Monday, September 12, 2016

Planting a Bad Seed

"sociopath — a person with a psychopathic personality whose behavior is antisocial, often criminal, and who lacks a sense of moral responsibility or social conscience."

Random House Dictionary

"The Bad Seed," which premiered on this day in 1956, was a thought–provoking — for its time — contribution to the debate over nature vs. nurture that influences so many behavioral discussions.

In this case, the discussion centered on sociopaths. We've all known sociopaths, even if we didn't know that was what they were. The term sociopathy came into use in the 20th century — but I'm sure sociopaths have been around since time began. The defining feature of sociopathy is antisocial behavior. Some psychiatrists caution laymen to avoid using the terms sociopathy and psychopathy interchangeably as the former is less likely than the latter to be mistaken for psychosis — and socioopathic behavior is not necessarily the same as psychotic behavior.

And, while I am not a trained psychiatrist, it seems to me that antisocial behavior is more or less in the eyes of the beholder. I have known people who judged certain behaviors that did not conform to their preconceived notions too harshly and labeled them sociopathic when most people probably would consider them introverted.

The things that seem to define sociopaths are the frequently criminal nature of their behavior and the complete absence of any kind of remorse for their actions. They are concerned only with themselves. All others exist — or cease to exist — to serve the sociopath's needs.

In "The Bad Seed," Patty McCormack played a young girl who, on the surface, appeared to be every parent's dream child — brilliant in school, excelling in all things. But if you looked closely enough, you could see a pattern of vicious behavior when things didn't go young Rhoda's way.

For the adults in her world, it was easier to simply dismiss some things as childish misbehavior that she would certainly outgrow.

But a time came when the behavior could no longer be so easily excused.

That was when Rhoda did not win a medal for penmanship that she had believed she would win. When the boy who did win the medal turned up drowned at a school picnic, those closest to Rhoda began to examine her behavior with alarm. She just didn't respond to the tragedy the way the adults expected. A young girl, they reasoned, should be traumatized by such an event, but when Rhoda came home, all she said was that she was hungry because the picnic had been canceled before anyone could eat.

The boy's mother, played by Eileen Heckart, knew something — somehow. Perhaps she sensed it. It was known that Rhoda had been the last person to see the boy alive; they had been seen struggling near the lake where the boy's body was found.

Anyway, the boy's mother showed up at Rhoda's home, clearly intoxicated and accusing Rhoda's teacher of concealing information about how her son had died.

And Leroy the handyman (Henry Jones) stumbled on to Rhoda's secret — and paid for it with his life when he was set on fire by Rhoda.

Rhoda's mother (Nancy Kelly) confronted her daughter with her suspicions and Rhoda tearfully confessed that she had killed the boy — and also confirmed her mother's suspicion that she had been responsible for the death of an elderly lady who had lived near them at one time. The elderly lady promised Rhoda she could have a trinket that she had admired "after I'm gone." Rhoda arranged for things to be moved up.

All this came at the same time that Rhoda's mother learned she had been adopted when she was young — and her biological mother had been a serial killer.

Thus the question of whether sociopathic behavior is learned or inherited was introduced into the story.

Rhoda's mother believed it was inherited, that she and her biological mother were responsible for this "bad seed" that she had spawned, and she took it upon herself to end it, once and for all. She gave Rhoda a lethal dose of barbiturates, then shot herself in the head. The sound of the gunshot brought people to the scene. The mother died, but the daughter was rushed to a hospital, where she was saved.

And it appeared that evil would triumph over good. Except ...

When a recovered Rhoda went out to the lake to retrieve the medal, she was struck by lightning.

The movie received four Oscar nominations in three categories but lost them all.

Kelly was nominated for Best Actress but lost to Ingrid Bergman in "Anastasia." Heckart and McCormack were both nominated for Best Supporting Actress but lost to Dorothy Malone in "Written On The Wind." Harold Rosson was nominated for Best Black–and–White Cinematography but lost to "Somebody Up There Likes Me."