“Oh, fuck you! Those are heirlooms. My family heirlooms!”
Wild-eyed and bunny-eared with her Appalachian drawl, Amy Adams’ Bev Vance delivers those lines with the pathos and conviction of a woman who just lost her cherished, long held inherited treasures, passed down from generation to generation of country folk. What are these heirlooms of which she speaks, or more accurately seethes at her “flavor of the month” cop boyfriend Chip as Whitney Houston euphorically wails “I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me)” in the background?
Eggs. No, not Fabergé eggs. Old eggs preserved from Easters past, reeking with that sour smell of sulfur, cheap dye, and probably Mamaw’s favored menthols. Like any prized possessions, these eggs are displayed with pride, hung pathetically from a skeletal husk of a tree. Do you doubt their sentimental meaning? Well, as she says earlier, “Whatever. It’s a memory and I’m gonna have it when I’m old.”
The destroyer of Bev’s beloved eggs is J.D., her “lard ass” son (played in his younger years by Owen Asztalos) who charges into her honored arrangement while running after a new puppy that pissed on Bev’s carpet. Do you think she handled that calmly? Of course not! “Bad dog you are a bad dog. He does that again, I’ll fucking kill him!” she screeches, before chuckling darkly: “He just pisses wherever the hell he wants! Should fit in just fine around here!”
Immediate camp ecstasy.
Between her guttural and grief-stricken cry for her “family heirlooms” and threatening to murder a puppy, I knew I was in love with Bev, the true star of Ron Howard’s much-maligned film Hillbilly Elegy. With her Tonya Harding bangs and manic stare, Bev belongs in the camp canon of bad or at the very least, unhinged mothers. Dawn Davenport. Beverly Sutphin. Dee Dee Blanchard. LaVona Golden. Precious’ Mary. Joan Crawford. Mildred Pierce. Meet Bev Vance.
Now, it should come as no surprise that I loved Hillbilly Elegy, a film that has been slandered by most critics, endowing it with an admirable 25% rating on Rotten Tomatoes (meanwhile that lesbian Christmas night terror The Happiest Season garnered 84%. How?! Are we supposed to enjoy Kristen Stewart being locked in the basement and the closet?). I’ll admit, I have a natural affinity for cinema that everybody else finds abhorrent. Remember Cats? Well, critics have ripped apart Hillbilly Elegy with such savage viciousness that even before I watched, it was my favorite film of the year: a white trash version of Cats, meaning failed Oscar-bait filled with prestige career actors demeaning themselves. This is what happens when you don’t shower Amy Adams with awards like she deserves! And like Cats, Hillbilly Elegy makes for riotous viewing for anyone with a sense of humor. What a shame we can’t see films in theaters for fear of contagion. I know I’d risk reinfection to see Bev on the big screen!
Based on venture capitalist and Yale grad (yuck!) J.D. Vance’s bestselling 2016 memoir Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, the film documents J.D. (played in his older incarnation by Gabriel Basso) as he returns to Middletown, Ohio and subsequently reflects on his white trash upbringing after Bev overdoses on heroin. Granted, the moral of the story in both the book (which, admittedly, I haven’t read out of fear of breaking the intoxicating spell of the film) and the movie seems to be a conservative “pick yourself up by your bootstraps” self-made individualistic morality tale as J.D. manages to break the cycle of teen pregnancy, addiction, and poverty by making it at Sociopath University. Now, he clearly didn’t do this alone, nurtured by the hardened strength of Glenn Close’s tough love Mamaw who seems to have raised J.D. on the basis of threats, both spoken and unspoken, and secondhand smoke alone.
However, J.D.’s elite male Cinderella narrative is perhaps the least interesting part of the film. Who cares if he makes his final interview with a law firm, driving all night after leaving strung-out Bev with her Funyuns in a bed bug-infested motel room? I certainly don’t! Spend more time with your Mama, J.D.! This doesn’t mean he doesn’t have his moments, namely his contentious dinner with a bunch of snotty upper-class lawyers at his self-made Ivy League hell. Faced with an intimidatingly large table setting, J.D., in a panic, calls his girlfriend Usha (Freida Pinto) and exclaims with exasperation: “Why are there so many fucking forks?!” But in general, J.D. is a big ole bore, both as an adult and a child. He sees himself as better than his tacky family, even as a young irritant, demanding Mamaw change the channel to Meet the Press rather than her hundredth viewing of Terminator. How dare he?!
