Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The Exploitation of Jenny Agutter

I always felt that Jenny Agutter was symbolic of young actresses who were exploited in the 1970s for things that were entirely separate from their acting abilities.

Exploitation certainly wasn't new in the 1970s, but the '70s were a time when people were particularly sensitive to the inequities between the sexes in most fields.

Self–described feminists brought attention to many areas in American life that were discriminatory. At the time, there were many reasons to think that repressive attitudes were on the decline.

Discrimination of all kinds was being challenged openly, and my memory of that time is that, as doors were opening up for all races and religions, they were opening up for women as well — in all sorts of fields — and women were being judged for their skills and accomplishments, not their physical attributes.

The performing arts, however, were still subject to the age–old double standard.

Oh, there were signs that things were changing. In the early 1970s, Mary Tyler Moore, for example, was starring in a hit TV show about a young single woman who was carving out a life for herself. But, before the decade was over, the hot trend in television was the so–called "jiggle" programming of Charlie's Angels and Three's Company.

Jenny Agutter's experience was somewhere in between.

Most people in America probably hadn't heard of Agutter in May 1971.

In the mid– to late 1960s, when Agutter was in her teens, she appeared in a twice–weekly TV series on the BBC, "The Newcomers," so there is reason to believe she was at least somewhat familiar to the British audience.

But in May 1971, when she was 18 going on 19, she began to make her transition from the children's roles she had been playing to more mature roles with a film called "Walkabout."

And that is probably when American audiences got their first glimpses of her.

"Walkabout," which made its debut at the Cannes Film Festival, was adapted from a book, both of which took their title from the name of a rite of passage in which adolescent male Australian Aborigines live alone in the wilderness.

In the book, two siblings are stranded in the Australian Outback following a plane crash, and they start walking. They hope to find civilization — preferably, their original destination (although, unknown to them, that city is actually on the other side of the Australian continent).

While they are wandering, they encounter a young Aborigine in the midst of his "walkabout," and he helps them survive by showing them where to find water and how to find food.

It was hardly an ideal situation. The children could only communicate with the Aborigine through gestures; even if they had spoken the same language, there were significant differences in their cultures that contributed to considerable sexual tension between the girl sibling and the Aborigine.

The movie took the novel's general premise but didn't follow the book precisely.

For openers, the children were not in a plane crash in the movie.

I don't know the reason for that. Perhaps the special effects would have been too costly — or perhaps even the most cutting–edge technology was incapable of producing what the director wanted — or perhaps the director felt another source of alienation was needed.

At any rate, early in the movie, the boy and girl were taken into the Australian wilderness by their father, allegedly for a picnic, but the father started shooting at the children, and they sought cover behind some boulders.

Their father then set fire to the vehicle and shot himself, leaving the children stranded in the Outback.

The children began walking and encountered the Aborigine, at which point much of the sexual tension began.

It was certainly when audiences began to see more — much more — of Agutter.

They couldn't see her well — most of her nude scenes were shot from a distance or under conditions where it was hard to tell what one was seeing (as in the scene where the Aborigine sees her skinny dipping) — but it was the kind of (pun intended) exposure that was beneficial for young actresses in those days.

(Still is, I suppose, but that's another story.)

Anyway, because there was quite a communication/cultural gap between the girl and the Aborigine, the sexual tension went unresolved, leading to the boy's suicide.

(I suppose that, if the sexual tension had been resolved, there might have been an uproar about the interracial angle.)

That was another difference between the book and the film. The boy died in the book as well, but that death was brought about by the flu.

Being loosely based on the novel, the film's story was kind of a free–for–all, something that director Nicolas Roeg openly acknowledged. Much of the movie, he admitted, was improvisation: "We didn't really plan anything. We just came across things by chance … filming whatever we found."

That would account for the sometimes by–the–seats–of–their–pants approach that was taken to the story — as well as the sometimes flimsy pretenses for having Agutter shed her clothes.

I'll grant you, I never read the original book (only summaries) — but I'd be willing to wager that it didn't obsess over sex the way the film did.

In the coming years, Agutter appeared in films with bigger budgets, more mainstream appeal and, in some instances, more exposure.

Five years later, for example, she appeared in "Logan's Run" with the still largely unknown Farrah Fawcett and the highly regarded Peter Ustinov. Agutter was required to do a few revealing scenes in that film — but her most revealing film appearance may have come a couple of years after that, when she was featured in "Equus" with Richard Burton.

It was a good film with a brilliant cast, but my memory is that more critical attention was paid to Agutter's nudity than to the complex psychological story the movie told.

Personally, I always felt Agutter had a lot of acting talent. The fact that I also found her attractive only added to the package, but when I saw her in a movie, I expected more than Hollywood tended to deliver, even when she shared the screen with the likes of Burton and Ustinov.

She is nearly 60 now. Most of her time in recent years has been devoted to vocal acting and charity work.

I think she left the '70s behind her a long time ago. I wonder if Hollywood ever will.