Sitting across from the stars of Professor Marston and the Wonder Women, one senses a genuine satisfaction permeating the room like so much sunlight. Indeed, it is a surprisingly warm afternoon for autumn in New York, and actors Luke Evans, Rebecca Hall, and Bella Heathcote are in the final stretch of a long promotional tour that began in Toronto for their film about the remarkable love story of three people—and how that romance gave the world Wonder Woman.
Yet as Ms. Heathcote beams, it’s also simply a relief to be discussing a movie folks genuinely like. And they do. As a film that writer-director Angela Robinson has spent nearly a decade trying to bring to the screen, Professor Marston and the Wonder Women arrives as an intimate and disarmingly touching character study on a polyamorous relationship between three brilliant minds, which in turn led to the creation of one of the 20th century’s most beloved fictional, and feminist, characters. It’s a journey that Ms. Hall herself has likewise spent years attempting to bring to the screen before a fateful meeting with Robinson.
“I read that New Yorker article that became a book called The Secret History of Wonder Woman,” Hall says, referring to Jill Lepore’s non-fiction portrait of Wonder Woman creator Dr. William Moulton Marston and the women who helped him create her. “I got my hands on a copy of the book as soon as I could and tried to option it to make a movie myself, in fact. Failed, but in the process of doing that, I found out Angela Robinson had been trying to make [this story] for eight years, so I then tried to find how I could read that script and be a part of it.”
The actualization of Robinson’s vision zeroes in on the fateful meeting of Dr. William Moulton Marston and his equally educated wife, Elizabeth Marston, while they’re on the precipice of inventing the lie detector test. It is only then that they meet one of Marston’s new students at Tufts University, Olive Byrne, who is the reserved daughter and niece of feminist icons. Their love will be the end of Bill and Elizabeth’s academic careers, but it paves the way for the good doctor (and questionable undergraduate professor) to become an even more impactful comic book writer.
“I hadn’t any knowledge of the Marstons, but just like I have no knowledge of who’d written Superman or Batman, or any of the other superhero characters,” Evans confesses before adding with a laugh, “It’s almost more interesting than Wonder Woman herself.”
Additionally, one of the most interesting aspects of Professor Marston and the Wonder Women is how it presents this unconventional love story in the warmest and most comforting of ways. Unto itself this is a clever subversion of audience expectation. It’s likewise a source of pride.
“I think how Angela has chosen to interpret their story and bring it to the screen is very brave,” Hall says with notable pleasure. “I think there are many versions, and having dived into the different versions of their story that are out there, I can say with some authority that there are many different films that you could make. I think there are easy ways to go, and I think there are quite dark, salacious, what one could say is even exploitative, ways to go. So I think this one, to essentially make a very conventional romance with all of the movie tropes of romance and beautiful lighting, and Hollywoodization, and and all the rest of it… If you’re an audience member, you sort of go, ‘I know where I am with this.’”
It’s an approach that also applied to how they played the characters in the film. Despite being a three-way romance, all of the performers noted it did not change how they portrayed their characters or interpreted the work as artists. Even while on the page, Heathcote was aware that not only was each character a fascination, but so were the distinctions in how their love and interactions contrasted.
Says Heathcote, “I think a lot of it was in the script, and loving each of the characters separately, and loving their relationship as a unit, and how they all balanced and supported each other. I just wanted this unit to succeed and I think that’s how I approached it… And as far as I’m concerned, if there’s love and respect in a relationship then anything goes.”
Not that the film or its characters are on an easy road. In an interesting reversal of expectation, Elizabeth Marston—a defiant iconoclast in the early 20th century who becomes the breadwinner for her family—is also the one party who expresses the deepest reservations about the social ramifications of this triangle. More an invention of the film’s script, it is a unique element that is painfully truthful to the actress embodying her in the film.
“It felt very human to me,” Hall considers. She also laughs that it’s often the “loudmouths in the room” who can feel the most social pressure, especially when it is initially due to what she perceives as her husband having a crush. “Her journey about overcoming her shame and her true nature about what she wants in life is really kind of the journey of the story of all of them. It’s the story of the film, and the journey of the audience in some way coming to terms with this.”
