When we talk of pansexuality today, it was a term which did not really exist back in the late 1960s when labels were more or less limited in their descriptions of gender and sexuality.
It comes as a surprise though that the film The Fox (1967), which was directed by Mark Rydell (1929-) and based on a novella by famed novelist D.H. Lawrence (1885-1930 tuberculosis), who wrote Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Women in Love, should deal itself with issues such as pansexuality and gender roles.
The movie opens with the sun glowing through in inverted ‘v’ between a very symbolic tree in the proceedings and another branch. It could almost be an upside-down triangle which is the symbol of woman. The sun shines from the loins of this symbol. It is here where two women live without the presence of a man.
The setting of Lawrence’s 1920s novella has been transported to the winter in present day – 1967 – Canada. It tells of two women whom we assume identify as lesbian and who are making a go of a farm as a going concern and using the farmhouse as a home.
“March, he got away again… Damn him!,” says an almost hysterical Sandy Dennis (1937-1992 ovarian cancer) to Anne Heywood (1931-).
Anne has just missed shooting the fox which has plundered their chicken coop for the third time. Heywood as March is the masculine of the couple who refuses to cut down the symbolic tree mentioned at the beginning no matter how ugly and barren it is: “It’s still alive”.
In the evening, the couple sit in the living room in front of an open fire… “It’s ours and no-one can tell us what to do,” says Sandy to Anne, who says she is “not unhappy” to just sit there in the warmth, especially after “a rub” by Sandy on her shoulders.
Anne is studying the fox in a book of facts… which tells of its aesthetic qualities as well as a fact that “he” is a predator and carnivore. The truth being they are more omnivorous. The fox is obviously a symbol of man at this stage and Anne is well read while Sandy lacks a genius for solitary existence. Thus, Anne is like the fox in some ways… She is clever and handsome like a fox as she stares at her own naked reflection in the bathroom mirror later after a hot bath.
She is a woman after all and despite the feelings for another woman, she is perhaps trapped in what is a typical lesbian relationship that is a habit and also a habitual love. When Anne masturbates in the bathroom, she is not only feeling her erect clitoris but the erect wooden frame of the door… She is obviously a woman who yearns for more than her seemingly cloistered existence with Sandy…
That night Anne doesn’t want to cuddle or spoon with Sandy in the double bed but turns away and stares into space as if in some sort of longing…
The next day, Anne takes her shotgun, another symbol of manliness and goes searching in the woods for what we assume is the fox… She sees her reflection in a pool of water and with a proud grip affirms her female body by clutching her breasts through her jumper, it’s almost as if she doesn’t realise they are there until she sees her reflection with her breasts in her grasp… it is then she is aware that she is being watched by the fox himself. It stares into her and she stares back as if there is some sort of attraction or fascination. She does not reach for the shotgun to kill but is instead taken aback by its gaze.
“It was as close to me as you are… I had my gun but I didn’t shoot,” Anne tells Sandy of her encounter. “It just stared at me… I stared at him.” She says that it was looking at her unafraid. But Sandy says it doesn’t make sense and that she should have killed it. Anne, however, remains dwelling on it as it was “odd… and very strange.”
The couple have a cow called Eurydice which is named after the wife of Orpheus. She was led out of hell by her husband in ancient legend… and there’s a tragic ending… but it’s just a cow and Sandy and Anne frolic in the snow like two teenage girls after capturing Eurydice when she escapes the barn. It is here that the film goes into freeze frame for a few shots of Sandy’s face after it is covered in snow and Anne has her pinned to the ground in dominance… The snow is like semen on her face and Anne realises this and it is frozen as a snapshot as if some sort of memory – in the reverse though in that it is not fresh and warm but cold snow… and she lets Sandy free and off they eventually go laughing inside. Perhaps Anne realises the fox inside of her and for a moment is frightened, or the possibility of herself being dominated in the same way by someone like herself – albeit possibly male.
