"Doctor Spielvogel, this is my life, my only life,
and I'm living it in the middle of a Jewish joke!"-Alexander Portnoy
The sexual revolution, at least as far as its depiction in motion pictures, caught American culture with its existential pants down. Nothing in our country’s repressed, Puritan past is designed to support the normalizing of human sexual desire, nor encourage its free expression as a thing of joy and beauty. Advancements in science may have given us “the pill,” shifting social mores advanced Women’s Liberation, and the ‘60s Youth Movement challenged traditional codes of sexual behavior; but these progressive winds of change were no match for the profound overarching influence of the moral dogma of organized religion.
The paradox of American culture has always been that while we are a peculiarly sex-obsessed nation, we uphold deeply-rooted, firmly-ingrained mindsets conjoining sex with sin, fun with shame, and feeling good with being bad. Shamelessness seems to be holding the title at present, but for a time America’s chief export has always been guilt.
|Catholic Guilt: Fear that you're disappointing God|
Jewish Guilt: Fear that you're disappointing your mother
When Hollywood jumped on the sexual revolution bandwagon, it did so with predictable results. It embraced the movement’s most marketable, superficial characteristics (nudity, profanity, sexual explicitness) while failing to adopt its corresponding philosophy of self-acceptance and self-love. Thus, in a short span of time we were treated to a rash of hip, youth-oriented films cloaked in the timeliness of the “new permissiveness,” yet possessed of the age-old “no sex without guilt-induced moral compensation and/or punishment” mindset.
By way of example--during the early bloom of the sexual revolution, and later, during its waning days, two major movie studios released controversial, big-budget, high-profile films dealing with sexual liberation vis a vis the dilemma of religious guilt; the first (ostensibly) comedic, the second, tragic. In 1972 Warner Bros. released Portnoy’s Complaint, a curiously humorless film examining male compulsive sexuality through the prism of Jewish Guilt; and in 1977 Paramount released Looking for Mr. Goodbar, an unrelentingly grim look at female compulsive sexuality through the prism of Catholic guilt.
Two films very different in tone, yet uniquely similar in reflecting our society’s insistence on using religion as a tool to punish ourselves for our interest in sex. A dilemma about which a Mr. Alexander Portnoy would like to lodge a complaint.
|Richard Benjamin as Alexander Portnoy|
|Karen Black as Mary Jane "The Monkey" Reid|
|Lee Grant as Sophie Portnoy|
|Jill Clayburgh as Naomi|
|Jeannie Berlin as Rita "Bubbles" Girardi|
Alex Portnoy’s complaint, briefly stated, is that at age 33, he finds it near-impossible to reconcile his intellect and strong social conscience (he’s a NYC lawyer who works to help the poor) with his compulsive preoccupation with sex…the more perverse, the better. Worse, it’s a libidinous obsession from which he derives virtually no pleasure due to overpowering feelings of guilt and the certain fear that he will be punished for his impure thoughts and deeds. Faulting his early home environment as the source of his “What’s so bad about feeling good?” anxieties, adolescent Alex resorted to obsessive masturbation erotic fantasy as a means of coping with his controlling, suffocating mother who wanted him to be the Perfect Son, and his fault-finding, perpetually constipated dad who wanted him to be the Perfect Jew. “Doctor, do you understand what I was up against? My wang was all I really had to call my own!”
|D.P. Barnes as Dr. Spielvogel|
|Alex reacting to Mary Jane moving her lips as she reads|
On the printed page of Philip Roth’s controversial 1969 bestseller (written as a monologue relayed by Alexander to his analyst), Portnoy and his attendant complaint played like the outrageous heterosexual answer to the homosexual audacity of Gore Vidal’s 1968 bestseller Myra Breckinridge. Both novels used satire to assault late-60s sexual sensibilities, their sacred prose justifying the profane subject-matter. On the screen, however, their respective film adaptations suffered considerably in translation. Chided for being made by filmmakers who seemed to misunderstand the novels entirely, both film’s bombed, but for different reasons: the X-rated Myra Breckinridge for being too vulgar; the R-rated Portnoy’s Complaint for not being vulgar enough.
While whole “How did they ever make a movie of Lolita?” stuff was before my time (I was around, merely too young to remember it), I fully recall the hubbub surrounding the unlikelihood that anyone could make a film of Portnoy’s Complaint. When the film was released (perhaps a year too late in terms of public interest), fans of Roth’s novel, likely anticipating something combining the comic coarseness of Mel Brooks with the satirical wit of Woody Allen, were shocked to discover that one of the most talked-about books in American literature had been turned into a particularly smutty episode of Love, American Style. A coy, almost circumspect R-rated adaptation devoid of nudity, unless you count 33-year-old Richard Benjamin’s prominent man-boobs.
|Not sure any recreation of the novel's notorious scene where Alex masturbates to his sister's brassiere would ever work, but having 33-year-old Richard Benjamin play the teenage Portnoy only serves to make it cringe-creepy|
Blame for Portnoy's Complaint was easy to affix, being that acclaimed screenwriter Ernest Lehman (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, North by Northwest, Hello Dolly!, The Sound of Music, Sabrina) served as producer, writer, AND director (his debut/swansong).
The talented Jeannie Berlin somehow manages to escape her thankless bit role as Bubbles Girardi with her dignity intact. Berlin, who previously appeared in The Baby Maker , is the daughter of Elaine May, who for a time was up for the role Sophie Portnoy.
WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
My adolescent moviegoing memories are peppered with age-inappropriate films I was granted access to thanks to the lax enforcement of the motion picture code at my neighborhood theater. Portnoy’s Complaint isn’t one of them. I got away with seeing X-rated 1969 releases Midnight Cowboy and Last Summer largely due to my recently-divorced mom’s busy work schedule (she welcomed any opportunity to get my sisters and me out from underfoot) and my ability to convince her that I was mature beyond my years and that these were serious, important works of cinema art. By 1972 my mom had remarried, so along with having another individual policing my comings and goings, I also had a mom who had more time to read.
Thus, as was the case with the equally-forbidden Myra Breckinridge, my mom knowing precisely what Portnoy’s Complaint was about sealed my fate. I was in no position to press the point, lest they catch on that for at least a year (I was 14 at the time) I’d been sneaking their hardback copy of Roth’s jaw-dropping book to the bathroom for “inspiration.”
There aren’t many of Portnoy’s exploits I’d have the stomach to see rendered in widescreen color, so the fact that Lehman resorts to so many modesty-concealing devices in a film almost entirely about sex may seem hypocritical, but it’s perfectly fine with me. What’s less easy to take is its depiction of women (seen from Portnoy’s gynophobic perspective, they’re either objects or grotesques), and its leaden humorlessness. Claims of anti-Semitism aside, the biggest crime committed to Roth’s novel book is that Lehman, while maintaining much of the exact dialogue, seemed to surgically remove the comedy. Were not for Lee Grant’s amusing take on the Jewish mother stereotype, Portnoy’s Complaint would be an entirely laugh-free affair for me.
The more unkind critics were quick to point out that after Goodbye, Columbus (1969) Richard Benjamin was making a career out of being a Philip Roth surrogate. Similarly, it was not lost on many that after garnering an Oscar-nomination for Five Easy Pieces (1970), Karen Black never met a trollop role she didn't like.
Not many people associated with the making of Portnoy’s Complaint look back on the film with fond memories. Ernest Lehman has said he was disappointed in the outcome, and Lee Grant in her memoir I Said Yes to Everything not only recalls the occasion of having to throw Lehman off his own set for acting like a tyrant (Grant, who became an award-winning director soon after, took over the directing chores of her hospital scene that day), but remembers how seeing the completed film in a theater for the first and last time caused her to “shrink back in horror. It was not a good reflection of Jewish Family life.”
Grant’s "I said yes to everything" philosophy—born of having spent 12 unemployed years on Hollywood’s McCarty era blacklist—may account for her appearance in the film, but she really has nothing to be ashamed of. Scenes written as broad as a barn are salvaged by the anxious energy behind Grant’s delivery and timing. Her Sophie Portnoy may be a hysterical neurotic whose clinging over-concern emotionally scars her son for life, but she’s never a monster. Besides, as we learned from the immortal words of Belle Rosen (The Poseidon Adventure) “It comes from caring.”
THE STUFF OF DREAMS
To read Portnoy’s Complaint is to realize the significant role imagination and ingenuity played for sexually curious adolescents raised before the days of Playboy, television, and mass-market porn. When I watch the film adaptation, I’m reminded of the degree to which sex and sexuality were the defining cultural templates of adulthood when I was growing up. The ‘70s were so flooded with pop-culture references to the new sexuality that a defining trait of my adolescence was a race to grow up due to the nagging sense that I was missing out on something.
I read Portnoy’s Complaint (in installments, see above) at an age when I was far too young to know what it was really about, but Roth’s frank and explicit descriptions of adolescent sexual desire and self-experimentation were so true and on-point, it crossed gender, ethnic, and sexuality lines. It was hard to read that book without feeling in some ways embarrassed—if not exposed—that ANYONE else entertained (let alone wrote down) obscene scenarios and vulgar imaginings of the sort I’d barely acknowledged to myself.
|Alex's sole encounter with a Jewish woman (a fake-tan Jill Clayburgh with a really bad accent) finds him confronted with the unavoidable fact that unless he can sexualize and objectify them, he has absolutely no idea how to relate women.|
In re-reading the novel before writing this essay, what strikes me now, some 46 after my first encounter with Portnoy and his neurotic concerns, is that the single most shocking thing about Portnoy’s Complaint is not its language or the particulars of the activities described: is its honesty. It’s Philip Roth speaking about the reality of life (his life, anyway) without concern for decency, religious propriety, respectability politics, or perpetuating the lie of pornography that airbrushes away the unpleasant details to show us the consumer-ready result.
As someone raised Catholic, I relate to Portnoy’s struggles with his Jewishness. I relate to the guilt, the issues of religious identity, the contradictions, the "good boy" syndrome, and the attempt to breach the dichotomy on matters relating to sex and sexuality. It’s also clearer to me now that there was a method to Roth’s madness, and that talked-about language and snickered-about “dirty stuff” weren’t for sensation. It’s what many people today seem to forget lies at the very root of revolution: to overthrow a social order there needs to be assault and insurrection. There’s no room for civility. Portnoy’s Complaint was an assault on our sexual hypocrisy.
|"Why is every little thing I do for pleasure in this life immediately illicit - |
while the rest of the world rolls around laughing in the mud!"
Before it morphed into the commodified alienation of the singles bar scene dramatized in Looking for Mr. Goodbar, the sexual revolution was (albeit briefly) a legitimate effort to wrest sex away from guilt and repression. A call to newfound spiritual and physical freedoms which posed the challenge for us to be moral beings in a world of moral relativity.
To live through the sexual revolution only to arrive at a time when the prepackaged, bullshit Disney-porn lie of something like E.L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey passes for sexual liberation, is to understand that the true legacy of Philip Roth’s novel is its brazen honesty, not it’s profane reputation.
The movie...not so much.
This essay is part of the Lovely Lee Grant blogathon hosted by Reelweegiemidget Reviews and Angelman's Place. Click on the links to read other posts about the films of Lee Grant.
Copyright © Ken Anderson