Monday, August 20, 2018


"Doctor Spielvogel, this is my life, my only life, 
and I'm living it in the middle of a Jewish joke!"
                                                                                                   -Alexander Portnoy

The sexual revolution, at least as far as its depiction in motion pictures, caught American culture with its existential pants down. Nothing in our country’s repressed, Puritan past was designed to support the normalizing of human sexual desire, nor encourage its free expression as a thing of joy and beauty. Advancements in science may have given us “The Pill,” evolving social mores gave rise to Women’s Liberation, and the ‘60s Youth Movement challenged traditional codes of sexual conduct; but these progressive winds of change were no match for the profound, overarching influence of the moral dogma of organized religion.
The paradox of American culture has always been that while we are a peculiarly sex-obsessed nation, we nevertheless hold deeply-rooted, firmly-ingrained mindsets conjoining sex with sin, fun with shame, and feeling good with being bad. Currently, shamelessness is holding firm as America's defining social characteristic, but for the longest time, the country's most thriving industry and chief export has been guilt.  
Catholic Guilt: Fear that you're disappointing God
Jewish Guilt: Fear that you're disappointing your mother

When Hollywood jumped on the sexual revolution bandwagon, it did so with predictable results. It embraced the movement’s most marketable, superficial characteristics (nudity, profanity, sexual explicitness) while failing to adopt its corresponding philosophy of self-acceptance and self-love. Thus, in a surprisingly brief span of time, we were treated to a rash of hip, youth-oriented films cloaked in the timeliness of the “new permissiveness,” yet possessed of the age-old “no sex without guilt-induced moral compensation and/or punishment” mindset.
By way of example: during the early bloom of the sexual revolution, and later, during its waning days, two major movie studios released controversial, big-budget, high-profile films dealing with sexual liberation vis a vis the dilemma of religious guilt; the first (ostensibly) comedic, the second, tragic. In 1972 Warner Bros. released Portnoy’s Complaint, a curiously humorless comedy examining male compulsive sexuality through the prism of Jewish Guilt. In 1977 Paramount released Looking for Mr. Goodbar, an unrelentingly grim look at female compulsive sexuality through the prism of Catholic guilt.
Two films very different in tone, yet uniquely similar in reflecting our society’s insistence on using religion as a tool to punish ourselves for our natural, healthy interest in sex. A dilemma about which a Mr. Alexander Portnoy would like to lodge a complaint.
Richard Benjamin as Alexander Portnoy
Karen Black as Mary Jane "The Monkey" Reid
Lee Grant as Sophie Portnoy
Jill Clayburgh as Naomi
Jeannie Berlin as Rita "Bubbles" Girardi

Alex Portnoy’s diagnosed complaint, briefly stated, is that at age 33, he finds it near-impossible to reconcile his intellect and strong social conscience (he’s a NYC lawyer who works to help the poor) with his compulsive preoccupation with sex…the more perverse, the better. Worse, it’s a libidinous obsession from which he derives virtually no pleasure due to overpowering feelings of guilt and the certainty that, in the end, he is bound to be punished for his impure thoughts and deeds. Faulting his early home environment as the source of his “What’s so bad about feeling good?” anxieties, adolescent Alex resorted to obsessive masturbation and erotic fantasy as a means of coping with his controlling, suffocating mother (who wanted him to be the Perfect Son), and his fault-finding, perpetually constipated dad (who wanted him to be the Perfect Jew).

“Doctor, do you understand what I was up against? My wang was all I really had to call my own!” 
D.P. Barnes as Alex's silent analyst, Dr. Spielvogel

When Alex meets Mary Jane Reid, an equally oversexed fashion model who earned the nickname the Monkey after inventing a unique sexual position (the details of which we’re mercifully spared), he thinks he has at last found the shikse girl of his pornographic dreams. But alas, their relationship reaches an impasse upon the realization that, outside of the bedroom, it’s their spiritual fetishes that cause all the problems. Mary Jane nicknames Alexander "Breaky" reference to his being her breakthrough boyfriend. You see, Mary Jane, who suffers from low self-esteem, is looking for a man of intelligence and refinement to rescue and reshape her; in essence, treat her like an ongoing renovation project. Meanwhile, Portnoy is merely looking for a woman self-loathing enough to be his enthusiastic partner in self-degradation.
Alex reacts to Mary Jane moving her lips as she reads

