Edward Hopper’s Usherette

From David Thomson’s The Whole Equation: A History of Hollywood:

She is not watching the movie. She is not that kind of usherette bursting to get into pictures, a would-be actress studying every tiny gesture on the screen. No, she has her own private movie running, and maybe she is an usherette because in that job you have time to sink into your own thoughts, time to go unnoticed.

Not that she is anonymous or insignificant. Far from it. She’d be tall, I think, even without those high-heeled sandals with their sexy straps. And how does light get to her arched white feet? You can see within those dark blue slacks that she has legs all the way up, a cinched waist and the heave of breasts, as well as that corn-colored hair Doris Day had at Warner Brothers in the fifties, that drops on her shoulders like a wave. And there is light enough to pick out one side of her face – the bone-like flash of wrist and palm. I never saw skin so luminous in a functioning movie house – no, not even one glimpse of pale thigh on a back-row seat in the inadvertent swing of a south London usherette’s touch. This girl has such a light strapped to her left wrist; you can see it tucked under the right elbow, thrust up to sustain the head so full of sadness or rapture.

Why watch the movie when that girl is standing there? Is that what the painting is about? Is it Hopper’s way of saying that within the crowded, half-awake daydreaming of a packed theater, there may be some pressing loneliness or melancholy, one beautiful girl who doesn’t buy the escape of the screen? Yes, that thought is there for sure: Hopper believed in the lonely crowd and urban solitude. He hoped to find drama there, just as his piercing eyes see her feet – put the light where the money (or the sexiness) is. But there’s something else going on which has to do with the eternal difficulty in working out what is on the screen.

I mean, this is 1939, so you can propose that the picture playing is something from that famously golden year. Is it Dark Victory, Love Affair, Wuthering Heights? I can believe this girl would like those movies and know them well enough so that she could lean against a wall – Hopper is so alert to tiredness – and just listen to its dense soundtrack. I think her eyes are closed – but maybe that’s just me – the better to encourage the process of digestion or absorption.

There, that is getting close to something, I think. As I look at the painting I feel myself absorbing its atmosphere, yet being absorbed, so that I wonder if the girl isn’t dreaming me as I watch her. Like “Madeleine” in Vertigo, declining to notice Scotty, but falling in love with him a little even as he comes under her spell? Don’t we fall in love with those who look at us with yearning?

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2 Responses to Edward Hopper’s Usherette

  1. justjack says:

    Edward Hopper, Andrew Wyeth, and Winslow Homer are maybe my three favorite artists, and I think all three have a very uncertain emotional relationship to the people in their paintings.

    Growing up in Chadds Ford, PA, I have an especial relationship with Wyeth in particular, and indeed with his whole artist clan; the Wyeth Museum (with its permanent collection of NC’s, Andrews, Jamies, and Carolyns) was across the street from my elementary school, and every winter I lived in the colors of Andrew’s palette.

    But I never understood until relatively recently how profoundly surreal Andrew’s paintings were. Despite their appearance, they are in fact not realistic , but are dreamlike, literally fantastic, explorations into the subconscious mind.

    This was the first thing I thought about after reading the first few lines of your post from David Thomson’s book.

    I have a million thoughts all at once being spurred by this post, and I can’t make any logical sense of them.

    Hopper’s females are perhaps the sexiest painted figures in the entire painted canon, as far as I am concerned. But because of the way he likes to frame his people through windows and doorways, I often have a guilty feeling of peeping-tom-ness, that brings me close to a sensation of seeing things I’m not supposed to see. This usherette’s reverie feels awfully private to me, and I’m a little embarassed to see her this way.

    The colors are indeed bright in the painting at hand. I guess we could see it as brighter than it is, because our eyes have gotten used to the darkness of the theater, and that one wall sconce by the usherette’s head is actually the only real light source in the vicinity.

    It’s almost like a split screen, isn’t it? I could imagine the usherette’s reveries are the source of the silver screen images; she’s the one who is projecting the story on to the screen.

    Love her padded shoulders.

    I was poking around the internet after reading your post, and found a reference to the possibility that this painting, “New York Movie,” was the inspiration for the look of Sam Mendes’ “Road To Perdition.”

    My mom, who looks nothing like the usherette, nevertheless used to frequently strike this same pose, adding to it a slow, deliberate, sad shake of the head. It was her way of telling us, “I never imagined my life would have come to this, and I don’t care if you know it.” Thanks, mom.

    Not long ago I saw on TCM a 1938 flick called “Hold That Kiss,” starring Dennis O’Keefe, Maureen O’Sullivan, Mickey Rooney, Ruth Hussey (yay!), Edward Brophy, and Jessie Ralph. Sweet romcom about two working stiffs just getting by during the Depression, who through a series of misunderstandings wind up thinking that the other is from high society. In the movie, Maureen has these three wacky brothers, one of whom is an usher in a movie house.

    This painting here made me think of that movie, because the ushers always had to dress up in costumes related to the picture now showing (foreign legion uniform, doctor’s whites, etc). The joke was that the manager decided to book a movie only if he liked how his ushers looked in the associated costume. Man, going to the pictures sure was a different experience back then, wasn’t it?

  2. phil says:

    Perhaps she’s softly reciting the dialogue, imagining herself on screen.
    And then I lose my footing and stumble down the steps shattering her solitude.
    I tell ya…vertigo is no fun.

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