously unrealistic and uncomfortable scene. After Claire and her husband are separated, for some reason, Alex and Rose have a go at it – of course, this scene only happens after Rose becomes “beautiful”. We had been given hints throughout the movie that either Rose had a crush on Alex or maybe they had had something prior to his introduction to Claire. It was all unnecessary.
I feel it is very safe to say that Streisand, who also directed this movie, is no feminist if feminism really does mean progressively moving past the idea that in order to be happy in relationships, a female must make herself physically beautiful in an artificial and cosmetic way. I cannot cut her slack or give her an out based on the era of the movie – she didn’t make this movie in 1960, but in 1996 – and that is way too modern a time for this retroactive dribble.
If I were teaching a feminist movie curriculum, I would include this movie as the quintessential theme of woman as pleaser and the continuing necessity in our culture for her to play the role of the one who must change in order to make the relationship work.
Streisand had me at “Yentl”; kept me with “The Prince of Tides” and completely lost me with “The Mirror Has Two Faces.” There’s a reason why she’s no longer directing movies – all you have to do is rent this movie to understand.
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