“Well, it looks like we’re going to have another sunny day – high 72, low 72, and not a cloud in the sky.” — TV Weatherman
Pleasantville (1998) is a comedy-drama written and directed by Gary Ross. It tells the story of twins, David (Tobey Maguire) and Jennifer (Reese Witherspoon), who are magically transported into the black-and-white world of Pleasantville, a 1950s television show. While attempting to fit in until they can find a way back, their real-world experiences open the eyes of the citizens of Pleasantville to the many possibilities in life. The film was nominated for three Academy Awards.
Pleasantville is a clever commentary on the seemingly perfect lives portrayed in family sitcoms back in the 1950s, like Leave it to Beaver and Father Knows Best. These shows established and perpetuated stereotypes about what an American nuclear family should be like: a dominant and working father, a house-wife mother who cooks and cleans, and children going to school, raised to fill those same gender and parental roles when they reach adulthood. With Pleasantville, Ross rebukes those stereotypes in an artistic and unique way. When the children are transported to Pleasantville, they become Bud and Mary-Sue, the children of George Parker (William H. Macy) and Betty Parker (Joan Allen). Not only do they assume new identities, they become stripped of color just like the rest of Pleasantville. Throughout the film, citizens of Pleasantville are exposed to new experiences and emotions, and color slowly engulfs the town.
Ross’ screenplay is very smart, for about the first two thirds of the film. Color appears in Pleasantville when someone experiences an emotion that lands somewhere outside the pleasant, happy-medium range in the emotional spectrum. The first splash of color is a red rose after Mary-Sue and Skip (Paul Walker) have sex. He’s experienced something quite outside his small bubble of emotional experience. Not only do accents of color among a mostly black-and-white shot look aesthetically pleasant, the intensification of color as the film progresses is a visual marker for the intellectual and emotional progression that the townsfolk of Pleasantville are experiencing. In our real life, emotional growth like that cannot be measured or seen in such an obvious way as it is in Pleasantville. While at first it can be confusing or shameful for some, soon color becomes a badge of honor for those who have experienced something greater than the “perfect” life that Pleasantville has to offer. The progression of color is also a measure of character development. Everybody in Pleasantville is a flat character, predictable and uninteresting, but as they break away from their stereotypes, they become round characters, with burgeoning emotional ranges and unpredictability — just like all the people of the “real world”.
The most intriguing character is Betty Parker. She’s the classic housewife, who cleans the house, rushes the children off to school, and has dinner on the table when her husband is home from work. After a very candid conversation with Mary-Sue about what happens up at Lover’s Lane, Betty’s curiosity is sparked. Doubting her husband’s willingness to engage in any activity like that, she takes to the bathtub one night. What follows is an incredible scene. She’s pleasuring herself in the bathtub, which is not only giving her physical pleasure but also knocking down the mental walls around the limited life she had been living thus far. Once she climaxes, the tree outside bursts into flame — paralleling the mental and physical explosion she has just experienced. Her curiosity doesn’t stop there. She ends up leaving her husband to explore the feelings she has for Bill Johnson (Jeff Daniels), owner of the soda fountain in town. He’s an aspiring painter, and they both explore curiosities of art, intimacy, and freedom with each other. Joan Allen plays Betty sensitively, with a restricted beauty. She’s a beautiful woman, though she’s never thought of herself that way, but suddenly she is a full-fledged woman with assets and needs. She’s scared t0 be feeling this way, and the scene where Bud/David coats her up with make-up so that her husband won’t realize she’s gained color is performed subtly and elegantly. Similarly, the scene where Bill removes the make-up from her face to expose her color is evocative yet hesitant. She holds a strong pose, tense with fear and uncertainty, but she loosens up and lets herself breath in a little deeper with each touch from Bill. The camera zooms into her face in these scenes, which makes us feel like we’re intimately close to her. It’s exciting and Allen performs beautifully.
The storyline as the colors in the town intensify is engaging and compelling, but it feels as if the writers had to just go with what happened next. The film forges ahead into something not so innovative. The black-and-white citizens begin to react in fear towards the colored citizens, harking back to civil rights movements and times of oppression of the past. The only difference is that David/Bud can stimulate an intense emotional reaction from black-and-white persons and flush them with color, which also immediately flushes them with understanding — leading to a conveniently harmonious end to the conflict.
Ross’ composition of scenes in the film is quite thoughtful. David’s and Jennifer’s house is cluttered and messy, but there’s a warmth to it. The soft lights make it homey; it’s lived in and most people can relate to the untidy house. As the siblings are transported to Pleasantville, the difference could not be more stark. The Parkers’ house is pristine and clean, too put together. There’s no warmth in their house; it feels more like a sterilized lab than a cozy home. Factor in the absence of color, and Pleasantville feels quite alien to real life.
Pleasantville is a thoughtful and artistic criticism of the pleasant yet perfectly unsustainable life of the 1950s television stereotypes. Through the exquisite use of color, Ross pokes fun at the simplicity of Pleasantville while also picking apart its one-dimensional stereotypes. Once David is sent back to reality, he has an unusually frank conversation with his mother (Jane Kaczmarek), where she complains about how her life isn’t supposed to be “this”. He wipes the smudged mascara from her eyes and says: “It’s not supposed to be anything”. In a world filled with rich colors, life can be anything you will it to be.