- By Joe Gross American-Statesman Staff
It is entirely possible that the season’s sexiest, yet not salacious, flick is about a World War II-era academic and his wife.
And their mistress. And ropes.
What with DC/Warner Bros’ “Wonder Woman” a runaway smash hit ($412 million domestic and counting), folks with more than a passing interest in the character’s real-life origin would do well to check out “Professor Marston and the Wonder Women.”
Writer/director Angela Robinson’s smart, elegantly acted and deeply sexy film looks at the life and career of “Wonder Woman” creator William Moulton Marston — oddball psychologist, inventor of the lie detector, enthusiastic feminist, serious bondage fan and even more devout polyamorist — and his singular family.
As anyone who has read Jill Lapore’s excellent book “The Secret History of Wonder Woman” knows, Marston lived much of his life with wife and intellectual collaborator Elizabeth Holloway Marston (a lawyer and psychologist who was easily his equal at a time when very few women had advanced degrees) and their younger lover Olive Byrne — who, by cosmic coincidence, happened to be the daughter of a suffragette and niece of American birth control pioneer Margaret Sanger. (Note: Though both are about the same story, “Professor Marston” is not based on the Lapore book.)
Together, as Marston notes at once point, Elizabeth and Olive made the perfect woman — both served as inspiration for Wonder Woman, the Amazon with the magic lasso who makes criminals tell the truth.
But we are far ahead of ourselves. Robinson opens “Marston” with what looks like a wartime paper drive (which is where millions of Golden Age comics went). But, no, turns out it a public burning of comics, including Wonder Woman.
Marston (played by Luke Evans, aka the British Joseph Gordon Levitt), observing from a distance, looks as if his child is being set aflame and there’s nothing he can do about it.
Robinson (“The L Word,” “True Blood”) goes almost full flashback with “Marston” — our man reminisces on his life while being grilled by Josette Frank (Connie Britton). She is the taciturn head of the Child Study Association of America and is curious about about all the bondage in “Wonder Woman,” bondage which Marston sees as symbolizing his theory of human psychology.
His wide-eyed idea is that human behavior is a cycle of dominance, inducement and submission (good) or compliance (not great). Marston believes humans function best when they submit, willingly, to a loving authority. As you might imagine, Ms. Frank isn’t buying it.
From there we move back to the late ’20s, when Marston, a Harvard psychologist, and his wife (Rebecca Hall, in a tour de force performance), spot student Byrne (Bella Heathcote) across the quad.
William is hypnotized by the young blonde, who soon joins the two as a research assistant as they try to perfect the lie detector. Elizabeth denies her jealousy, then affirms it, then decides to live with it as Olive becomes a part of their lives — already this is complicated emotional territory. William and Elizabeth start spying on Olive’s sorority to observe the semi-sexual hazing (for science, of course).
In a scene worthy of an impossibly tasteful late night Skinemax flick, heavy breathing and meaningful looks ensue, and a few trips to the lie detector later, it becomes clear that while William is ensorceled by Olive, Olive is hopelessly in love with … Elizabeth.
Soon, they are heading off to an empty auditorium to see where this goes, and boy howdy, is this an excellent example that the female gaze (namely, Robinson’s) can emotionally animate and render both erotic and tasteful a sex scene which would seem exploitative in the hands of a male director (fans self).
A three-way marriage is not all that acceptable in 2017, and it sure as hell wasn’t in the 1930s.
The family is stripped of its academic credentials and decamps for Rye, New York, where William starts publishing articles in popular magazines, while the brilliant Elizabeth becomes a secretary and Olive a housewife — they tell the neighbors she is a widow. All of these wondrous folks put on secret identities as they explore their fondness for costumes, role-play and bondage.
As their relationship develops, Marston starts incorporating his psychological theories into the character of Wonder Woman — a blend of his two partners’ strengths, feminist storylines and a whole lot of bondage — whom he sees as a role model for young girls. The 1940s superhero boom is in full swing, and comics publisher Max Gaines is happy to get fresh material. The comic is a smash hit.
The punchline, sort of, is that the prudes had a point — looking at Marston’s “Wonder Woman” stories with adult eyes is to see something eye-poppingly kinky. But nobody was ever really able to figure out if this stuff was simply going over kids’ heads or was all that big a deal or what. Robinson illustrates all of this in panel montages that remind you she is a pretty big “Wonder Woman” fan herself.
What makes “Professor Marston” so impressive and sexy and sweet is how everyday it all seems. Robinson builds a case (a few times a little too directly) that Marston was, more than anything else, paying tribute to the women he adored, women who continued their relationship for 38 years after his death. The fact that this all plays out as an adult love story, in every sense of the term is — sorry — a wonder.