On the printed page of Philip Roth’s controversial 1969 bestseller (written as a monologue relayed by Alexander to his analyst), Portnoy and his attendant complaint played like the impudent heterosexual answer to the homosexual audacity of Gore Vidal’s 1968 bestseller Myra Breckinridge. Both novels used satire to assault late-60s sexual sensibilities, their sacred prose justifying their profane subject matter. On the screen, however, their respective film adaptations suffered considerably in translation. Chided for being made by directors apparently selected for their ability to completely misinterpret the original texts, both films were resounding bombs at the box office, but for polar-opposite reasons: the X-rated Myra Breckinridge was considered too vulgar; the R-rated Portnoy’s Complaint was criticized for not being vulgar enough.
While the whole “How did they ever make a movie of Lolita?” stuff surrounding Stanley Kubrick's 1962 film of Nabokov's novel was before my time (Oh, I was around,  just too young to remember it); I fully recall the hubbub surrounding the unlikelihood that anyone could make a movie of Portnoy’s Complaint. When the film was released (perhaps a year too late in terms of public interest), fans of Roth’s novel, likely anticipating something combining the comic coarseness of Mel Brooks with the satirical wit of Woody Allen, were shocked to discover that one of the most talked-about books in American literature had been neutered and watered-down to such a degree that it resembled nothing more daring than a particularly smutty episode of Love, American Style. A coy, almost circumspect R-rated adaptation devoid of nudity, unless you count 33-year-old Richard Benjamin’s prominent man-boobs.
I'm not sure any recreation of the novel's notorious scene where Alex masturbates to his sister's brassiere would ever work, but having 33-year-old Richard Benjamin play the teenage Portnoy kills the comedy and replaces it with cringe-creepy 

Critics lambasting the film found blame easy to affix, for acclaimed screenwriter Ernest Lehman (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, North by Northwest, Hello Dolly!, The Sound of Music, Sabrina) pretty much did everything: he served as producer, writer, AND director (his debut/swansong).

With Benjamin playing himself as a teen, it was necessary for other disconcertingly "mature" actors to be cast as his boyhood chums. Here we see horny Mandel (Lewis Stadlen) and lascivious Smolka (Kevin Conway) check out neighborhood "fast girl" Bubbles Girardi. 

The talented Jeannie Berlin somehow manages to escape her thankless bit role as Bubbles Girardi with her dignity intact. Berlin, who previously appeared in The Baby Maker, is the daughter of Elaine May, who for a time was up for the role of Sophie Portnoy.

While my adolescent moviegoing memories are peppered with age-inappropriate films I was granted access to thanks to the lax enforcement of the motion picture code at my neighborhood theater, Portnoy's Complaint doesn't number among them.
I was able to get away with seeing X-rated 1969 releases like Midnight Cowboy and Last Summer largely due to my recently-divorced mom’s busy work schedule (she welcomed any opportunity to get my sisters and me out from underfoot), and my ability to convince her that not only was I mature beyond my years, but that these films were Oscar-caliber important works of cinema art. Alas, by 1972 my mom had remarried, so along with having another individual policing my comings and goings, I also had a mom who had more time to read.
Thus, as was the case with the equally-forbidden Myra Breckinridge, my mom having read Portnoy’s Complaint guaranteed that there was no way in hell she was going to allow me to see it. I was in no position to press the point, lest they catch on that for at least a year (I was 14 at the time) I’d been sneaking their hardback copy of Roth’s jaw-dropping book to the bathroom for “inspiration.”

When I finally saw Portnoy’s Complaint at a Los Angeles revival theater sometime in the 1980s, I was pleasantly surprised to find the film to be far better than its reputation had led me to believe. Granted, it fails to capture the tone of Philip Roth’s book almost completely, so on that score, I’d call the film an unqualified misfire. But seeing it so many years after all the smoke of controversy had cleared; long after the typecasting redundancy of Richard Benjamin and Karen Black had faded from memory (both were playing roles to which each practically held the patents during the ‘70s), I for one was extremely grateful for Ernest Lehman’s reserved approach to the material.
I don't know if it's a case of Richard Benjamin being far too old or Lee Grant
being far too young, but this mother and son look more like husband and wife

