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Viewer Guide: Pleasantville and Carol

November 20, 2020 | Richard Peña


Pleasantville (1998)

Tonight’s classic is Pleasantville, the 1998 fantasy comedy-drama written and directed by Gary Ross.

Tobey Maguire stars as David, a nerdy high school student who enjoys taking refuge from his modern world with the programming on “TV Time,” a cable channel dedicated to retro TV shows. In particular, David seems especially fascinated by “Pleasantville,” a 50s sitcom “chock full of pure family values,” which helps him escape from the hectic world of his single mother, played by Jane Kaczmarek, and the busy social life of his sister Jennifer, a sassy “bad girl” played by Reese Witherspoon. With his encyclopedic knowledge of all things “Pleasantville,” David seems like a shoo-in to win “TV Time’s” Friday night trivia contest; Jennifer, on the other hand, has her sights set on hot date for the evening. But when their colliding plans results in a broken TV remote, a spooky thing happens: a mysterious TV repairman, played by authentic TV legend Don Knotts, appears at the door with a strange replacement remote that he claims will put David and Jennifer “into the show.” And before you can say “Honey, I’m home,” brother and sister find themselves beamed into Pleasantville’s black and white TV world, where it never rains, firemen are only needed for getting cats out of trees, and married couples sleep in twin beds. But what seems at first like a comforting haven of “pure family values” steadily evolves into a dramatic metaphor for the actual decade of the 1950s, where nonconformity must be crushed, and “coloreds” are not allowed.

Also featured are Joan Allen and William H. Macy as David and Jennifer’s “Pleasantville” parents, Jeff Daniels as Mr. Johnson at the Soda Shop, J.T. Walsh as the sinister head of Pleasantville’s Chamber of Commerce, and Paul Walker as Jennifer’s TV dreamboat heartthrob.

Over two decades since its 1998 release, it’s an interesting time to revisit Pleasantville and its cautionary tale of how sentimental nostalgia can obscure the truth of historical fact. With its cinematic technique of frequent transitions from black and white to color, often on a specific detail or person within a single shot, Pleasantville employed the-then new technology of digitizing color film in order to manipulate the final image. Dick Van Dyke was originally envisioned to play the mysterious TV Repairman, but the role was ultimately cast with Don Knotts. Largely shot on the Warner Brothers studio lot in Burbank, fans of classic sitcoms may have noticed in the background some of the “real” TV houses featured in Gidget, Hazel, Bewitched and The Partridge Family. The Parker family home, however, was actually a completely new set.


Tonight’s indie is Carol, the 2015 romantic drama directed by Todd Haynes.

Adapted by screenwriter Phyllis Nagy from Patricia Highsmith’s novel The Price of Salt, Carol at long last brought to the movie screen a story that was utterly taboo in Hollywood at the time of the book’s publication in 1952: the lesbian romance between a well-to-do married woman named Carol Aird, played by Cate Blanchett, and an aspiring young photographer named Therese Belivet, played by Rooney Mara. Set in New York City at the dawn of the Eisenhower era, the women meet during the Christmas season as Carol is shopping for presents at Frankenberg’s department store, where Therese has taken a seasonal job in the toy department. Struck by Carol’s glamorous air of melancholy, Therese soon learns that she is in the midst of an increasingly hostile divorce from her husband Harge, played by Kyle Chandler, and fighting to retain some degree of joint custody for their daughter. Harge still has feelings for Carol, but is increasingly bitter about her continuing friendship with her dear friend—and former lover—Abby, played by Sarah Paulson. Although Therese is making summer plans to visit France with her boyfriend Richard, it’s Carol that she finds herself thinking about. So it’s a welcome discovery when Therese notices that Carol has forgotten her gloves on the toy counter, giving her the opportunity to pursue the feelings she’s not yet sure how to define.

Author Patricia Highsmith began writing her novel Carol under its original title The Price of Salt in 1948, inspired by her experience as a seasonal Christmas worker at Bloomingdales and her interaction with a blonde woman in a fur coat shopping for a doll. After the success of her first novel Strangers on a Train, famously adapted into a movie by Alfred Hitchcock in 1951, Highsmith opted to publish her second book under the pen name of “Claire Morgan.” Ultimately selling some one million copies before being republished under the title CAROL in 1990, the book’s popularity stemmed in part from being one of the very few lesbian stories of its era with an optimistic ending. Highsmith is especially well known for the “Ripliad,” a series of five books featuring the character of Tom Ripley, starting with 1955’s The Talented Mr. Ripley. That too has made its way to the cinema, in René Clément’s Purple Noon with Alain Delon, as well as in an acclaimed 1999 adaptation by director Anthony Minghella, featuring Cate Blanchett in a supporting role. In addition, Andrew Scott has been announced to star in an upcoming eight-part miniseries adaptation of Highsmith’s “Ripliad” collection.

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