Viet Nam Generation Journal & Newsletter
Film: Mom's In Nam
Cynthia Fuchs, English & Film Studies, George Mason University
By proclaiming recent U.S. history a sequence of major wars, Mark Rydall's For the Boys makes a certain statement. It's not an incisive, angry, or trenchant statement. Nor is it a rally round, gun's up statement. Rather, it's recuperative, mushy-headed, and conciliatory, caught in that nebulous nonspace which supports the "boys" but wonders a little about what they're doing (and not because they might kill people, of course, but because they might get killed). Tracing a national evolution from World War II to Korea to Viet Nam through Gulf-War-colored glasses, For the Boys comes up with this revelation: war's hell but hey, it builds character.
The main character in this movie is in fact not the All-American warrior, but his All-American Mom, tenuously founded, but well-shellacked. After the opening credits are spread over a series of Old Glory close-ups, star and executive producer Bette Midler appears as Dixie Leonard, a retired song'n'comedy babe, now buried under mounds of rubber face makeup. The flashback structure that follows underlines the film's function as vanity production: Dixie /Bette does it all. Embodying decades of U.S. history, she loses her husband to WWII, her career to the Cold War (via blacklisting), and her son to the Viet Nam War.
Which is not to say that she loses her self-righteous spunk. As she recounts her exalted life story for the reverent young man (Arye Gross) sent to escort her to an awards ceremony for her ex-partner, Eddie Sparks (James Caan), Dixie's heartwarming gumption seems to ooze beyond the suddenly inadequate screen frame. Add to this her mausoleum-like house, gravelly voice, and appalling Enemy Mine lizard-face makeup, and Dixie seems more and more like a sci-fi monster glad for the chance to tell its side of the story.
Indeed, as this ostensibly anti-war movie has it, Dixie is the resident alien in the manly world of patriotic combat. Made by Midler's All-Girl Productions, For the Boys implies that what look like increasing moral complexities can be reduced to a question of sexual difference: boys like war, girls don't (or, as Midler puts it in an interview, "I think women are just the greatest creatures. They instinctively understand everything"). Homebody-at-heart Dixie resents that men get killed overseas; flamboyant schmoozer Eddie gets into the be-all-you-can-be hoopla.
Ambitious Dixie leaves her young son Danny to join Eddie mid-tour near London during WWII. He wears a bad wig and rolls his eyes a lot; she wears an officer's jacket and heels, and flutters her hands a lot. It's a perfect match. She also out-trashes him verbally, then launches into spectacular and brash boogiewoogie-ish schtick. Her polished performance and clean-cut kid audience sustain the myth of the Second World War as uncomplicated straight-shooter. If only all wars could be like this.
But even WWII quickly becomes fraught in this increasingly schizophrenic movie. Eddie serves as a literal and metaphorical pimp, a self-promoter whose career depends on USO extravaganzas. During a show for troops in North Africa (which looks much like Utah here), he directs his giggly "friend" Vicki, a miniskirted contortionist dancer, to some U.S. general's tent, then arranges for Dixie's husband to be flown in, so that the couple's reunion is part of the show. That the husband is played by Full Metal Jacket' s Cowboy (Arliss Howard) resonates uncomfortably alongside his offscreen death (registered by Dixie's polite grief in the obligatory Arlington Cemetery scene). The "dead meat" scenario is, after all, the shape of things to come.
Next war up is Korea, where the increasing moral consternation appears as onscreen corpses. The set-up for this confusion comes when, surrounded by starving Koreans (aka "gooks"), Dixie's uncle Art (George Segal) mouths off to a reporter about U.S. policy: "Lady," he says, "This whole war's a joke." Eddie won't tolerate such PR heresy, and with their conflict the movie seems on the verge of examining substantive issues like responsibilities, motivations, economies, and ethics. Not to worry. This potential glitch leads directly (within the film's logic) to Dixie and Eddie's firsthand experience of troop death, securing audience sympathy and eliding politics. Caught in rain and mud, she holds a soldier's hand as he spurts blood all over her and then dies. This scene in turn leads to a night of supposedly compassionate sex between the principle players. Predictably, in the morning Eddie gazes out the tent door and talks about his wife and family (he's such a heel) while "tough broad" Dixie enacts noble cover-her-breasts anguish: "A bunch a guys got killed and we got laid."
Cut to peacetime. Their conflict continues, as the be-daughtered Eddie covets Dixie's son. While they become fifties' television stars (a la Lucy and Ricky), Danny becomes their battleground: Eddie tells him how to rate brunettes over blonds, and Dixie wrings her hands over the boy's lack of formal education. As if moved by cosmic forces, Danny grows up to be a Citadel valedictorian who goes to Viet Nam.
To follow him there, the movie must go through considerable narrative convolutions. Dixie decides never to speak to Eddie again when he fires her Uncle Art as a blacklisted Commie. Danny takes Eddie's side. But Dixie caves in when Mr. USO arranges for a last tour to Southeast Asia. Miraculously performing at Danny's base camp (where the troops play ball with little Vietnamese kids), Dixie soothes a group of savage GIs by saying stuff like "Shut the fuck up," singing a John Lennon song ("In My Life"), and dancing with a black guy.
As this alarming display of American motherhood suggests, the film is irrecoverably impervious to sense. Read: anything goes. The scene leads to the inevitable cry of "Incoming!" and the ultimate hysterical specter: a son dying in his mother's arms in Viet Nam.
This gruesomely slo-mo image doesn't quite conclude For the Boys ' ideological trajectory, however. If the sobbing Dixie-in-pietá-mode incarnates the horror of war, the glory of it gets a last shot in the film's final scenes. She agrees to go to Eddie's ceremony, eventually forgiving him because he cries onstage about Danny's death. The lost son unites everyone into a kind of Human Condition and politics are (conveniently) superfluous when Dixie joins Eddie on yet another flag-bedecked stage.
Obscuring its own irony, the film thus moves from WWII to the Gulf War, which reinstates jingoistic parading as a means of self-definition. And if the Gulf is unmentioned, such absence seems merely a plot device: Dixie's maternal tragedy is made clearer by Viet Nam than by the Highway of Death. Finally ascending as the ur-mother, she shares the stage with the enfeebled Eddie and dancing Asians.
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