There aren’t many of Portnoy’s exploits I’d have the stomach to see rendered in widescreen color and enacted by Richard Benjamin, so the fact that Lehman resorts to so many modesty-concealing devices in a film almost entirely about sex may seem hypocritical, but it’s perfectly fine with me. What’s less easy to take is its depiction of women (seen from Portnoy’s gynophobic perspective, they’re either objects or grotesques), and its leaden humorlessness. Claims of anti-Semitism aside, the biggest crime committed to Roth’s novel is that Lehman, while maintaining much of the book's dialogue, somehow had the laughs surgically removed. Were not for Lee Grant’s amusing take on the Jewish mother stereotype, Portnoy’s Complaint would be an entirely laugh-free affair for me.
Portnoy’s Complaint is not perfect by a longshot, but the minute Karen Black appears (at the 38-minute point) it morphs, right in front of my eyes, into a movie worth watching. All at once, Portnoy’s Complaint stops feeling like a broadly-played TV sitcom thanks to Black's ability to find the humanity in a character written as the punchline to a Playboy magazine dirty joke. Suddenly, in exploring Alex’s relationship with Mary Jane, the film feels at last like it has something to say about the crippling effect of selfish love (the infantilizing Jewish mother) and the dehumanizing side of the sexual revolution (the empty pursuit of physical pleasure as a substitute for emotional intimacy). Lehman’s Portnoy’s Complaint is not Philip Roth’s (you can tell from the lush, jarringly incongruous Michel Legrand score), but it’s Lehman’s sincere attempt to tell an Inability To Love Story.

Unkind critics were quick to point out that after Goodbye, Columbus (1969) Richard Benjamin had made a career out of being a Philip Roth surrogate. Similarly, it was not lost on many that after garnering an Oscar-nomination for Five Easy Pieces (1970), Karen Black never met a trollop role she didn't like.

Not many people associated with the making of Portnoy’s Complaint look back on the film with fond memories. Ernest Lehman has said he was disappointed in the outcome, and Lee Grant in her memoir I Said Yes to Everything not only recalls the occasion of having to throw Lehman off his own set for acting like a tyrant (Grant, who became an award-winning director soon after, took over the directing chores of her hospital scene that day), but remembers how seeing the final result made her “...shrink back in horror. It was not a good reflection of Jewish Family Life.” 
Lee Grant and Jack Somack
The Portnoys
Lee Grant and Jack Somack as Alex's overdramatizing parents.
Grant was only 13 years older than Richard Benjamin

Grant’s "I said yes to everything" philosophy—born of having spent 12 unemployed years on Hollywood’s McCarthy era blacklist—may account for her appearance in the film, but she really has nothing to be ashamed of. Scenes written as broad as a barn are salvaged by the anxious energy behind Grant’s delivery and timing. Her Sophie Portnoy may be a hysterical neurotic whose clinging over-concern emotionally scars her son for life, but she’s never a monster. Besides, her behavior, as we learned from the immortal words of Belle Rosen (The Poseidon Adventure) “Comes from caring.” 
Shelley Winters and Lenny Baker
Paul Mazursky's Next Stop Greenwich Village (1976) is a good example of how to affectionately depict Jewish family life. Roger Ebert thought Shelley Winters would have made a great Sophie Portnoy, and seeing her here with the late Lenny Baker it's not hard to imagine what a marvelous Alexander Portnoy he would have made.

To read Portnoy’s Complaint is to realize the significant role imagination and ingenuity must have played for sexually curious adolescents raised before the days of Playboy, television, and mass-market porn. When I watch the film adaptation, I’m reminded of the degree to which sex and sexuality were the predominant cultural templates of adulthood when I was growing up. The ‘70s were so flooded with pop-culture references to the new sexuality that a defining trait of my adolescence was a race to grow up due to the nagging sense that I was missing out on something.
I read Portnoy’s Complaint (in installments, see above) at an age when I was far too young to know what it was really about. But Roth’s frank and explicit descriptions of adolescent sexual desire and self-experimentation were so true and on-point, it crossed gender, ethnic, and sexuality lines. It was hard to read that book without feeling in some ways embarrassed—if not exposed—that ANYONE else entertained (let alone wrote down) obscene scenarios and vulgar imaginings of the sort I’d barely acknowledged to myself.
"You're nothing but a self-hating Jew!"
"They're the best kind in bed."
Alex's sole encounter with a Jewish woman (a fake-tan Jill Clayburgh with a really bad Israeli accent) finds him confronted with the unavoidable fact that unless he can sexualize and objectify them, he has absolutely no idea how to relate to women.

