Wild Nights with Emily is an English major’s movie. I knew this even before Wikipedia confirmed for me that Madeleine Olnek, the writer/director (how rarely I get to write that phrase without a soul-destroying sigh alongside it), has a creative writing MFA—in fact, the film is an adaptation of her 1999 play of the same name.
One of the end cards of the film notes that in 1998, new spectrographic technology revealed that many of Dickinson’s letters and poems had been vandalized to disguise their original recipient: Susan Gilbert, whom Emily was intimately close with from adolescence until her death.
The dates on that revelation paint a picture in-and-of themselves, of an angry queer playwright raging at the fact that a fellow queer writer and fixture of the English class was deliberately and maliciously obscured for decades. That passionate, righteous anger is one that I’m sure many, many queer readers and filmgoers know, and it shines through in the finished film. It’s the kind of project where being in harmony with its emotional purpose will pull you through just about anything.
That’s not to say that the technical filmmaking is bad. Even at worst it is perfectly watchable in that way that still retains signs of its theatrical origins: monologues delivered to camera, deliberately stilted capital-H Historical dialogue between young Emily and Susan that would doubtlessly kill with physical comedy from actors on a stage, and a succession of scenes staged in drawing rooms.
At its best, it displays a joyful fondness for its subject—there’s a scene involving “The Yellow Rose of Texas” that made me burst out into applause in the middle of the theater. And the performances all click beautifully with the material. Molly Shannon in particular disappears into the titular role, playing a woman whose shyness indicates neither a lack of conviction nor an inability to connect.
But it’s the familiar frustration that really hits. The film opens at a posthumous reading of Dickinson’s work by its compiler (and coattail rider) Mabel Todd, who is performed by Amy Seimetz with all the loathsome charm of a Dolores Umbridge. Todd regales an audience of shocked society women with the accepted soundbites of Dickinson’s biography: that she was an unloved spinster, that some of her letters may possibly have been written to men she was pining after, and that she simply never bothered to submit her work prior to her death.
The rest of the film is dedicated to relentlessly dismantling those assertions, pointedly crosscutting from Todd’s smug mythologizing to the vibrant reality. It’s a balm to any queer viewer who’s ever found kinship in a historical figure, only to be condescendingly told that it’s not really like that. You can pick your equivocation from there: it’s projection, queerness apparently only exists in the wake of the civil rights movement, there wasn’t any record.
The film takes aim at the last in particular, ending on a poignant dual image of a grieving Susan washing her partner’s body alone in a room while Mabel Todd begins the work of literally erasing Susan’s name from history, the violent scratch of the eraser echoing shrill and violent through the speakers. “If there were more queer historical figures, wouldn’t there be records of it?” Not when the gatekeepers of history deliberately work to suppress or outright destroy any evidence of that love.
We are incredibly lucky that Dickinson’s work was preserved to such a degree that refutations of historical erasure are possible—few figures left such extensive documentation, whether because it would’ve had negative consequences or simply because they didn’t think their happiness would be important to subsequent generations. Often it is pop cultural mythologizing that leaves the most lasting impression, simply because it has a further reach and higher likelihood of preservation.
The otherwise excellent Hollywood history podcast You Must Remember This asked, in an episode about famous bisexual and anti-Nazi spy Marlene Dietrich, why so many people obsess over the sexual histories of celebrities, wondering if there weren’t much more interesting things that those people ought to be known for. This is a rather dismissive and narrow framing of the issue, for when people ask “was this historical figure queer,” they are not asking for the sweaty bedroom details (well, some people are) but for proof of their own existence—for the excavation of another obliterated piece of their cultural history.
Is it so wrong to do so, with revelation after revelation over the years of public figures forced to perform heterosexuality in order to make them more marketable, with those same marketers suppressing documentation of the truth by hook or by crook?
When Bohemian Rhapsody deliberately minimized acknowledgement of Freddie Mercury’s queerness (or worse, vilified it) in the first widely available fictionalization of Queen’s story, it set a narrative and a tone—a film lasts longer than a Behind the Music special or a biography, especially when the film is the legend the surviving band members wanted to create and enforce.
This battle for a voice is even harder when it comes to historical figures that came before the 20th century, as admirers of Dr. James Barry are well aware. Barry made incredible strides in gynecological surgery and he was a trans man, presenting male his entire adult life despite his family offering to pay to send him to countries where he could practice as a woman; in the end, he asked to be buried in the clothes he was found in, and it is only because that wish was not honored that the ensuing narrative took hold.
When Barry was revealed to have had a vagina, biographers took it as their cue to craft a picture of a woman cruelly forced to pretend to be a man in order to practice her craft—though one would think that, were that the case, Barry might have revealed it in order to save himself from the very serious sodomy charge he received in life. Regardless, his official biographies took the tack of casting him as a “woman all along,” sometimes saving his sex bits for a bit of spicy shock value to boot.
While modern biographers have fought hard to redress these myths, such as Sawbones’ short tribute, it didn’t stop major publishing house Little, Brown from recently approving and subsequently defending a fictionalized novel about Barry by EJ Levy, a woman who cannot open her mouth for the transphobia leaking out. In her many dismissive tirades against trans historians, Levy cited the official biographies that had misgendered Barry with “she” pronouns—since they were on the record, they were clearly now in the right.
So it goes: queer individuals are asked why there are no examples of queer culture throughout history, and when they attempt to resurrect the many cases which do exist, they are told that it is fanciful extrapolation—because there is already history saying it didn’t happen. History that buries us alive.
This long pattern of erasure is what makes projects like Wild Nights with Emily so sweet. It is a righteous reclamation of a queer historical figure, made with actual primary sources to rub in the faces of naysayers. They tried to rub us out, and the truth still clawed its way to life. That feeling of slightly dizzy elation is the heart of the film busting into the light. I only hope as many people find a way to see it as possible.