It’s the female leads–Mamaw and Bev, two over-the-top representations of poor white trash femininity– that raise the film up to an instant camp classic as they, from scene to scene, create dramatic, overwrought upheaval. Take, for instance, their dual introductions. We first meet the family on vacation in Jackson, Kentucky, as Bev bursts out of a rundown home in jean short overalls shouting “Hey old woman! You packed?” Mamaw clearly wasn’t ready to leave as she raises her nicotine-stained middle finger up high and growls: “Perch and swivel.” Aren’t these two lovely? Family!
The delicious excess of the trash aesthetic and its easy slide into a camp masterpiece were apparently lost on critics who seem determined to prevent anyone from truly enjoying this film with headlines like “Everything About Netflix’s Hillbilly Elegy Movie is Awful.” New York Magazine, in particular, has created a cottage industry out of insulting the film with a staggering amount of content inspired by a cinematic abomination they supposedly hate, but clearly don’t mind the clicks. They even published not one, but two bad reviews: “Who Is Hillbilly Elegy For?” (Me) and “Hillbilly Elegy Is Not The Fun Kind Of Bad” (Yes, it is, you bore!).
Some of the critics’ disgust with the film rests on the initial misunderstanding of Vance’s memoir, which because of its release in early 2016, was seen as a primer for explaining Trump’s 2016 election victory. To these critics, the film isn’t political enough. Well, does every film have to be a humorless manifesto on identity politics? What do they want: Mamaw in a MAGA hat? Papaw dancing to “Y.M.C.A.”?Even the critics who deride the perpetual obsession with the white working class in publications like The New York Times seem to desire the same from the film. Does every film about Black southern people need to be about Joe Biden now too? Or is that fixation reserved for Trump voters alone?
Nobody said Hillbilly Elegy had to be a dissertation on white trash in America, Trump cult members, or the hundreds of years of those in power pitting poor whites against, well, everyone else in order to maintain a class hierarchy that was beneficial to them, and only them. If you want that, read Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class In America. Hillbilly Elegy, though, does touch on part of the struggles faced by those living in Appalachia: the opioid epidemic, the lack of any systemic or structural support for healthcare or addiction treatment, generational trauma, poverty and how it impacts children, their education and prospects, hunger, and the faded promise of American industry.
But even more than its perceived apoliticality, critics did not like the camp performances. Not one bit! New York Magazine finger-wags, “…the most offensive performance of the film belongs to Amy Adams, who shrieks, squeals, and flails through scene after dreadful scene. As Vance’s mother, who suffers from undiagnosed mental-health issues and an eventual substance abuse problem, Adams is a banshee.” I don’t know about you, but that’s all I look for in a film. Likewise, Vox takes offense at Glenn Close’s description of her embodiment of Mamaw as “full drag”: “There’s nothing noble about presenting ordinary people as larger-than-life caricatures who must be performed in ‘full drag.’” Well, what’s wrong with full drag, huh?!
On the one hand, I get it. Hillbilly Elegy comes in a long line of supposedly “unflattering” media representations of Appalachian–hillbilly–trash as the marginalized Other, as shown in Isenberg’s White Trash and the more recent 2019 documentary Hillbilly. Isenberg articulates, “Like rednecks, hillbillies were seen as cruel and violent, but with most of their anger directed at neighbors, family members, and “furriners” (unwelcomed strangers). Like the legendary Hatfields and McCoys in the 1880s, they were known for feuding and explosive bouts of rage. When they weren’t fighting, they were swilling moonshine and marrying off their daughters at seven. Like the squatter of old, they were supposedly given to long periods of sloth. Stories spread of shotgun marriages, accounts of bare-foot and pregnant women.” From Deliverance to Hee Haw to my personal watch-list entry, 1961’s “smash hit” Poor White Trash with the tagline “It exists Today!…Poor White Trash,” poor white people have been the butt of the joke, allowing audiences to define themselves as certainly not that.
