Marriage is becoming interesting again because it is so difficult— Norman Mailer
Time was Friday nights were spent with a box of popcorn and a date, watching Doris and Rock meet, marry and live happily ever after—in pyjamas and twin beds, of course. Things are no longer so blissfully simple: the popcorn is still at hand but the date is someone else’s estranged spouse, and up on the screen Jill and Burt are falling in and out of the matrimonial bed (now a double), in and out of a series of arms and are generally reeling from the torments of mid-life crisis. Marriage in the movies, once as pure as Doris’ pillow, has tumbled to the real world: Hollywood’s makers of movies have decreed infidelity hotter than horror and audiences, overdosed on fangs and gangs this year, can look forward in
the months to come to a glut of domestic comedies—Americanizations of the genre in which the French have excelled for 40 years.
Adultery has always enjoyed general acceptance in European cinema, as part
and parcel of a culture that for centuries has accepted marriage à la mode as a social and literary norm. But it took the North Americans, if not to invent the notion of romantic marriage, then at least to invest it with the mantle of freedom of choice, and Hollywood to canonize it in the subtle and not-so-subtle propaganda for the North American Way of Life. Marital infidelity, if examined at all, was traditionally seen as the pastime of monied socialites, decadent Europeans or the odd vacationer. But now, after the sexual revolution has shattered—at least superficially— every other taboo, Hollywood has discovered Adultery for Everyperson. Partially responsible are the French, whose box-office bonanzas. Cousin, Cousine and Get Out Your Handkerchiefs tamed the heads of studio executives. But the case for infidelity on the screen was won for a variety of reasons: widespread disenchantment with the emotional shallowness of special-effects films such as Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Alien; the hankering of stars such as Jill Clayburgh and Burt Reynolds to sink their teeth into stronger dramatic roles; and of course, the success of Annie Hall, An Unmarried Woman and Manhattan.
Also, on a broader level, the novelty of the sexual revolution has subsided, leaving people to cope realistically with the confusion left in its wake and to incorporate its changes into their daily lives. There’s a backlash to traditional values of home and family, a law of
physics aggravated by the climate of economic uncertainty. And as the institution of marriage represents a joining of moral and economic aspirations, it’s not surprising that the new wave of films all deal with middle-aged, middleclass, under-siege North America.
The Last Married Couple in America sums up the crisis in title alone; through the antics of four suburban couples, it examines the alternatives to traditional marriage—wife-swapping, homosexuality, living together. George Segal and Natalie Wood, happily married for 17 years, find they are pressured by the “media massage” and the foundering marriages of their peers to stray from the straight and narrow, with disastrous results. Director Gil Cates calls the film a comedy of manners and circumstance: “What Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice was to the sexual revolution of the ’60s, The Last Married Couple in America is to the relationship revolution now—which is marriage.” Cates, claiming that his film is a sociological comment, says that, “unlike Animal House, we are holding a mirror up to nature.” But when Segal and Wood are reunited at a wife-swapping party and Dom DeLuise, formerly a plumber, turns porn star and marries a hooker, the film shows itself to be more regression than revolution.
Producer Edgar Scherick’s Two + Two makes a more honest attempt to reveal the suffering that goes hand in hand with adultery. A Long Island doctor, whose marriage of 18 years is falling apart, falls in love with the wife of his Italian gardener. But the real focus of the film is the deep need and affection they both have for their strongly structured families. The film is more than a surface rendering, coming to grips with the real consequences of breaking up a marriage. “It has warmth, pathos and a certain amount of tragedy as the two people are forced to examine their responsibilities,” says Scherick. “The problem of the story is to have your cake and eat it too.”
One of the most striking features of these films is the blatant family resemblance they bear to one another, and having your cake and eating it too is the predominant gene. The extraordinary ease with which these couples mend their ways and return to the marital fold, unscarred and good-humored after seething bouts of infidelity, is, at the very least, unconvincing. And in this respect, Loving Couples and Middle Age Crazy are close enough to pass for twins. Shirley MacLaine and James Coburn, in Loving Couples, are two doctors married to one another. At 40, the passion of work cools for MacLaine and she falls in love with an overly romantic younger man, whose girl-friend then neatly seduces Coburn. Husband and wife, in short order, discover the fool-
ishness of all this and mend their ways. Similarly, in the Canadian co-production Middle Age Crazy, Bruce Dern as a good ol’ Texas contractor has a crisis on approaching the big 40, aggravated by his father’s death and wife Ann-Margret’s sexual demands. He takes off with cheerleader Deborah Wakeham but finds he can’t handle sex without the rules and returns home.
