Why are so few films set in CT?

In her new book from Lyons Press, actress Illeana Douglas deftly chronicles a fictionally neglected state in “Connecticut in the Movies: From Dream Houses to Dark Suburbia.” Full of deep cuts and an entire section dedicated to Yale University making brief appearances in film — Indiana Jones lectures at a fictional version of the college, but we all know globetrotting Indy is a New Jersey man — it becomes clear that a book with the same attention to minor detail about New York or Boston movies would have to be three times as long.

Why does Connecticut, a state in such close proximity to New York City — in the heart of New England, a region where Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edgar Allen Poe, Louisa May Alcott and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow helped solidify American fiction — have so little to show for its cultural canon? Even Hartford’s crowning historical site, The Mark Twain House and Museum, celebrates an author whose best-known masterpieces are set in Missouri, waxing on “half-forgotten Southern intonations and elisions.”

In terms of material to adapt, Yale does not have its alum-penned collegiate novel to hold up next to “This Side of Paradise” (Princeton), “Love Story” (Harvard), or “The Group” (Vassar). Neither has Connecticut had its populist hometown laureate mining its culture for the masses like Stephen King did for Maine or John Irving for New Hampshire. Certainly, the most famous piece of fiction set in Connecticut is Amy Sherman-Pallidino’s television series “Gilmore Girls,” inspired by the Californian writer’s brief visit to Washington, Conn. Set in an imaginary Litchfield County-type town filmed on a studio set in Los Angeles, the robust ensemble of verbose and anxiety-inducing residents — class-conscious, parochial meddlers — are satirically rendered as they belligerently assault each other’s character in the echo chamber of weekly town ordinance meetings. Small-town Connecticut, Sherman-Pallidino’s writing suggests with a gleeful smirk, is no place for privacy. Is it a place for happiness?

The magnum opus of literary Connecticut fiction is Richard Yates’ largely forgotten “Revolutionary Road,” the author’s debut that was a finalist for the 1962 National Book Award. Vivisecting the underbelly of suburban conformity, Yates’ bitter marital plummet into empty adultery and emotional paralysis served as the chief inspiration for Matthew Weiner’s Emmy-winning series, “Mad Men.” However, in the 1960s-set show, the frigid central family is placed in Ossining, N.Y, and Connecticut plays a minor role much later when a supporting character’s nightly commute to Cos Cob serves as the setting for an extramarital affair with a troubled housewife that ends with her undergoing electric shock therapy.

Photo courtesy of MoviestillsDB

Julianne Moore in "Far From Heaven"

In examining the 2008 film adaptation of “Revolutionary Road,” along with Ang Lee’s “The Ice Storm” and Todd Haynes’ “Far From Heaven,” Douglas writes of the Connecticut period pieces: “Sometimes the dark storylines about adultery, insanity, abortion, alcoholism, racism, homosexuality, and wife-swapping are filmed so elegantly, or set against such sumptuous production values… that the savagery is muted by the beauty of the sets and photography. Women who live in modern glass houses or well-appointed mansions are imprisoned by circumstances they cannot escape, but their hair is amazing!” Key, she points out, is though each of these stories is dripping in destructive sexual activity, “There is no joy in it.”

More contemporary depictions of Connecticut can be seen in Jonathan Demme’s 2008 drama “Rachel Getting Married” and the 2005 Diane Keaton-led Christmas film “The Family Stone,” both caustic descents into dysfunction as an offputting outsider (Anne Hathaway, the black-sheep sister; Sarah Jessica Parker, a potential daughter-in-law) intrudes on a horrible family of smug liberals, resulting in a horrific time. Douglas quotes “Rachel” screenwriter Jenny Lumet (daughter of director Sidney Lumet) as barely apologizing for her indictment, “Sorry if you’re from Connecticut, but, ‘ech.’”

Perhaps the state’s proximity to Manhattan and its commuter railway — all the appealing traits a realtor would point out — has damned its fictional portrayal. Connecticut has become media shorthand for a stultifying caucasian bubble, a resting place for city men to dump their wives and children, a claustrophobic limbo for couples with enough money to own a home but not enough internal excitement to hack it in the big city. No one grows up in Fairfield County in the movies; it is a place you go when you want to feel rich.

This stereotype of Connecticut is used to opposite effects in the 1945 romantic comedy “Christmas in Connecticut” and in the 1975 and 2004 comedy/horror adaptations of “The Stepford Wives.” In the Christmastime crowd-pleaser, Barbara Stanwyck is a single Manhattan writer who uses the imagery of a fabricated Connecticut farm in her weekly column to sand off her rough edges and lull her readers with a placating false persona of a wedded homemaker. In “The Stepford Wives,” based on the novel by “Rosemary’s Baby” author Ira Levin, New York wives are moved to Fairfield County and brainwashed into conformity — becoming docile, serving homemakers.

Douglas devotes a good deal to the lush summer palette of 1986’s “The Swimmer,” starring Burt Lancaster and directed by Eleanor and Frank Perry (the late uncle to pop singer Katy Perry). The setting of the film was moved to Westport, Conn., by the suggestion of the directing team, but the short story published in a 1964 issue of The New Yorker by John Cheever focused its criticism on New York’s Westchester County. Like Don Draper in "Mad Men," Cheever spent his later life in Ossining. The preeminent anthropologist of WASP culture never wrote about Connecticut, targeting instead the upper-middle class peculiarities of New York’s Upper East Side and Greenwich Village and the suburbs of Westchester. That Cheever’s stories are synonymous with Anglo-Protestant Connecticut likely speaks more to the city’s influence on the state than its unique cultural identity. There are still plenty of Connecticut stories to be told, true of any American state, and the small canon of films and novels should not be a deterrent to writers but an open invitation to explore undocumented territory.

Douglas will discuss her book at Kent Memorial Library on Saturday, Jan. 20, at 2 p.m.

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