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Jefferson In Paris Essay

Though praised as a period piece, by and large reviewers hammered Jefferson in Paris on everything else. First, not enough was done with the French revolutionary context. Jefferson is simply an uninvolved outsider documenting it. Second, Jefferson's image and reputation is traduced. Nolte does not do a good job playing our third president, and Jefferson's relationship with Sally Hemings is a lie (the film is before the DNA tests, remember). Third, that relationship in the film is itself unbelievable, inconceivable, lacks chemistry and passion (there are no love scenes), and, ironically, makes one doubt that such a relationship ever existed. Fourth, the film has nothing substantive to say about race; in fact, it may be racist. Sally makes you think of pickaninnies and Stepin' Fetchit, that is, of racial caricatures. The most intriguing things in the reviews are suggestions for different kinds of films that could be made on this subject: one probing Jefferson's thoughts on a relationship with Sally, a film about Maria Cosway and Sally competing for Jefferson, a film that centers on the complex and tragic issues of slavery cum miscegenation raised in the last scene.

Alleva, Richard. "Foundering father? -- Jefferson in Paris." Commonweal 19 May 1995: 20.
Alleva's main gripe with the film is that, while it is well-researched, it is unfocused. He says that "to succeed, the movie had to show Jefferson's emotional travails interacting decisively with the traumas of history," but it doesn't. So, instead, the film is primarily concerned with Sally Hemings, but this too is flawed because "the story itself is buried under research." None of the events in France detailed have "anything to do with Jefferson's troubles with American slavery and Sally Hemings." "Worse still," Alleva goes on to say, Jefferson is "a mere observer of the French uprisings," leaving the "designated protagonist" to become just "a voice on the soundtrack." He does describe the final scene with Sally Hemings as "poignant" but says, "The last close-up of her tear-stained face is moving but frustrating. It's a fragment of a movie we haven't seen." Alleva concludes the review with this statement about the film: "It is a well-dressed, well-researched corpse."
Appleby, Joyce. Rev. of Jefferson in Paris. Journal of American History 82.3 (1995): 1306.
"Let's think of this film as 'Efferson in Paris' and see how it fares once relieved of its iconic burden." Efferson enjoys the "ritualized elegance of French aristocratic life" and though he is "unskilled at political debate," Efferson is surrounded by the revolutionary atmosphere of France. "The sorry figure Efferson cuts as the slave-holding natural rights advocate and the lavishly spending critic of aristocratic privilege fails to prepare us for his real strengths as the philosopher of the bedroom, a depiction far more malevolent than that of the superficial dabbler in politics." The plot thickens as a "menage a quatre" creates tension and drama among the women in Efferson's life. The women are his daughter, Patsy, a married Italian woman, Maria Cosway, and a fifteen-year-old slave girl, Sally Hemings. "By exploiting the dramatic value of disputed events in the private life of a public figure, Merchant and Ivory have traded on a great reputation in the act of traducing it. They may have laid claim to the name, but they missed the substance of the man."
Bernstein, Richard. "'Jefferson': Turning a Dubious Premise into Fact." New York Times 10 April 1995: C9.
Although director Ivory states this movie is merely "an idea, a meditation on a man and the people he knew at a certain time and place, a meditation on liberty," Bernstein is hardly convinced. He finds it "troubling . . . that what started out many years ago as a piece of political libel" turned into a respected hypothesis and from there to virtual acceptance as fact. Many historical movies do cause controversy because of this; they "mix fact and fiction in such a way as to make one indistinguishable from the other." The same is true of Jefferson in Paris. When the screenwriters create a Sally Hemings who is "charming and sexy on the screen in Thomas Jefferson's bedroom [that] is to give the story such plausibility as to make it seem true. If it is not true, then Jefferson in Paris is a good example of Voltaire's definition of history: a trick played by the living upon the dead."
Blake, Richard A. "Revolting -- Jefferson in Paris." America 13 May 1995: 24.
This is a revolting film that is packed full of topics: slavery, the French and American revolutions, the Enlightenment, fidelity and adultery, freedom of religion, practical and fine arts. It is so overflowing with other information that "Mr. Jefferson and his personal conundrums get lost in the intellectual smorgasbord." However, when it comes to Sally and Jefferson's relationship, the script is inconceivable. "Sally is an inept, intrusive teen-ager with little apparent ability to relate to the brilliant, somewhat dour, tortured Mr. Jefferson." The abrupt ending at Sally's pregnancy leaves nothing resolved. The viewer knows nothing of the relationship that continues beyond that point. Jefferson might, however, marvel at the "technical achievement" but would be more obliged if it "embelished the life of George Washington. Or Benedict Arnold."
