I enjoy movies from the 70s more now than when I first saw them over thirty years ago. They seem so realistic and gritty compared to a lot of the pablum that is served up today. Kendall and I went to a fantastic 1970s double feature the other night at the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica. I vividly remember my first viewings of both of these films—the theatres where I saw them, who I was with, even what row I was sitting in. I shouldn’t be surprised they made such an impression. For one thing, both contained very adult themes and nudity, and such experiences tend to stick in your mind when you’re 11 years old!
First up was “Diary of a Mad Housewife,” the Frank Perry-directed look at a woman on the verge of losing it in 1970 Manhattan. Based on the book by Sue Kaufman, the film’s sensibility owed a lot to the burgeoning women’s movement, and certainly, if made today, would have been directed by a woman (weren’t there any female directors in the 70s besides Lina Wertmuller?). The film depicts the period in which women’s traditional pathways were starting to be seriously reconsidered. But unlike lesser films that explored this rift, “Diary of a Mad Housewife” doesn’t idealize either side. Instead, it provides a defiantly unromanticized view of Tina Balzer’s benign existence and ultimate rebellion. I’m sorry that Perry didn’t find a cinematic way of using the book’s daily diary format, but he did manage to paint a sad and fascinating portrait of this woman’s servitude to a husband and society that wanted to write the script for her.
It felt very appropriate to be viewing this film on the anniversary of my mother’s death, the film so perfectly captured some of her own struggles at that time. Although I wouldn’t have guessed it in August 1970 when we saw the film together at the Carnegie Theatre on Chicago’s Rush Street, I’m sure that my mother was deeply affected by the character of Tina Balzer. Both were hip, educated women who got married during the Eisenhower Era and believed they could have it all, as long as they didn’t yank too hard on their short leashes. Both women had children around the same time, stayed informed about world events, and read books by Germaine Greer, Betty Friedan, and the Happy Hooker.
By the late 1960s, Tina and my mother had started to question the life that had seemed so desirable just a few years earlier, but they didn’t dare voice these concerns, even to themselves. Carrie Snodgress’s performance as Tina Balzer in this film is nothing less than heartbreaking. You can see how much she wants to soldier on as the perfect wife and mother but her patriarchal imprisonment is sucking the life out of her, bit by bit, and at some point we know she’s going to blow. Tina’s dalliance with sleazy writer George Prager (an insanely young and obnoxious Frank Langella) mirrored my mother’s liaison at the time with an equally inappropriate suitor. Both affairs seemed like necessary but destructive steps to the realization that their worth was not wholly dependent on the approval of men.
My father was no Jonathan Balzer, the critical, social-climbing boor brilliantly played by Richard Benjamin, but there were elements of the expectations Jonathan placed on his wife that probably made my mother think about her own marriage. Did anyone do irritating better than Dick Benjamin? Even the way he took the shell off his soft-boiled egg in the morning was enough to fill me with revulsion, not to mention the way he approached his wife for sex throughout the film. Adopting the voice of a little boy, he’d croon, “Tina, do you wanna go for little ol’ roll in the haaaaaaaay?” Run, Tina, run!
I’m amazed that Benjamin didn’t get an Oscar nomination for this film. Carrie Snodgress did, and deservedly so. “Diary of a Mad Housewife” was her first film, and though poised for a glittering career, she basically gave it up and ran off with rock star Neil Young who fell in love with her after seeing her in this role. They had a son together but never married. Snodgress’s choices confounded her Hollywood handlers. “I was never really a career woman,” she said later. “My life always came first. When I got nominated for ‘Diary of a Mad Housewife,’ I didn't think, ‘Aah, now I'll get more money!’ My dream had always just been to do my work well, fall in love, and build a life for myself.” That she did, although her life came to an end far too soon. She died of liver failure in 2004.
The other film we saw was “The Last of Sheila,” a campy murder mystery that was just as much fun now as it was when I first saw it at the Playboy Theatre in June 1973. And what’s not to like? The film had a great script by the unlikely pair of Anthony Perkins and Steven Sondheim, a plot that skewered the gross excesses of Hollywood, and a group of perfectly cast actors devouring the scenery including James Mason, Dyan Cannon, James Coburn, Raquel Welch, and once again, the talented Richard Benjamin. On board as another mad housewife of Benjamin’s was beautiful Joan Hackett, born on almost the same day as my mother. Kendall’s parents helped create a sitcom for Hackett in the 1970s. It didn’t stay on the air but they all loved her, and were sad when she died of cancer in her late 40s. Hackett was a great actress and a real social activist. She also loved to sleep—no wonder Kendall is such a fan. Never wanting to be jostled from her beloved slumber during life, Hackett’s tombstone carries the bizarre epitaph, “Go away, I’m sleeping!”
Speaking of gross excesses, I’m writing this post from Sin City itself. Kendall and I drove up to Las Vegas yesterday for a quick celebration of our third wedding anniversary. Last night we saw one of the most celebrated icons of the 70s, Miss Liza Minnelli. To be honest, we thought that her show would be largely an homage to past glories, and we believed we were coming to see more of a Liza camp-fest than a true concert. I’m here to say, in the light of day, and with the knowledge that this post is getting gayer by the second, that Liza Minnelli blew the roof off the place last night. The woman sang her guts out, it was one of the best shows I’ve seen in years. You gotta love someone who could have easily phoned in a performance and still gotten a standing ovation but instead chose to reach for every note and sing every song like we were the most important audience in the world. Minnelli did the impossible and even made those old workhorses “Cabaret” and “New York, New York” sound new and fresh. She also sang the shit out of many songs she hasn’t been associated with such as “What Did I Have” and an a cappella version of “I’ll Be Seeing You.” Unbelievable. Her patter seemed genuine and heartfelt, and she looked great, despite several hip replacement surgeries and a list of medical problems that could take up an entire season of “Grey’s Anatomy.” At 61, Liza had to sit down periodically during the show, but she still managed to work up quite a sweat dancing like a trooper all over the large Vegas stage. She was up there for a full two hours, 45 minutes of which were a tribute to her godmother, the great Kay Thompson, the MGM vocal arranger who was one of Judy Garland’s closest friends. Kay Thompson wrote the Eloise books which were based on her precocious goddaughter Liza’s experiences living at the Plaza Hotel in New York.
Now I’m ready to hightail it out of this hellish Gomorrah. I’m sitting as far away from the casino as I could get, but when I came down at six this morning I had to pass endless rows of mad housewives hunched behind their slot machines, smoking cigarettes as furiously as Tina Balzer, and no doubt in the process of losing tons of money they can ill afford to part with. As we were checking in last night, Kendall won over a hundred dollars so easily and casually that we’ve been paying for it ever since. Are the slots programmed to smell new blood and give you a taste of victory before they crush all your hopes? Kendall is deep in a Joan Hackett-like slumber right now, but I know she’s dreaming of cherries and sevens. Or maybe Liza Minnelli.
What good is sitting alone in your room?
Come hear the music play…