by Christine Merser
When I learned that my cohort and fellow film lover Beth Levison, who sat on a panel with me and stayed in touch, produced the documentary short film “The Martha Mitchell Effect,” I immediately emailed her, asking for early access. (It’s on Netflix now.) I watched the Julia Roberts series about Martha Mitchell but found it difficult to appreciate the historical context and Martha’s courage, as I was distracted by her hysterical portrayal of Martha without enough of the context. It was all Julia flash and none of the “truth be told.” Now, after having watched “The Martha Mitchell Effect,” which has been nominated for an Academy Award, I believe it should be required viewing for students and a topic of discussion for women at home.
Let’s back up just a bit. I have written for and spoken on Screen Thoughts’ vlog and podcast about my disappointment with the fact that some writers tend to pair strong, capable, brilliant women with crazy. I have lamented that perhaps that’s what makes them palatable to those charting the course of programming. Take, for example, Claire Danes in “Homeland.” Does she really need to struggle with bipolar disorder to be believable? Or palatable? The female characters in the first episodes of “The West Wing” are all introduced as buffoons or “off” in one way or another. Although C.J. Cregg, played brilliantly by Allison Janney, later becomes one of the finest female characters on screen, she is initially introduced to us in a scene where she falls off a treadmill while coming on to the man next to her. And then there’s Donna. We learn that she got her job as Josh Lyman’s top supporter and enabler after being dumped by her boyfriend, whom she had supported through med school.
All the Sorkin women have personality flaws, each and every one, and I sort of forgive him because they all grow into the kind of woman I can only dream of becoming, but initially, they seem ridiculous. While I think he writes some of the finest dialogue there is, the personality flaws of his female characters suggest a problematic tendency in his character creation, which is common in male-created characters, in my female based opinion. Such flaws do not accurately reflect the standards society uses to evaluate a woman’s credibility and ability to be taken seriously. Greta Gerwig never did this in her excellent version of “Little Women,” and while Nancy Meyers does it to the men in her films, her women’s flaws never overshadow their humanity, cleverness, or intelligence.
Watching this brilliant and important film, I had an epiphany: Martha irritated me at the time, but she was real. Perhaps at a time when women were largely excluded from the political spotlight, it was precisely because of her 'crazy' that we were able to hear her message. The only reason they gave her the pulpit was because of the 'crazy' around her presentation. Men are perhaps not as threatened if the women have those kind of shortcomings? Just a thought. Back to the review.
The film shows exactly why Martha was successful with exposing that which had a lot of power behind covering it up, and the resulting attacks on her, even by her own family, ruined much of her life. It appears she was willing to pay the price to speak her truth. Gotta love her for that. Thank God Liz Cheney didn't need to pull a Marjorie Taylor Greene act to be covered by the press. Have we come a long way?
Yes, Martha was an alcoholic. She was loud and ostentatious. The film has all that for us to witness from archives I had no idea existed. Has it changed? I have three words. Marjorie Taylor Greene. Would she have center stage without the white boa and outrageous attacks?
Let's also remember, without Martha, despite the fine work of Woodward and Bernstein, Nixon would not have resigned. No no, that's not a question. Nixon acknowledges it on tape. And, can we discuss the physical restraint and assault of Martha by the Secret Service at the instruction of her husband? And she still didn't stop telling the truth. Gives new meaning to Maya Angelou's Still I Rise.
We see on the screen that Martha was brilliant. Really smart. She figured out things that people more involved than she did not. She was articulate. She could be winning and people liked being around her. And she had a stronger sense of self and more moral fiber than anyone else during that period of time. She is my new hero. Maybe a statue somewhere in the south? Richmond Virginia Square maybe? To replace General Lee on rearing horseback that was finally removed?
This searing documentary clearly, cleverly, and believably portrays what was done to her by her husband, the administration, and — in the end — the press and we, the people, and how she navigated the challenges that came her way.
Oh, and good luck to my friend, Beth and everyone who got this in the archives of history where it should have a front row place forever.
My dad was a big supporter of Nixon. The board chair of his company, George Cook, had a son who briefly served in the administration until he resigned under questionable circumstances. Twice, on trips to D.C., I met Martha Mitchell — once at an event and once at a dinner party. She was the brightest light in the room. She was very kind to me, a college student who had nothing to offer her. She smiled and asked me about myself, and I truly believe she listened to what people had to say, unlike everyone else in the room. In today’s terminology, she was “likable.”
Despite all this, I never thought about her again after the dust settled all those years ago until I saw “The Martha Mitchell Effect.” And that’s why I consider this to be such an important film. It needs to be shown in classes that cover the history of women and our quest for power. It is important for mothers and daughters to watch and discuss this film in order to gain a deeper understanding of what it takes to be heard and the potential pitfalls of compromising oneself in the process, which may not serve one well in the long term. Nowhere else can you find a better illustration of the fact that during Martha’s time, a woman without a shiny, flashy, sometimes ridiculous demeanor would never have had a platform from which to speak. While her personality may have afforded her a megaphone, the film also reveals that she was the only one with the courage to risk everything to speak and act according to her principles.