Ray: I have just created something totally illogical.
Annie: That’s what I like about it.
Here is the cliche:
There is a man, who is the star of the film. The man has an idea. Or maybe the man is good at something. He’s an inventor, an athlete, a politician. The man has greatness in him. He might be ahead of his time. Or maybe he is afraid of taking a risk but then he gets a chance to get close to his actual dream. In movie after movie the wife is there to be a wet blanket, to chastise him for dreaming big, and to keep the prosaic concerns of his domestic life at the forefront. She is there to make him think small. “Sure, it’s great that you have this huge idea that will maybe cure cancer/it’s awesome that you have made the Olympic high-jump team even though you only have one leg/I’m so psyched you invented electricity, darling… but don’t forget to take out the garbage, and remember you also have a family to feed.” The wife’s primary concern in movies about great men (and there are exceptions, but we are talking about the cliche here) appears to be to make sure he keeps his feet firmly on the ground, and to discourage him from breaking loose from the pack. Then, at the end, when her husband has triumphed over the odds, she is there to clap for him, energetically, beaming with pride and wifely love. You think you get to bask in his glow now, after you weren’t there for him in his darkest moments, and you hectored him about driving little Tommy to football practice while he slaved over the Bunsen burner? Oh no, lady, you don’t get to be there for him only when it’s good. The woman’s circle of vision is very small and domestically-bound in these movies. She is the classic “idiot”, described by Rebecca West in her masterpiece Black Lamb and Grey Falcon. Her husband isn’t philandering about, or abandoning her, or anything like that: he has something he has to do, something that has nothing to do with her, and Movie Wives, in general, are not down with that.
(This is not necessarily true of movies in the Golden Age, and perhaps the cliche of the hectoring wife came out of the need Hollywood filmmakers felt to create wives who WEREN’T just extensions of their husband’s dreams, who had lives of their own, who could put their foot down, dammit! For me, it doesn’t work, overall, because what ends up happening is that wives become small petty creatures in movies about great men – or, hell, not even great men – I’m looking at you, Apatow – and the way wives assert their independence is through passive-aggressive smoldering at the dishwasher. This is the modern woman? Give me Nora Charles, please. At least Nora Charles appears to enjoy being married.)
I know there are wives like this in real life. I don’t know many of them, but I have certainly seen them in action from time to time. They want their husbands to be a nice little square peg fitting in a nice little square hole, and if the husband breaks out of that role, these wives try to rein him in, control him, or (worse) belittle him. If he dares to dream big, she will hector him about his responsibilities to the family, to the grocery bills. She will not take a risk with him. What does she fear? Unconventionality, mostly. Instability. Making waves. Looking foolish to others. Also, maybe: of letting her man be great. Because what would that mean for her? How would she be able to control that?
But in my experience, wives are not, for the most part, like that. A lot of my male friends are actors, and most of their wives are not actors. So in marrying my male friends, these women have had to not just marry the man – but also marry his dreams. It’s not just actors that have to deal with this but the dynamic just seems to come out in a clearer fashion within artist-marriages, because the dream is, usually, not manifested yet. The dream is an invisible potential that one must invest in. And so the partner, too, has to buy into the big dream, believe in the possibility of that possible future. You have to stand by your man, through the darkest times of this hellish career. If you don’t? Then you have no business marrying an actor. This is not about blowing smoke up someone’s ass, and saying, “Oh my God, you were so great as Hamlet” when they actually sucked. No. But for me, as an artist, it is essential that I believe in my mate’s talent. Whatever it is. In general (and this can be a trap as well) I fall in love with someone’s dream, I fall in love with the passion that far pre-dates me. Passion makes people interesting, and I like people with big consuming interests.