Dauphin, Gary. "Master Strokes -- Jefferson in Paris." Village Voice 4 April 1995: 50.
Dauphin calls the portrayal of Jefferson "Clintonesque" in that his stance on slaves is completely contradictory. It is historical fact that Jefferson impregnated Hemings, but the film needs more than just a few facts and perfect costumes and sets. Nolte manages to portray Jefferson's contradictions fairly well. As the film continues, "TJ's main occupations settle into apologizing for slavery and the juggling of various women." The first woman is his own daughter, whom Jefferson comes very close to kissing twice. The second is Cosway, with whom Jefferson injures himself while attempting to jump over a pile of logs, but then from whom he distances himself "and the foolish European ways she's come to represent." The third is Hemings. The film portrays the relationship as consensual, which is not how historians tend to frame it. "History is history, but its desire to give that ugliness [of Jefferson's life] the ‘Merchant Ivory' treatment which makes Jefferson in Paris a failure and an insult."
Ebert, Roger. "Jefferson in Paris." Chicago Sun-Times 7 April 1995.
The film has no doubt that Jefferson fathered at least one child by Sally Hemings. What the movie doesn't know is what, if anything, he thought about it. The Jefferson in this movie is such a remote figure that you wonder, by the movie's end, if he actually knew he was having sex at the time. Perhaps his mind was preoccupied with architecture or philosophy? Sally is only fifteen when she arrives in Paris. Soon Jefferson is making her little presents, such as a necklace, and she is visiting him in his bedroom for flighty flirtations. Their closeness is obvious to her daughter Patsy, who calls it "unspeakable," and eventually Maria Cosway, Jefferson's love in Paris, sees enough to realize her own future with Thomas is limited. Ebert asks, "Does Sally 'love' Jefferson, or only act seductively around him because of his importance and power?" Did Sally really "love" Jefferson? And how does Jefferson feel about Sally? When discussing Sally's plight, Jefferson seems to talk almost as if she might have gotten pregnant by herself. Ebert also comments on how Sally seems to have adopted an odd dialect, acts childish, and seems to be characterized as more of an ingratiating slave than like a woman who apparently interested Jefferson so much that we went on to have several more children with her over a period of years. James's scenes are the key to the film's politics: "the best written scenes in the film: [James] seems willing to confront questions that the movie otherwise allows to slip quietly past." No doubt a lot of research and speculation went into Jhabvala's screenplay, but the movie tells no clear story, and has no clear ideas; it is all elaborate glimpses of a private man's life.
Egerton, Douglas R. Rev. of Jefferson in Paris. American Historical Review 100.4 (1995): 1202-3.
Egerton says "this overly long film wanders unsteadily back and forth, first addressing the hypocrisy of the apostle of liberty owning human chattel, next focusing on three women in Jefferson's life." The importance of larger themes such as racism and slavery are detracted because of the emphasis on the relationship shown between Maria Cosway and Jefferson. The film shows the relationship of Sally and Jefferson as an implausible scenario, which does not persuade the audience to believe the situation. In fact, the doubt of this affair actually occurring is strengthened by this movie. Egerton describes Sally as a "racist caricature thankfully absent from films of the past several decades."
Glieberman, Owen. "Continental Congress." EW.com 7 April 1995.
Jefferson in Paris is "a movie that loses the pulse of its characters amid a treasure trove of baroque period oddities." It is unclear "whether the filmmakers understand it." The relationship between Sally and Jefferson takes back stage at many points where it "should be the cornerstone of the film. But, as staged by Ivory, it's so oblique it makes almost no sense." The second half of the movie is "cast as a metaphorical love dance between aristocrat and ‘noble savage'." Jefferson in the movie "seems hollowed out, and so, by the end, does Jefferson in Paris."
Guthmann, Edward. "Jefferson Gets Lost in Paris: Merchant-Ivory keep audience after class in history lecture." SFGate.com 7 April 1995.
