Monday Movie: Picnic, by Scott Nye
Released in cinema’s greatest year with a gloriously pulpy poster, Joshua Logan’s Picnic is a postwar masterpiece. William Holden stars as a former football star / army vet / failed actor who drifts back to Kansas in the hopes his old college chum (Cliff Robertson) can land him a cushy job at his father’s grain business. Unfortunately for both of them, he meets his chum’s sweetheart before getting there. She isn’t too keen on the life of trophy-wifing her beau’s proposal promises, but is rather taken with well-built men who do yard work with their shirts off in exchange for pie. If this all sounds a little trashy, it is (a little bit), but it’s also beautiful, brutally honest, and captivatingly performed.
Logan previously directed I Met My Love Again in 1938, but the second World War and a successful stint on Broadway kept him out of Hollywood for seventeen years. His theatrical career informed his life in cinema – all but two of his films were based on plays or stage musicals, and most of them were from works he had been involved in on Broadway. 1955’s Picnic (from a play by William Inge, which he directed) was his big second debut, and it never suggests a stage man reluctantly pulled back into the evil machine. Fluidly shot by master cinematographer James Wong Howe, it often – especially once we reach the big Labor Day picnic – feels as close to a moving painting as anything from the era that wasn’t directed by Jean Renoir. Shots of seeds floating through the air or a couple resting by the river continue to take my breath away. Holden and Novak’s first dance by the shore in the moonlight is electrifyingly sensual. Not “for its time” or “by the standards of the Hayes Code,” but genuinely full-on, pulse-pounding, take-your-breath-away-and-leave-you-panting sexual.
Through this yearning for the past and hope for the present, the film encapsulates a side of postwar American life that was very much at the fore of cinema in the 1950s – “we won, so why are we so unhappy?” Here was a generation of men elevated as heroes who no longer had any victories to win, and many had trouble simply getting by. The war exposed them to life overseas, to cultures they’d never even considered before, and they wanted more from life than those who came before.
But this isn’t a pure condemnation of societal structures – Holden’s character is his own worst enemy, done in by his desires and tendency to command a room. Every other character has some similar flaw, as complex as jealousy over looks or as simple as a fear of change, standing between them and the life they want. The performance style is unabashedly heightened, rendering into the physical and vocal the storm of contradictory emotions that drive us every day. Without condemning the image of happiness the town tries to project, Picnic gets under the surface of it to show people struggling to attain it, to fit in, to build the society they all genuinely want and are trying to appear to be. A little trashy, immensely heartfelt and humanistic, incisively attuned to the times, and jaw-droopingly gorgeous, Picnic is Hollywood cinema at its absolute peak.