I grew up with a father who was consumed with passion about Irish literature and book collecting. His hobbies did not include typically “manly” things like hunting/fishing/golf. He wasn’t a joiner, he didn’t participate in softball leagues and then go out for brewskis. He had good friends, but outside of his family, it was all about books. Boxes arrived at our house on a weekly basis, and his correspondence with Irish booksellers was voluminous. My dad didn’t spend money on anything (outside his family, that is) except books. That was what he valued. Maybe I get my acceptance of a man’s dreams from him, and how my mother was with him (always accepting, and interested – never heckling him about the money he spent on these books and catalogs). My mother didn’t say, in mixed company, “Well, I would love to have a spa day every month, but you know Bill! – all our money goes to books” (with a big eye-roll to the crowd). This kind of dynamic is quite common (I witness it often in couples), and while it may just be a way to let off stress about the enforced intimacy of marriage, I find it toxic and completely foreign. My mom didn’t do that to my dad in public, and she didn’t do it to him in private, either.
She married the man, so she married the book passion, too.
There is a fine line between supporting someone’s dream which hasn’t come true yet, and enabling someone in going on with some sort of self-destructive delusion. You have to be honest. You have to really believe in someone’s dream. You can’t go into a marriage humoring someone about his dream (a dream which you actually find stupid) and then hope he will see the light under your calm and practical guidance.
And here’s the catch: you can’t just believe in the final result. You have to believe in the journey itself. If you start dating an actor, and then impatiently count the days until that person becomes Sharon Stone, or Russell Crowe, then you are not really falling in love with the dream. The dream exists regardless of the result. It takes real character to believe in that dream when nothing on the outside is encouraging, when there is no sign or affirmation in the “real” world that that dream even exists. Actors are fringe dwellers even when they become celebrities. It is not a respectable business, and it is based on fantasy, even when you have success. That is why people love it. Jack Nicholson talks about the fact that at every wrap party for every film he does, he thinks: “Huh. Wonder where my next job will come from?” It never ends. It’s just the salary that changes.
So wives who get that, and who sign up for the journey, fully realizing that the hoped-for destination may never come, have my deepest admiration. (There are husbands in this position as well, but this is a post about wives.)
It’s about being okay with not knowing how things will turn out.
This is what Field of Dreams is all about. It’s about not knowing the end, about realizing that there is no such thing as a destination, about not knowing why you have to do a certain thing, but following through anyway, even though the majority of people will tell you that you are crazy.
Field of Dreams is, obviously, the story of a man, Ray Kinsella, who builds a baseball field in the middle of nowhere because a voice told him, “If you build it, he will come.” (If you haven’t seen the movie yet, you’re on your own here. You should expect spoilers, and also scorn.) He does what the voice says, thinking that he is building a field for Shoeless Joe Jackson, who will come back from the dead to play there. When the field is built, Shoeless Joe Jackson does show up, and he brings his ghostly friends with him. Ray, who has a wife and child, is thrilled at what he has accomplished. That is, until the voice reappears, ordering him to “Ease his pain.” Thinking he was “done” with the risk-taking part of this crazy dream-like adventure, he torments himself over whose pain he is supposed to ease, until he finally decides that it must be Terrence Mann (a J.D. Salinger-inspired reclusive author). He loops Terrence Mann into his dream, until the voice reappears yet again, saying, “Go the distance.” What distance? This then brings Terrence and Ray to Chisholm Minnesota, to track down a player named “Moonlight” Graham who only played half of one inning 50 years before. Maybe it’s Moonlight Graham’s pain he is supposed to ease? Maybe it wasn’t Shoeless Joe he built the field for? Maybe he built it so that Moonlight Graham could realize his long-dead dream of going up against a big-league pitcher? All along the way, Ray says “yes” to the voice, even when it frustrates him. He reaches blindly into the darkness, looking for the answers. At the end of the film, we realize who “he” is, whose pain Ray had been called to ease. And, of course, the answer was right there in front of us the whole time.
One of the elements that makes Field of Dreams unique and effective is the character of the wife, Annie, played by Amy Madigan. All you need to do is imagine how that role could have been written, and you can see immediately how ubiquitousness cliches are in “wife” parts. She, however, startlingly, in moment after moment, is not a cliche. Her behavior does not fit into a Hollywood box. It’s easier to write cliches, because you don’t have to work as hard, you don’t actually have to try to create a real person. That’s why they’re so common. Sometimes the cliches work; they’re a device, a shorthand, but more often than not, it is lazy. In terms of Amy Madigan’s acting, there are parts of her performance I don’t like (she seems to play directly to the camera a couple of times, perhaps evidence of her theatre background), but none of that ends up mattering – a strange alchemy that is also very rare. Whatever she is bringing to this strange and distinct role ends up working. The movie would not be what it is without her participation.
