In The Lady Eve, right before Jean (Barbara Stanwyck) realizes that her beloved thinks she’s a gold digger, she tells him, regarding women: “The best ones aren’t as good as you probably think they are, and the bad ones aren’t as bad. Not nearly as bad.” Her voice is jaunty as she speaks because she doesn’t know what’s coming next, and as he reveals what he knows, Stanwyck becomes crest-fallen. Her self-confidence is rattled, and her eyes water as she pleads with him to see past what he believes. To see past what the world believes of her.

Those tears may seem like easy sentimentality in this most sentimental of film genres (the romantic comedy or, more specific, the screwball comedy), but behind those tears, Stanwyck maintains a strong will. She spends the remainder of the film proving her assertion about women, and from then on, looks at Peter Fonda as if he’s more trouble than he’s worth, but worth the pursuit anyhow.

At that moment, I finally understood why my mother loves Barbara Stanwyck. We once watched an entire season of The Colbys because Stanwyck starred as the matriarch of the family, Constance Colby. I was only eleven and had endured 10 hours of Richard Chamberlain in The Thorn Birds for two hours of Stanwyck, but at least for The Colbys, I was already a fan of Dynasty. But when Constance was killed off after the first season (a plane crash in Asia), my mother and I stopped watching, because the show was actually pretty lame. The series finale involved an alien abduction, if I’m not mistaken.

Stanwyck had never struck me as someone who was glamorous—after all, I’d only ever seen her play fiercely protective mothers—but I could say the same about my mother. She had me when she was almost forty, so I never knew her as a young woman. A black-and-white photograph of my mother hangs on the wall outside the kitchen. In it, my mother appears softer than I’ve ever seen her, looking slightly over her shoulder, hair cupping her face, luminous. My father joked: “That was taken when Mom was a radio pop star.”

I can’t tell how old my mother is in that photograph, but apparently, my paternal grandmother once called her a ‘gold digger.’ My father was, at the time, an officer in the ARVN, educated in America, slender and handsome with a copstash standard moustache. In other words: quite a catch. And my mother? She was older than my father by three years. Quite the scandal.

According to Henry Cavill, screwball comedies aren’t comedies of marriage, but of how a couple separates and reunites. Of remarriage. How long did it take my mother to convince my grandmother that good girls weren’t as good as she think they were, and bad ones weren’t as bad? Because nowadays, as I watch my mother in the kitchen, peeling vegetables, making rice, stir-frying shrimp and braising fish, I can’t help but think that my father got the better end of the deal.

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