In re-reading the novel before writing this essay, what strikes me now, some 46 after my first encounter with Portnoy and his neurotic concerns, is that the single most shocking thing about Portnoy’s Complaint is not its language or the particulars of the activities described: it's the honesty. It’s Philip Roth speaking about the reality of life (his life, anyway) without concern for decency, religious propriety, respectability politics, or perpetuating the lie of pornography that airbrushes away the unpleasant details in order to sell us the consumer-ready result.
As someone raised Catholic, I relate to Portnoy’s struggles with his Jewish identity. I relate to the guilt, the issues of religious contradictions, the "good boy" syndrome, and the attempt to breach the dichotomy on matters relating to sex and sexuality. It’s also clearer to me now that there was a method to Roth’s madness. The much-discussed language and snickered-about “dirty stuff” weren’t for sensation, it was an assault on sexual hypocrisy. It’s what many people today fail to grasp about revolution and resistance: in order to overthrow a dominant social order, you need honest assault and confrontation. There’s no room for civility. 
"Why is every little thing I do for pleasure in this life immediately illicit -
while the rest of the world rolls around laughing in the mud!"

During the film's final act, when Alex has a reckoning with himself and is banished to a life of impotence by The Judge (Alex's conflicted conscience voiced by John Carradine. And for the record, the same fate meted out to Jack Nicholson's equally floundering sexual basket-case in Carnal Knowledge), I have to admit that Richard Benjamin is exceptionally good, as is the writing (mainly belonging to Roth). The very real confusion over how to navigate one's way through the influences and injuries of one's past, why it hurts so much to be human, the sad inevitability of having to look at yourself in order to has the ring of impassioned truth and it succeeds in being a very moving moment in a film with very few traces of recognizable humanity beyond Karen Black's performance.

It's too bad Portnoy's Complaint performed so poorly, for many missed out on one of my favorite Karen Black performances. Her Mary Jane Reid is a close cousin to the many vulnerable, not very bright women that made up Black's screen resume. But no matter how sketchily these characters were written, Black always found a way of making you care about what happens to them

Before it morphed into the commodified alienation of the singles bar scene dramatized in Looking for Mr. Goodbar, the sexual revolution was (albeit briefly) a legitimate effort to wrest sex away from the chains of guilt and repression. A call to a newfound spiritual and physical freedoms presented a challenge for us to be moral beings in a world of moral relativity.

To live through the sexual revolution only to arrive at a time when the prepackaged, bullshit Disney-porn lie of something like E.L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey passes for sexual liberation, is to understand that the true legacy of Philip Roth’s novel is its brazenly honest look at the human condition, not its profane reputation.
The movie...not so much.

Click on the link to see Philip Roth speaking briefly about the films made from his novels

Copyright © Ken Anderson  2009 - 2018

Tuesday, August 14, 2018


Toys in the Attic (idiom): Euphemism for insanity. Diminished mental capacity. To think or behave in an immature, foolish, or unreasonable manner [See: Bats in the Belfry]. 

In the tradition of all good Southern Gothics, that genus of deep-fried melodrama made popular by Tennessee Williams, Eugene O’Neill, and William Inge; Lillian Hellman’s Toys in the Attic is a title from which several meanings can be extracted. Idiomatic (mental illness figures into the storyline); literal (a dysfunctional family’s childhood toys have not been discarded, but remain stored in the attic of their dilapidated home); symbolic (the attic: a place of hidden secrets and childhood preserved. The toys: repressed longings and delicate illusions one is fearful of having shattered); and metaphoric (to avoid reality by means of repression, self-delusion, and clinging possessively to things/illusions of the past).
Hellman’s semi-autobiographical Toys in the Attic was the author/playwright’s last original play following such Broadway successes as The Children’s Hour, The Little Foxes, and Candide. Toys in the Attic was produced on Broadway in 1960 starring Jason Robards, Maureen Stapleton, Anne Revere, and Irene Worth; all nominated for Tony Awards, the show itself, was nominated for Best Play. 
In this abbreviated, somewhat de-fanged screen version directed by George Roy Hill (Best Director Oscar-winner for The Sting - 1973) and adapted by screenwriter James Poe (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Hot Spell, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?) Hellman’s dark references to incest, mental illness, racism, and sexual impotence have been softened or eliminated to such an extent, Toys in the Attic could just as well be merely another way of saying "Skeletons in the Closet."
Luckily for me, Lillian Hellman wrote her play with swamps, sweet tea, and sweltering sex to spare, so even Production Code-mandated alterations leave Toys in the Attic with plenty of what one hopes to find in a Southern Gothic: sexual repression, heated histrionics, inconsistent Southern accents, neurosis, brass beds, rumpled sheets, electric fans, and loads of family secrets--still in abundant supply. 
Dean Martin as Julian Berniers
Geraldine Page as Carrie Berniers
Wendy Hiller as Anna Berniers
Gene Tierney as Albertine Prine
Yvette Mimieux as Lily Prine-Berniers
Frank Silvera as Henry Simpson

