Mad by Menwest by mattsteinglass
November 11, 2009, 1:04 pm
Filed under: Entertainment

George Packer has a pretty good reading of “Mad Men” in the New Yorker. But for me, you can’t really begin discussing the show without also talking about “North by Northwest”: Don Draper as Cary Grant, and Betty Draper as Eva Marie Saint. It’s not really fair to call the Draper switched-identity backstory a “spurious premise”, as Packer does. It’s improbable, but it’s also mythically American: the self-invented advertising man who creates his own reality by imagining it, and his constant anxiety at the prospect that his identity might disintegrate. Draper’s look and affect are drawn from Cary Grant’s Roger Thornhill, the self-confident businessman at the beginning of “NxNW” in the back of the taxicab dictating a note to his secretary: “Remind me to think thin.” In “NxNW” this facade of confidence is intimately linked to the switched-identity plotline, the discovery of the empty suits in his size, the existence of an alter ego that turns out to be empty, and the gradual stripping away of his own identity that forces him to flee incognito, to lie to Eva Marie Saint on a train, and finally to end up as a blank figure in a suit, running through a cornfield, pursued by a murderous crop duster. The return from the self-willed false identity of the New York advertising man to the empty, identity-less desperation of the Midwest, is the mirror image of Don Draper’s flight from Midwestern anonymity to self-willed New York advertising man, but both films are enacting the same structure of anxiety about the impermanence of identity in a mass advertising society, the flimsiness of the stories we invent about ourselves, the shakiness of romantic love between people who are each acting out a role of themselves. Add: check the bit where Grant pulls out his matchbook to light a cigarette, and explains the monogram: “Roger O. Thornhill. ‘Rot’.” Eva Marie Saint: “What’s the O stand for?” Cary Grant: “Nothing. I made it up.”

The Betty Draper as Eva Marie Saint analogy is more limited, partly because the Eva Marie Saint character in “NxNW” is less fully developed. But there’s still a lot there that’s similar: initially, in the anonymous meeting-on-a-train scene, the way that ironic conversation becomes so strongly performative because it has to fill in for the enforced anonymity and uniformity that repress any other kind of identity expression, to signal “I am more than the dully perfect grey exterior you see.” And the complex silent signaling she’s trapped in, trying to communicate her sincerity to Cary Grant but unable to be verbally frank because of overarching commitments to other players. And the gender-determined unfairness that allows Grant, who is lying about his identity, to become furious at Saint for lying about her identity — to essentially call her, as Don does Betty at a heated moment in the Mad Men season finale, a slut.

Anyway, there’s a lot more going on there and you also have to consider Betty in light of “An Imitation of Life.” But check this out:

[youtubevid id=”S9DqvijITkw”]

CG: “Oh, you’re that type.”
EMS: “What type?”
CG: “Honest.”
EMS: “Not really.”
CG: “Good, because honest women frighten me.”
EMS: “Why?”
CG: “I don’t know, somehow they seem to put me at a disadvantage.”
EMS: “Because you’re not honest with them?”
CG: “Exactly.”


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