History speaks as it is made: Invasion of the Body Snatchers—that fable of alien seedpods devouring their human hosts and replacing them with an entire society of soulless replicants—is a tale we will not escape any time soon. First taking shape on film almost forty-five years ago, in 1956, the persistence of the story implies that the fifties remain the haunted house of the American century. A diabolical experiment was performed then, the films say: maybe something to do with atomic radiation, as Kevin McCarthy’s small-town doctor speculated as the tale began, or, as critics have speculated ever since, maybe something to do with politics, with communist brainwashing or government witch-hunts. The latest version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers—certainly the most imaginative version and, despite an awards season in which it has been all but ignored, the most imaginative movie of the last year, perhaps the most imaginative story in any medium—is Pleasantville.
Released last fall, it was a cute picture with no big ad campaign and no big stars. It left behind a collection of reviews focusing mostly on its gimmick: Two nineties teenagers fall through their TV set and into the world of a family sitcom from the fifties called Pleasantville, and under their influence everything and everybody goes from black and white to color. With all of the uplift and release of the good guys winning in a Frank Capra movie, the picture means to prove that America always contains a secret country, a zombie second self—and that that zombie America can be overthrown, in this case with sex and art. Sure, it’s a fairy tale. But it’s a fairy tale rooted in stories that have already been lived.
The story was never modest. In Don Siegel’s original film, Invasion of the Body Snatchers was an exploitation metaphor for J. Edgar Hoover’s Enemy Within. In claustrophobic black and white, the movie is unrelievedly creepy and nerve-racking; after half an hour any given movement can startle you out of your seat, and you can forget that any real world exists outside the film’s frame of reference. Meeting in secret, passing out the seedpods to be left in the basements and gardens of those yet to be transformed, the new pod people really do seem like members of communist cells, spreading the propaganda that, in the fifties, it was somehow assumed Americans could never resist. But by the end, with the whole of a town changed and in mad pursuit of the two humans left, the pod people have turned into a traditional American lynch mob and the humans into the demonized commies—in the fifties, liberal schoolteachers far more commonly than Red screenwriters—who must be stamped out.In Phil Kaufman’s still-terrifying 1978 remake, the pod people were New Age revolutionaries. “What happens?” a human woman asks Leonard Nimoy’s turtlenecked pod psychiatrist as he prepares to inject a sedative so that she might receive her new body. (All versions of Invasion of the Body Snatchers agree that they get you when you sleep.) “You’ll be born again into an untroubled world,” he says. Soon, the few stray remaining humans are exposed by pointing fingers and screams so awful they can make you feel dead. Abel Ferrara’s 1994 Body Snatchers was about the collapse of the family—unless it was about the chance to see Gabrielle Anwar naked in a bathtub, hundreds of pod tendrils growing around her body and into her nostrils, sucking out her soul as she sleeps.
In writer-director Gary Ross’s Pleasantville, the old story is hidden inside the reversal of its premises. The town the two present-day teenagers discover is America after the pod people have triumphed. It’s their achievement, their utopia; the zombies are happy in their black-and-white world. But this utopia is also an old media dream of the American fifties, a common dream the country has been dreaming through official representations—TV shows like Ozzie and Harriet and Leave It to Beaver, full-page Life magazine ads for new vacuum cleaners and the housewives to run them, new cars and the men to drive them—ever since that insoluble little era of good feelings and atom bombs got under way. The fifties are a dream the country has never been able to wake from, as blessing or curse: Once upon a time everything was boring, every day was the same (as Thomas Pynchon once wrote, “One of the most pernicious effects of the ’50s was to convince the people growing up during them that it would last forever”), and everything was okay.
When Reese Witherspoon’s slutty Jen and Tobey Maguire’s curious David, her twin brother—now “Mary Sue” and “Bud” in Pleasantville‘s George and Betty Parker family—find themselves in the pod nirvana, you’re as amused as they are to learn that here it never rains and nothing burns, that the bathrooms have no toilets and going all the way means holding hands, that all books are blank and the outside world does not exist. (An aerial view of Pleasantville shows it hidden in a sylvan valley between high mountains: James Hilton’s, or Frank Capra’s, Shangri-la.) Everyone is chirpy, white, and content. “Is that what TV in the fifties was really like?” the twenty-something in the seat next to me asked, in other words asking if this was really the self-portrait America had once presented to itself. I wasn’t sure; it seemed too weird. “Yes,” said a voice one seat over, and suddenly it wasn’t weird at all. The Great Depression and the Second World War had left a whole society shell-shocked; no one knew anymore what ordinary was, but everyone wanted to know. The diabolical experiment that was performed in the fifties, that was at once celebrated and concealed within the everyday culture of the time, was an exchange of real life for an idea of normal life.
Here, though, it’s the pod people who change. The aliens, the transported kids, come to make the pod people human; change means shedding, not assuming, one’s pod skin. At the soda shop where David has an after-school job, it’s the cook who cannot function once David breaks the routine they have always followed, but who soon enough will begin to cover the town with outrageous murals of falling buildings and naked women. It’s the high school basketball star whom Jen fucks silly. (Dazed after he drives her home, he sees the first bit of color in Pleasantville, a red rose wet with dew on the vine, just like the little pods glistening on rosebushes at the beginning of the 1978 Invasion of the Body Snatchers.) Most hauntingly, though, it’s Jen’s new mother, Joan Allen’s Betty: a precise replica not only of all the starched and ironed housewives of fifties TV, but also of the shriveling Pat Nixon she played in Nixon.“What goes on at Lovers’ Lane?” she asks Jen. It’s a place where couples once sat apart looking at the stars; Jen has turned it into a field of rocking cars and naked bodies. “Is it holding hands and that kind of thing?” “That, and… well, sex,” says Jen. There’s a long pause: You expect Betty to be shocked that the change she’s sensed all around her has gone so far, but that’s not what it’s about. “Oh,” Betty finally says. “What’s sex?”
Now, it’s rare to see an actor’s character actually think as you watch, but with Witherspoon that’s her whole performance. She’s a hundred pounds of doubt and querulousness. She’s got the fastest mind on the screen today, and so an entire universe of choices, an infinite array of words and deeds, opens up on her face in a close-up; anything is possible and everything is at stake. How does a human daughter explain sex to her pod mother? How does she get her to understand real life? “You see, Mom,” Jen says, “when two people love each other very much and they want to share that…” The movie has sucked the whole of the postwar neurosis into itself and given it back as one great, terrified joke.
Soon Betty wakes up horrified by the new color on her face. A race war breaks out—between the black-and-white people and the “coloreds,” with the remaining pod people attacking colored people like the pod people hunting down humans in the earlier films—and in footage that looks like old newsreels, inescapably like white people pointing and screaming at black students as, for the first time, they entered Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. Then a cultural war breaks out, and then there is a happy ending, offering you the sort of smile you can get only at the movies. On the soundtrack, Randy Newman’s music all but takes your hand and guides you out of the theater and into the street.
But there, you find that you and those around you still carry traces of that old experiment; that the haunted house is not the theater but where you live; and that the wars left behind in the film are still going on. You leave the theater feeling more alive, ready to live: It’s as if the wars have just started.
Esquire, March 1, 1999