Wednesday, January 20, 2016

a few notes on frank perry's "diary of a mad housewife" (1970) and other related issues

There's currently a blizzard in this part of the world.

Snowed in, I opted to make another of my many (unsuccessful) attempts to purge, coming across an old VHS tape of Frank Perry's 1970 film version of the seminal Sue Kaufman book, "Dairy of a Mad Housewife." It's something that I recorded off Bravo back in the 1980s - way before Bravo was taken over by the inimitable Andy Cohen and his colorful house fraus.

Mad housewives, indeed.

✓ The movie year 1970

I couldn't resist.  I had to watch it again.  For one thing, "Diary of a Mad Housewife" was one of the first films that I reviewed as a young working critic, a movie that I fondly remember as one of the bracing, unsung gems of the New Wave in American Cinema of that particular time period. Yes, 1970 - the year of Robert Altman's "M*A*S*H" and "Brewster McCloud," Hal Ashby's "The Landlord," Bob Rafelson's "Five Easy Pieces," Stuart Rosenberg's "Move," Paul Mazursky's "Alex in Wonderland," Jerry Schatzberg's "Puzzle of a Downfall Child," Richard Rush's "Getting Straight," John Cassavetes' "Husbands," John G. Avildsen's "Joe," Michelangelo Antonioni's "Zabriskie Point," Irvin Kershner's "Loving," Mike Nichols' "Catch-22" and Michael Wadleigh's "Woodstock."  I could go on.

But won't.

✓ Bravo

Also, Bravo had broadcast Perry's original theatrical version, something that has become increasingly difficult to see because, well, Universal Home Video just doesn't give a damn about the film.  It was released, briefly, on VHS but has disappeared from home entertainment.  No DVD so far. In the late '70s, "Diary" was telecast by NBC - which, like Universal, is owned by MCA - but in a version that did not exactly resemble the film that had played in theaters.  (But more about that later...)

Anyway, despite Bravo's disclaimer that the film had been "edited for TV," I picked up only one bit of tampering: A few frames had been adjusted to crop out a brief bit of nudity.  Otherwise, the film was intact, including the use of two different "F" words.  This wasn't exactly a surprise because, around the same time, Bravo had somehow screened the original, uncut, uncensored version of Bernardo Bertolucci's sprawling, 317-minute epic, "1900," which included the infamous sex scene involving Robert De Niro, Gerard Depardieu and Stefania Casini.  I found out about this screening after the fact from the late Lesley Cootes, a terrific San Francisco publicist who had taped it and promptly made me a copy - which is among the assorted VHS tapes that I'm trying (in vain) to thin out.

BTW, "Diary of a Mad Housewife" was televised by Bravo without any commercial interruptions. Again, back in the day.

✓ Frank Perry

"Diary of a Mad Housewife," which was the second major studio film made by Frank Perry, after his ill-fated "The Swimmer." He had previously worked on indies (most notably "David and Lisa") and directed two wonderful TV specials based on the writing of Truman Capote, "A Christmas Memory" and "The Thanksgiving Visitor."  Following "Diary," he made "Doc," "Play it As It Lays," "Rancho Deluxe," "Compromising Positions" and "Mommie Dearest."  He was a good filmmaker, hugely underrated by movie critics.  Perry, who famously worked in tandem with one of his wives, the writer Eleanor Perry, died in 1995 at age 65.

"Diary of a Mad Housewife" has a plot that makes less sense in 2016 than in 1970, when it was celebrated as a cautionary feminist tale about the evils of patriarchy.  Seen from the vantage point of more mature eyes, it now resembles a screed: The two main male characters in the film are aggressively awful, repugnant actually.  But they aren't the only characters in the film who routinely - relentlessly - abuse its vulnerable heroine, Tina Balser.  Seemingly everyone does. And Tina remains so patient and so grounded throughout her daily maltreatment that these otherwise laudable qualities quickly become a little suspect.

The woman is obviously a masochist - and perhaps stupid, despite having graduated form Smith.  She's married to a seemingly successful New York lawyer named Jonathan, an insufferable snob and elitist bully with arty pretensions.  He speaks to her horribly, and so does the older of their two daughters (who is Jonathan's mini-me).  Tina is such a dishrag that one eagerly waits for her to cheat on the prig Jonathan.  And she does, but with someone just as repellent - a celebrity writer named George Prager who is curiously effeminate.  It's easy for one to think that one is imaging Prager's closet homosexuality until Tina, finally fed up, calls him out on it (invoking one of the aforementioned "F" words).

