Wednesday, April 4, 2012

My Ode to Miss Ellie

Thirty-four years ago this week, on April 2, 1978, "Dallas" premiered on CBS.  It told the story of the wealthy Ewing family, led by patriarchal oil baron Jock Ewing (Jim Davis), and his sons Bobby (Patrick Duffy) and JR (Larry Hagman), and of the Ewing’s on-going feud with the poor Barnes clan, led by drunken Digger Barnes (David Wayne and, later, Keenan Wynn) and how that feud escalates to epic proportions when Bobby marries Digger’s beautiful daughter Pamela (Victoria Principal).  The public and the media nowadays narrowly view "Dallas" as a show about 1980s opulence and excess and know it only for its memorable “Who Shot JR?” cliffhanger at the end of its second season in March 1980. 

But its true fans know that it is much more than that.  They stayed with the show even after its eighth season (1985-86) turned out to be a dream; recognize that Morgan Brittany (and not Morgan Fairchild) was the Morgan who had a regular role on the series as Pamela’s scheming half-sister Katherine Wentworth; and remember that actors other than Ted Shackelford, Mary Crosby, and Priscilla Presley originated the roles of Gary, Kristin, and Jenna.  They also know that, at its heart, "Dallas" was really a family drama about a clan whose existence and way of life was dictated by a larger-than-life father, who set stringent standards for his sons to become competitive, ruthless oilmen with guts that results in decades of turmoil and misery as his children (and their wives and extended relatives) almost destroy one another in an attempt to live up to those expectations.  The psychological and emotional pathos of how the Ewing's unhappiness stems from their inability to recognize the impossibility of completely reaching that goal gives “Dallas” a subtext that belies ordinary expectations and interpretations of the series.  Even the Barnes clan is not immune from this: Digger’s desperate son Cliff Barnes (Ken Kercheval) spends the entire series in an increasingly futile effort to compete with, and defeat, the Ewings--JR in particular--in order to redeem his father's name.  Sue Ellen (Linda Gray) also acknowledges at one point that her mother groomed her and her sister Kristin to believe their only purpose in life was to marry rich husbands someday, which ultimately proved to be the root of her unhappiness.  In short, "Dallas" is about parents who expect too much from their children, and the devastating effects on them. 

It is for these reasons that “Dallas” still has enough resonance in 2012 that TNT will debut a revival series, bringing the saga of the Ewings up to current times, later this summer.  Whether the new series lives up to expectations set by the original, not unlike the standards Jock set for his family, remains to be seen.  Nevertheless, as long as the new series recognizes the theme of people attempting to define what it truly means to be an Ewing, it may have a fighting chance to make an impression of its own.  There is a reason why “Dallas” (despite its ups and downs through the years) remains part of the popular consciousness, while its competitor prime time soaps of the 1980s (such as “Dynasty,” “Knots Landing,” “Falcon Crest,” and “Flamingo Road”) have not been revived.

