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Calamity Jane On-Screen

I recently watched the classic Western musical Calamity Jane starring the ridiculously talented Doris Day and I was not sure how I would like it, given my love for Robin Weigert’s portrayal of Jane in one of the greatest Westerns of all-time, Deadwood. Well, a couple of misgivings aside, I bloody loved it. It was joyous and beautiful, with a supremely charismatic Doris Day leading the way. What surprised me most was for all the differences between Day and Weigert (and there are quite a few), it is clear that Weigert was influenced by Day’s performance. Calamity Jane was a real woman, and while it is clear that Deadwood is far closer to the truth, the spirit of Jane as a trailblazing woman who opened the door for so many women to not be restricted to traditional gender roles is alive and well in Calamity Jane.

While Calamity Jane has some elements which may be seen as unhelpful (the idea that a woman has to be beautiful to be worthwhile), on the whole, it is shockingly forward-thinking, especially for 1953. Jane is the hero; she is brave and tough and just as good a shot as any man. She doesn’t have time for all of the frivolous bullshit that was expected of women at that point in time. While I can understand and even support some of the arguments around the transformation of Jane from a rough and ready gunslinger into a woman who wears dresses and goes to dances, I think ultimately the film gets her character dead on. She gets married to Wild Bill Hickok but she still retains her individuality. She is Calamity Jane through and through, whether wearing a clean set of clothes or a mud-covered dress.

Calamity Jane does not set out to provide a truly realistic portrayal of the real woman but uses her as a way to explore and celebrate the philosophy that drove her. The music is incredible, and Doris Day straight-up dominates and propels the movie forward with her uncanny talent. “Just Blew in from the Windy City” is so full of joy and life, and the interplay between Day and Howard Keel (who plays Wild Bill) on “I Can Do Without You” is just hilarious and sweet and all kinds of brilliant. Calamity Jane has very quickly become one of my favourite musicals, up there with Singin’ in the Rain and The Rocky Horror Picture Show—the latter of which it shares much with, given the rejection of stifling, suffocating gender norms. I can only imagine how many girls and women Doris Day inspired to be themselves absolutely and truly.

 

Deadwood was—until I played Red Dead Redemption 2—my absolute favourite Western, and my vote for the greatest Western ever made. Created by David Milch, it is a bleak, heartbreaking and beautiful thing. In a show with such incredible performances—from Ian McShane as Al Swearengen, W. Earl Brown, and of course Timothy Olyphant—it is no exaggeration to say that the greatest performance in the show is that of Robin Weigert as Jane. Jane here is a drunk and is a sad and lonely figure looking for something to give her life purpose. Weigert portrays her with such subtlety, even when Jane is all guns blazing and falling-down drunk, and her journey is the most emotionally affecting and powerful. Just like Calamity Jane, Weigert plays her just as tough as any of the men, but she is torn by personal demons in a way quite unlike Doris Day’s portrayal. Though, her way of talking, and her frequently hilarious put-downs of all the miserable cocksuckers in the town of Deadwood, have the same spirit and flair of Day’s vision of Jane.

It is interesting for as different as Weigert’s Jane is from Day’s in some ways, the story that is told is remarkably similar. In both works, it is Calamity Jane’s search for purpose and love that is the driving force. In Deadwood, Jane’s relationship with Kim Dickens’ Joanie Stubbs is sweet and uplifting, and there is even a similar scene where Joanie gives Jane a bath. This is what makes me think that Calamity Jane was not trying to say that Jane needed to change who she was to make her appealing to men, but more that self-care was what she needed to prioritize and to show respect to herself. It also must be said that the scene between Jane and Al Swearengen—where Al terrifies her—shows a more fragile side to her character and that she’s not nearly as tough as she likes to project.

Both Deadwood and Calamity Jane rewrote the book of how a woman could be portrayed on the big stage. While Deadwood’s Jane is a hard-drinking, dirty as sin woman, she shares many characteristics with Calamity Jane’s title character: the poetry and flow of her dialogue, the rejection of all of the traditional gender bullshit, and a similar story of making peace with herself and finding someone to love that loves her for who she is and not who she is meant to be. Both portrayals of Calamity Jane deserve respect and applause, and we should appreciate both as the fearless and beautiful interpretations of a real tough woman that they are.


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Written by Paul Casey

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