Guthmann attempts to give Nick Nolte credit for his "noble, sympathetic effort to humanize a historical figure," although Nolte's success is extremely limited in his portrayal of Thomas Jefferson. Guthmann claims that Sally Hemings, who does not appear until the second half of the film, does not pursue Jefferson for herself but, instead, simply "distracts Jefferson from the prissy, lovesick Mrs. Cosway." He believes that it is difficult to contemplate a relationship between Jefferson and Hemings because there are "no love scenes, and the passion their characters are supposed to have shared . . . is only hinted at in Newton's eyes." Overall, the film comes off as "tight, corseted and out of [its] element."
Hamilton, William. "Jefferson in Paris -- An Insult to Thomas Jefferson." NPR: Morning Edition. 4 April, 1995.
"The fact that one of our nation's most articulate, indisputably heroic founding geniuses is played by an actor so oafish he could easily be mistaken for a delivery man accidentally stepping into the frame, makes the insult to the real Thomas Jefferson easier actually because it is so unintentionally comical." Hamilton wastes no time expressing his anger at the film's portrayal of one of his American heroes: "Only strong acting from the two female leads is able to prevent Jefferson in Paris from being dismissed as the Saturday Night Live skit it resembles in the performance of its title role." The terrible acting from the lead character is not the only element of the movie that degrades history. The movie blames Jefferson and his peers for our modern-day problems with racism. Considering how Jefferson took advantage of Sally Hemings, it's "no wonder we turned out like this." Unfortunately, despite their historical inaccuracies, films like Jefferson in Paris possess an air of reality that allows audiences to take the movie's portrayal of history as fact: "They shouldn't come at us without some sort of warning label from U.S. history's surgeon general, for they're not histories, but history-ectomies: very serious alterations of what was there."
Hinson, Hal. "In Pursuit of Happiness; A Party-Hopping 'Jefferson in Paris'." Washington Post 7 April 1995: D7.
Director James Ivory portrays a "nearly perfect" depiction of the details of Paris life during the 1780's. However, Jefferson is "played unconvincingly by Nick Nolte." Jefferson's role in the movie is to host parties, plant a garden, and discuss democracy, in which "he seems to be the least impressive figure in the room." The film doesn't illustrate the importance of slavery during the time; however, it focuses on Jefferson's relationship with Maria Cosway and Sally Hemings. "Ivory and screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala unveil this supposed contradiction in the great man's life as if they were outing him. . . . the filmmakers seem to want to have their hero and dis him too." It is difficult to tell what point Ivory is trying to make about Jefferson's character—"Does Jefferson's treatment of Sally Hemings establish his racism or his instinctive colorblindness?"
Holmstrom, David. "Scholars Flip Their Wigs Over Film's Portrayal of Jefferson in Paris." Christian Science Monitor 10 April 1995.
The film isn't based on the real history. The movie is not chronological and contains some Hollywood scenes to make it more interesting. The affair between Jefferson and Hemings is depicted as a fact in the movie. Those assertions are old news, and they are not true. The film is not a true representation of the history.
James, Caryn. "They're Movies, Not Schoolbooks." New York Times 21 May 1995: 2.1.
"The scenes between Jefferson and Hemings reveal a lonely, passionate man who usually kept his emotions at bay" -- this is the quintessential way to describe the personal life of Thomas Jefferson. Assuming "that the affair occurred, [the filmmakers are free] to explore the characters more deeply than a cautious factual approach would have allowed." James's main idea is that American society has become so accustomed to historical records that it forgets that movies depicting historical events are always given a "dramatic license" to find out the "may-have-been" of a certain event. If this film genre only outlined the historical facts, what is the point of the film? History has already been documented and acknowledged; these films only serve to "use fiction to challenge history's accepted views." But James also argues that "taking a dramatic license is no guarantee of success" -- an example of how the film "squanders one of the few important windows on the soul of the emotionally reticent Jefferson" is by not fully viewing his "head and heart" letter to Maria Cosway. Historical films are only based on facts, and license is taken to extrapolate on these facts. We as a society must remember they are only films, "not schoolbooks."
McCarthy, Todd. "Jefferson in Paris." Variety 27 March 1995.
Thomas Jefferson's "afflicted and complicated personal life" is accurately portrayed in the original script in order to "tacitly pinpoint in Jefferson the road of America's greatness as well as its tragedy." Nolte as Jefferson seems "a bit awkward and ill at ease at first" and never truly projects "the essence of a man of genius." The supporting cast does an adequate job respectively, especially Gweneth Paltrow, whose representation of Jefferson's daughter, Patsy, is "one of the story's most intriguing figures." Director James Ivory's "attentiveness to wonderful detail" and his "special bent for examining master-servant relationships" provide highlights throughout the movie. Overall, the movie provides an interesting look at a significant segment of history but fails to successfully depict the complex personality of Jefferson.