What also truly sets "Dallas" apart from other shows in its genre was Barbara Bel Geddes's beautifully subtle and touching performance as Ewing family matriarch Miss Ellie.  Miss Ellie defied typical feminist expectations of powerful women because she was a socialite and homemaker who didn't wield her influence and authority with an attache case.  She contradicted other television images of women set in the 1970s (when the series premiered) in that she did not pursue a professional career.  And, yet, few characters on "Dallas" projected such authority and strength as Miss Ellie.  As Julie Grey (Tina Louise) tells Miss Ellie in a 1979 episode, "You're Ellie Ewing.  You don't need a man to give you power."  Ironically, "Dallas" creator David Jacobs has said that he intended Miss Ellie to be more of a powerful, professional Southern woman, describing his original intention that she be an Ann Richards-type character.  He felt Miss Ellie, as played by Bel Geddes, turned out boring in his opinion.  Jacobs proves, with his short-sighted assessment, that series creators are sometimes the last people to fully understand what made their brainchild work.  (This statement on the interpretation of Miss Ellie is not surprising considering that Jacobs, IMHO, has always appeared in interviews to be disappointed that "Dallas," a show that he had less influence on after its first season, was always more successful, and continues to have more of a widespread cultural impact, than his other successful series "Knots Landing," which he had greater influence on and has said felt reflected his values better than "Dallas."  I liked "Knots Landing" very much, but I find it ludicrous for Jacobs and its cast to practice reverse-snobbery and allege it was inordinately superior to "Dallas" simply because it was about middle-class suburbanites and, purportedly, more "realistic" than "Dallas."  They conveniently ignore how "Knots Landing" stopped being about middle-class suburbia when it went upscale after Season 4, heartlessly dismissed original cast members such as Kenny & Ginger and Richard who didn't fit into this new upscale image, and also had its share of ridiculous melodramatic storylines.)  Had Miss Ellie turned out to be the Richards-prototype that Jacobs had envisioned, the audience would have dubbed "Dallas" a modern-day imitation of "The Big Valley" and immediately compared her to Barbara Stanwyck's Victoria Barkley character.  It would not have stood out as something unique and different as to inspire a new TV genre in the 1980s.

Miss Ellie reflects Camille Paglia's view that women who maintain a strong influence over their family are the ultimate leaders of the world.  She was one of the few characters whose words could single handedly put JR, Bobby and Jock in their place, and whose courage, humility, and integrity was boundless.  Her heart and ability to continue to love her children, even as she disapproved of their actions, made her instantly recognizable to all of us who have disappointed our own mothers at one point or another in our lives.  But she wasn't perfect.  She was occasionally blinded by her own hurt and rage.  There was the storyline where Miss Ellie opposed Jock and Ray Krebbs's (Steve Kanaly) involvement in the Takapa resort real estate project ostensibly on environmental grounds.  It later turned out that her opposition to Takapa was more rooted in her resentment of Jock welcoming ranch foreman Ray into the family, once it became apparent that Ray was his illegitimate son, at the expense of her own son Gary, who never wanted to move back to Southfork from his Knots Landing cul-de-sac due to his bad memories growing up there.  Her inability to forgive Jock, and accept the fact that Gary did not want to come home for reasons other than Ray's presence in the family, almost leads to the dissolution of their marriage.  She ultimately comes to the realization that, despite her deep love for her favorite son Gary, she was never an effective parent in addressing the demons that had haunted him from childhood on.  She must, once and for all, relinquish the hope that Gary will someday return to Southfork permanently.  One year later, after Jock has died, Miss Ellie ostracizes her best friend Donna Krebbs (Susan Howard), Ray's wife, after Donna uncovers unflattering facts about Jock while researching a book.  She shuns Donna and refuses to acknowledge the truth of Donna's discovery, all in effort to keep Jock's memory alive and deny that he had truly died in a plane crash in South America.  Just as Miss Ellie could be a formidable ally, she could also prove to be a devastating adversary when crossed. 

Nevertheless, the moments I remember most about Miss Ellie are the heartfelt moments where she openly expresses love and caring for her own children.  In the 1979 episode "Return Engagement," the segment that spins off into "Knots Landing," Miss Ellie offers to buy the re-marrying Gary and Val a new house in California so they can start their lives over again.  Both Gary and Val try to talk Miss Ellie out of such an extravagant gift, citing all the things she has done for them, including raising their daughter Lucy (Charlene Tilton) after JR had run Gary and Val off of Southfork 20 years earlier.  The humility of Miss Ellie's speech still awes me to this day--she acknowledges her own complicity in how Gary and Val were mistreated due to her silence and inaction at the time.  She rhetorically asks them "Do you think my giving you a house makes things right?  I don't.  So if you're going to refuse the gift, refuse it because the gift is too small.  Otherwise take it, please take it."  I also recall the lovely scene in 1988 when Cliff Barnes calls a truce to the Barnes/Ewing feud by finally acknowledging that Jock never cheated his daddy Digger out of his fortune.  It was appropriate that Miss Ellie, and not JR or Bobby, proved to be the peacemaker who brought an end to the family squabbling. 

