Vastly under-rated, critically dismissed at the time, this early reflection on feminism has now come into its own. Yet it starts out as a completely different picture. At first it appears as ruthless a depiction of the self-destructive alcoholic as the later Leaving Las Vegas (1995). In passing, skewering the conventions of marriage in an era or strata of society where divorce was not a convenient option. And a time when women, chained to the home but craving attention, might risk the humiliation of being turned away by a secretary on visiting their husband at the office.
When love had turned into transactional sex. Where women hid out in beauty parlors, sanctuaries which men would dare not invade, to drink and play cards in peace. Or, indulging in the working aspect of such places, underwent breast augmentation or brutal hair removal or other procedures with a view to holding on to their men, seen as daily riding a wave of temptation in the Mad Men world of cocktails and expense account living. For this class of men the word “inappropriate” has never been invented as they paw at any female within reach.
A largely redundant and lengthy (eight minutes, for goodness sake) montage (including credits and a post-credits – what! – theme song) serves to emphasize the part Hollywood played in reinforcing the celluloid image of initial romance being the mere prelude to happy ever after. The reality was a much whiter shade of pale.
Facing up to their sixteenth wedding anniversary – their marriage, topically, spanning the birth of Prince Charles and his anointing as Prince of Wales, seen via cinema newsreel and television news – alcoholic middle-aged housewife Mary (Jean Simmons) re-evaluates her stultifying life. Lawyer husband Fred (John Forsythe) jokingly refers to himself as “the F.B.I.” but the surveillance he undertakes to ensure his wife has not fallen off the wagon would have earned him a gold star in that particular organization. He has housemaid Agnes (Nanette Fabray) snoop on his wife, goes through all her drawers and clothes until he finds the mercifully unopened bottle of vodka hidden in a boot, checks up on her movements at the hairdresser and even knows which bar she is likely to frequent.
Although managing to refrain from drinking anything alcoholic, Mary’s behavior take her perilously close. She drinks tomato juice from a champagne glass, buys a fellow alcoholic a whisky in a bar just to savor him drinking it. And for all her husband’s attempts to keep her away from the stuff gets pretty loaded himself at times and the catering table at a previous anniversary party fairly groaning with booze has proved a temptation too far. She’s been an extreme player – her stomach pumped out in flashback.
Husband’s control extends to finance. She is denied credit card, cheque book and ready cash. Even her mother (Teresa Wright) refuses to lend her money. Unable to go through with putting another good face on their marriage via the anniversary party she pawns a necklace and jaunts off to the Bahamas. On the plane she meets old buddy Flo (Shirley Jones) who is enjoying a clandestine affair with a married man. Mary dips her toe in those illicit waters but her flight has sobered her up enough to face up to her dilemma and not cover all the wounds with alcohol.
I’m not planning to spoil the story by telling you the ending but the ending is the whole point. While the movie’s title is initially perceived as an ironic tilt at the state of marriage – the traditional movie “happy ending” – in reality the ending Mary chooses for herself is the feminist one of self-determination, independent of a man, her self-worth not tied up in his appreciation of her, and she takes the extremely bold decision to quit the marriage, not for another man as might have been de rigeur and in some ways more acceptable within society, but to find herself.
This was a terrible flop, the worst in director Richard Brooks’ career which at the time had reached the commercial and critical peaks of The Professionals (1966) and In Cold Blood (1967), for which he was Oscar-nominated. Audiences failed to respond despite Jean Simmons (Rough Night in Jericho, 1967) receiving her second Oscar nomination.
And you can see why it sank. If people didn’t walk out during the interminable montage sequence, then for the most part it was interminably depressing. The only thing worse than watching an alcoholic getting drunk is watching an alcoholic desperate to get drunk, holding back from indulging as if standing on the edge of a precipice, almost willing themselves to fall over for the sheer relief of oblivion.
And yet it is extremely watchable as the couple play out their marital game, Fred, the ostensible loving husband, protecting his wife from herself, Mary blaming her drinking for their marital problems rather than the other way round.
Jean Simmons is a compelling watch. This is really a tremendous performance and a shame she lost out to the more showy acting of Maggie Smith in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. As good as that was, it was pretty much all surface, Smith playing a character who was pure invention, for the most part sashaying through life by force of her incredible personality, not a woman grasping at straws from the outset, damned by all in sight who were only too aware of her affliction, unable to come to terms with herself, denied all that was casually tossed to often worthless men.
John Forsythe (Topaz, 1969), who grits his teeth so much they appear likely to puncture his cheeks, is as good as I’ve ever seen him in a whale of a part that calls upon him to play two roles effectively, the dutiful husband restrained by having to watch over his errant wife, and a man who, out of her sight, can still enjoy himself, and, it is hinted, has been illicit himself with colleague’s wife Helen (Tina Louise).
Structurally, it’s very cleverly done, and Richard Brooks continues with the façade of the happy marriage and the wife’s drinking being the root cause of their dual unhappiness before letting rip late on with the incipient feminism.
A tremendous movie and well worth seeing.