 

The late Carrie Snodgress remains a revelation as Tina, a performance that's as memorable and fresh today as it was back in 1970.  Again, the character doesn't exactly add up but Snodgress makes it work. She's the film's star - its titanic supporting structure - but for some unaccountable reason, she's billed third after her two male co-stars.  Given the film's theme, this is quite odd. Snodgress plays a character who is disrespected and, as an actress, is disrespected herself in this case. Life imitating art?

It certainly seems that way.

✓ Benjamin & Langella

Richard Benjamin dominates the film's opening scenes as the unctuous Jonathan as he delivers a monologue of non-stop complaints and demands that efficiently defines the character but also makes him inevitably tiresome.  Benjamin is great in the role, perhaps too great.  Frank Langella, in his film debut, plays the unpleasant lover with a personality slightly more refined than Jonathan's. He might be even more shallow.


Frankly, decades later, "Dairy of a Mad Housewife" is rather painful to watch largely because it lacks subtlety. The characters, none of whom are even remotely recognizable, now emerge as puppets, manipulated to make a point, meet an agenda. Of course, this narrative failing may date back to the source material, Kaufman's book (which I admit I never read).

✓ Carrie

Carrie Snodgress, who passed in 2004 at 58, was an old-fashioned movie star with a raspy voice - think Jean Arthur - who came along a little too late. The year she made "Diary" is the year that she broke into movies.  She had debuted a few months earlier in Jack Smight's very good adaptation of "Rabbit, Run," the John Updike book with James Caan as Rabbit Angstrom and Snodgress, in full Bette Davis mode, as his pathetic, alcoholic wife, Janice. A searing performance.  But it was 1970 and the world was head over heels in love with another actress, a movie star in a decidedly different mold - Ali MacGraw - and with her film, "Love Story."
 
Snodgress was better on screen, see, than in glossy magazine spreads - and so her stint in movies was modest and way too brief.  Prior to her two 1970 films, she had a role in Daniel Petrie's fine 1969 TV film of the Robert Anderson play, "Silent Night, Lonely Night," and in 1971, she excelled in another TV film, "The Impatient Heart," directed by John Badham ("Saturday Night Fever") and written by the great Alvin Sargent. How "The Impatient Heart" with its estimable pedigree ended up on TV and not in theaters is a mystery only Universal can answer.

In it, Snodgress plays an edgy, driven social worker who embraces the people in her charge while she alienates those in her private life. A control freak, she finds that she can't motivate or, rather, manipulate the guy (played by Michael Brandon) who is right for her.  It's a great performance but "Diary of a Mad Housewife," for which she was nominated for an Academy Award, remains her signature role, her one claim to fame.

✓ Universal

I'm a little surprised by how shabbily Universal has treated what was considered a prestige film - Oscar-bait - in its day.  For its showing on network TV, Universal trimmed so much out of the movie that newly-filmed sequences where required to explain what was cut. These mostly involved the New York stage and television actor Lester Rawlins who was brought in to play Tina's psychoanalyst. Rawlins gives a talking-head performance in his scenes, reciting his lines directly into the camera as he analyzes the put-upon Tina.  Only Snodgress' voice is heard in these sequences, which are scattered throughout the film. Exacerbating matters, Universal tried to be "arty" about it by shooting Rawlins upside-down, supposedly from the point of view of the couch-bound Tina.  Pretty bad.

✓ "Red Sky at Morning" 

None of this is new. Universal routinely created "TV versions" of its theatrical releases in the late 1970s.  One of the most disturbing re-dos involved  James Goldstone's fine 1971 film, "Red Sky at Morning," which reunited Richard Thomas and Catherine Burns (fresh from Perry's "Last Summer) and which also starred Richard Crenna and Claire Bloom as Thomas's parents.  Bloom plays a particularly complicated character, a neurotic woman who is not entirely sympathetic or easily explained.

Her character apparently confused some studio person because by the time the film made its TV debut, also on NBC, narration was superimposed over most of her dialogue.  She would open her mouth but you couldn't hear what she was saying because an uncredited actor speaking as the adult version of Thomas's character is explaining what's happening.  Once again, matters are exacerbated: The voiceover is very "Waltons"-like. (Perhaps not coincidentally, Thomas was the star of "The Waltons" at the time.) The film's powerful ending was also altered for TV, watered down.

Right now, this is apparently the only version of "Red Sky at Morning" that's available anywhere.

