Friday, July 29, 2011


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 or Jewish, 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 or Richard Benjamin) all viewed the shifting zeitgeist through a decidedly male prism. The crisis of male existential torpor was treated with near-heroic solemnity; lampooning and satire were reserved for individuals and institutions daring to challenge the counterculture hero's quest to find himself. 
"I believed in all those square values...loyalty, fidelity."
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 affect, 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 in 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 Liberal 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 takes her anger out on herself and just 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. 

Frannie Michel as Liz Balser / Lorraine Cullen as Sylvie Balser 
"Personally, Vida's convinced me that alligators have the right idea. They eat their young."
Eve Arden in Mildred Pierce - 1945

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.
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.
Yuppie Ennui
A group therapy member after Tina has told her tale of upscale angst: 
"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. It 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 pursuing, and, when she's really feeling attacked, she has a mouth on her and a quick, biting wit that gives as 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."

Copyright © Ken Anderson


  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!

  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!

  3. Carrie Snodgress never chased the stardom that was hers for the taking . . . . .

    Ironically, this was reportedly because she spent the 70's chasing a quasi-traditional female role (musician Neil Young's girlfriend/muse/mother-of-his-child). Did she learn nothing from her greatest film performance?!?!

    1. So true! I remember reading some comeback article about her when she appeared in De Palma's "The Fury", and I was surprised that the star of one of the era's biggest feminist films (she was sort of unseated by Jill Clayburgh's "An Unmarried Woman") joined the ranks promising actresses who "gave it all up" for a family and hubby, only to find herself virtually forgotten once the marriage dissolved and she sought a return.
      Meanwhile, career-oriented husband continues along fine.
      One of these days there's bound to be a sex-change variation of this old scenario, but so far, none come to mind.

  4. Carrie is indeed terrific and this may be Perry's best film. Langella is excellent and Benjamin gives an overthetop portrayal that works. Like Perry's Last Summer (1969) this film seems to have fallen off the radar. When shown on network television in the 70s. Diary...was edited for content and scenes that were shot but not included in the theatrical release were added for television.

    1. Can't believe I am only NOW seeing this! Thanks, Joseph. And at least in the four years since you posted HOUSEWIFE has become more available via streaming. I think they even have an edit on YouTube that features the original theatrical cut with all those extra scenes from the TV broadcast version edited in!

  5. ...anonymous...
    I didn't care for this film at all, it was to me just filled with irritating characters being almost cartoonishly unlikable. I appreciate your take on it just being her pov, but still found it too strident to enjoy.
    and you left out the best part: Alice Cooper performing live!

    1. I can totally understand. When it comes to movies about essentially unpleasant, unsympathetic, or satirical characters (CARNAL KNOWLEDGE, THE WOLF OF WALL STREET, practically every film by Quentin Tarantino) I think all of us have a subjective barrier that can be hit when we find that we don't care to spend time with these people. It differs for everyone, but when it happens, it seems there's no retrieving the film.
      And as for Alice Cooper, you'll find in all my film essays, I NEVER leave out anything I like! ;-)
      Thanks for checking this piece out and sharing your comment!