I am still in a political mood, it seems, when it comes to analyzing reel librarians… from researching Nixon’s Watergate scandal in 1976’s All the President’s Men last week to now hitting the campaign trail in 1998’s Primary Colors, a fictionalized version of Governor
Bill Clinton’s Jack Stanton’s history-making presidential campaign. John Travolta portrays Bill Clinton Stanton, and Emma Thompson portrays his wife, Hillary Clinton Susan Stanton.
The film, based on a popular book by Joe Klein, earned two Oscar nominations, for Best Supporting Actress (Kathy Bates) and Best Adapted Screenplay (Elaine May). Rewatching the film, I had forgotten how many other actors of note there were in the film, including Billy Bob Thornton, Diane Ladd, Maura Tierney, and Larry Hagman!
I checked out a DVD of the film from my library, but the library scene is also included in this online clip:
The film is primarily told from the perspective of Henry Burton (Adrian Lester), a younger African-American man who the Stanton campaign is trying to recruit to help run their campaign. He gets swept up in the action, and as an outsider, he serves as a surrogate for the audience.
The film opens outside a school in New York, where Henry meets Governor Stanton, who is about to attend an adult literacy program. Stanton introduces Marianne Walsh, a “very special librarian who is running their classes.” A reel librarian personally introduced within the film’s first two minutes! Very special, indeed!
In the credits, the librarian is listed as “Miss Walsh,” signifying her unmarried status. Miss Walsh, played by Allison Janney, is a white woman, tall with short brunette hair, and wearing a modestly cut print shirtdress with long sleeves. She wears no glasses, modest jewelry, and subtle makeup. Miss Walsh is obviously nervous, as she immediately calls Governor Stanton by the wrong name!
She then takes the group on a tour of the school, the walls littered with graffiti. She admits the walls are pretty bad but that the library is better. “We’re very proud of the library. […] It’s the only reading program like it in New York, that I know of.”
On the walk up the stairs to the library, Miss Walsh suddenly slips under the railing — she quickly recovers, with the help of Governor Stanton, but not before we all find out that the librarian chooses not to wear a slip! Yep, a slip reveals the absence of a slip. 😉
She seems thoroughly embarrassed, running her hands through her hair, but the next scene in the library reveals a very different version of the school librarian, one who is calm and collected. Adult students, all older men and women of color, are seated around a table and sharing their stories.
Miss Walsh encourages one older man, Dwayne, to share his story, as seen in the screenshot below. She clearly knows the students well and has a warm, encouraging tone. She looks like she’s in her element, supportive and confident. After Dwayne shares his story, which is truly touching and emotional, Governor Stanton shares a (seemingly) personal story about his Uncle Charlie who also couldn’t read.
After Stanton finishes his story, the librarian claps and stands up along with everyone else. She and the students go to hug and congratulate Stanton — and in the middle of the crowd, Miss Walsh slips again! Stanton advises her to have her shoes checked.
These scenes in the library, which slowly circle around the room, reveal a school library that is well-stocked with books and lined with bookcases and inspirational posters. The school library is indeed a place to be proud of!
In the next scene, Henry arrives at the hotel’s campaign headquarters, where he encounters Jack Stanton coming out of his bedroom, buttoning his shirt and putting on a tie. The librarian, Miss Walsh, then also comes out of bedroom and slips again as she’s straightening her own collar!
She stutters through thanking him for the opportunity to discuss the, uh, program. Looking embarrassed, she hurriedly grabs her things and walks out of the hotel room filled with people talking away.
Stanton then explains that Marianne Walsh is on the regional board of the Teachers Union. Henry, looking a bit shell-shocked, murmurs, “A teacher AND a librarian.” So that explains why Stanton slept with the school librarian, to curry favor with the Teachers Union. I’m sure the no-slip slip didn’t hurt his mission.
Editor’s note: Yes, we can be both teachers and librarians, as librarians are also educators. That’s also why school librarians are also sometimes referred to as “teacher librarians.”
No one but Henry and Miss Walsh seem fazed by this hotel scene. It’s obvious that both of them are newbies at this political game, while it’s “business as usual” for everyone else. Miss Walsh is obviously not Governor Stanton’s first conquest!
Later, after Jack tells Susan that the teacher was “inspirational,” Henry adds that she seemed like the “typical school board bureaucrat” to him. I suppose he could be right… if the typical school board bureaucrat also has a tendency to fall down a lot. Does Henry say this to make the reel librarian seem dull to Susan, and thus cover for Jack? After all, reel librarians are known to be naughty… 😉
The reel librarian also makes it into the film’s trailer!
In the end, Marianne Walsh fulfills the dual role of an Information Provider and as Comic Relief. As Information Provider, she introduces us to the school library and its adult literacy program, and comes across as warm and confident in the library around the adult learners. She also provides information to the audience about Stanton’s philandering ways. As Comic Relief, she makes the men around her — as well as the audience — laugh at her clumsiness and display of nerves (as well as her gullibility?).
Even though the scenes featuring the reel librarian collectively last less than 10 minutes, Allison Janney’s portrayal and slapstick antics serve to make school librarian Marianne Walsh a more memorable character. Janney is a very talented actress, and she manages to portray a myriad of emotions (including nervousness, pride, confidence, and vulnerability) in her short time on screen. She lands the film in the Class III category, films with supporting or minor characters with a few memorable or significant scenes.
Have you seen Primary Colors or rewatched it recently? (Or is it too soon to rewatch it?) If you have seen the movie, do you remember Allison Janney’s stumbling school librarian character? Please leave a comment and share. 🙂
- Primary Colors. Dir. Mike Nichols. Perf. John Travolta, Emma Thompson, Adrian Lester, Kathy Bates, Billy Bob Thornton. MCA/Universal, 1998.