You love it or you hate it, and not being a gross-out fan, I didn’t expect to like There’s Something About Mary . Especially when there arrived through the mail a promotional gimmick in the form of a tube of a clear, odorless substance simulating (I hope simulating) Ben Stiller’s bodily fluid. This referred, of course, to the already famous gag in which Cameron Diaz arrives and, mistaking for hair gel the goo dripping from her date’s ears, grabs a fistful and applies it to her hair. Under the influence of my husband, a fan of the Farrelly brothers’ Dumb and Dumber , I went. And surprise! I loved the movie, above all the climactic moment in which we cut to a restaurant where Mary chatters happily, blithely unaware that her gelled forelocks are sprouting upward like a rooster’s crown.
I have a weakness for farce to begin with, especially a marriage of the witty and the crude executed as perfectly as this one. Moreover, to call it a gross-out is a misnomer, since the radiant Ms. Diaz lights it up from within, a vaccine against toxic sleaze. Her Mary is enchantingly, preposterously good, a fairy-tale princess in the middle of a castration-anxiety nightmare.
To the complaint that this golden girl would never stoop to conquer, much less surrender to, such weird suitors I say nonsense! Their eccentricity and her sweetness meet and complement each other in a bizarre but romantically plausible match. Personally, I’ve always had a sneaking attraction to goodness, especially now that evil is just 28 kinds of pathology … although I admit that this might seem kinkier to some than a fondness for whips and chains.
This summer, a number of square 50’s icons were put through the media wringer: Roy Rogers, who died at 86, and the Nelson family, in a documentary that supposedly revealed TV’s goody-goody first family as neurotic and dysfunctional like the rest of us. As friends and colleagues snickered at the singing cowboy or the ambition-driven Nelsons, I found myself choking up.
Rogers, who wasn’t pure whitebread but an interesting blend of Choctaw Indian and Anglo-American, was almost as impossibly good as Mary. Along with sundry causes and charities, he and Dale refused to keep their Down’s syndrome child’s illness a secret, unlike other similarly afflicted families. Watching a memorial documentary, I found myself humming along as the duo sang their signature TV song, “Happy Trails to You,” and was embarrassed to realize I knew all the words. I even had a Roy Rogers wristwatch. Never was a star so heavily merchandised, yet he managed to emerge untarnished.
With the Nelsons, Ozzie was a tyrannically workaholic father in the 50’s mold, Harriet a perpetually smiling straight-man mom, but still they clearly loved each other. A tape of David and Ricky on a talk show in the 60’s shows an older brother concerned for and protective of his younger brother, and later, missing him terribly. Ricky was the “natural,” the scene stealer, yet David seems to have adored him in a relationship relatively free of the murderous sibling rivalry we assume, and relish finding, behind every facade of family harmony.
In these times of Christian conservative moralizing at one extreme and liberal cynicism at the other, such examples of goodness without ideological posturing seem downright exotic. Even-to some of us-erotic. Could the attraction to virtue be making a comeback, peeping through skirts caked with premillennial mud?
I found a precedent for my own peculiar taste in 18th-century France, in the character of Isabelle de Charrière, née Isabella van Serooskerken van Tuyll, a.k.a. Belle or Zélide. This brilliant and melancholy woman, a writer and aristocrat, is known chiefly for her intense, literary-philosophical liaison with Benjamin Constant before she pushed him into the arms of the even more formidable (and younger) Germaine de Staël. But Belle, as well as being piercingly intellectual, was addicted to virtue, and she gravitated toward a variety of oddball men, the most significant of which was the dreary Charles-Emmanuel de Charrière. For the sad and delicious details of Belle’s life, I’m indebted to a favorite summer reading book, The Portrait of Zélide , by Geoffrey Scott. Originally published in 1925 and reissued in paperback last year, the book is a stylish exercise in biographical empathy by a man who was a fascinating character in his own right. An architect (he wrote The Architecture of Humanism , and designed Bernard Berenson’s I Tatti), he discovered a biography of Madame de Charriere when recovering from a breakdown brought on by his rupture with his “patron” Mary Berenson over his marriage to a rich and charming noblewoman. Subsequently, a romance with Vita Sackville-West so fired his competitive juices that he determined with The Portrait of Zélide to make his mark in literature. Clearly, there were all sorts of atoms of affinity propelling him toward Belle, just as she was being led ineluctably toward Benjamin Constant. First, her long correspondence and mutual infatuation with Benjamin’s already married uncle, Baron Constant d’Hermenches; then with Constant himself, 27 years her junior, whose “angelic” mother had died at his birth and who subsequently escaped from his harsh soldier father into the arms of intellectually mothering women.
The microscopically self-analyzing and charismatic Benjamin-the Harold Brodkey of his time-was drawn to Belle’s frankness and intelligence, found her “so original and lively,” and her company so unconventional and invigorating, that he gave himself up “rapturously” to her company.
She spoke French, was French in her intelligence but not in her sympathies, and might have been one of the great salonières except that she despised the pretensions of society and preferred, according to Scott, “the English form of sociability, where men who have nothing to say, say nothing.” The pious Scotsman Boswell was one of her suitors. For all her beauty and wit, and perhaps in homage to her dully virtuous father, she “had a distinct leaning to ludicrous men; she loved honesty and readily forgave the ponderous casing in which honesty is frequently enclosed.… Bellegarde and Boswell, and later, as we shall see, Monsieur de Charrière, were of this type; the first was an amiable fool, the second a prig, the third a pedant; all three were rigid and circumspect and slow: but each had a disarming honest absurdity. And Belle … was still a Tuyll: She could not resist integrity. She had to make love to good men.”
And so she argued herself into marrying Monsieur de Charrière, her brother’s tutor, and ended up living out her life in a provincial Swiss backwater, Neuchâtel, her dull days relieved by her chattering into the night with Benjamin.
Scott, with a weakness of his own for virtue, paints her as a lover might: brilliant and superior, while a more skeptical Mr. Hofstadter diagnoses her as a “manic-depressive,” and writes comically of the overcerebral couple’s late-night heart-to-hearts as “a pair of cephalopods warily swimming through an ocean of false ideas.” Although for them conversation was probably as far as it went, that was pretty far, and deep, indeed, and the term love affair would have to be narrowly restrictive not to include their relationship.
Benjamin didn’t wear braces (Ben Stiller’s mouthful of metal turns Cameron Diaz on), but he did have wild red hair and cut a strange figure: “seedy, anxious and faintly disreputable,” according to Mr. Hofstadter. Can’t you see Belle and Benjamin performing their verbal and romantic acrobatics in a Farrelly brothers farce?