Ray Kinsella doesn’t know where that voice in the cornfield comes from, or why he has been chosen. But he obeys. He follows the path, he gets frustrated, he is not believed in, he is scorned. But he’s listening to a deeper voice, something else is going on, he can tell. The same is true for Terrence Mann (played by James Earl Jones). Mann initially treats Ray Kinsella like a kook. Mann is angry, defensive, contemptuous. But eventually, Kinsella’s own belief, and his own certainty (even though he can’t explain why) melts Mann’s resistance. Mann realizes that HE has to follow this dream, too.
That’s the thing about big dreamers. Usually, they get other people invested in their dream.
In a more conventional movie, the wife would not be invested in this crazy dream. A baseball field in the cornfield? What? She would give him looks like: Come on, honey. Grow up. She would not get onboard. She wouldn’t be a witch, no, nothing that blatant. Wives in movies like this are never actively hostile. Instead, they are passive-aggressive martyrs, with little worried lines in their foreheads, as they stand at the doorway in their terricloth robes, looking at their husband burning the midnight oil, saying to him gently (but oh, with such pressure): “Honey, you’ve worked long enough. Come to bed.”
Wives in movies like this are always telling their husbands to “come to bed”.
But in Field of Dreams? It doesn’t quite go that way, and to my mind, it is one of the main reasons for the film’s enduring and heartfelt success. It’s not that she doesn’t have real-world concerns. She does. But it doesn’t take that old cliched form. The character has been thought about, hard, and then realized. The writers (W.P. Kinsella – the book, and Phil Alden Robinson – the screenplay) have actually given some thought to the character of the wife. She grew up in Iowa, a farm girl, and then went to Berkeley, a choice that speaks volumes. She doesn’t seem to have been a radical, but more of a peace-and-love type, who loved literature, and believed in things. She was an idealist. She went to Berkeley so she could be at the heart of things. She married her college sweetheart, and, perhaps sensing his own passivity about his life (coming from the unspoken fear that he would one day be like his father), she pushed him to buy a farm back in Iowa. He agreed. They have a rambling farmhouse, and if you look at the production design, you’ll see a cheap framed print of Andy Warhol’s “Marilyn Monroe” on the wall, and also a big poster of John Lennon. Details like that ground this couple in their own shared history, it tells us who they are. Just in terms of script analysis, if you look at the facts of Annie Kinsella’s life, just the facts, it tells you that this is a certain kind of person. She’s already a little unconventional.
But let’s look at how the script helps us see who she is, right from the start.
Ray hears the first voice. He calls out to Annie, “Did you hear that?” “Nope!” she calls back from the porch. He comes inside for dinner, looking shell-shocked. He tells her he heard a voice in the cornfield. She asks, “What’d it say?” “If you build it, he will come.” “If you build what, who will come?” she asks, as she sets the table.
The other scene? The one not filmed? The cliche one? The husband walks in, stunned from hearing the voice. She is busy with dinner, bustling about. She glances at him but doesn’t even notice the look on his face. Or if she does, she’s too busy to mention it, or ask about it. He tries to talk to her, he confides in her what he heard. She brushes it off. “It was the wind, honey. Could you grab me that potholder?” He tries to tell her again. She listens with growing impatience, trying to be nice and supportive, but her mind is clearly on the fishsticks. “You’ve had a long day, Ray … come on, dinner’s ready … I’m sure you heard nothing.” That’s how these scenes normally go in films. And what is the message to our hero in such a scene? The message is: You. Are. Alone. Do not share your dreams with her. She doesn’t get it. You. Are. Alone.
But that’s not the way it goes at all in Field of Dreams.
He hears the voice again, saying, “If you build it, he will come”, and he gets a flash of the baseball field in the corn, and a vision of Shoeless Joe Jackson (Ray Liotta) looking at him from across the space-time continuum. That night, at dinner, they have the following conversation.
