Rewind: Films of the 60s, 70s, 80s – Diary of a Mad Housewife (1970)

by RICHARD WINTERS

Director Frank Perry may not be a name one throws out when mentioning some of the top directors, but his early work in collaboration with his screenwriter wife Eleanor was definitely a forerunner of the independent film movement and ahead of its time. David and Lisa, their first film, dealt with the budding romance between two patients at a mental hospital. Ladybug Ladybug was their follow-up, the true story of what happens when an errant nuclear warning siren goes off and the staff and students of a small rural school think it is for real. There was also the critically acclaimed film Last Summer dealing with the brutal gang rape of a teen girl by her so-called friends. They also made the revisionist western Doc starring Stacy Keach as well as the brilliantly quirky Rancho Deluxe. However, it is Diary of a Mad Housewife that I find to be their very best.

The story is based on a best-selling novel by Sue Kaufman. It deals with the character of Tina Balser. On the outside she seems to be living the American dream. She is married to an up and coming lawyer, lives in a swank Manhattan apartment, and is the mother of two beautiful girls. Unfortunately the husband is an obnoxious bore, the girls are spoiled and mouthy, and she feels lonely and depressed. She decides to have an affair with a novelist, but he ends up treating her just as poorly and when she tells her troubles to a support group, they end up doing the same.

I have seen this film many times over the past twenty years and am always impressed at the fluid way it moves between satire and drama as well as the fact that it doesn’t seem dated at all. The scenes with Richard Benjamin as the jerk husband are hilariously over-the-top. Yet, the scenes involving Frank Langella as the lover, who is bitter about his lagging writing career and repressed homosexuality and takes these frustrations out on Tina, are just as interesting, but in a much subtler way. In fact these scenes feature some great dialogue and character development and I find them more intriguing with each viewing. Langella, in his film debut, makes a lasting impression.

The cinematography, editing, and color schemes are also first-rate. Perry does a great job in infusing the counter-culture movement of the time with the old values of marriage and family. The mod party that the couple goes to is well staged with scantily clad mannequins in provocative poses placed throughout. The pretentious attitudes of the party-goers are nicely captured. This scene also features the Alice Cooper Band as well as a giant pillow fight.

Carrie Snodgress’s performance is what really makes this work. She was nominated for the Academy Award and she should have won it. Her ability to display her character’s feelings through such subtle methods as facial expressions, body gestures, and reactions is impressive. The viewer can easily relate to the character and feel her pain. Rock singer Neil Young was so impressed with her that he wrote her a fan letter and the two ended up getting into a relationship. Unfortunately because of this she dropped out of Hollywood and didn’t do another movie until almost nine years later. When she returned the top roles were no longer accessible and she was relegated to ‘B’ movies and small supporting roles until finally succumbing to cancer in 2004. This was a real shame because her talents were never fully utilized, but at least this was a perfect vehicle for her and one that movie fans today can really appreciate.

In the end though, what makes this film so very good is that it makes a great statement about the fact that isolation is a part of modern day living and at some point everyone will have to deal with it. Getting married, having kids, even having a lover or a support group will not necessarily be an effective buffer, and may actually exacerbate it. The whole film kind of reminded me of a statement made by a character on the Ally McBeal TV-show: “My loneliest times in life are when someone is lying in bed next to me.”

6 responses to “Rewind: Films of the 60s, 70s, 80s – Diary of a Mad Housewife (1970)

  1. Frank Perry’s “Diary of a Mad Housewife” must have had an influence of Tyler Perry’s “Diary of a Mad Black Woman”… no?

  2. I saw this in college as part of a course on social activist cinema of the ‘sixties/’seventies. It was by far the best film on the syllabus. The scenes I remember most clearly now are the exquisitely painful omelette party and the final sequence, where Perry trains the camera on Snodgress’ face and we read everything she’s learned and what she’s going to do now in her changing expression.

  3. Sounds like a really cool college course to me. I sure I would have loved it. What other films were shown?

    • You know, I can’t even remember most of the lineup (it was 15 years ago…). The only other two that come to mind are The Group (feminism) and The Boys in the Band (gay rights). It was a good class but the films were chosen more with an eye on social message than cinematic merit, which may explain why the rest haven’t stuck.

      • ‘The Boys in the Band’ is a great, great movie. One of the best stage to film productions ever done. I actually have ‘The Group’ in my collection, but have yet to view it. I thought it would be fun to see a young Candice Bergen since that is her first movie.

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