Matt Pais, @mattpais
RedEye movie critic
May 22, 2012
Talk about a memorable movie pitch.
“This is the vibrator movie you can bring your mom to,” says “Hysteria” director Tanya Wexler, who grew up in Lincoln Park. “You want to see something about the vibrator that you can’t bring your mom to? I can tell you where to go: It’s called the Internet and you can see anything that makes you uncomfortable about the vibrator you ever wanted any day of the week. I think ‘Hysteria’ has a little more meat on its bones.”
Wexler’s right. Her romantic comedy about the doctor (Hugh Dancy) who invented the vibrator in 1880 London for healing purposes—an extension of his work offering “pelvic massage” to women diagnosed with hysteria—hinges on the unlikely synthesis of Victorian England and a now widely available sex toy without the female oppression or graphic sexuality that might imply.
At the Peninsula Hotel, the 41-year-old filmmaker who now lives in New York talked about her own discovery of the vibrator, how sexuality makes people blush and what celebs might want a certain something as a gift. She also recognized that a scene in the movie, in which a man acts as if allowing women to control the rights of their bodies would be like teaching them to fly, has taken on new resonance in the wake of recent political action.
“That was the part of the script that made me go, ‘See, oh my God. See how far we’ve come!,’” she says. “And now it makes me go, ‘Mmm, still kinda resonant.’”
Without getting too personal, at what age do you feel like you became aware of the vibrator, and what would that version of yourself say if you could tell her she was going to make a movie about its invention?
[Laughs.] Gosh! Wow! I need one of these. [Fist-bumps me.] You totally just asked me a question I’ve never been asked. That’s blankety-blank awesome. That’s [bleeping] awesome. I mean, aware like I knew they existed, or aware like aware? [Laughs.]
Whatever you want to tell me ...
When did “Parenthood” come out?
So I was 19 … so around then. I remember there’s a scene where someone in that family comes out, and it is in Dianne Wiest’s house in that scene, and brings out a white dildo-shaped vibrator and goes, “What’s this?!” right in the middle of chaos. Everyone stops and looks and Dianne Wiest goes, “An electric ear-cleaner, honey!” And everyone laughs. I remember that still. And some horribly creepy movie with Anthony Hopkins where there was a horrible vibrator dildo stabby weapon where he plays some psycho killer. Not Anthony Hopkins, the other one, who plays Norman Bates?
Anthony Perkins. Somethingkins. I can’t remember what it’s called.
What would the 19-year-old version of yourself say knowing she’d make a movie about this?
The 19-year-old version of myself would say, “I’m going to make a movie?!” [Laughs.] I didn’t know I wanted to be a film director until I was 21. Literally I remember because I thought I was going to be an actor. And if I thought I was going to make a movie at 19, I would have been like, “I’m going to be in a movie about the vibrator?”
“Leave me alone; I just discovered the vibrator.”
Exactly, that’s what my 19-year-old self would have said. “Finally! Where have you been all my life?” As soon as I knew I wanted to direct I would not have been surprised by that.
“Hysteria” begins by saying, “This story is based on true events. Really.” Why do you think people might not believe this?
[Laughs.] I don’t know, what about you? Why do you think? I think that’s the big joke, actually. I think the big joke is not the vibrator; I think the big joke is this really happened. This was the treatment for hysteria and the vibrator was invented for a man. It was a time-saving, labor-saving device for a guy. And probably still is. [Laughs.] When guys get threatened by it, you should be like, “Dude, we’re not trying to replace you. Just give you a break!” [Laughs.]
How unfortunate is it that it’s still a subject that makes people blush? Especially at a time when politically some people are trying to tiptoe—or take giant leaps—backwards as far as women’s rights? You’d think that after more than 100 years, people might not be so squeamish about sexuality.
