Monday, August 20, 2018

PORTNOY'S COMPLAINT 1972

"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 is 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,” shifting social mores advanced 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 remorse, and feeling good with being bad. At the moment, shamelessness seems to be holding firm as America's defining characteristic, but for the longest time the country's 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 short 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 he will 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 realization that, outside of the bedroom, it’s their spiritual fetishes that cause all the problems. Nicknaming him "Breaky"...meaning he's her breakthrough boyfriend who', Mary Jane is looking for a man 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 reacting 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 selected for their ability to completely misinterpret the original texts, both films were resounding bombs, but for different reasons: the X-rated Myra Breckinridge for being too vulgar; the R-rated Portnoy’s Complaint for not being vulgar enough.

While the whole “How did they ever make a movie of Lolita?” stuff 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 

Blame for Portnoy's Complaint's faults was easy to affix, being that acclaimed screenwriter Ernest Lehman (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, North by Northwest, Hello Dolly!, The Sound of Music, Sabrina) 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 Sophie Portnoy.


WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
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 '80s, 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); and most importantly, during the dreaded heyday of those Porky’s films and ‘80s “gross-out comedies”: I, for one, was extremely grateful for Ernest Lehman’s reserved approach to the material.

There aren’t many of Portnoy’s exploits I’d have the stomach to see rendered in widescreen color, 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 broad 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 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 earnest attempt to tell an Inability To Love Story.

The more unkind critics were quick to point out that after Goodbye, Columbus (1969) Richard Benjamin was making 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.



PERFORMANCES
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 completed film in a theater for the first and last time caused her to “shrink back in horror. It was not a good reflection of Jewish Family life.” 
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 McCarty 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, as we learned from the immortal words of Belle Rosen (The Poseidon Adventure) “It comes from caring.” 
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.


THE STUFF OF DREAMS
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 defining 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 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 assault and insurrection. 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 (the voice of John Carradine, and for the record, the same fate meted out to Jack Nicholson in Carnal Knowledge), I have to admit that Richard Benjamin is exceptionally good, as is the writing (largely 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 change...it 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 newfound spiritual and physical freedoms which posed the 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 it’s profane reputation.
The movie...not so much.


BONUS MATERIAL
WEB OF STORIES
Click on link to see Philip Roth speaking briefly about the films made from his novels

This essay is part of the Lovely Lee Grant blogathon hosted by Reelweegiemidget Reviews and Angelman's Place. Click on the links to read other posts about the films of Lee Grant.


Copyright © Ken Anderson

10 comments:

  1. I have yet to see this movie, though I remember Leonard Maltin also singing the praises of Karen Black's performance. (I think he said she was the only thing of value in the film?) And also, if I recall correctly, Lee Grant was filmed playing Benjamin's mother at a variety of ages and she was shocked to discover that all but the later segments, where she is old, were cut out, making her casting (according to her) make no sense at all. I still want to see it sometime even though I have rarely been emotionally aligned with most of Richard Benjamin's characterizations. Hilarious about Jill Clayburgh's (probably QT) tan!