Sandy wonders if the fox is a female – a vixen – but Anne is certain it is male, something which sends Anne into the “deaf ear and distant stare” as she again possibly ponders the male of the species or certainly its embodiment in the fox.
It appears the couple grew up together or knew each other in their youth as Sandy recalls how as a teenager another young man she knew held her down when they were drunk on beer… there is a catch in her voice as she talks about his eyes that were “so wide and strange”. And it is almost a horror story with the teenager pushing on her, leaving an imprint as if on soft clay according to Sandy… It is almost as if a man can influence or create in terms of his will, art or even biology… or the fate of a woman could be changed should she fall under the influence of a man and his will, whether she be real or of legend like Eurydice… Sandy’s connection with men is different to Anne as she seems to have a sense of revulsion… Also Anne’s cause for letting Sandy go in the snow maybe because she has heard this story before.
It is then that Keir Dullea (1936-) turns up at the farmhouse late one night, bursting into the place like an unwelcome fox, as he thinks it is still the home of his grandfather, who had died the previous winter while Keir was at sea. Anne aims the shotgun at him.
“What do you want?,” she says and there is a close-up of Keir’s striking blue eyes staring out of the darkness or the unknown back at Anne… Just like the fox he is staring into her… The moment is defused and Keir tells of how he lived there as a boy, something which brings to life the girl in Sandy who is open and fresh with him… Anne is suspicious and disturbed though and puts on the coffee. When word turns to the fox, Keir says he knows where the den is and that there is probably more than one. It is then that he suggests that they need a man around the house… and as Sandy and Kier laugh together, Anne remains reserved and only her eyes and face can be seen from the cold corner of the room almost like a vixen could be fascinated by a fox.
Keir is invited to stay as: “it makes no difference to me,” according to Anne.
And their new visitor immediately uses the shotgun to kill a pheasant the next day.
“Isn’t she a beauty?,” Keir says, holding up the once magnificent bird, but Anne in the barn is repulsed by the murder, almost as though it were one of her chickens.
“He’s very clever,” says Anne, when Keir suggests he should do something about the fox. And there is a look on Keir’s face which suggests there is no more cunning than that of a man… and even a fox, even if it were another man, would be no possible rival for him…
So, Kier will stay and the triangle of animal passion, brotherly and perhaps a higher love between these individuals is set into place along with the elements and the undercurrent of sexual love against the physical frigidity of winter. It runs deep beneath the stares and the moments of laughter like the waters beneath the pond where Anne had been spied upon by the fox as she felt her breasts. It is something which will in time turn to hatred.
The Fox was one of a few D.H. Lawrence film adaptations made in the late 1960s which also included Women in Love (1969) and The Virgin and the Gypsy (1970). The Fox was written by Lawrence in 1923 and it explored, as mentioned, gender roles, sexuality and femininity. The film does much of the same and uses the freedom of film to use sex in a new period of freedom for filmmakers on the subject.
The reason why there is so many sexual related scenes is because the Production Code of the Motion Picture Association of America more or less ended in this period. Modernity had caught up with the movies!
Star Anne Heywood was married to British film producer Raymond Stross (1916-88) and The Fox was his most prestigious production and possibly his best. It was certainly his most successful at the box office as it was in the top five films in Britain in terms earnings upon its release. Heywood would have no role as strong as she had in The Fox and never really went on to become a bona fide star, perhaps preferring to raise a family instead.
Much of the thanks must go to director Rydell whose debut was this movie. The former actor would earn an Oscar nomination from his peers for On Golden Pond (1981). He also directed The Reivers (1969) and The Rose (1979). The screenplay is a gem and was written by Howard Koch (1901-95) and Lewis John Carlino (1932-2020) who both received a Golden Globe nomination for their efforts.
Koch was a survivor of being blacklisted in the 1950s for being outed as a Communist, thus the movie has a liberal sentiment and is far from conservative.