Newnham, David. "Portrait: True Grit; Did Thomas Jefferson, revered founding father, have a love affair with a slave?" Guardian 3 June 1995: 36.
The release of Jefferson in Paris caused much "rumpus" in America. A film that should not have been a blockbuster hit was receiving incredible amounts of publicity, much of it directed at the writer. The film is certainly not a documentary and is not one-hundred percent historically accurate, in fact, Jefferson in Paris is "far from . . . a history lesson." Instead, writer Jhabvala focuses on the prevalent personality of a recently widowed Thomas Jefferson. The extravagant set and beautiful wardrobe used in the making of the film truly enhance the message of the decadence of the upper class during the time of revolution. However, the "fiddle-dee-dee" portrayal of Sally Hemings was unexpected, and Nick Nolte was horribly miscast. Overall, the film succeeds in its goal of casting a different light on the affair, one which did not simply defend Thomas Jefferson.
Pawelczak, Andy. "Jefferson in Paris." Films in Review 46. 5-6; (1995): 55.
"The movie finds its real subject--race--about halfway through, but things don't get any better. Shortly after Jefferson hurts his hand while showing off to Maria Cosway, Sally Hemings arrives in Paris and miraculously cures the wounded member with a home remedy. We're meant to understand that Sally's earthiness and emotional directness--in contradistinction to the artificiality of the Europeans--is just what the doctor ordered, both for Jefferson's hand and his aching heart. This is reinforced when Sally performs a grotesque little dance--it's supposed to be a slave folk dance-and Jefferson is visibly charmed. It's all a cliche and would even be open to the charge of racial stereotyping, if the whole film weren't so swathed in tasteful decor and lifeless acting. The seduction scene itself is carefully ambiguous; as Sally lingers over the sleeping Jefferson, she brushes an imaginary fly from his face and his now powerful hand shoots up to grab her wrist. Seduction? Rape? End scene. . . . as a serious film about race in America, the movie has less than nothing to say."
Persall, Steve. "A boring view from abroad." St. Petersburg Times 21 April 1995: 8.
The movie is as flat and dense as a bad history book. Newton's performance as Sally stands out for all the wrong reasons: "Her 'Stepin Fetchit' accent and manner may be historically accurate, but it's troubling to see that 1790s stereotype portrayed without some 1990s sensibility." The late bedroom scene is "bothersome": instead of Sally's "sad acceptance of subservience or [Jefferson's] growing guilt," we get "an unsavory sense of Mandingo."
Ringle, Ken. "Taking Liberties with Jefferson." Washington Post 24 August 1994: B1.
"By all accounts, the Oscar-winning team known for lush, literary and historically impeccable films buys into one of American history's more enduring and defamatory legends -- that the author of the Declaration of Independence kept a slave mistress who bore him several children." Bahman Batmanghelidj, a prominent Iranian-born developer, is disgusted with this Merchant-Ivory film because "People around the world will view it as the defining truth about Jefferson. And of course it is a lie." "Batman," as he is sometimes referred to, is so interested in the image of Jefferson for several reasons, the first being "his general dismay over the increasing trashing of history." Second, he points out that the Hemings' story flies in the face of the vast amount known of Jefferson's character and private life" that is actually documented. Batmanghelidj's irritation is the latest in a "long and increasingly heated war over the legacy of the most American of our founding fathers." The struggle persists because, although most scholarly findings refute the relationship, "a lot of the public does believe the Hemings story . . . And black Americans believe it absolutely." "Why do they want to do this?" asks Batmanghelidj. "America is about optimism. They could make a fascinating movie about Jefferson as a man of his ideals, and do the world a great deal of good. This nihilism benefits no one but the nihilists."
Schickel, Richard. "The Pursuit of Stuffiness." Time 10 April 1995.