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    1. Hi Poseidon
      It was funny rewatching this film, trying to imagine what my 1972 self might have thought of the language, subject matter, etc. So much has since been done in the area of cringe comedy (Something about Mary, American Pie) and the films of Woody Allen came to virtually define Jewish angst in cinema; it seemed wrong to compare this 1972 movie with how far we've come. But even by '70s standards PORTNOY'S COMPLAINT falls short, Chiefly because in re-reading the book, the book comes across as actually funnier, smarter, and more perceptive now.
      Karen Black is not in new territory (but then, how many real stars are known for their versatility?) but she is the major reson to see the film and she's really excellent. Moss Mabry is said to have had an uncredited hand in the costumes -- which I can believe with all the Ali MacGraw headgear and hoods Black wears, so the movie has a grat 1970s look to it. Unfortunately, if your not particularly fond of Richard Benjamin, this probably not going to go down very well. He's supposed to be a decent man plagued by his obsession with indecency, but somehow --perhaps due to all the cutting you mentioned--his good side never makes it to the screen. Portnoy is largely an unpleasant man as depicted. I found Benjamin's charm saved the role, but most will be likely rooting for his comeuppance.
      And thanks for clarifying the Lee Grant thing. When I read her memoirs I thought she had mis-remembered her hospital scene. She decribed herself as being very old and Alex coming to visit her as an adult. In the film, the only hospital scene we have is when Alex is still in high school and she's clearly younger than a dinner scene that occurs later. So, no, we DON'T get to see Mrs. Portnoy at a lot of different ages because her old scenes never made it to the film. She disappears from the film at the halfway point.
      I would saw PORTNOY'S COMPLAINT is a must-see for Karen Black fan and for 70s film completists, for it is an excellent example of that crazy time when the major studios went after unfilmable books (Myra Breckinridge, Tropic of Cancer) and unusual themes in an effort to attract young audiences. For that it's a great time-capsule. Thanks for reading this and commenting, Poseidon, And especially for clarifying that Lee Grant mystery for me!

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  2. You’ve put your finger on the reasons this film just doesn’t work, Ken—it’s a comedy of manners about sex that is neither sexy nor funny! Despite the presence of wonderful actresses like Karen Black, Jill Clayburgh, Jeannie Berlin and Lee Grant opposite Richard Benjamin (who I thought was perfect in Goodbye Columbus), this movie lacks sizzle. And yes, again you are right that the fault lies with the inexperienced Lehman, a wonderful screenwriter but not director.

    Ken, thank you so so much for joining our Lee Grant Blogathon! What a pleasure to include Le Cinema Dreams in our roster!

    - Chris

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    1. Hi Chris
      You are a blog-reading/writing dynamo! I thank you for inviting me to participate in this terrific blogathan and I champion your ability to produce your own piece on "Shampoo" and STILL find time to check in on so many other posts.
      You're so right when you note that it helps a great deal if a sex comedy is either sexy or funny (preferably, both) but that you're in real trouble if it's neither.
      Too bad Lehman had only himself to answer to, a little critical input from an outsider might have made all the difference.
      Thanks for reading, Chris. I'm looking forward to checking out some of the other Lee Grant posts soon.

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  3. Thanks for joining with your appraisal of this movie I've still to see. I love your imformative and intelligent take at the movie, which has now convinced me to watch it. Thanks for joining Chris and my blogathon and I look forward to reading more of your reviews.
    Gill at Realweegiemidget Reviews

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    1. Hello, Gill!
      Your terrific blogathon gave me the opportunity to write about a film I've been wanting to for a long time. I can't even begin to describe to you how much of a buzz-phrase "Portnoy's Complaint" was during the '70s -- it was the punchline of countless comics, late-night talk show monologues, and Laugh-In jokes. The book was so notorious the film was almost fated to fail; it would have been impossible to meet all the varied expectations. Maybe if you give t a look, you'll be able to watch it without all the baggage and perhaps it plays better for the young viewer.
      In any event, I enjoyed writing about it and thank you and Chris for the opportunity. Will be reading more of your reviews as well!

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  4. Ps Following you now as Gill Jacob (Im the wee cat in front of the tv!!)

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    1. Thanks for following, Gill! I'm following you via Twitter, if there's a more site-specific follow option, please let me know!
      By the way, the cat in front of the TV is a GREAT image!

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  5. I only saw this movie for the blogathon. So I had no experience for it beforehand. Looking at it from a jaded 50+ year old viewpoint, it grated on me as much as entertained me. Enjoyed reading your take on it.

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    1. I think finding the film version of "Portnoy's Complaint" simultaneously grating and entertaining practically qualifies as a rave review!
      Or at least a fair assessment of a film that seemed to turn out to no one's liking in spite of having only one man in control of so many aspects of it.
      Roth's observation that Hollywood's method of depicting a vulgar Jewish family is to make them shrill sums up a good deal of the film's grating part for me. Thank you very much for reading and commenting!

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