Reversing the queer erasure of history, Wild Nights with Emily is the fun, gay romp that Emily Dickinson so deserves

click to enlarge Molly Shannon brings new depths to a famous poet's life in Wild Nights with Emily.
Molly Shannon brings new depths to a famous poet's life in Wild Nights with Emily.

Wild Nights with Emily, starring Molly Shannon as Emily Dickinson, takes the commonly accepted story about Dickinson — that she was a sexless recluse — and tears apart that myth with humor and PG-13 passion. Though the sensual scenes in Wild Nights are tame and fully clothed, Emily's poetry bursts with erotic undertones, leading many biographers to assume she was attracted to certain men. However, the movie seeks to set the record... queer. Writer/director Madeleine Olnek adapted the film from her 1999 play; both were based on historical letters and accounts from Dickinson's family members. So this isn't some outlandish "what-if" fiction.

Wikipedia defines "queer erasure" as "a heteronormative cultural practice where queer people are erased from cultural narratives." Though Dickinson's poetry is now praised and a fixture of "the canon," her sexuality has indeed been erased. In Wild Nights, we see this erasure occur literally when, after Emily's death, Mabel Todd (played by Amy Seimetz) — the story's egotistical, untrustworthy narrator (and mistress of Emily's brother Austin) — takes an eraser to Emily's love poems and "deletes" each mention of the name "Susan."

The love between Susan (Susan Ziegler) and Emily — close friends (wink) since childhood — drives the film. Emily refers to Susan as "the woman who I prefer." Susan lives one house away from Emily, and is technically married to Austin (Kevin Seal), making her Emily's sister-in-law. But rather than seeming icky, this detail comes across as a creative way for the pair to be together in a time when being "out" wasn't an option.

"Every poet has a muse," Emily says. And Susan is hers. Susan praises Emily's poems, encouraging her to keep writing even as rejections pile up.

Biographical comedy (with period costumes) is a tough genre to pull off, but Olnek succeeds. She pencils the facts back into history's homophobic erasures with Masterpiece Theatre-style strings and acting choices that slightly resemble an episode of Drunk History. Olnek also relies on what we might call "time irony" to elicit audience laugh-sighs at how little has changed since Emily's day. Thomas Wentworth Higginson, editor of The Atlantic, tells Emily in a private meeting, "We need to hear intelligent women's voices, but I am barely able to find any." I let out a "Wooooo, God!" at that line. It's the kind of excuse those in power still make today for lack of diversity — be it in their newspaper bylines, comedy lineups or music bills.

The most disappointing aspect of Wild Nights is the stiff delivery by the two actors who play young Emily and Susan; they often sound like they're in a school play. At times, the script can't decide whether it was avoiding all contraction words or embracing current abbreviations like "'kay." But overall, this film is the fun gay romp that Dickinson so deserves — unlike the joyless 2017 biopic A Quiet Passion starring Cynthia Nixon. The portrayal of Emily's sister Lavinia as Loopy Cat Lady of the family plays with our collective misconception of Emily as Sad Spinster. Wild Nights shows us that, actually, Emily lived a life rich with physical and emotional intimacy. It was her posthumous editors who got it wrong.

Like Emily Dickinson, I'm also a queer, Sagittarius, goth poet, and was therefore zero percent surprised to learn the Belle of Amherst was most likely super gay. It was in her poems all along. In Emily's lifetime, the publishing world wasn't ready for her wild style. Lacking a rhyme scheme and titles, Dickinson's "mysterious" poems were a hard sell. Susan tells her, "The way you write — it's new. People don't know what to make of it."

Perhaps now we're finally ready to accept the truth about the love that inspired Emily's poems. "It is Centre — there all the time," writes Emily in a letter to Susan. We queers have always been here. Historians just weren't looking. ♦

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