Sunday, April 24, 2011


The label of "misogynist" has followed the late director Robert Altman around since audiences were first invited to laugh at and identify with the anti-female, frat-boy antics of that annoyingly smug 70s geek duo of Elliot Gould and Donald Sutherland in M*A*S*H (hands down my least favorite Altman film).

Despite being responsible for some of the more cringe-worthy scenes of cruelty to women ever attributed to a single director (the coke-bottle-to-the-face scene in The Long Goodbye is the worst), in interviews Altman has always asserted, rather persuasively, that he was in fact very sympathetic to the plight of women, and that his films only reflected reality and what a raw deal women were often handed by a sexist culture. This argument of course would hold a good deal more weight if the women in his films were not so frequently the sexualized objects of the male gaze, or depicted so unsympathetically in comparison to their male oppressors. (As certain as a Hitchcock cameo, an Altman film almost always features a scene of a woman in some state of blunt nudity [usually in the presence of some form of humiliation] while male characters remain chastely clothed). 
But while Robert Altman may get it wrong a good deal of the time when it comes to depicting women onscreen, he's also one of the few directors to get it really right. Except for M*A*S*H,  which I consider to be sophomoric dreck in spite of its reputation, Altman has an impressive track record of providing terrific roles for women in his films. The women may not be pillars of feminist ideology (in fact, almost all are neurotic or downright insane, as is most everyone in an Altman film) but they are undeniably human and always compelling.
In his "plus" column I place That Cold Day in the Park (Altman's 2nd film), an off-beat, forgotten masterpiece of loneliness and sexual obsession.
Sandy Dennis as Frances Austen
Michael Burns as The Boy
Academy-Award winning actress Sandy Dennis, on the downside of an unsustainable fire-hot popularity that began with 1966's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, stars as Frances Austen, a wealthy, 32-year-old woman living alone in a spacious apartment in Vancouver, Canada. Prim and cripplingly repressed, Frances lives a life of formal ritual, surrounded by friends who are at least 20 years her senior (they, like her staid apartment, appear to have been inherited from her dead mother).
One rainy afternoon she spies a young man sitting alone on a park bench and invites him in to get dry. The blankly cherubic 19 year-old (Michael Burns) speaks not a word, but allows the solicitous woman to bathe, feed, and eventually house him. The boy's silent passivity (he's never named) and apparent lack of friends or family enables Frances to project a great deal of her own loneliness onto his situation, awakening in her an acute awareness of long-repressed desires. Before long, Frances' initial maternal concern gives way to darker obsessions as the boy comes to symbolize a last-chance grasp at life.
One of Frances' many joyless,ritualized social commitments
 Something about the boy sitting alone in the rain touches Frances. A repressed woman who, up until this point, has given the impression of being rather icy and removed.

Movies about older women and kept men go at least as far back as 1950s Sunset Blvd. But whether due to gender perceptions that ignore the strong-woman / weak-male dynamic (a soberingly recurring phenomenon on today's television court shows), or their close association with homosexual authors (Tennessee Williams' Sweet Bird of Youth"& The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone; Truman Capote's Breakfast at Tiffany's), films on the subject have always seemed to court a gay sensibility. By this I mean that in each of these films, one could substitute the dominant older woman with a male without significantly altering the narrative.
Sex Object
A rarity in most American films - Robert Altman asks us to share the feminine gaze.
Movie audiences by now are quite used to the fact that (due to the predominance of male directors and cinematographers) movies almost always represent the subjective male gaze. When, on those rare occasions, that gaze turns feminine and it's the male torso upon whom the leering close-ups are trained, audiences (particularly American male audiences) are made instantly uncomfortable and don't quite know what to do with themselves. Film critics (as evidenced by the outcry against the unarguably lousy but harmless Sex and the City movies) usually go the gay sensibility route (see above) or invoke the double-standard by labeling the nudity "gratuitous."  One of the strengths of That Cold Day in the Park is how it commits to reinforcing the gaze of its female protagonist and uses any ensuing audience discomfort to its atmospheric advantage. In a refreshing change of pace for an Altman film, a male (Michael Burns) spends most of the movie in various states of fetishized undress with the camera lingering over his bareness in a way usually reserved for comely starlets. From a narrative standpoint, all this suggested nudity underscores the character's vulnerability. But psychologically speaking, I like the way something so simple can have the power to mess with so many minds.
Michael Burns, giving Joe Dallesandro a run for his money in the "passive, objectified male" sweepstakes

