Professor Emerita of English Elizabeth Ford, left, of Poland, and English and film studies professor Deborah Mitchell, of Poland. Photo by: Nancy M. Urchak | The Vindicator
By JoAnn Jones
Special to The Vindicator
Deborah Mitchell and Elizabeth Ford, both of Poland, have been going to the movies every Friday afternoon for years.
Mitchell, a professor of English and film study at Westminster College, and Ford, a retired Westminster English professor, don’t go just to socialize, however. As professors, they watch movies and critique what they’ve seen.
Several years ago they realized they had been seeing too many movies that showed men and women having not only personality makeovers, but rather actual physical changes.
“We’re cultural critics,” Ford said. “We look at how films and culture interact.”
“We would just have these good conversations,” Mitchell said. “One day I told Betsy [Ford]: ‘Look at all those makeover films. We should write a book.’”
And so they did.
“The Makeover in Movies: Before and After in Hollywood Films 1941-2002” became their first book. It was an endeavor born of a desire to point out the physical and personal makeovers in movies. According to Mitchell, no one had ever written about this.
“It was our first collaboration,” Ford said. “We had a blast doing it.”
Mitchell explained that so many movies and television programs show someone taking off a person’s glasses.
“‘You don’t need those glasses’ they would say, and, snap, they would break them in half,” she said.
“I wanted to name the book ‘Do You Really Need Those Glasses?’ but our publisher said no one would know what the book was about,” Ford said.
The first chapter in the book, published in 2004, begins with a discussion of the movie “Now, Voyager” (1942) in which Bette Davis is transformed from a frumpy woman with glasses, orthopedic shoes and ill-fitting clothing into a stylish and gorgeous woman with shapely legs, silk stockings and fashionable clothing.
In other chapters Ford and Mitchell analyze Cinderella makeovers, teen makeovers and “Pygmalion Problems” that have occurred in films.
The women, who also belong to the same book club, said they were thrilled when Adam Tschorn of the Los Angeles Times called Mitchell after finding out about their book in 2011.
“He wanted to do a big piece called ‘Making the Man,’ and he had found our book,” Mitchell said. “He looked us up and called me, and then we had a conference call where he interviewed us for his article.”
“When you do academic writing, and you know someone has picked up on your idea,” Ford said, “it’s exciting.”
Mitchell, who published her dissertation on Diane Keaton’s films as well as a children’s book called “Mr. Duffy’s Yellow Shirt,” said she and Ford look at movies and culture and ask “Who are we? Where are we going?”
“With writing partners, you’re bouncing ideas, exchanging chapters,” Mitchell said. “It’s inspiring to work with someone else.”
The two women decide what chapters should be in the book and then each writes a chapter. Afterward they exchange chapters, writing their comments on each other’s drafts.
“One of the best things in our writing together is that nobody who reads it can say who wrote which chapters,” Ford said.
“It’s seamless,” Mitchell added.
“We met at [Youngstown State University] as undergraduates,” Ford explained of their professional relationship and their friendship. “We both did our master’s degrees in English, and we were both graduate assistants.”
Ford went on to get her doctorate at Kent State University, and Mitchell traveled to Case Western Reserve University to get hers. While they were doing that, they still served as graduate assistants at YSU.
“We had the incredible Carol Gay when we were at YSU,” Ford said. “We were there when the English Festival was born.”
Mitchell also praised Louis Gianetti, a retired film professor from Case, whom she called a “film guru” as an adviser for the two of them.
“We’re still in touch with him,” she said. “He’s been a wonderful mentor.”
The two have written a second book and are working on a third one.
“Royal Portraits in Hollywood: Filming the Lives of Queens,” the second book, came about when the women realized they had been seeing a lot of biopics about queens.
“Our original idea was to look at biopics of women,” Ford said. “It was going to be chronological, and the first movies about women were about queens.”
“The first chapter was huge,” Mitchell added, “so I said, ‘Why don’t we just write about queens?’”
What does this say about women and culture and power?
To write this book, the two completed mounds of research and even traveled to Europe.
“We read a gazillion biographies,” Ford said. “We went to Versailles, where they let Sophia Coppola shut down the whole front court to film her movie about Marie Antoinette.”
“We traveled to England, Scotland, Italy and France to research,” Mitchell said. “In England we went to the National Portrait Gallery and were in the Tudor Gallery when an elementary class and their teacher came in. She was asking them questions about the portraits, and every time she asked, their hands shot up because they knew who the subjects in the portrait were.”
“Going to those places lent authenticity to the films,” she continued.
“The conclusion [in the book] is that you get a private, not a public, view,” Ford said of the queens in the biopics.
Nominated by their publisher, the book received an honorable mention for the Susan Koppelman Award for Best Edited Volume in Women’s Studies in 2009. The award is given by the Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association.
Their current project is called “Filmageddon: The Dark Spectacle of Hollywood Films Post 9/11.”
“The films are dark and are getting darker,” said Mitchell, who is on sabbatical until January. “We see them blasted out week after week.”
“I’m the optimist here, so it’s kind of hard for me,” Ford added. “I’m writing a chapter just on trailers for apocalyptic films.”
“The topic’s not really uplifting,” Mitchell said, “but it’s lots of fun. It’s an intersection between what’s going on in culture and what’s going on in Hollywood.”
“We’re great patrons of the local theaters,” Ford concluded. “But if we can’t find a movie here, we go elsewhere.”