Charming, ne’er-do-well Julian Berniers (Martin) has been the doted-on focus of his two spinster sisters his entire life. While Julian chased dream after dream of making a fortune via all manner of half-baked schemes, failed businesses, and gambling binges; practical Anna (Heller) and possessive Carrie (Page) have remained in their hometown of New Orleans, living lives of austere sacrifice, working and maintaining the rundown Victorian home where they all grew up (which, incidentally, none of them ever liked).
Devoid of children, suitors, or even friends, Carrie and Anna are each other’s sole companionship and company, their lives a routine of hollow rituals of false intimacy (weekly, each buys the other an unwished-for gift), buoyed by the twin deferred dreams of selling the house and taking a long-talked-about trip to Europe. 
When Julian arrives from Chicago, overflowing with gifts and boisterous brio, his childlike bride Lily (Mimieux) in tow; Carrie and Anna regard his prodigal return as merely the latest temporary windfall in Julian’s long, revolving-door history of fleeting financial ascensions followed by quick and inevitable (hoped for?) downfalls. No matter how far the journey or how many businesses lost, Julian has always been able to come back to his family home where his sisters would pamper him like a child & lover, tend to his wounded ego, bolster his confidence, and readily subsidize (by way of that phantom trip to Europe fund) his next fly-by-night venture.
But this time things are different. And the difference shatters the very foundation of dysfunction and delusion upon which the Berniers household has been built.
Toys in the Attic (along with that other 1963 release, William Inge’s The Stripper) came at the tail end of Hollywood’s love affair with Midwest melodrama and sweaty tales of the oversexed South. If 1951’s A Streetcar Named Desire represented the apogee of the genre’s popularity, it’s safe to say that twelve years hence, the tropes and clichés of Southern psychodrama had begun to wear thin. Toys in the Attic enjoyed success on Broadway, but by the time it reached the screen, foreign films had so surpassed American films in both frankness and realism, the mannered theatrically and compound coyness of Southern Gothic was beginning to feel a little passé. 
In adapting the play to the screen, Lillian Hellman purists may have balked at the subplots and characterizations sacrificed to screenwriter James Poe whittling Hellman’s 2-hour-plus play down to a taut 90-minutes; but given the over-familiarity of the play’s by-now well-traveled themes of sex, eccentricity, and decay, I’m not certain the film could easily have supported a longer running time.
Wealthy society widow Albertine Prine scandalizes the locals by having her handsome Black chauffeur as her lover. That she cares so little about the opinions of others has resulted in her being branded "crazy" by the Berniers sisters.

By 1963, censorship had relaxed enough so that Toys in the Attic didn’t have to completely commit to the kind of avoidance games that neutered 1958’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof—for example, the word “incestuous” is never referred to in regard to Carrie's unhealthy preoccupation with her brother, but the euphemistic term “sleep with” is bandied about freely. Poe’s adaptation updates the play from the Depression Era to modern-day New Orleans, and in doing so minimizes the significance of Tierney’s perceptive character; eliminates all mention of Julian’s bouts of sexual impotence; erases hints of Anna’s latent incestuous feelings for her sister; does the best as it can with an interracial romance (proximity within the frame has to substitute for physical intimacy), and changes the character of Lily from being developmentally challenged (giving credence to her fears that her mother [Tierney] paid Julian to marry her) to being merely emotionally immature.

