The anti-hero in popular culture is fairly common.
The anti-heroine, not so much.
One usually has to reach into the past to find an honest-to-goodness anti-heroine, and you’ll still only come up with a few: William Makepeace Thackery’s Becky Sharp, Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders, Margaret Mitchell’s Scarlett O’Hara.
The anti-heroine, Amber St. Clair, of the 1944 novel and 1947 film adaptation Forever Amber owes a lot to these predecessors.
O.K., let’s face it: the story flat-out rips off a lot from those previous characters and novels. Written by Katherine Winsor, the novel is a steamy (for its time) affair. Like Scarlett O’Hara, Amber sustains a love for a man who doesn’t love her back. Like Becky Sharp and Moll Flanders, she sleeps and marries her way out of poverty. Also like Flanders, her generosity with her charms MAY have resulted in a wee bit of inadvertent incest.
Winsor was very interested in history and exhaustively researched the period. So in spite of its salacious tone, the story also conveys a very realistic portrait of the time and place.
Our (anti) heroine (Linda Darnell) is born as the English Civil War ends. Abandoned as a baby with a Puritan family, she escapes an enforced marriage by running away with a displaced aristocrat named Bruce Carlton (Cornel Wilde). She soon finds herself pregnant and abandoned. On her own, she manages to rise from a stint in prison to fame as an actress, to a respectable marriage and later a title–eventually landing in the court of Charles II as his mistress.
All through her travails, she remains obsessed with her first lover, but this never interferes with her ruthless climb to the top of English society.
The novel, which was much more explicit before editors toned it down, still shocked and titillated readers of the day, especially women. (It’s even a joke in a Warner Bros. cartoon, Home Tweet Home.)
Not surprisingly, Hollywood saw an opportunity to replicate the success of Gone with the Wind. A movie adaptation was soon in the works at 20th Century Fox, in spite of the fact that the Hays office had already condemned the novel. Peggy Cummins was originally cast in the title role, but was replaced by Linda Darnell. John M. Stahl started directing the film, but he, too, was replaced, by Otto Preminger.
The film was one of the most expensive of its time (the initial $4.5 million budget eventually inflated to $6 million). Although it was a box-office hit, it wasn’t much of a critical success.
It’s not hard to see why. At close to a two and a half hour running time, it’s way too long. That might have been a way they tried to make it like Gone with the Wind, but Forever Amber has less of an epic feel and doesn’t deserve the extra running time. The Restoration period has never filmed that well–for one thing, the male characters, all with the same long hair style and mustache, look incredibly similar. Sometimes it’s easy to mix up Amber’s many lovers and admirers. (Possibly someone realized this, because Cornel Wilde remains clean-shaven throughout most of the movie.)
This movie does have a few things going for it–Darnell is lovely, as always. She’s one of the few actresses who could credibly play both soft and hard female characters. George Sanders does a short but delicious turn as Charles II. (He’s perfect when he calls to his dogs every time he leaves a room with, “Come, children.”) In spite of the unfortunate male hair choices of the period, the lush production is gorgeous to look at.
Having read the book not that long ago, I would say a major problem was the constraints from the Hays Code. Not necessarily the lack of explicit sexual scenes, but in the way the characters are toned down. Amber is a horrendous person in the book, and yet she’s the protagonist, and a refreshing one at that.
What does carry over from book to film is Amber’s remarkable force of will. In spite of being done wrong by men more than once, she still has agency, driving the plot with her own choices and actions. She ditches her new husband on their wedding day to run to Bruce, then risks her own life and to tend to him when he is struck down by the plague. That this is both a heroic and selfish act gives her character some depth.
Bruce in both the book and the movie is sort of a Restoration Period Mr. Big, floating in and out of Amber’s life at the most inopportune times. He knows perfectly well she has an unhealthy obsession with him but never breaks with her completely, though in the movie he does move on from her after he marries. (In the book he still can’t let her go.) In the movie, he gets a bit of redemption from the love of a good woman–bleh. It’s more interesting that he’s a consistent rotter in the book.
Some of the more salacious tidbits in the book are left out, no doubt because of the Hays Code: for instance, she has several abortions, only carrying to term children she is certain were fathered by Bruce.
The most torrid bit is certainly cut–there’s a strong implication in the book that the elderly aristocrat she marries for his title is actually her biological father. (Though one of my favorite scenes in the movie is when she tells the controlling SOB that she thought his pride had dried up years ago–along with the rest of him. Heh.)
Otto Preminger supposedly hated the book, which may be another reason why the movie didn’t become a beloved historical drama like Gone with the Wind.
But it is one of the rare instances in film of a true anti-heroine. Amber is a woman who doesn’t apologize for her actions, and finds ways to flourish in a society that rigs the game against her. On that level, I enjoy it very much.