Sandy Dennis was an actress famed for her stage work as well as her role in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966) which she made previous to The Fox. She won an Oscar for that film. She was bisexual (or pansexual) and told actor Eric Roberts (1956-) when they lived together about her many lesbian affairs. But that is typecasting or labelling a person’s sexuality…
Meanwhile actor Keir Dullea is still famous mainly for his role as astronaut David Bowman in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). His work and appearance in The Fox also include his previous role in David and Lisa (1962) about a pair of young people with a mental illness.
The Fox is a prelude to the sexual fluidity argument which Miley Cyrus (1992-) and Cate Blanchett (1969-) have admitted to… not necessarily bisexual but sexually fluid or the term pansexual. And I say argument as the terms of sexuality are ever increasing and all-encompassing these days even though not everyone agrees. There is almost a label for everyone now, or so it seems. But to even call them labels defeats the purpose.
In fact, The Fox is probably one of the first studies of changing sexuality in an almost androgynous female, even if the novel was written half a century earlier.
That Anne’s character’s name is March, which is the beginning of the northern spring, is something which is probably no coincidence.
“March, I’ve loved you for so long,” says Sandy to Anne as they begin a sexual encounter. All of these sexual scenes got the film an R-Rating in the United States, but it was reedited in 1973 and it is that PG version which plays to this day on Turner Classic Movies. Best to try and dig out the real thing for the full experience of The Fox.
If the fox and Anne share something, it is shown at the end of the film with the fox pelt nailed to the barn – it was once on the barn door but at the end it is on the barn wall, whether that was a continuity error or has meaning with the passing of the need for a door no longer needed at the end of the film I don’t know… Anyway, it is there as Anne is being driven away by Keir after Sandy’s death…
It is a crucifixion of Sandy, or of the animal instincts being quelled in symbolism of the sexual/pansexual as Anne is to marry Keir and her once tranquil life with Sandy is forever gone as she settles for ‘normalcy’. It could also be symbolic of Anne and Keir’s relationship once they are married as the pelt fades along with the coming and going of spring. Their relationship is possibly dead like the fox at the end of the film. Yet it is almost all because of the fox that everything happened… and that Anne and Sandy won’t live to be old chooks together since Keir invaded their coop to use a base analogy.
To go further back into the film and Keir is no doubt a man who would have no qualms in killing an animal and perhaps even a person. He is a man who would subdue something according to his will. He is perhaps not a Christian but neither does it appear are Anne and Sandy.
In terms of gender roles, the two women are a couple, almost husband and wife to use an old figure of speech which is still dominant today in the gay and lesbian community. Anne does the hard work while Sandy stays more or less indoors away from the barn baking muffins. Later in the film Anne is proposed to by Keir and the reverse gender role is put upon her this time not as a husband to a woman but as a wife to a man. And the thing is that it is almost perfectly natural to Anne, except Keir is forcing his will upon her, and at the end of the movie after the upturned ‘v’ of the fallen tree has killed Sandy, they leave and Keir tells Anne she will be happy. But it is now a truly broken triangle and a reversed one that no longer stands for woman. It is a hollow ‘v’ for victory.
“Will I?,” questions Anne to herself, or the literal “Will-ie”, or you dick for killing the love of my life… but I think I love you anyway because you say so. If she does, it is certainly not a divine love between this man and woman but one of curiosity and then animal physicality which has ended in tragedy.
That Anne’s character is the pansexual of the three is captured in the movie as there is a sense throughout that she struggles to find equilibrium in the real world which ranges from her almost guilty domination of Sandy to Keir’s domination of Anne herself.
Anne is a work in progress like the clay in Keir’s hands, she may be fully formed physically but in the spiritual sense there is confusion and despite her femininity as a woman she feels incomplete in some way… whether that is in her want for a penis of her own or within her grasp or inside her is to be contemplated by her and us. She is more interested in the idea of the male, even if it may be a part of her sexuality.
