Most people casually familiar with Emily Dickinson and her work probably have a similar image of the 19th-century poet in mind. She was shy. She was a recluse. She was a spinster who wore a lot of white and wanted her poems burned after her death.
Madeleine Olnek was among those who believed these characterizations of a woman who purportedly never sought fame in her lifetime and posthumously became one of America’s most mysterious and mythic literary figures. “I personally had disliked Emily Dickinson so much based on everything I had heard about her,” the director admitted in a recent interview with The Advocate.
“She sounded so dreary,” echoed Molly Shannon, who stars as Dickinson in Olnek’s new biopic, Wild Nights With Emily. “I pictured her in a room in a rocking chair looking out the window at a funeral.”
However, this “dreary” perception changed for Olnek after she read a 1998 article in The New York Times that painted a very different picture of Dickinson. Spectrographic technology — conducted in part by the University of Maryland’s Martha Nell Smith — revealed that an editor had altered Dickinson’s works and letters with ink and at times a blade to erase passages that expressed love for her sister-in-law, Susan Huntington Dickinson. The excision was likely done by Mabel Loomis Todd — the lover of Susan’s husband, Austin.
The prolific Dickinson had written 1,775 poems and hundreds of letters during her lifetime — one-third of them addressed to Susan. In one 1855 letter, Dickinson wrote, “I love you as dearly, Susie, as when love first began, on the step at the front door, and under the Evergreens, and it breaks my heart sometimes, because I do not hear from you.”
Olnek, a lesbian filmmaker known for Codependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same and The Foxy Merkins, was floored by the revelation that Dickinson had been de-gayed and misrepresented in many other respects by the media for more than a century.
“I was shocked because it was the opposite of everything I'd ever heard about Emily Dickinson,” said Olnek. “I started to research and then I found it to be funny how obvious it all was and how people were so invested in telling this opposite story.”
And thus, Wild Nights With Emily — with some help from the Guggenheim Foundation and permissions from the Harvard University Press — was born. Olnek’s latest film gives back to Dickinson what history may have erased: a decades-long love story with Susan (Susan Ziegler) and a portrait of a bright, funny, ambitious woman whose brilliance is sadly kept from the public due to the patriarchal forces of her era. These forces are depicted in the film in large part through her editor, Thomas Wentworth Higginson (Brett Gelman), a supposed feminist who decided to promote the more traditional poet Helen Hunt Jackson over the rule-breaking Dickinson.
This conflict seems ripe territory for a historical drama — Colette, another biopic about a queer female literary figure fighting the patriarchy, took beautiful advantage of this genre. However, Wild Nights recounts Dickinson's life within a comedy, a genre that also helps redefine its heroine and restore her joy.
"When I was in my 20s, I would tell a joke that I wanted to be the Emily Dickinson of comedy — the joke being she was so miserable and unfunny," admitted Olnek. "And then I found out not only did she have this lifelong love affair ... not only did she want to send her work out and want to be in print, but she also had a sense of humor."
Dickinson's humor is evident in her correspondence as well as her poetry, which is read and (wonderfully) subtitled across the screen throughout the film. Famous lines are given a delightful new meaning in light of the film's queer context. "I taste a liquor never brewed," stated Dickinson (see the clip below for the exchange) — and Susan is the only one who understands the joke.
Much like poetry, Dickinson's especially, "comedy is about ideas and thoughts," said Olnek. "Comedy can help us understand something in a way that we can really think about it as opposed to feel accused or threatened by it."
Tackling sexism is one such territory. In the film, Dickinson's repeated, unfruitful meetings with Higginson are frustrating. But they are also comical, as the editor is unable to comprehend, say, why her poems don't rhyme. At one point, he edits (mansplains) one of her poems to show how it should appear.
Of course, mansplainers who repress women are not exclusive to the 19th century. Shannon has known a few. The actress rose to fame through her work on Saturday Night Live, the NBC comedy sketch series where she performed from 1995 to 2001. But she was almost prevented from sharing one of her most memorable characters with the world because of a mansplainer.
