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Jewish Journal

‘Hysteria’ and the invention of the vibrator [VIDEO]

by Naomi Pfefferman

May 16, 2012 | 1:45 pm

Tanya Wexler’s film, “Hysteria,” a romantic comedy about the invention of the vibrator in Victorian England opening May 18, begins with a note to the audience: “This story is based on true events. 

Really.”

It’s preposterous from a 21st century perspective, but back in the 1880s the vibrator was used as a cure-all for the (bogus) diagnosis of “hysteria,” a catchall phrase for symptoms such as nymphomania, frigidity, and melancholia, as we’re told in the film, as well as just being unhappy with one’s husband or – gasp – a suffragette.  The malady “stems from an overactive uterus,” we’re told.  And the, er, hands-on treatment was “manual massage to paroxysm,” which was regarded as a perfectly non-sexual release of the nervous system, but is – in translation –  an orgasm.  All of this was accomplished perfectly clinically in the doctor’s office, as the women, decked out in full Victorian garb, spread their legs behind a curtain.

These historical facts struck the 41-year-old Wexler (“Finding North,” “Ball in the House”) – as well as her screenwriters, Stephen Dyer and Jonah Lisa Dyer—as hysterical.  “Both the doctors and the patients seemed not to realize that there was anything sexual going on, and that just made me laugh so hard, like you can’t see the nose on your face, so to speak, ba-dump-bump,” Wexler said, with a resounding laugh at the Four Seasons hotel recently.  “It’s like they got the cure right, and the disease wrong.

“But if you make a film about the invention of the vibrator, and that’s the joke, it’s maybe a 15-minute sketch, so for me the joke was about the cultural denial that was going on,” she added.  “People back then didn’t think women’s sexuality existed.”

The idea for the movie came to Wexler via producer Tracey Becker, who suggested the vibrators-and-Victorians premise. “I [immediately] said, ‘I’m in,’” Wexler said with another booming laugh.

While the concept of hysteria and its massage “cure” is historically accurate, the story and characters are largely fictionalized.  There really was a Dr. Mortimer Granville, who invented an electrical device called Granville’s Hammer—ostensibly to be used for soothing muscle aches but which was quickly appropriated to scratch another kind of itch. A fictional version of Granville is the hero of the film; as played by Hugh Dancy, he’s an idealistic young doctor who goes to work for hysteria expert Dr. Robert Dalrymple (Jonathan Pryce), who literally needs another set of hands to service the women of all ages who frequent his clinic.  The fictional Mortimer eventually invents the vibrator as a laborsaving device after he gets hand cramps from massaging women all day long. 

Along the way, he romances Dalrymple’s prim daughter, Emily (Felicity Jones) while sparring with his older daughter, Charlotte (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a champion of women’s rights, as romantic sparks fly. 

The film is the latest in a series of projects that aim to realistically depict women’s sexuality:  In David Cronenberg’s “A Dangerous Method” (2011), Keira Knightley’s character suffers violent outbursts as a result of sadomasochistic desires stemming from childhood abuse; in HBO’s “Girls,” created by 25-year-old Lena Dunham, four twentysomething New York galpals are often reduced to bad sex on filthy couches.

In person, Wexler is a hoot, delivering one-liners at lightning speed, coming off more like a bawdy comedian than the director of a film about Victorian morays. Raised by a Catholic mother and a Jewish father in Chicago, Wexler said she strongly identifies as Jewish, quipping that while she’s unsure how many Jewish women used vibrators in the late 19th century, “If you’re really tired, it’s probably a bummer on Shabbat.”

Wexler had to watch her tribal sense of humor while making the movie: “I had to pull back from my Borsht Belt sensibilities,” she said.  “There’s an old sitcom saying, ‘Think Yiddish, speak British,’ and in a way, there are a lot of those kinds of jokes in my movie.  They could’ve been done with, like, Shecky Green and a rim shot, but we had people in these ridiculous dresses saying the lines.  I know there was, underneath, a bit of shtick, but having proper Victorian people say it just made it all the funnier.”

So how did Wexler approach all those treatments to “paroxysm?”  “It’s funny, but in my head, I just knew how to shoot them instantly,” she recalled.  “Jonathan’s character had a ‘This is like polishing furniture’ kind of approach; ‘it’s just tiresome, tedious work.’  And Mortimer had a more scientific approach.  And the women were in full corsets, full dresses and hats, which is just ridiculous and therefore funny.

“I knew it was about the reaction shots – the contrast between what the women were experiencing which were orgasms, and what the guys were experiencing, which was science and technology and labor and work. But the thing I was most concerned about with the orgasm scenes was getting the sound right, because I didn’t want it to sound too porn-y, and if it sounded too comic, we wouldn’t believe it either…. In the end, we realized that if the women sounded like they were having fun and enjoying themselves and laughing, it worked.”

I had to ask Wexler:  What were the good doctors actually touching during the massage sequences? “I was very concerned that Hugh and Jonathan would have something to actually manipulate, because it changes how you stand and how your body weight falls,” Wexler replied.  “I spent nights up before we shot trying to figure out what to put down there, and I had all sorts of ridiculous ideas.  And Hugh looked around and said, ‘There’s always a million sand bags available on the set to hold down the lights – why don’t we take one of them, put it under the curtain and be done with it?’  And it was too simple; it was just perfect.  But Jonathan Pryce got so into it that he rubbed the skin off the knuckle of one of his fingers.”

Wexler gifted modern vibrators to every member of her cast and crew;  when that raised eyebrows among some of the men, she offered some practical advice.  “Dude, it’s not competition, it’s a member of your team,” she said.

“Hysteria” opens on May 18.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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Naomi Pfefferman Magid is the arts & entertainment editor of the Jewish Journal, where she’s spent the last quarter century interviewing everyone from Seth Rogen, Natalie...

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