Picnic is all about sex. It can never talk about being all about sex because it’s from 1956 and it’s set in small-town Kansas anyway and no one in small-town Kansas was going to be talking about sex. Not when schoolteachers like Rosalind Russell are trying to ban books for even hinting at sex.
But it’s all about sex.
Mostly it’s about women wanting to have sex with William Holden, who’s a drifter come to town looking to get a job as an executive from his old college buddy Cliff Robertson. Holden was thirty-seven in Picnic and, regardless of his beefcake factor, looks at least thirty-seven. Robertson was thirty-two. He looks about twenty-seven. It’s never clear how much time has passed since they were in college together though when Russell finally loses it and dresses Holden down for, basically, rejecting her drunken advances, she brings up the age thing. So are they supposed to be mid-thirties? They’re at least old enough Kim Novak ought to be rethinking her de facto engagement to Robertson.
Novak is nineteen. Her mom, Betty Field, wants her to marry Robertson before he gets tired of waiting for sex. Novak just wants men to stop objectifying her. Field says it’s all she’s got going for her so she better use it to get a ring on it ASAP. Couple years, she’ll be way too old to catch a good rich man. I guess the “good” thing about Field utterly devaluing her daughter’s worth is she’s not greedy about it? Field doesn’t want Robertson and Novak to take care of her, she just wants Novak taken care of. She’s selfless. Field doesn’t like Holden strutting around with his shirt off—her sexagenarian neighbor, kindly Verna Felton gets Holden out of his shirt as fast as she can—but Field doesn’t like it. Because it’s catching Novak’s eye and if Novak decides she might want to have sex with some guy instead of just doing it out of duty, well, she’s going down the wrong path.
Field’s got another daughter, a younger one, Susan Strasberg. Strasberg is a bit of a tomboy, super-smart (there’s some throwaway line in the first act, which is full of throwaway lines, about Strasberg having a four year scholarship except then she goes back to high school), and she too takes notice of Holden. Not in an inappropriate way but in the same way Felton notices Holden; they understand he’s a foxy man and there ain’t no other foxy men in Kansas. But they don’t lust after him in the same way as… oh, Russell, who gets drunker and drunker as the day progresses and finally gets so touchy-feely with Holden she tears off half his shirt. Got to let the beefcake out!
Russell’s all about the sex; even as she describes herself as the “old maid schoolteacher” what she really means is she hooks up with hot younger dudes out of town then brags about it to her friends at work. In town she’s stuck with decidedly not sexy, not younger Arthur O’Connell. He’s a local shop-owner, a bachelor stuck in his ways. Who, sure, gets hammered and talks Russell into going off after the picnic to “drive” in his car. There’s a great line from Felton about how everyone disappears after a picnic—Field is wondering where everyone went because she’s forgotten what it’s like to want sex—but Felton remembers. And she’s like, “They’re all off having sex.” And you’d think Field would remember because she told Novak to go off with Robertson and give him some play so he stays interested.
Now, Novak’s a good girl, from a good family, she’s just not a rich girl. Or a smart girl. She’s quiet and a little sad. Being socialized to accept paper boy Nick Adams hitting on her every morning no doubt has something to do with that sadness.
She just wants someone to take her seriously. And not because of how she looks.
So when she and Holden have this super-charged sexy dance at the Picnic, which sets off Strasberg’s jealousy and resentment as well as Russell’s beefcake lust, well… is it different when Holden ogles her? Because it’s William Holden and not Nick Adams or Cliff Robertson.
Or, in the film’s grossest revelation, Arthur O’Connell. Who goes over to visit Russell (who lodges with Field and daughters) and ogles Novak.
O’Connell recovers from that moment, mostly because he’s got Russell holding up their scenes, but… yuck.
If Picnic could talk about sex, would it be better? Well, not if it still had such unbridled passion for patriarchal relationships. Novak and Holden have zero chemistry, which would be a bigger problem if the script ever needed them to have any. But Novak’s written so thin—she’s constantly asking people to define her character in the first act, which gets tedious fast because the character relationships ring hollow. Director Logan, who directed the original play on Broadway, has no patience or regard for his actors. He’s always in a hurry, always shooting in these boring long shots (though James Wong Howe’s photography is fantastic). Often there will be some terrible cut; editors William A. Lyon and Charles Nelson shockingly won an Oscar for the film, which is something since there’s not a single smooth transition between long shot and close-up in the entire film.
While I’m talking about the crew, might as well get George Duning’s score out of the way. It’s too loud, too bombastic, too obvious, too melodramatic. Jo Mielziner’s production design is excellent though. It’s a shame Logan doesn’t have better shots for it. He’s got some really awkwardly pedestrian shots, like he’s scared of cranes or something. The film’s wide Cinemascope aspect ratio is another problem. It opens the film up too much and Logan rarely can compose for it.
The big dance scene is about the only intentionally well-directed sequence in the film, though there are occasional unintentional good shots.
It’s never incompetent, it’s just never anything but competent.
The film peaks somewhere in the second act, during the picnic. Regardless of all the problems, Picnic has a great pace. At least until the third act, when it starts to drag on and on, introducing these juxtapositions between Novak and Russell, O’Connell and Holden. Only none of the characters do enough for the juxtapositions to make any narrative sense, much less drum up any dramatic effect.
Great performance from Russell, really good ones from O’Connell and Felton. Okay—all things considered—one from Holden. He’s pretty good in the first act. By the last act you wish he’d rethought agreeing to the film (given he was worried he was too old for the part he’s obviously too old to play). Novak’s… she could be worse. Same goes for Field, though she’s immediately grating. Strasberg’s great, but the part’s crap. Worse, it’s a big part. It’s just a big, crappy part. If the movie were actually about her and Novak, it’d be something. If the movie were about Novak, it’d be something. If it were about any of its characters, it’d be something. But the smorgasbord approach? Doesn’t work. No one gets enough time or space.
Though it probably wouldn’t matter because they still couldn’t talk about sex. Picnic is fixated on it. Even if all of its ideas about it are at least bad, sometimes icky, sometimes much, much worse.
Directed by Joshua Logan; screenplay by Daniel Taradash, based on the play by William Inge; director of photography, James Wong Howe; edited by William A. Lyon and Charles Nelson; music by George Duding; production designer, Jo Mielziner; produced by Fred Kohlmar; released by Columbia Pictures.
Starring William Holden (Hal Carter), Kim Novak (Madge Owens), Susan Strasberg (Millie Owens), Rosalind Russell (Miss Rosemary Sydney), Arthur O’Connell (Howard Bevans), Cliff Robertson (Alan Benson), Betty Field (Flo Owens), Nick Adams (Bomber), and Verna Felton (Helen Potts).