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 and respectful of women and that his films merely a form of critique, one assumes...a reality for many women in a sexist culture. Of course, this argument would hold a good deal more weight were the women in his films not so frequently the sexualized objects of the male gaze, or depicted so unsympathetically in comparison to the male oppressors in the scene. (As reliable 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, who, when he gets it right, does so spectacularly. Putting M*A*S*H aside, a film I consider to be sophomoric, boys' club dreck in spite of its reputation, Altman has an otherwise 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 are most of the people in Altman films, anyway), but they are dimensional, recognizably 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 enable Frances to project a great deal of her own loneliness onto his situation, awakening in her an acute awareness of her 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 date back at least as far as 1950s Sunset Blvd. Movies about old coots chasing after young women date back even further and are often presented as joyous romps (There's a Girl in My Soup - 1970) or timeless romances (think of pretty much every early Audrey Hepburn movie), but rarely is the creep factor explored because these movies are written by, for, and intended to flatter the ego of men. But in a world where women are seen as girls, girlfriends, or wives, older single women tend to be depicted as the stuff of horror. 
Another thing I've noticed is that, whether due to gender-role preconceptions which ignore the fairly common strong-woman / weak-male dynamic (seen in non-stop parade on reality TV court shows), or these narrative's close association with homosexual authors - Tennessee Williams' Sweet Bird of Youth, The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone, and  Truman Capote's Breakfast at Tiffany's - films on the subject have always seemed to court a gay sensibility. Which is to say, the female characters in these stories could be replaced by a male without significantly altering the substance or themes of the narrative.
Sex Object
A rarity in most American films - Robert Altman asks us to share the feminine gaze.

Due to the predominance of male directors, writers, and cinematographers, movie audiences have grown quite used to the fact that films 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 males) are often made uncomfortable and don't quite know what to do with themselves. Film critics traditionally channel such discomfort into dismissing these films as being homoerotic or gay in their sensibility (the tact taken by critics reviewing the inarguably lousy but essentially harmless Sex and the City movies). Otherwise, they invoke a curious double-standard and label the male nudity as "gratuitous" or humiliating for the actor. At no time is the thought ever entertained that, for once, a film's gaze is intended to reflect the point of view of a female.

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; 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 has the power to mess with so many minds. Men in movies are traditionally heroes and propel the plot. A great many, I'm afraid, are made uncomfortable when a male character is presented as not only passive, but subject to the whims of a woman.
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 for or else 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 toward 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's 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 this film 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 - which had this great late-night program called "The Adults Only Movie."  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. 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 unanticipatedly 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 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.

Excellent review of the Richard Miles' 1965 novel at Pretty Sinister Books 

Copyright © Ken Anderson   2009 - 2011


  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!

  4. That Cold Day in the Park is being released as a deluxe dual format DVD/Bluray by Eureka here in the UK. I reviewed it for Loverboy magazine. You can read it here.

    1. Fabulous write up about one of my favorite films, Graham!
      I especially like that queer cinema has taken notice of this forgotten film (which does have a very "Secret Ceremony" vibe). By the way, I had no idea Ingrid Bergman had been considered for the role. I call that casting ones casting net pretty wide!

  5. One interesting follow up...after Michael Burns pursued his history degrees, he married the president of the college who was 11 years his senior.

    1. I didn't know that. That's a fascinating little real--life coda to this fictional melodrama! Thanks!

  6. This movie looks to be totally interesting.