|"I believed in all those square values...loyalty, fidelity."|
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.
|Carrie Snodgress as Tina Balser|
|Richard Benjamin as Jonathan Balser|
|Frank Langella as George Prager|
|Frannie Michel as Liz Balser / Lorraine Cullen as Sylvie Balser|
Eve Arden in Mildred Pierce - 1945
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 in her SCUM Manifesto (remember her? She's the radical feminist who shot Andy Warhol in 1968). 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.
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 with 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.
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.
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.
"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?"
|"I'm just a human being."|
Copyright © Ken Anderson