Friday, July 29, 2011

DIARY OF A MAD HOUSEWIFE 1970

Films about young people's disillusionment with the American Dream were a staple of late 60s and early 70s cinema, but the New Hollywood had a decidedly Old Hollywood feel about the way America's youthquake was depicted onscreen. Anthropologists looking back on that era through its films might well assume that the most put-upon, oppressed members of American society were its males. White, middle-class males, at that.  The Graduate; Five Easy Pieces; The Marriage of a Young Stockbroker;  The King of Marvin Gardens (and just about any film starring Elliot Gould) viewed the shifting zeitgeist through a decidedly male prism. The crisis of male existential torpor was treated with near-heroic solemnity, lampooning and satire reserved for individuals and institutions daring to challenge the counterculture hero's quest to find himself. 
On those rare occasions when the feminine perspective was considered at all, filmmakers, perhaps in subconscious deference to the presumed male gaze, often seemed at a loss to find an appropriate tone or distinctive point of view. As if lacking confidence in believing women's issues were really anything to get all worked up over, the results were either gloomily over-determined bummers like Puzzle of a Downfall Child (1970) and Play it As It Lays (1972);  or stultifyingly arch satires in the vein of Stand Up & Be Counted (1972) and Up the Sandbox (1972).
At a friend's urging, I remember going to see the then-popular student-protest movie, The Strawberry Statement (1970) and being somewhat taken aback (even at 13 years of age) that in this film about counterculture revolutionaries, the only jobs these shake-up-the-system extremists could devise for women was to fetch food and work the copy machine! With few exceptions, women in the films of the New Hollywood were depicted as either sexually available embodiments of the "free love" movement or killjoy symbols of marital conformity.
To appropriate effect, the 1969 Allen Jones sculptures, "Hatrack" & "Table" make cameo appearances in a Diary of a Mad Housewife party scene.


Small wonder then, that Diary of a Mad Housewife stood out from the crowd. Here was a film that was a serious, considered look at America's changing values from a largely ignored perspective.  It was also a stingingly funny, spot-on satire of a certain breed of early-70s East Coast urban animal: the young Upper West Sider. Representing the flip side of post-hippie-era anti-materialism, these creatures attended  protest rallies in their liberal, Ivy-League colleges, but, thanks to their parent's money, never served in the war and went straight into business after graduation. Quick to sell out whatever ideals they may have once harbored, they cultivated lives of status-climbing consumerism that left them lost and bereft of purpose.
The couple in question: Tina and Jonathan Balser. She, an educated, family-focused housewife, he, a socially ambitious young lawyer. They have two children and live in an 8-room apartment across from Central Park. Is it just coincidence that their lives are exactly the lives Rosemary & Guy Woodhouse aspired to Rosemary's Baby? (Minus, of course, that nasty little business with the Devil.)
Carrie Snodgress as Tina Balser
Richard Benjamin as Jonathan Balser
Frank Langella as George Prager
Tina Balser, former Phi Beta Kappa at Smith College, is a privileged Manhattan housewife, married to an overbearing, pretentious, social climbing, name-dropping, bore of a lawyer who treats her like a personal assistant (and whose idea of a romantic come-on is "Teen, how about a little ol' roll in da hay?"). She shuttles her two bratty girls off to private school and spends the day in her sizable Upper West Side apartment smoking, developing an alcohol habit, navigating her fear of offending the "negro" housekeeper, and depressed to the point of inertia.

Oh, and Tina thinks she's going mad. Why?
Well, were she a male protagonist in the same scenario, she, like The Graduate's Benjamin Braddock, might engage in sullen brooding and take out her frustrations on the people around her in defiant rebellion against society's expectations. But, not being male, Tina takes the route typical of repressed, dissatisfied heroines throughout 19th century literature (a theme explored in the book, The Madwoman in the Attic by Sandra Gilbert & Susan Gubar), she quietly goes mad. Not stark-raving, howling-at-the-moon mad, just a slow, gradual retreat into paranoia, tractability, and  the kind of sexual devitalization recounted in Germaine Greer's groundbreaking 1970 feminist text, The Female Eunuch. 
Tina- "I believed in all those square values...loyalty and fidelity."
WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM:
It all sounds pretty heady and serious, but Diary of a Mad Housewife is actually brilliantly funny. The film's offbeat balance of social commentary and dark character humor is established in the wonderful, pre-credits opening sequence. It's like a tragi-comic burlesque of 20th-century marriage as envisioned perhaps by Valerie Solanas (remember her? She's the radical feminist who shot AndyWarhol in 1968) in her SCUM Manifesto. In the space of 10 minutes, Richard Benjamin heaps what seems like an entire lifetime's worth of complaints and criticisms on the head of the mutely tolerant Snodgress as they go about their morning rituals. You sense somehow that this is a "new side" of her husband Snodgress is seeing (in the novel by Sue Kaufman, an unexpected inheritance is the catalyst for Jonathan's sudden obnoxious turn)  and her strained attempts to hold it together in the face of the onslaught is like a sly feminist take on the "Plastics!" party scene in The Graduate.