Few actresses are as appealingly quirky as the late Sandy Dennis. Her performances are full of nervous mannerisms, eccentric tics, and vocal hiccups that you either love her or she annoys the hell out of you. I fall into the former category. In That Cold Day in the Park, Dennis has a role in which her trademark idiosyncrasies work towards defining an emotionally needy character stunted by a disturbing social awkwardness. I can't say her character is exactly likable (creepy is more the word) but Dennis' performance is touching and moves one to empathy.
Frances: "I remember my mother never stopped saying how lonely she was after my father died. 
She kept talking on and on, always reminding me how little company I was for her."
I love it when directors do more than just use the camera to record the action. Altman makes great use of the concealment / distortion value of shadows, glass, mirrors and reflective surfaces. A good deal of the sense of unease that the movie elicits is due to the way Altman bisects and divides the screen, keeping the characters in their own separate worlds even when they share the same space.
Isolated Worlds
Although lonely herself, Frances is unable to return the affection an equally
lonely suitor (Edward Greenhalgh) extends to her.
An attempt to reach out.
Frances holds one-sided  conversations with the boy who cannot (will not?) speak.
Window Blinds or Iron Bars?
The characters in That Cold Day in the Park live in various self-imposed prisons.
I first saw "That Cold Day in the Park" back in the early 70s on a now-defunct San Francisco TV channel: KEMO-TV Channel 20 -that had this great late-night program called "The Adults Only Movie."  (Thank you,  The movies were mostly foreign or art films (I must have been the only kid in my class who knew who Catherine Spaak was), but what 13-year-old could resist a program with a title like that? The version of That Cold Day In The Park I saw was heavily edited and viewed on a tiny black and white TV set in my bedroom, but it nevertheless blew me away and I sought it out many years later at revival theaters. Back then, the film mostly impressed me as a kinky suspense thriller with a very powerful final act (and the male nudity didn't hurt, either), but over the years I have come to grow fonder of it as a labyrinthine character piece and dark treatise on loneliness. The shift of tone from somber drama to something unanticipatingly perverse is like a slow descent into madness.
Despite some cinematic evidence to the contrary, I really don't believe Robert Altman was a misogynist. His films with male leads have an off-putting thread of misanthropy and cruelty running through them, yet his films with female leads (The Company, 3 Women, Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean) are infinitely gentler and markedly more humane. That Cold Day in the Park is almost delicate in the way it handles the Sandy Dennis character when it could have easily made her into a some kind of a gynophobia-inspired monster.
OK, so the "grasping female" imagery doesn't support my argument, but is this a cool ad, or what?
I think in his own twisted way, Altman liked women a good deal more than men.

DVD of That Cold Day in the Park at last available!! February 19, 2013

*ADDENDUM      May 2, 2011
I recently had the opportunity to acquire Richard Miles’ long-out-of-print 1965 novel upon which this film is based (thank you, Ebay!) and have to say I was more than a little surprised by how greatly the source novel and adapted film differ. This is one of those rare occasions where a film (screenplay by Gillian Freeman) is a vast improvement over the book.
The basic plot structure is the same: lonely spinster takes in mute boy she spies on a park bench, but little else follows the plot of the movie. Unlike the appropriately gray winter of Canada that sets the mood for the film, the novel takes place in Paris, France and takes the form of an alternating narrative told from the perspective of its three protagonists.
First person is employed for the Sandy Dennis character (known only as “Madame”) while third-person is used for the boy (given the name Mignon here- French for “cute” or “sweet”) and his friend, Yves. Mignon and Yves (a character that does not appear in the film) are a pair of bisexual street hustler/ prostitutes who plot to rob the isolated woman.
In a curious turnabout from tradition, the histories, character, and motivations of the individuals in the film are considerably more fleshed out than those of the novel.
The narrative arc of the story is similar, but in all significant aspects, Altman’s film has the stronger psychological subtext. Given that the film is a thriller still unknown to many, even ardent Robert Altman fans, I won’t spoil the ending by revealing it here. I will say that the novel has a quite different conclusion and that the film’s is both more shocking and convincing.
getting the opportunity to read the source novel to an obscure, undeservedly forgotten film I've enjoyed for so many decades provides fascinating insight into the art of adapting material for the screen.

Copyright © Ken Anderson


  1. When I first saw M*A*S*H, I remember watching the opening scene and listening to the lyrics of the song and thinking "this is going to be heavy, black-humored and gooooooood". By the time the football game was being played I couldn't watch anymore and turned it off. What a disappointment after having been introduced to Altman by"3 Women" and Sutherland by "Don't Look Now" and Gould by "Little Murders"!!

    I have not seen "That Cold Day in The Park" yet and now it's at the top of my list (that is, if I can find it). I have long enjoyed the strong woman/weak male themes in movies - but without actually thinking of it that way (thank you for enlightening me!!) - my favorites being "The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone" (both versions, with exception to Warren Beatty's awkward miscast performance) and "Great Expectations" (both versions, again).

    I think I'm rambling. Anyway, thank you for the review. I can't wait to check it out!

  2. PS. I never found Altman to be misogynist. When looking at good art, somehow I'm not worried about point fingers and calling names. I just look at the art.

  3. Thanks, Kathrynnova, for yet another thoughtful comment! Good luck in finding a copy of "That Cold Day In The Park." Don't know where you're writing from, but the film is unavailable on DVD here in the US. I wish they would do something about that soon. My old VHS copy is terribly wobbly now!