Sandy meanwhile is a girlish type who is still slightly aghast at her sexual experience as a teenager. She can’t quite grasp why she didn’t like being a lump of clay in the hands of a possible creator. Sandy is not maternal and she will not create beyond herself and neither is Anne. But this is 1967 and a couple such as the women in this film had less chance of having children of their own living by the convention of a lesbian couple of the day. Their maternal feelings are not indulged as they have a higher love and one based on sex.
“It wouldn’t look right,” says Sandy to Keir about a man staying with them in terms of gossipy villagers as if they don’t already talk about the two women living alone together on an isolated farm. It is either a protective barrier or a part of her girlish naivete. Whereas Anne couldn’t care less.
Anne’s bobbed haircut reminds the viewer of Louse Brooks (1906-85 emphysema) that flapper of the 1920s… we get a feeling that Anne has lived a little amongst men and had a man, as she drinks and when she plays the guitar she sings salty lyrics… It is Sandy’s innocence on that front that she loves as well as her own going back to their youth.
Anne can be hard like a man but Sandy, even when she is angry, is still vulnerable… Anne has a longing… while Sandy is satisfied. They are two women – different women – and as they say opposites attract, just as when Keir turns up and Anne is attracted and then pulled into his universe.
It is the first man Anne sees, following the disturbance of the fox it seems, and he grabs onto her – in one scene holding her wrist roughly to keep her for himself… or as is the custom… keeping her away from Sandy’s tears and vulnerability. Anne cannot resist them but Keir stops her.
It’s as if Keir has descended from the heavens for her. And this is shown as he comes from high up in the barn down a couple of levels where Anne like a devil in hell or even an angel with her pitchfork tends to Eurydice with hay. Anne is strong but she is still feminine at her core and vulnerable to the advances of Keir. The barn as microcosm as heaven and/or hell.
It is there in the lower levels of the barn that Keir proposes and Sandy discovers them together… later Keir presses himself against Anne and tells her to tell him that she will be his only for her to escape as she says: “Yes.” Talk about a quick courtship! And Sandy responds with a “that’s ridiculous” when Keir announces their intentions.
But as the quote by philosopher Matshona Dhliwayo says: “The early bird catches the worm, and the early fox catches the bird.” And it counts in this case for man as Keir sets his cunning trap for fox and woman in a red-blooded way… capturing and killing the symbolic chicken at the end when he possibly accidentally and finally fells the tree upon the head of Sandy, the one who had spurned his non-monogamous advances and slapped his face. The fox if left to continue with a free hand will kill all your chickens! Or taste one by one all the women in the coop.
That the women choose to kill the erect old tree once Keir has left for a spell comes back to haunt them as Keir haunts them by coming back… Anne’s wishes for the tree to continue to live as a part of nature is changed by the killing of the fox after the arrival of man… and like the ripples in the pond before she stares at herself holding her breasts in reflection, the fox also watches like man… and the ripple effect has changed her in that she becomes conscious of her attractiveness to the fox and man. Then with the felling of the tree… Will she be happy with Keir? Again: “Will I?”
And we are back to the fox once again crucified on the barn, the place which is both heaven and hell for the lovers and where they first kiss. The ending also hints that the thaw is coming and with it spring will follow soon as Keir and Anne leave the empty farm for the last time and we know that spring like Anne’s name in the film: March – it will follow wherever she goes… or wherever she is told to march by her new male partner.
But the telling secret of the film is when Anne tells Sandy in the sanctity of their bedroom, the answer to the question which is if it is him that she really wants: “I don’t know… I wish I could answer you…”
Is it just a case of going back to the devil you know? Like Eurydice although she had no choice. Otherwise, this is the quandary of the true pansexual, dare I say woman, put into practise beyond that of its philosophy. After all, it is still a world where gender roles and coupling such as that of husband and wife are still dominant no matter your sexual orientation and labels, no matter how many of them, are still labels. There are no labels about sexuality mentioned in The Fox. Meanwhile the United Nations has recently recommended the use of the word ‘partner’ instead of husband or wife.
Amazing this movie can elicit so much despite being made back in 1967!