From early trade paper reports attaching the names William Wyler, Katharine Hepburn, Vivien Leigh, and Olivia de Havilland to the film, there’s a sense that Toys in the Attic went through a lot of changes before reaching the screen. Likely, some of them budgetary. For a time, it was believed serious dramas should be filmed in black and white, the color adaptions of Tennessee Williams’ Summer and Smoke (1961) and Sweet Bird of Youth (1962)—both starring Geraldine Page—flying in the face of that tradition. By 1963 fewer films were being made in black and white, so it’s not clear if the beautiful black and white cinematography of Toys in the Attic (by Joseph F. Biroc) was inspired by aesthetics or budget. What is known is that television-trained director George Roy Hill (making his second film, his first being the [rare]Tennessee Williams comedy Period of Adjustment in 1962) was used to working fast, cheap, and in black and white. 
Toys in the Attic's sole Oscar nomination was for Bill Thomas' costume designs.
Thomas won the Oscar in 1961 for Spartacus

If the final cast chosen for the film lacked the marquee allure of Wyler’s involvement, they certainly didn’t lack for prestige. Toys in the Attic marked Oscar and Tony nominee Geraldine Page’s third foray into Southern Gothic; Tony-nominated and Oscar-winning British actress Wendy Hiller (for Separate Tables) made an ideal match to play Page’s circumspect sister, and Gene Tierney (Oscar-nominee for Leave Her To Heaven, and whose real-life struggles with mental illness brought about her premature retirement in 1955) was in the midst of a welcome comeback following her appearance in Otto Preminger’s Advise and Consent (1962).

But from the time casting was first announced to the film’s release in the summer of 1963, the biggest topic of conversation and critical bone of contention surrounding Toys in the Attic was the casting of actor/entertainer Dean Martin in the role that had won Jason Robards a Tony nomination. Martin was no stranger to movies, having appeared in more than 20 features by the time he was cast opposite such theatrical veterans as Page and Hiller. It was simply that few had confidence that the lightweight, notoriously easygoing half of the Martin & Lewis comedy team had the range and dramatic chops to tackle this, the most substantial of his rare dramatic screen appearances. 

Toys in the Attic was not a success, in fact, it was a resounding flop. Critics, citing battle fatigue over the whole clutch-the-pearls-while-I-fan-myself genre, called it a minor Southern Gothic and complained that James Poe’s adaptation undercut the complexity of Heller’s characters and supplanted the play’s pessimistic conclusion with a provisionally “happy” ending. Even George Roy Hill was dissatisfied with the result, calling the film the least successful of his works. And while Page and Hiller emerged with their reputations intact, critical response to Martin’s performance was so harsh he never tackled so sizable a dramatic role again.
Such Devoted Sisters
Personally, I place myself in the opposite camp, entirely. I've enjoyed Toys in the Attic since I first saw it as a teen when it popped up occasionally on television on The Late Show. I'm not aware of whether or not it ever had a VHS release, but it's one of those films that never seems to show up on cable, and now appears to be out of print after having been released on DVD in 2010.
I recently got my hands on a copy (first time seeing it in decades) and was pleased to discover it to be even better than I remembered. Sure, it's no The Little Foxes, yet it tells its story with an economy and visual style that perfectly serves its tone of mounting suspense and escalating tensions. It's a dynamic, emotionally rich showcase for the talented cast and a great many Southern Gothic clichés, ultimately managing to enthrall and entertain in spite of its flaws. 
Nan Martin as Charlotte Watkins

Much of Toys in the Attic is said to be autobiographical, down to Hellman setting the story in her hometown of New Orleans, basing the character of Julian on her salesman father (who had two clinging sisters), referencing an aunt who had an affair with her African-American chauffeur, and, as per the play’s themes of latent incest, drawing upon her own adolescent feelings towards an uncle.
I credit this as the reason why the relationships in Toys in the Attic resonate with so much emotional authenticity. Even when the sometimes-overreaching aspects of a melodramatic subplot—involving a land swindle and an emotionally abused wife (Nan Martin) seeking escape—threaten to overwhelm the proceedings, what remains compelling are the complex dynamics in the relationship between the three siblings, and the threat Lily poses as a clingy interloper in their long-established cycle of dysfunction.
The selfish, crippling side of love rears its head when the
 always-in-need-of-rescue Julian finds someone who needs him.
Like Julian, I am the only boy in my family. While I was never exactly doted on by my four sisters, I remained somehow shielded and apart from the tensions and issues they shared amongst themselves; a fact which engendered resentment from some, envy in others. There was no lack of love between us, but the way we were viewed and related to by our parents (I could do no wrong, my sisters fell under strict scrutiny) affected how we viewed and related
What I most responded to in Toys in the Attic is how it captures the curious way some families can handle the failures of its members with far more generosity and grace than they do the successes. How living with unhappiness (as long as it means things will remain unchanged) can be a less frightening prospect to people than taking the kinds of risks that can bring about true happiness.
Confrontations and Confessions
"When you love, you take your chances on being hated by speaking out the truth."

