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.
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 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."
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.