Ray: I think I know what “If you build it he will come” means.
Annie: Ooh, why do I think this is not such a good thing.
Ray: I think it might mean that I might build a baseball field out there that Shoeless Joe Jackson will get to come back and play ball again.
Annie: You’re kidding.
Then there’s a cut, and we see Ray and Annie putting their daughter to bed, and they’re talking about Shoeless Joe Jackson (Annie: “He’s the one they suspended, right?”). Ray is describing to her what it was about Shoeless Joe, and why he thinks he needs to build the field. Then there’s another cut and it’s late at night, Annie is asleep, and we hear Ray say to her, “Did you know Babe Ruth copied his swing?” Annie grumbles, “If I did, I forgot it.” Ray says, “It would be so great to see him play again, to let him play.”
Annie gets it then. She reaches out to turn on the light, and sits up, looking at her husband.
Annie: Are you actually thinking of doing this?
Ray: I can’t think of one good reason why I should, but …. I’m 36 years old, I have a wife, a child, and a mortgage and I’m scared to death I’m turning into my father.
There is then a brief pause, and Annie says, “What’s your father got to do with all of this?”
She’s the first one to ask the question. And she keeps asking it throughout the film. It ends up being THE question, and Terrence Mann lights onto it as well during a long nighttime drive back to Iowa, but Annie is the first. She doesn’t psychologize her husband to death, she doesn’t say, “Honey, this is obviously some sort of delayed-grief reaction” … she just asks, simply, “What’s your father got to do with all of this?”
That IS the question, only neither of them know that yet.
In the scene in bed, Ray talks for a while about his father, how he had been old before his time, had never done “one spontaneous thing”. Ray looks at his wife, vulnerable.
Ray: Do you think I’m crazy?
Annie: Yes. But I also think if you really feel you should do this, then you should do it.
We’re only 13 minutes into the film at this point.
Movie Wives usually take way longer to come around.
You may think that Annie’s open-faced support only 13 minutes in might lessen the tension, but that is only because we have been fed on cliches. In “Great Man Follows His Dream” movies, much of the tension comes from the husband trying to convince his woman to support him over the course of the film. He will risk all: his livelihood, his reputation, even his domestic happiness, to follow his dream! Cliche! In Field of Dreams, the tension is there, but it is elsewhere, NOT in the bond between man and wife. Only 13 minutes in, and she gets out of the way. She also (although neither of them realize it yet) speaks to the deeper truth in the situation, the deeper truth in her husband’s heart, the mystery, why he REALLY needs to build the field: “What’s your father got to do with this?”
Once the field is complete, there’s a quiet little scene with Ray and Annie lying on a picnic blanket at night, having a glass of wine. Ray is, again, talking about Shoeless Joe Jackson.
Ray: My father said he saw him years later playing under a madeup name in some 10th rate league in North Carolina. He said he had put on 50 pounds and the spring was gone from his step, but he could still hit. Dad used to say nobody could hit like Shoeless Joe.
There’s a pause, and Annie says, again speaking to the theme of the entire movie: “I think that’s the first time I’ve ever seen you smile when you mentioned your father.”
I don’t think it is accidental that Annie is the one, throughout the script, who keeps bringing up the father-theme. She is listening to her husband on another level, a heart level, a soul level, and so while Ray is listening to a deeper call than the call of everyday humdrum reality, so is she, in terms of her husband’s inner life. This is an intimate relationship. They’re in it together … somehow.
A couple of seasons pass. No sign of anything out in that field.
There is a scene when Ray sits up, late at night in the window seat, staring out at the empty dark ballfield. Annie wakes up and goes to him. She does not say, “Honey, come to bed.” She does not say, “Honey, it’s late – what are you LOOKING for out there?” Instead, she curls up next to him and asks, “Any sign?”
It’s very moving, her casual acceptance of what her husband is going through which, to some extent, does not involve her.
Reality still exists in Field of Dreams, and one cannot plow under acres of corn to build a baseball field and not feel the crunch. Ray and Annie are not looking to be the Wilderness family, living without material possessions and moving off the grid. They both love their farm. Neither of them are devil-may-care risk-takers, either, and the prospect of losing the farm starts to overshadow their lives. Annie and Ray sit at the table, going over their finances.
