Classic Review Friday – Gary Ross’ “Pleasantville” (1998)

The strongest fantasy stories depict a world which is different from our own while telling stories which are fundamental to the human condition. In the case of Pleasantville, the idyllic 1950s town is an actual paradise where the high school basketball team never loses, the fire department merely has to rescue cats trapped in trees, and dinner is always ready when you come home. But perfection, safety, and comfort are not the default, and when two real-life children introduce new ideas to the sheltered town, Pleasantville transforms from black-and-white safe space into vivid real-life.

Pleasantville was the directorial debut of Gary Ross (Big, Seabiscuit, and The Hunger Games), and he has a fantastic cast of young actors and seasoned character actors to work with. David (a pre-Spiderman Tobey Maguire) and Jennifer (Reese Witherspoon long before her Oscar) are twins who become magically transported into the world of the black-and-white television show, Pleasantville, where they take over the roles of the Bud and Mary Sue Parker. David is a huge fan of the show and insists that they can’t change anything from how the show is “supposed to go”, but Jennifer really couldn’t care less.

Their parents in Pleasantville are your garden-variety 1950s mom and dad straight out of Leave it to Beaver: Betty (Joan Allen) and George (William H. Macy). Betty makes gigantic, delicious meals and does the housework while George is the breadwinner of the family and disciplines the children. Other supporting characters include Mary Sue’s boyfriend, Skip (Paul Walker); Bud’s boss at the local diner, Jeff Daniels; and the mayor of the town Big Bob (J. T. Walsh). All of the supporting actors are fantastic, and provide a great ensemble feel to the film. More importantly, each has his or her unique character arc which informs upon the overall theme of exploration, curiosity, and genuine emotion.

Throughout the first act, there is little evidence that Pleasantville is anything but amazing, but Jennifer effects a series of events that will change it forever. On a date with Skip, she ignores Bud’s warnings and has sex with Skip, and act completely foreign to the world of 1950s broadcast television. This one act snowballs quickly, and as a result of the new experiences, people and things begin to acquire color. When Jennifer refuses to go on another date with Skip, he angrily throws a basketball at the hoop – and misses. As more denizens of Pleasantville begin to ask questions about books (all of which are blank until David recount them), colors, and a world, “Where the streets keep going”, we begin to see the emergence of color as a metaphor for risk-taking, emotion, and for intellectual freedom.

Of course, as things change there will always be the old guard that protects the status quo. Big Bob, George, and others in the town begin to despise the “colored” people. Bud’s boss Bill Johnson discovers his love for painting in color and adorns his diner with wonderful colored murals, including one of David’s mother Betty in the nude. A destructive riot erupts, and legalized segregation becomes the norm: signs reading “no coloreds” begin to appear, and painting in colors besides white, black, and grey is outlawed. The choice to use the term “coloreds” to describe those people who are no longer black-and-white is informative, and clearly meant to thematically identify the establishment with the racism of these same times. Persecution of “coloreds” further cements the ruling class of the town as backwards and ancient, and it is only a matter of time before they are shown the error of their ways.

The climax of the film occurs when Bud and Bill decide to paint another mural in color as an act of defiance against the stifling laws of Big Bob. They are promptly arrested and must stand trial for their crimes of expression. At the trial, the use of color and the transformation to a “colored” person is depicted as “unnatural” or somehow evil, especially since it is so often linked with a sexual awakening. Bud decides to show that anyone can change, though – that it isn’t unnatural at all but instead an affirmation of the beauty of life within you. To that end, he calls his father to the stand. Recently separated from his wife, he is despondent. Bud talks him through his relationship with Betty, and makes George realize how much he loves his wife, how important she is to him, and how his old safe life with her was incomplete absent these realizations. There, on the stand, George gains color as the assembly murmurs aghast. Then, Big Bob decries it all to be a trick, and lashes out at Bud. In a final stroke of brilliance, Bud antagonizes Bob and draws out genuine, seething anger, and we see Bob become “colored” as well. This is the final straw – upon exiting the courtroom, the entirety of Pleasantville is in color, and it has become part of the real world.

Pleasantville’s stylistic use of color as a metaphor for emotional and intellectual awakening is a masterstroke of visual story telling. Each character in the story must overcome a different obstacle to gain his or her color, and as a result even the minor characters feel fully-developed and important in the grand telling of the story. Importantly, the film decries the attitude that sheltered perfection is an ideal to strive toward, and instead champions risk-taking, ambition, and honesty. In Pleasantville, it may have been impossible to miss a basketball shot or start a fire, but it was also impossible to love and grow, and therefore – to live.

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