Superficially, Shoot the Moon seems a close family relation to these two: one middle-aged husband, suddenly successful, decides to shed his wife along with his old skin. He has an affair, so
she counters with one of her own. But this is where the similarities end. Although the cast and the ending have yet to be announced, this project already stands out among the rest for two reasons: the script by Bo Goldman (One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest), less a comedy than drama, is the only one to emphasize the latent fear and hostility in the mothering relationship of wives to their husbands. Also, director Alan Parker (Midnight Express), considered a suspense director, is one of the youngest and potentially most innovative helmsman of the group; the ma-
jority of the others, culled from theatre and TV, hark back to a more traditional era of Hollywood.
The only name to attract as much attention as Parker’s is that of Paul Mazursky, the leading voice of middleclass North America who, with An Unmarried Woman, became godfather to the trend. Willie and Phil, written and directed by Mazursky and starring Margot Kidder, is an homage to Jules et Jim, François Truffaut’s lambent study of the friendship of two men expressed through their love for the same woman. But while Jules et Jim explores the darker angles of sexual ambiguity and ends with the deaths of two of the trinity, Willie, Phil and their mutual love, Jeannette, separate unscarred, each to his own destiny. After promising to penetrate the complexities of the most awkward grouping of all, the ménage à trois, Mazursky opts for an unreal resolution.
These films rejuvenate an old tradition in Hollywood: in the late ’20s and early ’30s the studios, filled with brilliant refugees from Europe, turned out scores of highly sophisticated comediesof-the-sexes. Ernst Lubitsch (The Marriage Circle), the most prolific, was imported specifically for his expertise in the genre. He was, however, carefully kept within the limits of the Hays office, established in 1930 under Will
Hays, chairman of the Republican National Committee, which preserved the sanctity of marriage by splitting the connubial bed in two. This golden era of the European film-maker in Hollywood
ended abruptly with the Second World War when the studios, pressed by their audiences to confirm them in the way of life for which they were fighting, distilled a quintessential propaganda into their vision of the North American family. Even after victory, the moral surveillance of the McCarthy era froze
these attitudes. Premarital relationships provided the necessary love interest in movies while extramarital relationships were relegated to sitcoms where the degree of sexual ignorance was only matched by that of sexual jealousy, or to the murky underground of film noir in which adultery, indulged in by irredeemable characters, was met with inevitable and deserved punishment.
Nothing had changed in the early ’60s when Billy Wilder deliberately satirized the sexual immaturity of the period in Kiss Me Stupid, eliciting howls of outrage from every quarter. The film equated contemporary notions of love with notions of property value in which an ambitious songwriter, to avoid loaning his luscious wife to Dean Martin, pays the town whore to play her part. Wilder made his point to a few but was soon forgotten: the youth boom of the ’60s exploded, burying marriage at the bottom of the list of bankable box-office material.
But after a heavy dose of horror, gangs and war this year, studios feel that audiences are ready to return to the domestic scene. Films that studio executives would have relegated to TV two years ago as being too soft for features—meaning “non-plot-action-oriented” or feminine in thinking—are now hot feature properties. “People today are interested in a realistic escapism, with the hopeful feeling that relationships can work,” says Renee Valente, producer of Loving Couples. “What happened in the past 10 years has made people more aware of what
values should be. Both women and men are more conscious and more fearful: if a woman is career-oriented, what relationship can a man expect from her?”
Goldman sees his film as reaffirming the traditional: uShoot the Moon is about truths that I think people want to go back to—marriage as an institution in the best sense, that it stands for something, that it’s here to stay.” Cates and Scherick agree, saying that their films, while depicting infidelity, are about commitment. But the means with which they have chosen to make their point is compromise: comedy is a conservative art form and even in extreme farce, anarchy is only created so that order can be restored. By using exaggerated situations and unrealistic endings, the film-makersare doing little more than resurrecting the farcical silliness of Doris and Rock pillow-fighting; without a firm grounding in realism, there is only escapism. Like the first of its genre, An Unmarried Woman, these films set out to make statements only to retreat to cliché.
Almost 100 years ago, Oscar Wilde said: “The 19th-century dislike of realism is Caliban’s rage at seeing his own face in the glass. The 19th-century dislike of romanticism is Caliban’s rage at not seeing his own face in the glass.” The marital comedies seem to have inherited the monster: if audiences are unwilling to face the bitter truths of the breakdown of relationships, they are also unwilling to accept hollow romantic conventions. And if Hollywood is only going to go halfway, Friday nights are better spent waiting up for Cousin, Cousine on the late show.
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