Released in 1952, The Member of the Wedding contains the simplest, greatest expression of queer desire any film ever articulated: “The we of me.”
The odd turn of phrase is coined by Frankie Addams, a 12-year-old white girl in the American South during the Jim Crow era. Frankie was conceived by novelist Carson McCullers to represent her own sexual ambiguity. When McCullers adapted her book into a stage play in 1950, the role made actress Julie Harris a theater legend. But the film version of The Member of the Wedding is itself legendary: It is one of the first movies to encapsulate essential gay and American social concerns.
Frankie and the other main characters, black housekeeper Berenice (played by musical theater star Ethel Waters) and Frankie’s androgynous little cousin John Henry (Brandon de Wilde), comprise a tight-knit unit of outsiders, and the audience becomes immersed in their world. It’s impossible not to.
These three social outcasts are boldly intimate, but not sentimental. Together, they preserve McCullers’s queer sensibility — a unique consciousness that long predates what we now call “intersectionality.” Here, it’s just humanity.
Fred Zinnemann, a director esteemed for crafting films with a social consciousness, frames McCullers’s vision in accessible terms. McCullers’s language is so sharply articulate and rich that her syntax arranges queer ideas into a common understanding. Frankie formulates “the we of me” when she becomes attached to the idea of her older brother’s forthcoming marriage. The imminent event triggers her own yearning for romance, companionship, acceptance, and love. How those separate concepts cohere makes the movie avant-garde — for both the mid-20th century and today.
Few movie versions of stage plays are as emotional as this, in large part because of its majestic characterizations — moving, relatable performances — and McCullers’s verbal poetry. Although the film’s queer undertones were not originally discussed much, McCullers’s tackling of gender and race in her writing can be clearly appreciated today. It is an exploration into identity — not as a political concept but as a personal realization. Frankie instinctively connects to marriage as a traditional ritual rather than a societal right. Like the stalwart Berenice, enduring the hardships of her caste, Frankie desires fulfillment:
The trouble with me is that for a long time I have been just an “I” person. All people belong to a “we” — except me. When Berenice says “we,” she means her lodge and church and colored people. Soldiers can say “we” and mean the Army. Until this afternoon I didn’t have a “we” and now… I suddenly realize that the bride and my brother are the “we” of me... I love the two of them so much, we belong to be together. I love them so much, because they are the “we” of me.
Even if you don’t know this speech, you have already felt its power in your life. The rhythmed words “belong to be together” rectify the alienation that queer people experience, transforming it not into a type of tribalism, but rather a greater sense of humanity.
Tomboyish, 27-year-old Harris portrayed the physical and mental world of a 12-year-old not as a child but as a sentient, queer human. Frankie doesn’t “come of age” as the old movie cliché goes. McCullers’s glorious storytelling shows her coming to consciousness. And Zinnemann’s images (along with maternal Berenice’s stern guidance) are with her every step of the way.
Frankie completes her character arc by promising that she is “leaving this town for good, for it is inevitable.” This notion of an inevitable escape improves on what Lady Gaga reduced to being “born this way.” It is the possibility of transition and mobility that brings many queer people to the big city but which only a few films have explored.
The Member of the Wedding is a lyrical experience; you have to feel its rhythm and emotion, not just the literal meaning of its language. Frankie Addams is a great young heroine. Like us, she is trying to understand herself and build a connection with the world.
McCullers and Zinnemann illuminate personal courage, not trendy politics, which is why this film wasn’t fully appreciated in its time, garnering only an Oscar nomination for Harris.
But even now, as society breaks apart into cliques and partisan activism, McCullers’s “we of me” philosophy prevails.