In 1996, I was fifteen years old, living in a travel trailer without running water or electricity, parked on the steep mountainside in a nowhereplace between Wilburton and Buffalo Valley, Oklahoma. When we wanted to make a phone call, we drove ten miles to the payphone outside of a convenience store. Our land was adjacent to a highway, and there were no houses within reasonable walking distance: walking was pretty much impossible anyway, since there were no sidewalks, no shoulder, just the road and then a steep eruption of trees and rock. Two years before, we had moved from Vermont in a cross-country flight of desperation, my mother looking for some mythical Western place where she would finally be happy and completely left alone by the world, burning through the 40,000 dollars she’d received from selling land in Vermont so quickly that, by the time we reached Oklahoma, we had almost nothing. She hadn’t gotten what she wanted in the end, and neither had I.
I’d arrived in Oklahoma excited about starting over. In 1994, I finally had some idea of who I wanted to be. I loved books and art and film, I’d discovered Hole and Belly and Tori Amos, I bought a plaid miniskirt and a pair of Mary Janes: I was ready to be a new person in a completely new place. This didn’t end up happening, though. I stepped into my first class at Buffalo Valley School and realized that my new self was not going to do much good here. Everybody wore Wranglers and multicolored Western shirts with pearly buttons or sweatshirts and t-shirts emblazoned with the names of sports teams. People listened to the Garth Brooks’ Greatest Hits album and the 8 Seconds soundtrack. I felt like I’d landed on the moon. So I went inward.
Around this time, we started to get magazines in the mail, dozens of them every month. My mother had agreed to several subscriptions through Publisher’s Clearinghouse in hopes that it would make her more likely to win (gambling, in all of its sad forms, has been the drug of choice in my family for generations), and so we got GQ (I’m not sure why she chose that one), Parenting, Self, and Premiere—a glossy movie magazine that I’d take to my room as soon as it arrived. In one issue, I read about Stealing Beauty, a new movie starring pillow-lipped Liv Tyler, about a girl trying to lose her virginity—trying to become real and adult—during a vacation to Italy. I remember ripping out the page and adding it to a paperclip full of other films I intended to see, someday, when I was finally free and adult and in charge of my own life. I wanted to know how to become a real grown-up, how to have some elegance and sex and excitement. I knew I wouldn’t get any of that from my actual life, stuck in a desolate place where one near-empty highway joined another near-empty highway in a T, a place where, every week, it seemed some drunk driver blew through the guardrails and wrecked on the rocks below.
By the time I finally watched Stealing Beauty, I was living in the married housing of a Baptist college I was attending with my husband. In a short time I had gone from a teenager who never thought she was going to get married (I could see myself alone in an apartment, reading books by a window that looked out on a busy street, but never with somebody else in a suburban house) to a married teenager—and a married Southern Baptist teenager at that. I was eighteen, poor, riddled with social anxiety, and too afraid to use the telephone, but I was finally free from that trailer, free to get on the internet and talk to other introverts on message boards, free to watch all those movies on my movie list.
I must have seen Stealing Beauty when we got cable (as an aside, we were also a “Nielson Family,” though how the Nielson people found a couple of married teenagers in on-campus housing at a Baptist college is still a mystery to me). I can’t remember exactly when I finally watched this film I’d been waiting to see for so many years, but I do know that once I did I was transfixed, though in a completely different way than I’d expected. I was surprised to find that Lucy Harmon (Liv Tyler) was utterly boring, and a terrible poet. The whole time I kept thinking THIS SHOULD BE ME. I SHOULD BE HANGING OUT WITH JEREMY IRONS. I SHOULD BE WRITING POETRY IN ITALY. I SHOULD BE SWIMMING IN A POOL WHILE RACHEL WEISZ LOUNGES NAKEDLY NEARBY. My lack of interest in Liv Tyler, though, didn’t much matter: for me, Stealing Beauty was all atmosphere and heat, like the scene in which Lucy rolls around restlessly on her white sheets as a Cocteau Twins song plays, only to be interrupted by Alex (Jeremy Irons), a dying playwright, who asks her to have a smoke with him. I had a notion that life could be like this, full of elegant set pieces, interrupted only by cigarette breaks.
At the time, I felt starved of beauty. I mostly loved my new life, my little apartment filled with cheap furniture we’d gathered from Goodwill and nearby garbage bins post spring move-out. I loved my new freedom to read, to take photographs, to write, to stay up late with Zach and talk about anything and everything. But I was also increasingly realizing that Southern Baptist life was not going to make me happy. We went to a squat, aggressively ugly church every Sunday, the walls adorned only with a campy rendering of a white Jesus, sitting amongst some equally white sheep. I was starting to push against the moral strictures, too, the idea that there was only one acceptable way to live, that there was no gray area, and that one must hold tightly to boundaries or risk letting in the devil, a concept I never could believe in, since so many things that I loved were apparently his domain. Stealing Beauty presented all these lovely in-between places not as the devil’s snares, but as opportunities for growth, for experience. I wanted the world to be like this, open and elegant and full of potential, not fear.
For years, I’d watch Stealing Beauty every few months. It was soothing, a film I knew so well that I barely had to think about it. Then, it dropped out of my life for a while; I became obsessed with Mulholland Drive and horror films. But a few years ago I watched it again, and was surprised by how much it had soured for me. Stealing Beauty is utterly voyeuristic: in fact, the film begins with Lucy being filmed without her knowledge by an older man. He lingers on her fingers, her lips, her crotch. As the film goes on, everybody is obsessed with Lucy’s virginity and how she will lose it. The group of European artists, who you’d imagine might have other things on their mind, can talk about nothing but her body, her beauty. Although she wants to be a writer, nobody seems particularly interested in that: she’s all surface, upon which (mostly) men project their own fantasies of youth. Even the man she discovers is her biological father seems obsessed with her image, not her, as he insists on creating a sculpture of her during her visit. Although the moment of recognition between the two of them is sweet, it’s hard not to feel disappointed that all he’s willing to give her is a version of herself filtered through his own art.
I recently re-watched Stealing Beauty again, after going years without seeing it because of that sourness, and was happy to find that I still get a thrill of recognition when I see Lucy in her updo, wearing her mother’s flowered dress, or think about the landscape, green and flower-dappled, or the pool scene, where Lucy swims in her very American (or so it seems, compared to all the Europeans) black, one-piece bathing suit. Stealing Beauty is still about a kind of freedom, certainly, but it’s tinged with sadness. The film never lets us forget that Lucy has just lost her mother. When she arrives in Italy, she doesn’t know her father, though she suspects he is among the various men she meets in Tuscany, a knowledge that seems curiously sad the more you think about it, that her mother kept this from her intentionally. The film includes a sexual assault, a dying man, betrayal, and a general disappointment with life and one’s choices. Each little dark thread undercuts the film’s overt message of freedom from Puritanical American values.
Perhaps that’s what appealed to me as a teenager, when those dark threads in my own life had become a blanket about to suffocate me. I liked the idea of sun-drenched freedom, but I knew that nothing was really free. That seems to be the final lesson of Stealing Beauty: you can’t escape life unscathed, no matter how much you try. As the film ends, Lucy finally loses her virginity (with a sweet, adoring boy her age—at least the film gives us that), her playwright friend is in the hospital living out his last days, and her hosts in Italy seem thoroughly exhausted with so much sunshine and freedom: they miss the rain and the cold of the UK. They want to go home. You can’t be on vacation forever.