Amy Madigan’s energy in this brief scene is carefully modulated and constructed. She says, tentatively, “We used up all our savings on that field, Ray.” There is real sadness in her tone. Not scolding or hectoring, like the cliche demands (there is no “I told you this was a crazy idea, Ray!”). But she also doesn’t want to lose the farm: owning the farm in Iowa was HER dream. But the sadness doesn’t seem to come just from the prospect of losing the farm. The sadness seems to come also from the anticipation of her husband’s broken heart at losing the field. She wants her husband to be whole and happy. She doesn’t know what to do, she doesn’t know how to make it right.
It is then that Shoeless Joe appears on the field. Annie’s response, with a huge awe-struck smile, staring out at the mysterious white-clad figure in the darkness: “I’ll put the coffee on. Why don’t you go outside?”
We don’t have to wait until the final 15 minutes of the movie to get the catharsis of Annie’s love and support. A wife’s love doesn’t have to be earned through having your crazy dream made manifest in the real world. Annie believes in the dream before it pays off. Timothy Busfield, who plays Annie’s brother, is the naysayer, the contemptuous one, the practical one, who offers to buy the farm in order to save his sister. The cliched role of the wife is here, in Field of Dreams, given to Timothy Busfield, not Amy Madigan.
She meets Shoeless Joe. She stares at him with an open wondrous smile. She “gets it”. She gets the wondrous thing that is happening here. Ray doesn’t have to fight with her to make her believe. Ray and Annie float in the magic for a time, even with the nagging worry about losing their farm. But then, on a beautiful sunset night, Ray hears the voice again. “Ease his pain.”
Now, because Annie has already shown she can be trusted with her husband’s most wildly weird dreams, Ray goes inside and immediately shares it with her.
Ray: The voice is back.
Annie: (laughing, fixing dinner) Oh, Lord. You don’t have to build a football field now, do you?
Ray: He said Ease his pain.
Annie: Ease whose pain?
Ray: I asked him, he wouldn’t tell me.
Annie: Shoeless Joe’s?
Ray: I don’t think so.
Annie: One of the other players.
Annie: Ray, this is a very non-specific voice you have here and it’s starting to piss me off.
Directly following this exchange, the two go to the PTA meeting where Annie blows up at a prudish woman who wants to ban Terrence Mann’s books.
The conversation about Terrence Mann gets very heated, and Ray, distracted by whose pain he is supposed to ease, puts it together that it must be Terrence Mann. The PTA scene works … and also it doesn’t work. It’s strange. I recognize the problems in the scene … and they’re there for me every time I watch it … and yet it is also effective. There’s the self-congratulatory Baby Boomer attitude present (“If you had experienced just a little bit of the 60s ….” – as though nobody on the planet could have been AS relevant as those on Berkeley Campus in the 60s), and the grandstanding of Annie brings the unlikely crowd (who had been cheering like a bunch of Tea Partiers about the filth and the degradation of our moral values represented by Terrence Mann) to a new understanding, something that I don’t buy. Not with that crowd. Maybe a few holdouts, but all of them? However, and this is important, in terms of script analysis: it gives us not only a clue into Annie’s character, but THE clue, and her overheated passion and exhilaration following the meeting makes her not just a generic supportive wife. She loses her cool in the meeting, she lets it degenerate into a name-calling session, but again, I appreciate that. She’s not perfect. She’s a little bit arrogant. It’s her prerogative, it makes her three-dimensional, too. And her defense of Terrence Mann is what helps Ray to put the pieces together. If the scene had been written to have Ray be the one to stand up and defend Terrence Mann and have an “A-ha” moment in the middle of his speech about free speech, it very well could have been insufferable, and is also not the story that Field of Dreams wants to tell. Annie is in this thing, too. No man is an island.
In the conversation afterwards in the school hallway, Anne is reliving her glory from the meeting, and Ray tries to tell her that he needs to find Terrence Mann. Annie says one of my favorite lines in the film, “Look, he’s my favorite writer too. But what’s Terrence Mann got to do with baseball?”