The filmmakers have kept alive what in Harry Cohn's day was one of Hollywood's more agreeable genres: the handsomely made, well-acted literary-historical drama. These movies reflected the cultural aspirations while serving the needs of that portion of the audience not enamored of car chases and tommy-gun fire. The filmmakers are afraid to give Jefferson his full vitality or give full dramatic life to the issues, public and personal that stirred him during the five years he was America's ambassador to France. Jefferson has a lot to deal with that is not explored as in-depth as it should be in the film. His deteriorating relationship with Patsy, his courting of the married Maria Cosway, and his notorious unconfirmed love affair with Sally Hemings. There is plenty of material here for gripping story about a man whose habits of life and belief are being challenged in all sorts of ways. But essentially the movie settles for pretty pictures. "Even Jefferson's endless intellectual curiosity is seen more as an eccentricity than a vital force -- like his sexuality, muted and eventually strangled in fastidious gentility."
Shone, Tom. "Style but no discontent." The Sunday Times (London) 18 June 1995.
Shone criticizes the revolutionary aspect of the film, or lack thereof: the only representation of any revolutionary action involves the beheading of asparagus. Jefferson is stiff, his romances dispassionate. The movie takes an exciting plot, "one concerning Jefferson's sexual relations with his beautiful 15-year-old slave girl, Sally, who is also his dead wife's half sister, and downplays it into a muted flirtation and implied sexual relationship in order to preserve Jefferson's reputation." The movie takes several juicy topics, the era of revolution and political upheaval as well as a sexual scandal, and manages to bury them in a tepid script paired with stiff acting, creating a sub-par result.
Shulgasser, Barbara. "Disjointed meanderings of 'Jefferson in Paris'." SFGate.com 7 April 1995.
Jefferson in Paris is "only a series of disjointed meanderings . . . rather than an actual integrated movie with plot and characters and . . . a point." Nick Nolte was chosen to play Jefferson, "the man who wrote a treatise dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal," because the filmmakers were excited that he had freckles, "just like Jefferson." They then reveal Jefferson's intelligence and varied interests by showing him using his copying machine or practicing violin. "Nolte interrupted from violin practice is a little like Mother Teresa torn away from her collection of playboy centerfolds. This isn't the way to reveal character in a movie." Jefferson has an affair with Maria Cosway, "a foolish, goofy, spoiled child." The affair is cut short by the arrival of Sally Hemings, one of Jefferson's slaves, who is a "demure, lovely, flirtatious spitfire who would rather stay with Jefferson than be free." If the film had been about Sally Hemings, "perhaps then . . . Jefferson [could] appear to be the man capable of all his fabled accomplishments, a man who might possibly be interesting enough to attract a 15-year-old spitfire."
Simon, John. "Jefferson in Paris." National Review 1 May 1995.
"For all the bustle, visual display, authentic detail, and some good performances, there is a posturing, contrived, ultimately lifeless quality here, a vapidity beneath the razzle-dazzle." The film touches upon the insignificant details of Jefferson's time spent in Paris -- his "platonic dalliance with the pretty Maria Cosway" and the alleged concubinage with his slave girl Sally Hemings. Although half of the film is occupied with the less than intimate relationship between Sally and Jefferson, Simon surprisingly focuses more on the idea that the movie lacks the answer to an integral question: "What did the years Thomas Jefferson spent as our ambassador to France mean -- to the two countries concerned, to history, to him?" As for the casting, Simon concludes this movie wasted perfectly fine actors on "poorly written cameo roles." Nolte does not butcher the role of Jefferson, but "his performance, foursquare and somewhat stolid like his face, does not convey genius, never mind charm." The performance of Newton, who plays Sally, is "modeled on today's blacks, and thus totally out of character." Paltrow, however, is rendered the worst. "One of Hollywood's most untalented and unsightly performers, Paltrow makes, as usual, an ass of herself as Patsy, as she mopes through the entire movie with the same sagging posture, her face in a single sullen, almost cretinous, expression." The movie might have possessed the potential for success had Ivory learned his trade as director and Jhabvala been competent enough to write her own work as opposed to adapting someone else's for the screen.
Staloff, Darren. Rev. of Jefferson in Paris. William and Mary Quarterly 52 (1995): 750-53.