Barbara Bel Geddes might seem an unlikely choice to play the genteel Miss Ellie.  Born in New York, the daughter of theatrical and industrial designer Norman Bel Geddes, she was a sophisticated, urban Yankee who was as far from being Southern as you can imagine.  And, yet, there has always been a truthful, direct earthiness to Bel Geddes that made her believable as a Texas rancher's daughter with a great love of the land.  Her deep voice gave her gravitas and presence as she faced off against Jock, JR and Bobby on the series.  In one episode, when Miss Ellie overhears Jock condescendingly describe what he considers a woman's "proper" place in society, she responds "You believe that the woman's place is two steps behind the man...except when walking through a minefield!"  Nobody could've delivered that line better.  Briefly, in the 1984-85 season, Bel Geddes took a sabbatical and was replaced by Donna Reed, who turned out to be woefully inadequate for the role.  Reed, with her frail voice, awkward vocal cadences, and extravagant wardrobe, stripped away the subtleties of what made Miss Ellie a compelling character and made her a conventional soap opera matriarch.  Reed attempted to turn Miss Ellie into the Ann Richards-prototype envisioned by the series's creator, and proved how that interpretation for the role was completely wrong for the series.  Thankfully, Bel Geddes returned to the series the following season, and not a moment too soon, as "Dallas" was then fully entrenched in the dreaded "dream season" and needed as much grounding and gravitas as it could get. 

In later seasons, Miss Ellie was married to the dignified and kind Clayton Farlow (Howard Keel), a man whose warmth, patience and understanding rivaled the enormity of Jock Ewing's ego.  We finally saw her in a marriage where she wasn't expected to live up to expectations of being either Miss Ellie Ewing or Miss Ellie Southworth (her maiden name), and could simply be "Ellie," as Clayton often referred to her.  Bel Geddes and Keel had great chemistry together, probably even more natural chemistry than she had with Jim Davis, and the two of them even had a fun storyline in the 1989-90 season, when Miss Ellie became a Jessica Fletcher-type sleuth and solved several mysteries with Clayton as her trusty companion.  This might have been during the waning years of the series, but I liked this storyline because it allowed us to see a different side of Miss Ellie.  After that, Bel Geddes decided to call it a day, retired from acting for good, and did not return for the final season of "Dallas."  The last time we see Miss Ellie, she is getting into a limousine for an extended cruise around the world and this allowed the character to go out on top.  After the years of turmoil Miss Ellie had endured, she had more than earned the vacation.

Nevertheless, Miss Ellie, the reluctant Ewing who originally married Jock during the Great Depression to save her family's ranch, ultimately proved that she understood what it meant to be an Ewing even better than Jock or her sons.  In the 1981 episode, "Waterloo at Southfork," Miss Ellie calls the entire oil cartel, including Cliff Barnes, to the carpet at Ewing Oil offices late at night after learning how they have charged an outrageous amount of interest on loans they have made to JR, who has hocked Ewing Oil assets as part of an effort to regain custody of his son John Ross.  She castigates them for taking advantage of JR's situation by betraying the friendship and trust that their family, especially Jock, has bestowed upon them through the years before announcing that she has intervened in the situation, and that Ewing Oil is now prepared to repay the loans with interest.  Before she does that, however, she issues a stern warning to the cartel that sums up the Ewings better than anybody else could: "We may be wrong, and we may be right, but we're Ewings and we stick together.  That makes us unbeatable!"

2 comments:

  1. I totally agree with you on Bel Geddes.. She was a strong woman. Like they say now she is the glue that held the family together...

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  2. We always loved Barbara, but it's unfair to tag Donna Reed as inadequate. Had thing been different she would have truely expanded and taken the role in different directions. At the very least she was solid caretaker that bridged Barbara's time and allowed Howard Keel to continue to solidify his role at Southfirk.

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