Saving the family with nannies from heaven

April 14, 1995|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

"The rich," Fitzgerald instructed Hemingway, "are very different from you and me."

"Yes," Hemingway didn't say, "they have more nannies."

Nannies are the subject of Jyll Johnstone and Barbara Ettinger's short documentary (80 minutes). It begins as a tribute by two exceedingly well-off young women to the two now elderly women who actually raised them; but it comes, after a time (and possibly accidentally) to be an account of two fractured, damaged families whose prosperity could not shield them from the pains of life and change.

The film is quite an interesting document, and the story of its making is unusual. Ettinger wanted to make a movie about Ethel, the African-American nanny who raised her and her five brothers and sisters in an elegant house in Greenwich, Conn., and proved a bedrock for the family when the parents divorced in the '70s. She was discussing this idea at the apartment of a childhood friend when she noticed that the friend -- Jyll Johnstone -- had dozens of pictures of her nanny, a German emigrant named Martha, around her apartment. The two daughters decided to do a joint biography of the two nannies.

It's a powerful and affecting portrait, based on interviews with Ethel and Martha and the siblings and parents of the two families, arranged in rough chronology, and illustrated by family photos and archival footage (scenes from "Madchen in Uniform" are used to represent Martha's stringent training as a baby nurse in '20s Germany). As the stories progress, certain things become evident.

The first is a kind of "Admirable Crichton" factor, from J. M. Barry's play about a bunch of swinish aristocrats deserted on an island with their butler, who proves the best of them, leads them through the ordeal and then returns to England -- as a butler again. Ethel and Martha -- who occupied the lowest positions in the family, had no power or wealth of their own, and would have been dismissed by a contemptuous society for their lack of accomplishment and their inability to rise above menial positions -- were far and away the best members of either family.

They were smart, tough, unbelievably hard workers, courageous, steady, fair and loving. If the children turned out (evidently they did), it had more to do with the utter decency of the nannies than with anything the rather flighty parents did (the Ettingers divorced; the Johnstones spent their life in quest of the pleasures of "society" in New York City).

The two replaced mothers are in some sense victims: intelligent women who grew up in a culture that allowed intelligent women access to nothing beyond the home and something called "charity work," which seemed to consist of planning parties. They were forced to spend their lives in pursuit of largely meaningless goals. Mother Ettinger and particularly Mother Johnstone, the society maven, seem utterly lightweight and frivolous when juxtaposed to the lives of duty-bent devotion and responsibility their low-paid employees exemplified.

There's also a terrible sense of loss that attends the movie. Though it isn't invoked directly (the well-bred WASP never evokes anything directly, at least not without several hundred thousand dollars' worth of therapy), one sees that both Martha and Ethel sacrificed their lives in service to these two families, giving up on marriage or their own children, simply devoting themselves as facilitators for the well-off of Greenwich and Manhattan. One might say that in return they received ample amounts of love, an extremely high living standard and a stability that might have not been theirs if they'd stayed put (in Germany and South Carolina), but one still wonders if in their most private hearts they feel it was worth it. "Martha & Ethel" never formally asks this question; but somehow, it answers it.

"Martha & Ethel" is playing at the Charles in rotation with "The Secret of Roan Inish."

"Martha & Ethel"

Documentary

Directed by Jyll Johnstone and Barbara Ettinger

Released by Sony Pictures Classics

Unrated

***

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