The film lacks context, leaving the audience "clueless" to historical and social details, while also failing to provide insight into the historical figure of Jefferson, who is plagued by contradictions. Instead, the film focuses on Jefferson's "emotional attitudes" towards women and slavery. The film disappoints because it does not depict Jefferson as the "lover and slavemaster" but as the powerful and dominant yet passive man that women were drawn to, that women adored. Both Cosway and Hemings are "essentially emotionally immature teenage girls" who initiate the flirting with Jefferson. Cosway is clearly unhappy with her marriage to a "somewhat cruel and homosexual dandy," while Sally is Jefferson's young slave girl; these conditions place Jefferson's women in a comparably weaker position than him. Even his daughter Martha lacks power against him, as shown when he exercises his dominance by pulling her out of the convent. All of the major female characters are portrayed as inferior to Jefferson, making Jefferson in Paris lack a strong female foil to counteract the dependent women that Jefferson loves. Since Jefferson was residing at John Adams', Abigail Adams could have been introduced as the foil, the strong, mature, and independent woman that Jefferson would not love. The failure to create such a foil implies that "Jefferson loved fragile women because that is the way women were in eighteenth century Paris." Ultimately, the film depicts Jefferson as a dispassionate and rational master who does not abuse his power nor lose his temper; the film fails to show how the "dangers and vulnerability of intimacy for him would have been limited by the disproportionate power and dominance he wielded in his domestic setting."
Staples, Brent. "Editorial Notebook: Thomas Jefferson and ‘Dashing Sally'; In Love—or Just Master and Slave?" New York Times 18 April 1995: A24.
The movie subtly suggests a love affair between Jefferson and Hemings, and rightfully so—although Jefferson was "exceptional, ahead of his time," he was "not completely free of it." Jefferson's relationship with Hemings would not have been out of the ordinary, and perhaps the resemblance Sally would have borne to his deceased wife was a further incentive. Whether Jefferson did or did not have a relationship with Hemings, the movie seems to say: "Perhaps they did, but for crying out loud, what's the big deal? Jefferson would still be who he is, the country he fathered is still history's envy." Despite his suggested affairs, the movie recognizes that "Jefferson would remain a towering figure regardless of what happened in his bedroom."
Sterritt, David. "Jefferson in Paris, a Personal Portrait." Christian Science Monitor 4 April 1995: 13.
This is a film that brilliantly shows the "all-too-human complexities of those who faced the moral and intellectual challenges of 18th-century democracy." Ivory and Jhabvala portray Jefferson as a well-rounded man who is never too busy to take care of his own interests, such as architecture, agriculture, and an affair with Sally Hemings. Ivory holds back nothing when depicting this affair: this film goes into great depth about their relationship and the effects of it on the public. It shows Jefferson's loneliness and self-consciousness as his motivation for his relations with this "black subordinate." Ivory and Jhabvala try to show their viewers a moral view of their relationship rather than something that is looked down upon. Every actor in the film perfectly portrays its main characters.
Tookey, Christopher. "Love Slave in a Paris Match." (London) Daily Mail 16 June 1995: 45.
Overall, Tookey thinks that the movie is "sincerely performed" and starts off well but is terribly boring and depressing. It lacks emotion and excitement. Tookey criticizes the lack of chemistry between Jefferson and Sally and the fact that we cannot distinguish Sally's feelings. He also thinks Jefferson should show some remorse or guilt for his relationship with such a young and immature girl. Tookey makes very clear that the film needs more sexual content to it and that, given the subject, we do not see enough emotion or passion. He says harshly that watching this film "is depressingly like being trapped for two hours in a doctor's waiting room, with only the National Geographic Magazine for company, and a leaking roof."
Travers, Peter. Rev. of Jefferson in Paris. Rolling Stone 20 April 1995: 89.
This is a "droopy, snail-paced prigs-in-wigs movie." Jefferson is portrayed as "soaked up in the [French] culture and the high life." Nolte doesn't do such a sterling job giving life to Jefferson, acting more like a "wax dummy" than our third president. His debates and relationships with both Hemings and Cosway lack the emotional passion necessary to convince an audience of its reality. However, Thandie Newton "gives the film's liveliest performance as Sally Hemings." Hemings is still at most shown doing nothing more juicy than unbuckling Jefferson's shoe. "Jefferson in Paris catches a public figure with his pants down, and then can't bear to look."
Zibart, Eve. "Jefferson in Paris." Washington Post 7 April 1995.
The film is a "disaster" -- "intellectually infuriating and thoughtlessly racist." It ignores the "crucial paradox, that of the liberal icon Jefferson's purportedly taking teenaged slave Sally Hemings as mistress." Sally "is a simple-minded and sometimes sly flirt . . . incapable of inspiring such personally taboo passion." Sally's played as a "pickaninny." The movie avoids a conflict that would have mattered -- "the rivalry of two intelligent, conventionally unacceptable women (the married Cosway and the black Hemings) for Jefferson's soul."