Yet again, it’s the right question to ask. It is the perfect mixture of pushing her husband to go deeper, while also keeping her feet on the ground. When Ray tells her that he thinks he has to go to Boston to take Terrence Mann to a baseball game, Annie says, “This is too much. Now look, I understand your need to prove to yourself and the world that you are not turning into your father, but you’ve done it. You believed in the magic, it happened, isn’t that enough?”
Again, she’s speaking right into the theme of the movie. Her fears are real, and the movie doesn’t scorn them either. She is not the wet blanket wife, she is trying to hold stuff together while her husband goes where he needs to go. But when she realizes that she and her husband had the same dream on the same night (that Ray took Mann to a baseball game at Fenway), her response is automatic and exhilarated, “I’ll help you pack.”
Ray goes off on his mad road trip across the country, he doesn’t know why, he doesn’t even know where. Meanwhile, she stays home, dealing with some serious issues with the bank. They are going to lose the farm. We see shots of her, talking with Ray on the phone, and then going back into the dining room where a bunch of bank manager types sit grimly, waiting for her. There are serious black clouds hovering over this Field of Dreams of her husband’s. She is not a perfect woman. She is not a Pollyanna. When faced with the seriousness of the situation, her response is not a sunny, “Oh, it’s okay – My husband has big dreams!! I BELIEVE IN HIM!” No, it’s tougher than that. Belief is not easy. Belief does not come cheap. It takes work. And it’s during those black-cloud times that it is most important to maintain the belief in someone else’s dream, in someone else’s greatness. It is the hardest thing in the world to achieve.
Annie, unlike other movie wives, is not concerned with the status quo. The townsfolk think her husband is losing his mind, because of the baseball field. But does she care? No. There she sits, in the bleechers, watching Shoeless Joe and all the other dead players playing a game, and she’s screaming: “BATTAH BATTAH BATTAH”, she’s yelling at the Ump, she’s totally into it.
She gets that her husband is onto something with this field. She doesn’t know what it is yet. He doesn’t know what it is yet. But it is worth believing in. It is worth succumbing to the uncertainty of it all, the fear, the embarrassment, because they know that this dream is worth believing in. That something is going ON out in that field, and they do not want to get in the way of it, whatever it may be.
A similar recent film that handles the wife in an interesting manner is The Rookie. It’s not so much that she blindly leaps forward with him. She has her own stuff to go through. Fears he will hurt himself again, having been through that with him before, money worries, all that. But in a quiet moment of revelation, standing over her sleeping son, she realizes: “What message will I be giving my child, if my husband doesn’t go for this?” From that moment on, there is no turning back for this “strong Texas woman” (played by Australian actress Rachel Griffiths), and she’s in it with him. It’s not easy. But she invests in the weird dream.
It seems like writers and directors don’t know what to do with wives in movies such as these, and so they resort to cliches, received interpretations, formed from lazy assumptions. I can practically hear the script meetings: “Okay, so he’s a great man, and he’s got a great opportunity, but we’ve got some chances for a couple of good fight scenes with his wife – when she wants him to spend more time with the family …”
Perhaps it comes out of a misguided attempt to give the woman some “oomph”, to not make her too “retro” (God forbid), to show that she has a soul of her own. But what kind of soul does she have if she tries to hold her husband back, and then, at the last moment, basks in his glow? His pursuit of greatness doesn’t mean she isn’t great as well. As a matter of fact, it means the opposite. Why are we here on this planet, if not to help each other?
But Field of Dreams doesn’t go that path. And it is certainly not a film devoid of conflict, or tension. It’s just that she doesn’t fit into that customary role. She doesn’t play interference with his dream. It’s not written that way, and Madigan doesn’t play it that way.
Annie looks at her husband, she gives him a beaming freckled smile, she openly accepts that Shoeless Joe is hanging out in her backyard, and ghosts are running across her lawn wearing old-timer baseball uniforms, and she loves it all. It is evidence of her husband’s awesome gift, for whatever it is, for creation, for sheer belief … and when she smiles at her husband like that, he knows that he is not alone.
In Field of Dreams, Annie gets to be a dreamer, too.