It’s similarly relationship that still feels ahead of its time in 2017, as all three stars around the table muse of when considering the closeted lives of their real-life characters. But then again, there were many things ahead of their time about William Moulton Marston, a man who invented the lie detector test but then got it thrown out of court due to what could be charitably described as an overzealous campaign.
Evans himself smiles at any suggestion about Marston having flexible ethics. Just as Marston clearly enjoyed the company of women, Evans notes that the naturally charismatic PhD was simply a man before his time, given his understanding of the cultural impact of comic books and even self-promotion.
“I think he was also not scared to dabble in what probably most of his peers would have completely shunned,” Evans says with a sly grin. “They would never pick up a comic book in their life, it would be ridiculous to even touch them! Whereas he, I keep saying, was a very modern-thinking man. He was aware of celebrity, he was aware of profile-building, he was aware of networking and marketing, and being his own product, and he was not afraid of being able to sell that product.”
Evans is particularly taken with a photograph on the back of a magazine he once saw of “the three of them with a guinea pig, a blonde, strapped up to the sphygmomanometer.” What great tribute to science did this image depict? An advertisement for Gillette razors. “I don’t think that’s an ethical lapse, he just had imagination.”
That imagination extended to his ultimately most enduring creation, Diana of Paradise Island. Of course Marston created Wonder Woman, as per his own words, to be “psychological propaganda” against the patriarchal system that brainwashes women to be submissive. Instead Marston, inspired by his wife and Byrne, wanted to see “a new type of woman” who could rule the world.
Even at Wonder Woman’s inception in the 1940s, when her attire was not that far removed from WWII pinup posters, there were accusations that the character was pornographic and an unsuitable role model. This likely wasn’t helped by Marston’s penchant for placing Diana often in chains and bondage throughout his comics, but Evans dismisses those critiques as misleading.
“It’s funny that [the critics] don’t mention when Superman is tied up in chains, and Batman was tied up by Catwoman and kept in a cave,” Evans asserts.
Hall further underscores how Wonder Woman’s iconography is drenched in breaking those submissive chains, just as the best feminist art also depicted Amazons breaking free of man’s world in the generation before the Marstons.
Says Hall, “You can’t divorce it from his sexuality but at the same time, you can’t really accuse it of being somehow nefarious, because it was linked in with his theories of female oppression. When Wonder Woman’s tied up, she can’t do what she needs to do because she’s being oppressed by male authority.”
The forward-thinking nature of Marston’s radical take on Wonder Woman is only better defined in what came after his death: the turning of Wonder Woman into a glorified secretary for the Justice Society of America (a forerunner to the Justice League) in DC Comics, and then eventually the stripping away of her superpowers. Even when her powers were restored to the character in the 1970s, it’s not like she was necessarily always given the A-list treatment.
“Then they went through a period of really enjoying her in shorts, so what are you going to do?” Heathcote smiles.
The fact that Wonder Woman is now being reembraced as the feminist icon Marston originally imagined her to be is one of the many reasons that all three stars are inclined to think Professor Marston and the Wonder Women is coming out at the exact right time.
“I think it’s a really empowering, truly empowering feminist film,” Hall says. “And I don’t think that you can say that about a lot of films, and I think this is really quite unique. I think it’s a perfect time for it.”
It’s also a chance to reintroduce the Marstons to a wider public in the way Angela Robinson sees them: as a happy family.
“I think most people who go into this story, and watch this film, probably don’t know anyone in polyamorous relationships and might not have a sort of pleasant opinion about it,” Evans says. “But what I think they [come to] believe, hopefully, is what we felt when we were making it, which was this is a beautiful love story where you want it to work, you want them to succeed, because they loved each other.”
It’s a sentiment Hall more than shares; she celebrates it.
“[Angela] normalizes the behaviors and doesn’t put them over in a box, and say, ‘Oh, look at that, aren’t they weird?’ She says, ‘Actually, aren’t they human and don’t they have needs like everyone else? And don’t they want to love like everyone else?’ I think it’s radical to do that and I think it works.”
It’s also now an experience that audiences can discover for themselves with Professor Marston and the Wonder Women opening in theaters today.
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