About The Production
HYSTERIA [hi-ster-ee-uh, -steer-] N. 1. Historically, a medical disorder marked
by excitability, irritability, misbehavior and emotional extremes, occurring
mainly in women;
2. A burst of hilarity
Director Tanya Wexler's new film HYSTERIA looks and feels like the classic,
sumptuous Victorian period piece we've all come to know and love, but the heart
of the film is an irreverent, hilarious and surprisingly modern story.
"We knew that we'd have to find a unique tone," says Wexler, "Because while it
might be a 19th Century story, it's a subject that still makes us blush in 2011.
The fun was in creating a kind of lush, Merchant Ivory reality on the surface,
but with a hilarious, unbridled comedy running underneath it."
Set in the 1880's, just as a flurry of newfangled gadgets and inventions was
forging the world as we now know it, the film follows the historic creation of
the best-selling domestic appliance that dared not announce its true purpose:
the electrical vibrator. What emerges is more than a playful comic romp;
HYSTERIA is a feisty love story and a trip into hidden history, an exploration
of women's passion and a celebration of the forward-thinking spirit that has
always kept human progress buzzing.
With a cast led by Academy AwardÂ® nominee Maggie Gyllenhaal (CRAZY HEART) and
leading man Hugh Dancy (MY IDIOT BROTHER), the film's Victorian past resonates
with questions that still preoccupy us today - about sexual attitudes, men and
women, and how to lead a truly satisfying life.
Getting Hysterical: The Screenplay
The spark of HYSTERIA began with a little-known quirk of history: in the 1880's,
one Joseph Mortimer Granville, a highly-regarded English physician, designed and
patented the battery-operated vibrator. Granville promoted his machine, known as
"Granville's Hammer," for the relief of muscular aches and pains, but it was
soon commandeered into service for what was, at the time, seen by many
physicians as the only reliable treatment for the widespread, and notoriously
mystifying, women's disorder known as "hysteria." This treatment was "medicinal
massage" of the female organs "to the point of paroxysm," which, in the
Victorian view, was a perfectly clinical release of the nervous system,
certainly not to be confused with sexual pleasure.
When producer Tracey Becker (whose films include Marc Forster's Academy
AwardÂ®-winning FINDING NEVERLAND) first heard the story of Granville from writer
Howard Gensler, she was initially amused, but then she was inspired. The notion
of an upright and proper Victorian doctor inventing what would become the
world's most popular sex toy sounded like a terrific jumping off-point for a
"But it couldn't be another dusty biopic," Becker laughs. "It had to be a
sparkling romantic comedy and a story that's about much more than the invention
of the vibrator, that's about the spirit of change."
Becker brought the idea to director Tanya Wexler, and the two of them, in turn,
brought it to the writing team of Stephen Dyer and Jonah Lisa Dyer, who had
collaborated with Wexler on earlier films. The Dyers immersed themselves in
research, discovering a time period on the very cusp between dust-worn
traditions and the shock of the new - a time when doctors were moving away from
a belief in vapors and leeches to an understanding of germ theory and
psychology; when a candle and gas-lit world was turning into an electrified
spectacle of mechanical devices; and when bold women began fighting for the
right to make their own choices.
In the midst of all this, they learned about the strange chapter in 19th Century
medicine when nearly a quarter of London's female population was diagnosed with
"hysteria," a term applied to a vast array of women's disorders, including such
apparent feminine mysteries as unhappiness, restlessness, disobedience,
impertinence, either too little or too much interest in sex, and even the desire
for voting rights. (While the diagnosis was
finally dropped in the 1950s, even today we still say "don't get hysterical!" as
a warning to women on the verge.)
Hysterical symptoms of one sort or another had a long and outrageous treatment
history since the time of ancient Greek physicians. Such creative therapies as
"pelvic massage," "digital manipulation," horseback riding and hydro-baths for
the nether regions were applied. But in Victorian times, with doctors believing
they had an epidemic of female madness on their hands, the practice of
stimulating paroxysms became widespread in England, couched in the staunch
philosophy that such treatments were in no way erotic in nature - on the
contrary, they were purely neurological therapy. The physical reaction that
resulted could not possibly be related to what should only happen between
husband and wife, but rather, a medical release allowing toxicity and strain to
drain from the nervous system.
Indeed, the search for new ways to stimulate women led to early progenitors of
the vibrator, and when Mortimer Granville invented his "Hammer" he was well
aware that it might be used to treat women for hysteria.
As the Dyers started writing, they looked into the real Granville's rather
conventional story and decided to fictionalize his life and relationships,
imagining romantic entanglements with his boss's two opposite daughters, a
disastrous form of carpal tunnel syndrome, and his biggest inner conflict:
whether to settle for conformity and success, or dare to follow his convictions
and his heart.
"Mortimer's journey is really about a man who believes in modern science, who
wants to change medicine," explains Stephen, "But then he loses all that when he
starts treating women for hysteria, until he meets the amazing Charlotte
Dalrymple, Maggie Gyllenhaal's character. She forces him to confront what he can
and can't live within his own actions."
For Mortimer, the risks and the rewards of flying in the face of Victorian
conventions are brought home in his choice between the two Dalrymple sisters,
whose diametrically opposed takes on the Victorian feminine mystique bring life
and verve to the story.
"Emily is of course the Victorian Ideal in the flesh - dutiful, well-behaved and
exquisitely turned out," notes Stephen. "Charlotte, on the other hand, is a pure
firebrand fighting for women's rights and using her father's money to lift women
out of poverty. It's a stark choice for Mortimer."
Charlotte soon becomes the prickly thorn in Mortimer's side - with
deliciously flirtatious results. "I loved creating Charlotte, because she's such
a modern character," says Jonah Lisa. "She truly believes in things and reminds
Mortimer that he used to believe in things, too. She gets under his skin, and
bickering and banter just fuels the flame. It's an exasperating, funny
relationship, but it's also a true love story, because in the end, Mortimer
finds he is actually willing to sacrifice his safe, perfect life for Charlotte."
"Tanya, Tracey, Jonah Lisa and I always envisioned a movie that would look like
HOWARD'S END in its attention to details but play more like FOUR WEDDINGS AND A
FUNERAL in tone," explains Stephen. "And that's exactly what Tanya went on to
Hysterical Women: The Filmmaking Team
It seems only fitting that HYSTERIA was brought to fruition by women. Producer
Tracey Becker and Director Tanya Wexler were joined by two other accomplished
female filmmakers: British producer Sarah Curtis and American producer Judy
Cairo, who each brought her own expertise and passion to the project.
Wexler had directed several acclaimed short films while studying at
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