Yet, as us denizens of camp know, camp denies that feeling of superiority–we’re all in the gutter, together! “Camp doesn’t preach; it demeans,” writes David M. Halperin in How To Be Gay. “But it doesn’t demean some people at other people’s expense. It takes everybody down with it together.” Or as Quentin Crisp says more succinctly, “Never keep up with the Joneses. Drag them down to your level. It’s cheaper.” This could go far in explaining why many of these Hillbilly Elegy critics, including a roundtable at Vox, tout their rural roots, while, at the same time, distancing themselves from the too-muchness of these characters as much as they can.
Laughably, these same critics look to 2010’s Winter’s Bone as a worthy replacement for Hillbilly Elegy’s performative excess. Now, I don’t know about you, but I can certainly relate more to Mamaw’s pantry full of Sprite than chopping off the hands of my father’s corpse in order to prove he was, in fact, dead. Maybe there needs to be a little self-interrogation about what authenticity means to this crowd, hmm? How is a bunch of violent meth heads somehow less harmful than Bev making her son take her nursing license piss test?
Hell, Mamaw, to me, looks like everyone over 65 in Pennsylvania. And wow, does she cut a striking image in her oversized T-shirts emblazoned with faded and worn cardinals and kitties with her grey mop of hair, large glasses, ruddy complexion, and cigarette-thinned grimace. When she isn’t reciting her favorite Arnold Schwarzenegger lines or staring in horror at her own daughter, which appears to be what she does most of the time, she’s dolling out foul-mouthed observations such as: “If that McCall boy had an idea, it’d die of loneliness,” “I don’t give a rat fart what you’re smoking, kid. If you think you’re hiding it, you’re dumb as a bag of hair,” “You know what’s interesting about the Poles? They like to bury their dead with their asses sticking out of the ground. That way they got a place to park their bikes,” or “His no-good mother behind the curtains–wouldn’t spit on her ass if her guts were on fire!”
Mamaw also stars in a scene that rivals Female Trouble for one of the best Christmas family pastorals in my memory. In a flashback occurring when J.D. and his sister Lindsay (played by Haley Bennett) argue in the parking lot of a rehab facility with a haggard post-OD Bev in the car, a young Mamaw and Papaw fight. She screams: “You come home drunk one more time, I’m gonna light your ass on fire!” And you know what? She does, illuminated by the warm glow of the Christmas tree.
Ultimately, even though this scene makes me want to sing “O Tannenbaum” at the top of my lungs, Mamaw’s star fades in the shadow of Bev’s perpetual shrieking hysteria. Bev is a woman possessed. She throws pee sample jars, she mocks store owners, she elopes (“You’re getting married?” “I GOT married!”), she laughs at her neighbors’ domestic violence, she gets 5150-ed in the middle of the street, she refuses rehab, she has a public fight with her junkie boyfriend Ray who throws her clothes out the window (“You’re a hillbilly loser! You ain’t even got any of your teeth!”), she hisses lines straight out of a John Waters movie (“I worked at this hospital before you had ZITS!”). And if you’re not inspired by her drug-fueled roller-skate set to Bananarama’s “Cruel Summer” through the ICU, I don’t know what to say. Why are you reading this?
It’s hard to describe just how inspiring Bev is, but one scene stands out. Fleeing in her car after shoplifting football cards for J.D. as an apology for the egg heirloom incident, Bev quickly switches from giggling excitement to frenetic madness after J.D. mentions that his friend calls Bev’s revolving door of boyfriends her “flavor of the month.” Suddenly, she stomps on the gas pedal. Her jaw clenches: “You let that little shit talk about your mom like that? After all I’ve done for you?!” She shakes her head, accelerating. “I could crash this car and I could kill us,” she says with a thousand-yard stare, veering into oncoming traffic. “Then you would know how lucky you are.” J.D. freaks out, somewhat understandably, yet I assume this is a regular occurrence for those around Bev. As he crawls into the backseat, she slams on the brakes and turns to smack him:
“Just look at yourself, you little fat ass!”
Eventually, he escapes the car as she chases him down into a nearby house where a woman protects him with her vicious Corgis (“I got dogs and they BITE!”). Bev breaks through the woman’s screen door, drags J.D. down the stairs, and ends up in the back of a cop car.
