I’ve had many heroes, still do, and I really can’t tolerate listening to some blowhard tell me how it’s a bad thing to have heroes. It ain’t. Perhaps I’m lucky, perhaps I’ve chosen my heroes more wisely than they, for rarely have my heroes let me down. Brigitte Bardot, sure, she’s a hero. Claudia Jennings and her character Desirae from “‘Gator Bait,” definitely heroes… as well as Beverly Sebastian who wrote the film. But my real hero, the one that makes me smile at every turn, the one who hasn’t let me down since 1968 (way before my time, by the way)… Dr. Zira. Yep, Zira from “Planet Of the Apes.”
Kim Hunter as the ever admirable Zira, and Roddy McDowall as the ever lovable Cornelius, play their parts with such sincerity that one cannot help but love them. Both actors were so committed to the roles that I never question their characters… I do not see the make-up, I see Cornelius and Zira. Throughout the entire series it was really Kim Hunter and Roddy McDowall who brought their characters to life through their expert mastering of the make-up. The depth of expression both of them achieved is less admirable than miraculous. It was they who breathed believability into the Ape films. It was they I connected with.
Of course when I was little I loved and admired Cornelius and Zira as a couple, still do, and while I adore Roddy McDowall’s Cornelius and Caesar equally (and while I know he’s only make-believe, I would, given the chance, gladly have a half dozen of his little monkey babies–is it sick that I find Cornelius that adorable?)… though I am still looking for a man like Cornelius, it’s Kim Hunter’s Zira that I see as She Who Has Risen To the Fore in my heart.
Zira spoke her mind, through 3 Planet Of the Apes films, she not only spoke her mind, but cut through bullshit… even if it was her own. Sure, she was a make-believe monkey (oh… sorry, that’s offensive, I meant “make believe Ape”), but she rings truer to my ears and consciousness than most modern heroines. She is Zira, the chimpanzee to me, far more real than most human characters in even the most “serious” of films. I find characters more identifiable if they are metaphorical, if they are in a fantasy film, than if they are struggling through the distracting banality of our times. Metaphor becomes universal, and reality… well… it’s just that, isn’t it? “Reality.” Zira, on the other hand, was a divinely crafted and inspired magnification of reality. Zira was a manifestation of our noblest traits, a metaphor for how to ethically battle not only our own inner limitations and dilemmas, but how to honestly confront a world gone wrong.
I’ve been rewatching all of the classic Planet Of the Apes films, which I first saw when I was a child, and have recognized something new in them, new in my relationship to them. For one, I don’t find them corny, I think they are rather more like fairy tales, parables, metaphors for not only our society but metaphorical in the ways the characters relate and demonstrate clearly defined character traits. In order to really get these movies the audience has to accept them as metaphors, fairy tales or fables. I, of course, take metaphor, fairy tale and fable very seriously.
Upon this most recent viewing I realized the beautiful dynamic between Cornelius and Zira. I realized things I had missed as a kid, because I now understand the world as an adult (well… sometimes, anyhow). I recently recognized the very real adult problems these characters are faced with, and the realistic and adult way they handle their dilemmas. Cornelius is a beautiful loving and principled pragmatist. While he agrees with his outspoken, and dare I say “stubborn” wife, he wants to pursue his work, make his points, and let the chips fall where they may. Cornelius understands the politics of his situation. Zira, on the other hand, doesn’t have much patience for pragmatism or the way ignorance wields power. She is more fiery and emotional, and willing to take a stand and take risks… and to accept the consequences. She has strong principles and stands for them, and throughout the course of the series of movies, this frequently gets her into trouble. Zira tells the truth in a world that functions through carefully crafted lies and illusion. What is more, she even cuts through her own bullshit and sees herself for who she is, and her actions for what they are. Zira learns, she discovers things about herself, essentially, she evolves. In what is perhaps the most touching of the Apes films (“Escape From the Planet Of the Apes”), Cornelius becomes frequently enraged at the savage way they are being treated by humans, but in the middle of one of his most righteous fits it is Zira who takes pause to point out that they had once done the the very things that are being done to them to humans back in their time; on their world. That, more than anything, is what endears me most to Zira, she is not a hypocrite… then again, neither is Cornelius, who sighs, sits down, and acknowledges that what she says is true. The ending of that film has always pained me, but even as a child, it was so well done that I accepted it.
Am I making too much of this? Well, that’s up to you, but I do know this, if I had a little girl, I would most definitely want her to see these films. I would want her to admire Zira, just as I always have. I would want her young consciousness influenced by Zira’s example. If you can think of a better role model than Zira for a young girl, I’d like to know who she is.