Notes in Passing:  The actual running time of "Diary of a Mad Housewife" either has varied or has remained elusive.  IMDb reports that it runs 95 minutes but curiously adds that the "original running time" is 104 minutes.  Huh?  The 1970 New York Times review of the film and the VHS cassette both report 100 minutes.  The film has also been listed as running 85 minutes, but that may be the truncated TV version.  IMDb also lists Lester Rawlins as being an "uncredited" cast member but he was never in the theatrical release of the film, only in those scenes added to the TV version.

An uncredited actor who does appear in the film is Peter Boyle, who would score a personal success the same year as the title character in Avildsen's "Joe."  Boyle is featured in the final scene of "Diary of a Mad Housewife," as one of the opinionated members of Tina's group therapy.

One more thing: Perry's long-neglected film is  the subject of an excellent 2009 Essential Cinema essay by Rob Christopher on the Chicagoist site, which was timed to coincide with a 35mm screening of the film at the University of Chicago as part of its Doc Films series that year.

19 comments:

Tracy said...

I love this film! Snodgress was a unique actress. She is much missed. Wish this was on DVD.

Larry said...

"Diary" holds up very well. It's one of my favorite films. I'm always loaning out my store bought VHS. Carrie was set up for stardom, but she walked away from it all to be with Neil Young. Don't blame Ali Macgraw.

Charlotte said...

While by the mid-70s it seemed that Snodgress had fallen off the map, or on hard times, that was not the case. She married troubadour Neil Young and their son was born with learning disabilities. She quit acting to advocate for his education and by the time he was 10 he was mainstreamed. She was lovely, with a classic American face that might have been painted by Grant Wood. I always thought she should play Georgia O'Keeffe.

Kevin Barry said...

Glad you mentioned "Rabbit, Run." I've never been able to shake the moment when Snodgress accidentally downs her infant in a bathtub while in a drunken stupor. You're right - very much a Bette Davis moment.

jay reid said...

A distinctive voice and actress. I haven’t seen “Diary” since its release however; I remember being very impressed by Carrie, Richard Benjamin and Frank Langella. Both of the men in her life were real pieces of work. Frank and Eleanor Perry were a unique team whose work I enjoyed. One of my favorite films form that period is another Perry lost gem, “Last Summer” with Richard Thomas (as you mention) and Barbara Hershey. I am fortune enough to have found an old VHS copy some years ago on the old Key Video label.

That era in filmmaking was a time when unconventional beauties like Snodgrass could be become major stars, perfection in looks was not a requirement. Hershey in “Last Summer” would be considered overweight for a film actress by contemproary standards. Can you imagine that today?

Karen W. said...

“Rabbit, Run” is a film that has been on my list to see for years and years. It is sad so many films are locked away unavailable for viewing. Thanks for remembering them with your site.

Rebecca said...

Diary of a mad housewife is one of my very favorite films. All I have is an old VHS. Why hasn't it been released on DVD I'll never know. Another favorite is dark at the top of the stairs - can't find it anywhere. I've never seen either one even on tv, but you can sure see the terminator every day. Mad in Sacramento!

lisa m. said...

Ah, Carrie Snodgress... How I do miss her! A truly wonderful and underrated actress. Thanks for honoring her today

Wade said...

I agree. 1970 was a fabulous year for movies. You also mention "Love Story," made the same year and clearly out-of-sync with the other titles you mention. The year also produced such old-fashioned movies as "Patton" and "Hello, Dolly." You could sense the torch being passed between the old and the new.

Jim said...

Not only did Universal treat DIARY poorly in theaters, but also on VHS. After it was released for a while, it on MCA Home Video, it was dumped on Goodtimes Home Video, the cheap sell-through company. Used copies of the film are going in the $40 to $140 range on Amazon. Maybe Universal will notice this and issue a DVD one of these days.

I only saw the film once, in the syndicated TV version in the early 80's that you reference. It is a film that I've often thought about and would like to see again.

Daryl Chin said...

