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Blond ambition

Mira Nair spins Thackeray's classic heroine in Vanity Fair


Before the gold-diggers of '30s cinema, before the Cosmo girl, before Anna Nicole Smith and her dehydrated millionaire, there was Becky Sharp, a girl from humble origins who connived and charmed her way through the social ranks of 19th-century London in William Makepeace Thackeray's classic novel Vanity Fair.

Some claim Margaret Mitchell modeled her own self-interested Southern belle-outta-hell Scarlett O'Hara on Thackeray's willful Becky, who travels from abject poverty to social prominence via marriage to proper gentleman Rawdon Crawley.

Becky Sharp's ability to climb the social ladder has often led critics to describe Thackeray's character as "amoral," but Indian-born film director Mira Nair (Monsoon Wedding), who adapted the novel, is far more appreciative of her heroine's blond ambition.

"Unlike a Jane Austen heroine, who would have to wait and hope that she'll be proposed to, Becky didn't have any of those weapons," says Nair. "Her only ammunition was herself. And that was something I think Thackeray loved about her, because in a way, he was also an outsider in his own society."

Dressed in a rich, eggplant-colored tunic and pants for a press junket at Atlanta's Four Seasons, the 46-year-old Nair is the picture of a modern, sophisticated woman who also enjoys embracing her Indian heritage.

Like Thackeray, Nair straddles two worlds -- born into India's solid middle class and then educated at Harvard.

Though born in Calcutta, Thackeray eventually returned to England where he was unhappily groomed, according to the strictures of his tribe, into an English gentleman. But his entry into the undignified profession of newspaper journalism and his marriage to a penniless Irish woman marred his gentlemanly credentials. That divided consciousness made him uniquely conscious of English society's many hypocrisies, which he sent up in novels such as Vanity Fair and Barry Lyndon that centered on terminal outsiders.

Nair's multifaceted work has also often focused on outsiders, from the Bombay strippers in her 1985 documentary India Cabaret, to the Cuban exiles living in Miami in The Perez Family. It thus seemed almost inevitable that Nair would one day turn to Vanity Fair, which she's loved since she first read it as a 16-year-old growing up in Orissa, India.

"It's such a banquet of a novel. And I think it has so much to say about the human condition, and it's so complicated and funny and his point of view is so interesting and so much one I share; being clear-eyed about the hypocrisy of his own society."

Reese Witherspoon plays Nair's Becky as a beguiling charmer, a plucky Pollyanna who drifts like a life raft on the waves of the class system, letting the water carry her where it may. With her pointy chin set to deflect difficulty and the perky strains of Mychael Danna's music ornamenting her progress, Becky's rise through the ranks of the British aristocracy seems most indebted to the sunny, ambitious blond bombshell Elle Woods in Legally Blonde.

For all the talk of female strength and empowerment in 2004, this revisionist Becky illustrates how deeply uncomfortable most viewers are with a self-willed woman whose motives are strictly business, as the populist delight in Martha Stewart's downfall shows.

If Becky does not exactly live up to the iconoclastic strengths of Thackeray's heroine, Nair's adaptation of Vanity Fair has charms all its own.

Nair's film is especially accomplished for its insights into the cruelty of the British class system. It was the British colonialist forays into her home country of India, after all, that established the socially striving middle class of England, part of what Thackeray dubbed the era's "Vanity Fair."

"Thackeray wrote very carefully about the relationship between the colonies and the empire. And he wrote about a time in this world when the middle class of England was first feeling the flush of wealth in the colonies."

For Vanity Fair, Nair worked with Gosford Park screenwriter Julian Fellowes (and Matthew Faulk), who so powerfully conveyed the painful, vicious timbre to the divide between upstairs and downstairs in British society.

Class in Nair's Vanity Fair registers on a deep and personal level. It divides families, justifies the ugliest forms of racism and makes social standing even more important than love. In its best moments, Nair's adaptation of Vanity Fair shows how entrapping and deadening England's tomb of social status could be, and how the vibrant, joyous freedom offered by India was its spiritual antidote.

Vanity Fair may be Nair's riposte to the country that occupied her own for so long: an assertion that for all the country gained in personal wealth, it also lost in humanity.

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