PERFORMANCES:
It's no wonder that everyone was hailing Carrie Snodgress as the new star of the 70s when Diary of a Mad Housewife was released. She was an original. Her unadorned naturalism, husky voice, and air of self-assured "smarts" made her a welcome relief from all the well-intentioned bimbos (Karen Black cornered that market) and lost waifs (Liza Minnelli) littering the movie landscape. Her performance here is a delight of small details. Check out the catalog of emotions she conveys in the party sequence when she meets up Langella for a second time. She's absolutely fun and  fascinating to watch. Carrie Snodgress never chased the stardom that was hers for the taking, and when she passed away in 2004, cinema lost one of its best.

THE STUFF OF FANTASY:
As its title suggests, Diary of a Mad Housewife is told exclusively from Tina's perspective. And, as she is admittedly going mad (the film we're watching is actually Tina's disclosures to an encounter group) she is the quintessential unreliable narrator. In taking such a precise point of view, the film reminds us that we are seeing the world as Tina sees it, not necessarily as it really is. Richard Benjamin's broad-strokes caricature of the modern FDM (Forceful Dominant Male) is a lot easier to take under these circumstances.

THE STUFF OF DREAMS:
Diary of a Mad Housewife came out at the height of the Women's Liberation Movement, which may explain why so many critics at the time expressed disappointment in the perceived passivity of the Carrie Snodgress character. Half felt the film amounted to little more than male-bashing, stacking the deck to make Snodgress the guiltless victim. Others complained that Snodgress' inaction in the face of so much abuse rendered her an anti-feminist heroine and only added another docile female character to the ranks of cinema leading ladies.
Both arguments have some validity, but seeing the film today, I'm actually grateful Diary of a Mad Housewife showed so much restraint. It has a lot on its plate, culturally speaking, but it never becomes a preachy polemic on feminism and always remains a character-fueled  comedy/drama. I'm reminded of those awful final seasons of that TV sitcom Designing Women when the show took on an air of self-importance that had each show ending with a character serving as the mouthpiece for the creators' political views and launching into some windy monologue. Mercifully Diary of a Mad Housewife avoids that fate.
One of my favorite quotes from the film, and certainly one that can't help but spring to mind while watching Carrie Snodgress navigate her yuppie ennui.
A member of Tina's group therapy session upon hearing Tina explain why she thinks she's going mad-
"I joined 'group' with the understanding that I would get help with my very real and terrible life's problems. She has a husband AND a lover AND an 8-room apartment on the Park!?!  Why does SHE need help?"

Diary of a Mad Housewife, a very funny and perceptive female alternative to all those 70s male-angst  movies, skillfully sidesteps becoming a single-minded political indictment of male oppression and chauvinism, and remains a look at one woman faced with her own inability to make anything meaningful of her existence. Tina isn't socially conscious, repressed, or even oppressed. She's too smart for that. She is incredibly lucid about the absurdity of the life her husband seems intent on perusing, and, when she's really feeling attacked, she has a mouth on her and a quick, biting wit that gives good as she takes.
No, Tina's problem stems from having lost her way in her pursuit of the American Dream (in this instance, home, family, and loving husband) and her questioning of the values she grew up believing in. Drifting into a pseudo-masochistic affair with a man arguably as insensitive as her husband, she finds little comfort and certainly no answers. In her own way, she's as spiritually adrift as the bikers in Easy Rider.
"I'm just a human being."

2 comments:

  1. i have been away, so i've missed all of your posts! And I haven't seen a single one of the movies you've reviewed, so I've got quite a few added on to my list. recently i watched 'the cook, the thief, his wife and her lover' for the third time (not all of it, too painful and disturbing in some parts for more than one watch). i remembered how i cried after i first watched it out of sheer necessity for a catharsis from the tension and emotions built up within me throughout the duration of the film. i LOVE michael gambon - another one of those tremendous british character actors we don't see so often anymore. anyway, i know all of this is not on subject, but as i've not seen any of these movies i had to contribute something!

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  2. Hi Kathrynnova
    I don't care whether your posts are on topic or not, I just get a kick out of hearing what movies you like. They all seem to be films I've never seen. I've actually been afraid to see "The Cook, The Thief, his Wife & Her Lover" part because a friend of mine said this was his second favorite film after "Henry:Portrait of a Serial Killer" (my friend has a strong stomach). I was never sure I could take it. I'm weaker than I let on. Thanks again for stopping by. Not really the same blog without your comments!

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