The male gaze has gotten a lot of bad press, but aside from the fact that feminist film theorist Laura Mulvey’s original ideas have often been carelessly applied, there’s nothing inherently wrong with the idea of men looking at women. Ogling is one thing. But what about the way Warren Beatty, as bumbling early 20th-century Northwestern entrepreneur John McCabe, watches Julie Christie’s brusquely practical madam Constance Miller devour a plateful of eggs, her hands streaked with grease as she shovels one forkful after another into her gob? He’s never seen anything like it—his eyes practically have little stars in them, even with no star filter—and from that moment he’s a goner, a man green with lovesickness. Meanwhile, she finishes up and wipes her hand across her mouth with gusto.
The wary almost-romance between Beatty and Christie is just one of the gruff enchantments of Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller, set in a Washington state boomtown called Presbyterian Church, in honor of its most significant building, a chapel that’s underused by the locals. McCabe, in a big bearskin coat, swaggers in and takes over the town, establishing a brothel and a gambling hall; when Constance arrives, the two form a business partnership that also becomes a kind of love story, though she charges him for sex. Altman never did anything the easy way, or the predictable way. The film was shot in sequence, on location in Vancouver, and its hushed, spellbinding finale takes place in a snowstorm that wasn’t manufactured. The snow started falling, and didn’t stop, on the day Altman and his crew were set to film the final scene, and rather than reschedule, they forged ahead. The result is a mystically beautiful film that also feels rooted in the earth and its bittersweet pleasures, among them love forged over a plate of greasy eggs.
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