It’s funny, that. I think that I have as much of an inner adolescent as anyone else. So I can get all Beavis and Butthead—[laughs like Butthead]—I still have that. I think it would be kind of boring if I was so evolved that I didn’t think sex was ever funny. But I think that there’s a difference between, “I can’t handle it” laughing and, “Yeah, it’s funny. It’s funny when you fall off the bed and…” And have a sense of humor. I think that we take ourselves far too—I wouldn’t say far too seriously because I think things are very serious—but too solemnly maybe. It’s weird to me now. I’ve gotten stopped at the airport so many times for having a vibrator in my suitcase. Just the last few times I almost missed my plane because I’m always bringing them to people and we have little giveaways and I don’t like to check my bag. The last two times I’ve gotten stopped. The first time I was like, pulled to the side. “Do you have any powder in your bag?” “No, it’s a vibrator.” [Chuckles.] The second time, I’m like, “Dude, there’s a vibrator in my bag.” Now I have a little ziplock case where I keep them and I just like throw ‘em out of the suitcase and throw ‘em in the things, “There’s vibrators there!”
Do they start giggling?
You gotta think these people see everything, but I think it is how you lead, the whole squeamish thing. If you act uncomfortable, they’ll act uncomfortable. If you go, “There’s a vibrator in there,” [they’ll say] “Oh, OK.” Now that I’m out of the vibrator closet so to speak, in that way I’ve gotten comfortable with it. What’s the big deal? It’s our bodies. We’re most embarrassed by what we carry around with us all day long and how we’re built. I think that blows my mind. And we’re not as embarrassed by what we do to other people in the name of karmic stuff.
What do you say to viewers who see this movie and say, “I think I would like to get into the field of pelvic massage”?
[Laughs.] I’d say, “Well, find a willing partner.”
But don’t try to major in it in college.
It seems that it would now be classed as sex work as opposed to medicine for the most part, and therefore you probably only have one state in the union where you could actually do it.
Let’s say you had a handful of vibrators that you wanted to gift.
I love that. That’s a good western title. “A Pocketful of Vibrators.” “A Fistful of Vibrators!”
And you had to send them to celebs you didn’t know. Who would you send them to?
I’ve given a bunch to celebrities. You want me to select who I think that given their current personalities would enjoy them, or might not know they’d enjoy them? I’m going to get in trouble. I am. Who would most enjoy them? Well, I think we all know that Angelina Jolie probably already enjoys them; she’s probably stated as such. So that’s kind of not surprising. The person that popped into my head was Hillary Clinton.
She travels a lot. I think “that poor woman.” Between the jet lag and the traveling, she’d be very happy.
She doesn’t want to answer those questions at the airport.
She doesn’t need to. She’s got her own plane, baby! She flies private. It’s fine; she can just leave ‘em on the airplane. Anyone who travels a lot. Maggie [Gyllenhaal] and I both got sent tons and tons and tons. I’m developing something with Paula Patton and I told her I’d send her a bunch and she’s like, “Cool,” but you can tell she’d be great. She’s awesome and she’s so gorgeous and smart and funny. It’s not OK; there’s some really dumb, ugly person who she took all their gorgeous, smart, funny. I’m trying to think who else who I really think would be made very happy. I would like to send one to Tina Fey just to see the reaction shot. I think there’d be a great Liz Lemon response there. That’s why I would like to send her one. I know that Maggie’s going to go on Letterman, and I really hope she just turns one on and puts it on the desk. Mostly I just want to see how people react.
On Chicago food: “I’m here in my town of food coma joy. I was like, ‘Why didn’t we just get a Dutch Baby for lunch? I want an apple pancake!’ The best stuff is leftover half of that the next day and you’re like, everyone goes and is slicing off a 16th but every 20 minutes. ‘I took a little bite, how is it all gone?’ [The Original Pancake House in the Gold Coast] is my childhood, I have to do it that way. It makes me really happy in an ‘I’m going to get diabetes’ kind of way. I gotta get the stuffed pizza, I gotta get Carson’s. I can’t do all of them every trip because I would die.”
Guilty pleasure movie: “Aliens.” “I love a good hot kickass chick.”
On Second City: “In high school there were a couple months where I’d go every week.”
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