Hysteria director Tanya Wexler may be the niece of powerhouse cinematographer Haskell Wexler and the half-sister of actor Daryl Hannah but it's not as if she was going to rest on any family laurels.
“My family is very loving and there wasn't any pressure regarding my future career,” she admits. “In the end, you succeed or fail on your own merits.”
Wexler had made a selection of short films and two low-budget features, Finding North (1998) and Ball in the House (2001), though hadn't worked for a while when producer Tracey Becker approached the openly gay mother of four to make a romantic comedy about the invention of the vibrator in Victorian England.
“As a mum you have to make the decision as to when you're going to go out and not be with your kids,” she explains. “I don't go out a tenth as much as I used to and I just wanted a laugh. I also wanted to see a kind of idealised version of who I might have been up there on screen.”
While as a suffragette and volunteer social worker, Maggie Gyllenhaal's Charlotte (pictured, right) is certainly the driven woman of the piece, she's surrounded by doddering English men, most prominently her august father, Dr. Robert Dalrymple (Jonathan Pryce) and his buttoned-up assistant Dr. Mortimer Granville. The film's writers, Stephen and Jonah Lisa Dyer, conceived the Charlotte character as a young Katharine Hepburn, while a young Hugh Grant was the basis for Hugh Dancy's Granville.
Dr. Joseph Mortimer Granville, the only real-life person in the story, invented the vibrator as a general muscle relaxant, and not as a means of delivering orgasms to relieve so-called hysteria, a practice which rather horrified him. Incredibly, it's true that husbands would send their middle class wives along to doctors in the belief they were ill, when mostly they were just bored and sexually frustrated.
“I don't think the women thought, 'I am going to get masturbated',” says Wexler. “They thought, 'I am going to get diagnosed. What is wrong with me?' And this was the cure that was prescribed.
“The comedy grew out of the fact that this really did happen. Yet if we started injecting actual historical characters in a comedic way, it would have moved over to farce and there would have been a lack of believability. We wanted the movie to make audiences sit forward; we wanted to draw them in. I wanted the person next to me to go, 'Can you believe that this really happened?' So we created characters we really liked and we wanted to see their story told but we wanted to have a political agenda as well.”
Certainly the audience reaction at the film's world premiere in a packed 2000-seat Toronto theatre had to be heard to be believed. The predominately female crowd was seeing a movie about the invention of the sex toys, when they thought they knew it all. They laughed nervously and frequently.
“The reaction has been astonishing,” admits Wexler. “It just shows the paucity of information out there. And what is truly subversive is that it's a movie you can bring your mum to!”
There is no nudity though a lot of talk in the movie, which moves along at a brisk pace, notes Gyllenhaal, who dons a convincing English accent here. “In some scenes Hugh and I would have tonnes of dialogue and it was important to make it have that fast- paced romantic comedy feeling. We'd be walking through a party and dropping off a champagne glass and picking up something and turning and going over here while we were talking, talking, talking, talking. Because of the style of the movie, if the rhythm was off, you'd have to start the scene again. Actually, I think it was technically really difficult.”
One of the film's highlights comes at the very end as vibrators throughout history are listed in the final credits. It was fun research, says Wexler. “We got the images from a couple of sources but mostly from an antique vibrator museum called Good Vibrations in San Francisco. I did a lot of that kind of research with my assistant mostly for fun.”
Indeed, Wexler is keen to spread the word that vibrators can be fun. She also wants to dispel the myth that the sex machines are used for frigidity or a need that can't be filled “the good old-fashioned way,” as she puts it.
“I want people to think that whatever gets you there, as long as everyone is consensual, that is okay. There is no one way for however many billions of people to have sex.”
Given that the movie links the invention of vibrators to the women's lib movement, does she perceive that men could be fearful that vibrators have replaced their functionality?
“No, she replies firmly. “We were doing another interview with Rachel Manes, who wrote The Technology of Orgasm, which is a really important reference for us. She was telling a story about how she was interviewed by one of the radio shock jocks who said, 'I don't want this competition' but the other guy who was there said, 'It's not competition man, it's a member of your team!' This isn't about replacing anything. This is about women, people, taking responsibility for their own happiness.”
Hysteria is released in cinemas July 12.