Jeanine Basinger: Her Love of Film Could Be a Movie Musical
When Jeanine Basinger created the film studies program at Middletown’s Wesleyan University 50 years ago, the serious study of movies in colleges was a rare occurrence.
“[At other schools] it was pretty much an ad hoc thing,” says Basinger, 84, who has been teaching at Wesleyan for 60 years. “People in English or art departments might teach ‘film appreciation,’ which was very high-toned. And it was all about what was wrong with Hollywood and how superior foreign films were.”
But Basinger saw brilliance in the American film heritage and her classes took a different approach. It also began a long list of popular, but academically grounded, books about the movies including A Woman’s View: How Hollywood Spoke to Women, 1930–1960, The Star Machine, The ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’ Book, and Silent Stars.
Basinger’s latest book, The Movie Musical! is currently earning wide praise. Her next book is on American film comedy (tentatively titled How Funny Is Hitler?).
Basinger will be in conversation with this writer as the kick-off of the Mark Twain House & Museum’s A Little Harmless Fun spring series on Wednesday, March 4 at 7 p.m. at 351 Farmington Ave, in Hartford. The talk will be followed by a book signing.
Basinger says she turned a hobby into a life-long profession. Beyond the film program—which has grown into the College of Film and the Moving Image—she also founded Wesleyan’s film archives, which houses the collections of such diverse film figures as Martin Scorsese, Elia Kazan, Federico Fellini, Ingrid Bergman, Frank Capra, and John Waters.
Wesleyan’s Center for Film Studies capital project is completing its third phase of building this fall, which will also mark Basinger’s half century in film there. The building will be named for Basinger.
Today there are 100 film majors and 50 minors.
“Today, we have an enormous amount of students and all the film classes are lab classes,” she says. “It’s an amazing amount of work just doing the day to day stuff.”
Twenty years ago, Lin Manuel Miranda took some of her film classes when he was at Wesleyan and Basinger says she is excited about the movie musical In the Heights coming out later this year, based on Miranda’s Tony Award-winning musical.
“And imagine the joy we have to look forward to see his Hamilton as a musical,” she says. “What a work of genius Hamilton is and thinking of it being added to the musical canon makes my heart soar.”
Though the Western is seen as the quintessential American film genre, “the movie musical is one, too,” says Basinger. She notes other countries had film musicals—but not like Hollywood.
“The British did them. There are even Russian ones about farms and tanks and these tractor musicals are very funny,” she says. “Of course there are Bollywood film musicals from India, but they’re sort of an imitation or made in tribute to the American musical.”
Basinger says several things became prominent in her research for her movie musical book.
“One was an affirmation of what I knew and that was how great these movies really are—and even how minor ones can have these spectacular talents and musical numbers in them. Everyone thinks basically the movie musical died at the end of the ’60s and early ’70s. But I was astonished to see how very many musicals were made. They didn’t die at all. They just became unsuccessful to a certain degree,” she says. “It wasn’t that we have didn’t have the musical. We just didn’t have a way to do them that fit with the times.”
Basinger also had a new appreciation of some leading figures of that era, like Barbra Streisand.
“I was never not a fan of hers, but I just didn’t think of her as significant. But she’s really an amazing talent and the film Yentl was so much more wonderful than I had thought,” she says. “I also realized how great Francis Coppola is at making musicals, too.”
She says she had deep regret all over again “seeing the enormous talent in the African-American community that was never allowed to blossom and flourish.”
“Whenever you see an all-black musical or you see Lena Horne doing a number, you realize, ‘Oh, my gosh. The loss, the loss.’ I’m just glad we have what we do have,” she says. “Of course everyone who knows musicals know the [dance duo] The Nicholas Brothers, but there’s also the three Berry Brothers, who are just as astonishing dance talents.”
Basinger says that when she wrote her book on marriage films, I Do and I Don’t: A History of Marriage in the Movies, “I was so worn out with [those films] I really didn’t want to see another one probably ever again. But by the end of five years dealing with movie musicals and re-screening them every day, I still love them. I’d sit down right now and watch Swing Time if you asked me,” she says. “Musicals for me constantly produced the same joy and pleasure that they had the first time.”