Now, some would find this scene disturbing, and yet I could only reflect on other beloved bad mother scenes, including Joan Crawford’s furious “Get out before I kill you!” as Mildred Pierce to Faye Dunaway’s representation of the aforementioned actress herself in Mommie Dearest (“WHY CAN’T YOU GIVE ME THE RESPECT THAT I’M ENTITLED TO?!). Both these lines are rivaled by Bev’s “Just look at yourself, you little fat ass!” In his tome How To Be Gay, David M. Halperin analyzes these two scenes as a means to figure out why Crawford and her “portrayal of strong women who nonetheless fall victim, at least for a while, to the potential horror and tragedy of normal family life” have become such touchstones for gay culture. And because of that, his analysis is useful in looking at just why Bev similarly deserves her rightful spot in the camp canon.
Seeking out the varying responses to Crawford, Halperin cites two distinct categories of user reviews of Mommie Dearest on Amazon. The first is pearl-clutching moralizing from those who are taking the film, in all its outrageousness, at face value. For instance, one review reads: “I find nothing funny about it. It has the usual jokes now and then, but truly I’ve never even cracked a smile while watching this movie, it was never meant to be funny. There is nothing funny about child abuse, alcoholism, or any of the other themes shown in this movie.” Halperin responds, “Earnest, judgmental, sententious, moralistic, therapeutic, literal: How much straighter can you get? Could anyone doubt that these views, with their essentially documentary relation to the movie and its supposedly serious portrayal of important social and psychological problems, could spring from anything but a heterosexual culture, regardless of the sexuality of the individuals who penned those remarks?”
The second set of reviews was from us, the camp viewers (“If you don’t love this movie, you’re dead”), who watched Crawford’s terrible maternal instincts with perverse glee. Now, is child abuse or addiction funny in Mommie Dearest or in Hillbilly Elegy? Not exactly, but a camp reading of both films doesn’t erase the seriousness or the trauma. Instead, it gives it the respect it’s entitled to: by laughing at–or perhaps with–its exaggerated abjection. “Camp undoes the solemnity with which heterosexual society regards tragedy,” Halperin observes, “but camp doesn’t evade the reality of the suffering that gives rise to tragedy. If anything, camp is a tribute to its intensity. Camp returns to the scene of trauma and replays that trauma on a ludicrously amplified scale–so as to drain it of its pain and, in so doing, to transform it. Without having to resort to piety, camp can register the enduring reality of hurt and make it culturally productive, thereby recognizing it without conceding to it the power to crush those whom it afflicts.”
Beyond being simply entertainment (and boy, it is fun), I see Bev’s howling, frenzied wrath to be more powerful. Her shrieks into the abyss–her frequent spells of “losing it”–are, at least to me, representations of the impotent fury of a woman trapped. As Halperin writes, “People in authority don’t have to yell and scream to get what they want. They simply make their wishes known.” Bev has been made into a monstrous whirlwind of unhinged outbursts not simply by drugs or poverty or her children or her own bad choices (though these all factor in, of course), but the impossibility of upward mobility for a white trash woman in America. With limited choices, prospects, and hope, she’s been crushed under the weight of the falsehood of the American Dream. And came out screaming.
Her constant references to her own wasted potential are a blatant indication of this. Before trying to drive headfirst into a truck, she rails at J.D.: “I was second in my class, out of 400 people. Did you know that?!…I could have done whatever I wanted, but I didn’t have somebody taking me to the library and telling me to go to college and going to help me pay for it.” Later in the film, she mocks, “What do you think I’ve been thinking about since I was 18 years-old, huh? Never had a life where I wasn’t thinking about the kids.”
So what does Bev have left when capitalism and trickle-down economics failed those women in Appalachia like her? Camp rage. Well…and drugs.
In this way, she echoes Joan’s deranged performances, though obviously of a different social strata. Halperin explains, “…the spectacle of women ‘losing it’ conveys not powerlessness but the frightening power of the downtrodden, when they finally snap under the burden of intolerable oppression. The two scenes from Mildred Pierce and Mommie Dearest display, according to this perspective, the uncanny terror of a womanliness that breaks through the norms of polite decorum and finally lets go.” He continues, “Abjection, moreover, can be just as powerful as glamour. Those who are relegated to the ranks of the unserious have no reason to behave themselves. Unconstrained as they are by propriety, they can become completely unrestrained. They have nothing to lose by “losing it.” They can afford to let themselves go, to be extravagant, to assert themselves through their undignified and indecent flamboyance.”
Bev has nothing to lose by losing it and everything to gain–our unending camp adoration.