There was one in every town: a woman, rich (Sanctuary, 1961) or poor (Claudelle Inglish, 1961) or in between (Butterfield 8, 1960), with a predilection for sex. There were several men in every town, queuing up to take advantage. The woman was inevitably a shameful creature, the men the envy of their peers. You don’t have to look further than Frank Sinatra’s tom-catting in Come Blow Your Horn (1963) or Omar Sharif as the romantic star of the decade with two women in tow in Doctor Zhivago (1965) for an idea of the double standards in play. Welcome to hypocritical Hollywood.
Grace (Suzanne Pleshette), father dead and stuck with a domineering mother, finds escape and fulfilment in sex, and just to give hypocrisy a final tug discovers that while boyfriends are keen to help her explore such physical needs, they take the hump when they discover they might not be the first – or the only. Parents, naturally, are appalled, and discovery of Grace’s antics – and she’s not particularly particular, a passing waiter will do – leads her mother to collapse.
Having confessed to potential husband Sidney (Bradford Dillman) that he will not be marrying a virgin and almost bursting with gratitude that he is willing to overlook her behavior, Grace becomes a farmer’s wife and then a happy mother, until construction owner Roger (Ben Gazzara) comes on strong. She might well have been able to have her cake and eat it but Roger, having fallen in love, reacts badly to being dumped and it’s only a matter of time before her world implodes.
Made a couple of years later, when the independent woman was being exalted, this would have been a different kettle of fish. Here, the boot on the other foot, the woman who picks and chooses her lovers seemed a step too far for that generation.
Before the big trouble begins, the movie does explore, though somewhat discreetly, the almost taboo notion that a woman might just enjoy sex for the sake of it. Sure, Grace likes being wanted and likes being held, but if she was around today, nobody would bat an eyelid if she just came out and expressed her preference.
Less discreetly, the subject of consensual sex comes up, but not as a question of debate, more as a matter of fact, that when Grace says no she actually means yes. There’s a very uncomfortable moment at the beginning when in a Straw Dogs-scene, though nothing like as violent, Grace appears to welcome a rape. Whether this is as bad as it sounds, or is just Hollywood hiding the blush that a woman would not seek out sex but could only discover its pleasures when forced upon her, is hard to say.
Nor is Grace a walking sex machine. She knows enough about men that she only has to put out feelers and any susceptible male will take the bait. And given the restrained times, she’s got no female pal with whom she can discuss her unseemly desires.
Of course, if this was a man, nobody would be batting an eyelid. Sure, once caught, he’d come up with all sorts of excuses, denials, begging for forgiveness, but an audience would give him a free pass. It’s only because this is a woman that it causes ructions. The movie just about gets close to what does make Grace happy and why she needs the thrill of extra marital sex but by that point the melodrama has taken over and there’s little time left for discussion, what with Roger intent on revenge and another lovelorn wife, mistakenly imagining her husband has fallen victim to Grace’s charms, also on the warpath.
Small town constraints play their part, too. Washing your dirty linen in public the worst of all offences. Author John O’Hara, on whose bestseller this is based – and whose other works Butterfield 8, Ten North Frederick (1958) and From the Terrace (1960) explored similar worlds – knows only too well that while wealth brings freedom and privilege it comes with chains attached.
And there’s some interesting role reversal, an illicit lover falling in love with a married person normally a starting point for a movie to explore happiness and its opposite rather than being the one act Grace will not tolerate in a lover, she wants strings-free sex, not anything with encumbrance. While Grace would like to act like a man, and has the wealth to shield herself from the worst of the fall-out, as a mother she is extremely vulnerable, and in this particular era could risk losing her child if seen as maternally unfit.
While lacking the sexual combustibility of Elizabeth Taylor or Lana Turner or other Hollywood heartbreakers, Suzanne Pleshette (Nevada Smith, 1966) gives a decent enough performance especially when it comes to her straightforward attitude to sex, aware she might be causing upheaval, but finding it impossible to ignore desire, or imagine a life in which that does not play an impulsive part.
Bradford Dillman (Sanctuary) has less room for character maneuver and is mostly called upon to suck it up. He comes into his own in the movie’s latter stages when bewilderment at betrayal and public humiliation clashes with continued love for his wife. Ben Gazzara (The Bridge at Remagen, 1969), trademark leer and smug face kept in check, has a showier role especially when the violent aspects of his character explode.
Director Walter Grauman, while better known for war picture 633 Squadron (1963), had just come off another picture dealing with female trauma (Lady in a Cage, 1964) and does quite a decent job here, the camera intensely focusing on the leading actress and then as the tragic outcome unfolds drawing away from her. There’s one great piece of composition. He had used tree branches and the countryside to frame Grace and Sidney at the height of their love. And he does the same again when Grace is abandoned.
Asks some difficult questions without quite getting to grip with the real subject of female sexuality. There was a sense that Hollywood was just on the cusp of accepting the independence of women, but didn’t want to go the whole hog just yet, because, apart from anything else, where would it leave the guys?