The billing is not inconsistent. Remember: in GEORGY GIRL, James Mason and Alan Bates are billed above Lynn Redgrave, and she's the title character! And in DARLING, the billing is Dirk Bogarde and Laurence Harvey before Julie Christie, and she's the "darling"! And in WORKING GIRL, the billing has Harrison Ford and Sigourney Weaver above Melanie Griffith, and she's the "working girl"! It has to do with who is perceived as more famous, bigger box office, better known. When DIARY OF A MAD HOUSEWIFE was made, Richard Benjamin had made several films, including GOODBYE, COLUMBUS, and was regarded as a "star"; though Frank Langella hadn't done movies, he had done Broadway and several prestigious PBS productions. By contrast, Carrie Snodgress hadn't really done much: this was her big break! But it's always like this. (One of the big examples: THE BIG COUNTRY. Charlton Heston was asked to be in the movie by the producers, Gregory Peck and William Wyler. But he hesitated. In between their offer and his acceptance, Jean Simmons was signed, and she - or MGM, where she was still under contract - wanted second billing, so she got it. Carroll Baker was signed, and Warners - where she was under contract - got third billing, so Heston had to settle for being billed fourth, though he was a bigger star than either Simmons or Baker by that point. Lucky for him, too, because if he hadn't agreed to work with Wyler, he would have been out for BEN-HUR.)

joe baltake said...

Thanks, Daryl. I know that this was not a singular happening. "Georgy Girl" and "Darling" are excellent, similar examples. I'm reluctant to invoke the word but it just seems so darn sexist. It's rare when this happens to a male performer, although the case you site about Heston and "The Big Country" is intriguing. It also makes sense, given that the others' contracts had been signed. But are there other examples of an actor who's the title star and the bulk of the film getting lower billing than his co-stars? None comes to my mind. Yes, Benjamin was a rising star at the time, but Langella? Perhaps he had an aggressive agent.

Sheila said...

Although "Diary of a Mad Housewife" was the first film that Frank Langella made, his second film, Mel Brooks' "The Twelve Chairs," was released first by a month or two. I'm surprised that he hasn't had a bigger film career because he always had "movie star" written all over him.

Dick D. said...

It was a good movie in its time.

Laurence Klavan said...

There were also unintentionally funny re-shot TV versions of "Secret Ceremony," "Night of the Following Day," and "Three into Two Won't Go." In "Secret Ceremony," Elizabeth Taylor takes off her wig after a hard day's work as a prostitute; the new narrator says she's home from her job as a "wig model."

Other trivia note: through his half-sister, Frank Perry was Katy Perry's uncle.

joe baltake said...

Laurence- Thanks for the neat trivia re Frank and Katy Perry. The three titles you mention are all ... Universal productions.

Jon B. said...

Thanks, Joe, for your great essay on "Diary Of A Mad Housewife," a fine, but neglected film of the early 1970s that's a favorite of mine. Years ago I obtained a VHS copy of the "TV cut" of DOAMH and was surprised by how many scenes and other pieces of business are exclusive to that cut, apart from the "shrink scenes" you mentioned. I watched it again yesterday and made a list of these extras:

1. An extended bathroom scene at the beginning.
2. Tina nearly attacked by a rapist in Central Park as she walks "Lulu" the
family dog, then tries to elicit sympathy from a distracted Jonathan over the
phone as he suggests Tina visit her psychiatrist.
3. A couple of scenes of interactions with Vera, the temp housekeeper.
4. A scene where Tina seeks some peace in a museum.
5. Tina breaking fortune cookies and laughing forlornly at the fortunes after
enduring more demands from Jonathan in the kitchen.
6. George Prager deliberately delaying Tina's first entrance into his apartment
and then locking her out as Tina enjoys the view from his balcony.
7. Jonathan's friend Elliot propositioning Tina at their Christmas party.
8. Tina slaps rude daughter Sylvie in the kitchen, followed by a sweet mother-and-
daughter scene in Sylvie's bedroom.
9. Tina tears up multiple pages from a notepad with George's name and phone number
after he calls attempting to continue their affair.
10. An extended scene with Tina and her group therapy members at the conclusion of
the film.

Of course, the theatrical cut contains a lot of exclusive footage as well. I'm truly amazed that either Universal or Criterion have never made a move to restore and release this Oscar-nominated, Golden Globe-winning movie. I would love to see a DVD version of DOAMH that combines both the theatrical and TV cuts so that we could enjoy everything Frank Perry intended to be in his film.

joe baltake said...

Jon- Thanks! This is invaluable. I get the impression that Frank Perry may have been responsible for the TV cut of the film or at least had some input. Do you have any knowledge of this? If so, share! Thanks, again. -Joe

Fred said...

Gawd I love this movie! But then I am a huge fan of "Mommie Dearest", another brilliant Frank Perry film. He made some duds but these two are great! Aren't there some legal issues holding up a dvd / blue ray release?