See Also

Ansen, David. "Jefferson's Dangerous Liaisons." Newsweek 3 April 1995: 69.

Arnold, Gary. "'Jefferson': Amorous American in Paris." Washington Times 7 April 7: 1995: C17.

Carr, Jay. "'Jefferson' delivers history lesson without drama." Boston Globe 7 April 1995: 89.

Gilbert, Matthew. "The merchants of cinematic ivory." Boston Globe 2 April 1995: B21.

Rickey, Carrie. "Nolte's Jefferson in Paris: Robust Man of Affairs." Philadelphia Inquirer 7 April 1995: 7.

Rickey, Carrie. "Specialists in Period Films Draw Some Fire over Their Latest." Philadelphia Inquirer 9 April 1995: M1.

Riding, Alan. "Getting It Right and Going Light on the History." New York Times 3 July 1994: 2, 9, 17.

Ringle, Ken. "Sage of Monticello, or Fool on a Hill?" Washington Post 9 April 1995: G4.

Jefferson in Paris is a 1995Franco-Americanhistoricaldramafilm, previously entitled Head and Heart.  It is a semi-fictional account of Thomas Jefferson's tenure as the Ambassador of the United States to France before his Presidency and of his alleged relationship with BritishartistMaria Cosway and his relationship with his slave, Sally Hemings.  Although Jefferson's relationship with Hemings was disputed at the time by mainstream historians, the historic consensus has shifted, following a 1998 DNA study found a match between the male lines of Jefferson and Hemings descendants, to acknowledging that Jefferson likely had a nearly 40-year liaison with Hemings and was the father of all her children, four of whom survived and were freed.

Written by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, directed by James Ivory.

Thomas Jefferson[edit]

  • You will forgive my perhaps somewhat exaggeratedanxiety.  For an American, freedom of religious conscience is one of our great principles.
  • A wise man will only depend upon himself.
  • Our heart is pleased because she is pleased.
  • We joined the crowd admitted, according to some ancient custom, to view the king and queen on their way to Mass.  I meant to impress upon my daughter the vainglory of these spectacles.  May we Americansneveremulate them, nor burden our taxpayers with such useless splendors.
  • You and I are alive, and the Earth belongs to us, the living.
    • This line is similar to one included in an actual letter from Jefferson to John Wayles Eppes in 1813.  The quote there is, "The earth belongs to the living, not to the dead."
  • [referring to Franz Mesmer's animal magnetism practice]  Sir, this is just trash and tricks for the weakmind.
  • Sally, this is yourmoney.  It'll be right here in the corner.

Patsy Jefferson[edit]

Maria Cosway[edit]

  • [to Jefferson]  Do you have no son?

Sally Hemings[edit]

  • You roast it, then you eats it on the cob.  And it's the sweetest stuff you ever eaten in your life.
  • [to James Hemings]  Won't be no field nigger if it's his own child I's carryin'.

James Hemings[edit]


Cook's helperVenez prendre un verre avec nous à la taverne ce soir.
James HemingsUh…pas money.  Non money.
  • Uh…no money.  Not money.
Cook's helperIci, les gens sont payés pour travailler!
CookDemandez le maître pour les salaires!
  • Ask the master for wages!
Cook's helperVous devriez être payé comme nous.
  • You should be paid like us.

James Hemings:  I was wantin' to say, Master—
Thomas jefferson:  Wanting to say what, James?  I like finished sentences.
James Hemings:  Yes, Master.  And what it is I was wantin' to finish is, I wants to get paid.  Master, I wants money.
Thomas jefferson:  In our presentcircumstances, your request is not unreasonable.  I shall tell Monsieur Petit that on the first of each month, you are to receive twenty-four francs by the way of salary.  You realise that this arrangement holds good only in Paris, and that in Monticello, we shall revert to our own system.
James Hemings:  Yes, Master.  Thank you.

Maria Cosway:  Is your daughter here to learnFrenchmanners and morals?
Thomas jefferson:  Manners, to some extent, but when it comes to morals, we should keep to our own.
Maria Cosway:  Why?  Are your better than ours?
Thomas jefferson:  They are better for us, that is, for us Americans.

Maria Cosway:  Tell me about America.
Thomas jefferson:  Madame, the subject is as large as the land itself.

