Love and longing before there was Sex and the City
Poet Emily Dickenson portrayed by Cynthia Nixon
“Success is counted sweetest, By those who ne’er succeed,” wrote Emily Dickenson in one of the seven poems she published during her lifetime.
Those lines must have played on the minds of the filmmakers behind A Quiet Passion, a biopic of the reclusive nineteenth century poet. Production suffered setback after setback while bringing the story to the screen.
Five years after being offered the role Cynthia Nixon said, “I never thought it would come together. I thought, ‘Thank you for thinking of me, it is a good part for me but I don’t see how you are going to get this made.’”
The former Sex and the City star often thought about the project but claims she was never impatient at the film’s lack of progress.
“I started acting as a 12-yearold and I went to a very tough school and what that taught me was that when I was up for a job that I really wanted and I didn’t get, I would think to myself, ‘At least I don’t have to do double duty. I don’t have to do school and work.’ Now I have three children and am married. I run a household so when I am not working, I feel it less than other people.
“If you are in something for the long haul you are not constantly taking its temperature.”
It took years but Nixon and director Terence Davies succeeded in telling Dickenson’s story, bringing to cinematic life not only the facts — she was reclusive and never married — but also the essence of a person with an insatiable need to question societal norms.
“The questions she is asking as a person and as a woman,” says Nixon, “they are big questions. How do I deal with all this love I feel? What does it mean to be intimate with another person? Will I lose myself and do I want to lose myself? I think she was so ahead of her time in thinking these things were an option, like whether she would marry or not. For her that was a question. It wasn’t like she was dying to get married and didn’t. She chose not to. Whether she was going to be a mother or not. These are questions that women today deal with as a matter of course but most nineteenth century women would not have even stopped to consider.”
Nixon says Dickenson’s ideas and words have been a constant in her life. “We had a record at home of Julie Harris reading some of the poems and the letters. I would listen to them again and again so some of the better-known poems and letters I learned by heart.”
Dickenson died 130 years ago but Nixon feels there are timely elements in A Quiet Passion for today’s audiences.
“If you think about the mid nineteenth century in America and you think about the issues we were dealing with in terms of women, it is a straight line from there to here. We’ve obviously come very far but it is exactly the same issues. Are women going to be treated equally?
She saw the jump between the way things are supposed to be and the way things are, and she didn’t try to wallpaper over anything.”
Five years after being offered the role as Emily Dickenson, actress Cynthia Nixon thought the film would never come together, writes Richard Crouse.