“There were male writers there,” Shannon recalled of her early days on SNL. “I remember there was one, I don't want to say what his name was, but I was like, ‘I have this character, Mary Katherine Gallagher, and here's the sketch. And I wrote it up and I really want to get it on air.’ And he read it. He was like, ‘You know, the reason this can't work is because this really isn't a joke, that'll never work.’”
Crestfallen, Shannon tried to explain to the male writer multiple times that the character had been a hit during her stage show — which had been directed by Olnek when they were in school together at New York University — but he wouldn’t listen. It was a frustrating experience for Shannon.
“I related to Emily Dickinson, the way she was trying to sell herself and audition for Higginson. I felt that way when I first started [SNL],” said Shannon. “I would go home and cry and I was like, Why is it so hard? I know I have characters. I just have to figure out how to get them on television, you know?”
Fortunately, Shannon was able to advocate for Mary and eventually perform her on the air — and she was a hit (in her lifetime, thankfully). The strange Catholic school girl, known for her trademark “Superstar!” catchphrase, became one of the most famous SNL characters of that era and even inspired a 1999 film.
Shannon is far from alone in feeling sidelined as a woman in the arts. As a female director, Olnek is also cognizant of how a lack of female figures in this position throughout the history of the entertainment industry has engendered a culture of sexism that is most certainly not historic. Even in 2018, only 4 percent of the 100 top-grossing films were directed by women — to the detriment of society and equality.
“The only good that came of Donald Trump's election is that we all finally concede that we live in a sexist society, and now there's more of a will to face it,” Olnek said. “It's really important that women are directing major Hollywood movies so that women are getting positive imagery defined in the media that's affecting everyone.”
This warping of how women are presented in media — such as Dickinson, who was de-gayed and portrayed as a recluse essentially for marketing purposes after she died — “really sabotages women today who are struggling to get their voices heard and who are looking for role models,” said Shannon, who felt called to play Dickinson in order to set this record straight — or queer, that is.
"It is so important to take a look at some of these great historical figures whose lives and truth about their lives have been totally brainwashed and changed and sanitized," Shannon said.
As happened with portrayals of women, LGBTQ representation — or the lack of it — has influenced how society perceives queer people. Thankfully, Wild Nights arrives at a moment when queer lives from history are being reclaimed through other productions like Colette, The Favourite, and the upcoming Vita and Virginia. Instead of depicting these characters just existing — or suffering, as has been the trope in 20th-century entertainment — many of these films are unafraid to show the love and happiness in their lives. This shift is a sign of the times.
"As things have changed for gay people, the narratives change," Olnek explained. "The world has changed, and as people experience a happy gay reality, then our entertainment reflects what people are experiencing and comfortable with as a society."
"Now we're seeing stories with happy endings and we're seeing stories about [queer] people [where] their families accept them."
Shannon recalled seeing the importance of this representation firsthand when her father, who was closeted for most of his lifetime, had an emotional reaction to watching Ode to Billy Joe — a 1976 film where the main character dies by suicide for a reason that is unexplained to the audience.
"My dad really got choked up at the end," Shannon recalled, adding, "I didn't know why my dad was crying. And I remember being like, I didn't understand it. But I'm thinking about that movie that was ahead of its time too, to air something like that on national network television."
And how would Olnek and Shannon like to redefine Dickinson, who for far too long has been thought of in terms of sadness and tragedy? “As a trailblazer. A rebel artist who pushed the envelope with the poetic form,” said Shannon. “I also hope that people see her as an LGBTQ hero.”
“As someone who loved and persevered against all odds … despite what the world told her about her work, she had enough faith in it to continue,” said Olnek. “And Susan and her love for Susan helped her continue.”
Wild Nights With Emily is now screening in select theaters. Watch an exclusive clip below.