If you don’t like Geraldine Page, I doubt you’ll much care for Toys in the Attic. She’s the entire show. And what a show it is. Wendy Hiller (underplaying nicely and turning stillness into an art) is the grounded center around which Page’s Tasmanian Devil of a faded southern belle spins uncontrollably and destructively. Playing a delusional, manipulative character whose life of peculiarly selfish selflessness has left her a throbbing mass of unrecognized desires, Page is simply forceful and more than a little frightening.   
Baby Doll
What's a Southern Gothic without a brass bed and rumpled sheets?

Yvette Mimieux suffers more from how her character is written than from anything specific I can cite in her performance. Perhaps because Mimieux had just come off of a film in which she played a developmentally challenged girl (Light in the Piazza -1962), the filmmakers decide to drop that angle of her character completely. Unfortunately, without her mental capacity being called into play, her Lily, now written as being simply naive and immature, winds up coming across as a bit of a nitwit. With hope grasping behavior and moping countenance, Lily becomes an annoying presence long before she has the opportunity to become a sympathetic one.
Gene Tierney is a welcome sight and is very good (and charmingly funny) in a small role requiring the 41-year-old actress to look believably older than 44-year-old Dean Martin. The film doesn't exactly succeed on that score, but Tierney and the dashing and dignified Frank Silvera do make for a very a handsome couple. 

I thought Dean Martin was surprisingly good as Julian. He's an actor of limited range, to be sure, but he doesn't embarrass himself and has moments so good that he makes me wish he had tried his hand at dramatic roles more often. Admittedly, I did find myself imagining from time to time the kind of depth and nuance Jason Robards might have brought to the role, but in the end, I had to concede that Martin brings a kind of effortless charm and boyish exuberance to the role that I can't really imagine in Robards.  

By way of a striking visual style that emphasizes the dominating and confining aspects of the Berniers home, Toys in the Attic finds a deft way of expounding on the film's theme of emotional and self-imprisonment.
Fearful that Julian is having an affair and feeling unwelcome by his sisters, Lily's isolation is dramatized in this shot which makes the childlike woman appear to be standing in an oversized crib. 
Many scenes are shot from an attic's eye view, the characters minimized and dominated by the house
Bars and fences are a recurring visual motif. The incestuous love Carrie has for her brother has always kept Anna at a remove. Frequently Hill frames Page & Martin in the foreground with Hiller kept separate and apart
Again, the characters are filmed in ways to make them appear caged in and confined by the house
My favorite shot, one which Hill claims was not planned, but just a happy accident, comes at a pivotal point of betrayal. At a moment when Carrie has the choice to reassure Lily of Julian's love, she opts to reveal secrets intended to destroy their marriage. That her clothing and the patterned walls create the impression of Carrie becoming one with the house is a brilliant visual accident.

Movie trends inevitably suffer from oversaturation, resulting in perfectly fine films being rejected by critics and the public alike due to the genre's cycle having run its course. Distanced from what in 1963 must have looked like yet another go-round of decorous depravity and decay told with wavering southern accents; Toys in the Attic appears now to be a seldom-discussed film (no minor classic, but entertaining and well-made) worthy of reappraisal.

In 1960, Wendy Hiller starred in the London production of Toys in the Attic, playing the Geraldine Page role.

In 1976 Yvette Mimieux appeared with her Toys in the Attic rival Nan Martin in Jackson County Jail: a Drive-In exploitationer in which the usually-passive Mimieux breaks character and beats a prison guard to death with a stool!

Copyright © Ken Anderson