Marquis de Lafayette:  [reading from the Dunlap Broadside of the Declaration of Independence, drafted by Thomas jefferson]  "WE hold theſe Truths to be ſelf-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights".
French man 1Tous les hommes naissent-ils vraiment égaux, Monsieur Jefferson?
Translator:  Are all men created equal, Mister Jefferson?
French man 2Ou serait-il plus légitime de dire, « tous les blancs naissent-ils égaux »?
Translator:  Or should this read, "all white men are created equal"?
Thomas jefferson:  We allowed for certain differences that are not caused by the laws of men, but by those of nature.  And though the Negro may or may not be inferior, his status in no way alters the wrongness of slavery.  It is evil.
Marquis de Lafayette:  Yet your first draft, I believe, contained a clause on the abolition of slavery.
Thomas jefferson:  I considered it essential, but Congress struck it out of the final Declaration as being too particular.
French man 1La question de l'esclavage reste donc ouverte et non resolve, chez vous?
Translator:  So the question remains open with you and unresolved.
French man 2Votre révolution, Monsieur Jefferson, nous apparait comme incomplete.
Translator:  Your revolution, Mister Jefferson, appears to be incomplete.
Marquis de Lafayette:  Why did you omit the notion of property as one of those rights?
Thomas jefferson:  Well, while I hold the right of the individual to possess property as basic, I consider it as a means to humanhappiness, but not as an end in itself.

Thomas jefferson:  I kept having a debate between my head and my heart.
Maria Cosway:  Which in your case the head always wins.
Thomas jefferson:  Not this time.  My poor head was simply whirled around by my unruly heart.
Maria Cosway:  Oh, by your heart!
Thomas jefferson:  It kept telling me, "I love the lady, and will continue to love her forever.  If she were on one side of the globe, and I on the other, I would pierce through the whole mass of the world to reach her."

See also: French Revolution
Thomas jefferson:  The people are making their voice heard.  There's nothing to fear in the triumph of the people.
Maria Cosway:  Not even you are safe.  Come on.  Come away!
Thomas jefferson:  All they want is their liberty, their right to freedom.
Maria Cosway:  I've seen such horrible, horriblesights in the streets.  It makes me fear that men are not good, not kind by nature, but cruel.
Thomas jefferson:  No.  No.  They have been warped by generations of tyranny, but they're naturally good.  If I were not sure of that, sure of the goodness inherent in the natural man, I would no longer want to be alive.

Thomas jefferson:  You still scared of me, Sally?
Sally Hemings:  I ain't scared of you, Massa.

Thomas jefferson:  [places hand on Bible]  I swear by Almighty God that upon my return to the state of Virginia, I shall, within a period of not more than two years, give his freedom to James Hemings.  [removed hand from Bible]  Since, however, James was brought to Paris at great expense to me for the purpose of learning the art of Frenchcookery, he shall continue to reside at Monticello in my service until he shall have taught the same art to such persons as I shall place under him.  [holds out Bible]  Do you swear?
James Hemings:  [places hand on Bible]  I swear.
Thomas jefferson:  [withdraws Bible from James Hemings; presumably places his own hand again upon Bible]  I also hereby promise and declare that Sally Hemings, sister of James, shall be freed upon my death.  Likewise all childrenborn to her shall be freed from my ownership, or that of my heirs, upon reaching the age of twenty-one.  Do you swear it, Patsy?
Patsy jefferson:  I swear.

About the film[edit]

  • Casting Nick Nolte as a Founding Father may sound like this film's riskiestchoice, but in fact it makes solid sense.  Beyond having the right physical stature for the imposing, sandy-haired Jefferson, Mr. Nolte captures the man's vigor and his stiff sense of propriety.  He may not adapt effortlessly to the role of an intellectual giant, but his performance is thoroughly creditable, despite lines like "My poor head was simply whirled about by my unruly heart."  His intenselymasculine presence goes a long way toward explaining Jefferson's deep, overlapping involvements with women at this stage of his life.


At Jefferson's house, the Hôtel de Langeac[edit]

At Lafayette's[edit]

At Versailles[edit]

At the Panthémont Abbey[edit]

At Doctor Mesmer's[edit]

At the Opera[edit]

At the Palais Royal[edit]

Pike County, Ohio[edit]

External links[edit]

I kept having a debate between my head and my heart.  …  My poor head was simply whirled around by my unruly heart.  …  It kept telling me, "I love the lady, and will continue to love her forever.  If she were on one side of the globe, and I on the other, I would pierce through the whole mass of the world to reach her." ~ Thomas Jefferson's character
Don't you wanna see what it's like to own your own body? ~ James Hemings's character

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