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Salient. Victoria University of Wellington Students' Newspaper. Volume 31, No. 24. October 1, 1968

Films — George's got it


George's got it

The American (or specifically Hollywood) sex comedy is one field of the American cinema that is dominated by ideas, moreover they are generally' the ideas of a small group of writers who have made the field their own. Many have contributed to it: Billy Wilder has done so with his usual brilliance with his Some Like it Hot (1959), The Apartment (1960) and Kiss Me Stupid (1964). But two stand out as unique in their devotion to it; Stanley Shapiro and George Axelrod. Self-censorship has kept their range within limits, but both have gone and can go further in bad taste, innuendo and risque dialogue, than many of their serious rivals. The SC has analysed marriage, sexual behaviour and the rest of the rigmarole down to a fine art which rests mainly with the writer and the set designer. In some cases the writers become directors, thus achieving as much control over their films as their non-Hollywood counterparts.

Although Shapiro's latest, How To Save A Marriage And Ruin Your Life (1968)—Princess soon—didn't achieve the notoriety, or charges of bad taste and vulgarity that Kiss Me Stupid did, it did reflect a healthy libertarianism. But it was left to the redoubtable Axelrod to deliver the knock-out blow. Until his masterpiece, Lord Love A Duck, released here last year, Axelrod had confined himself to the role of interpreting the American matriarchy and its castration effect. His stage play The Seven Year Itch was filmed by Wilder in 1955. although the film (unlike the play) only depicted an imaginary affair between the cowed husband (Tom Ewell) and glamorous sex-pot (Marilyn Monroe). He trot as far as Chopsticks" and then regretted, although we didn't believe that for a moment. Marriage was a permanent prison and despite the opportunity we knew it was only parole.

In his next major comedy ten years later Axelrod had progressed from a seven year itching to change wives to the daily obsession of How To Murder Your Wife. This time marriage is the threat to idyllic bachelor existence of jack Lemmon. One night, at a Stag farewell to yet another who had forsaken the crooked and narrow, as the result of a drunken stupor, he is married to the glanorous blonde (a reincarnation of Marilyn Monroe) who burst (in more ways than one) from the cake. Life becomes hell, despite the attractions of Virna Lisi, until he executes the perfect "murder". A jury (all male of course) acquit, him. The parallel to Lemmon's plight is the emasculation of his comic strip, "Brash Brannigan", into the insipid "Brannigans". Although the ending is as expected (nobody should quibble about compromise, for it's only a film) the idea is plain enough; although man cannot live without woman, he cannot live married to one either.

In his first film as director, Lord Love A Duck, Axelrod forsook the marital sheets for the best all-out slogging satirical film to emerge from Hollywood for many years. Axelrod had a crack at everything, unlike Wilder who pursues different angles in each of his films, and carried it off because this was no slop, no light-hearted parody, but the best (or worse) of a Mad paranoia. Drive-in religion, high school complexes, teenage sex and so on were all curdled in this Mephistophelean fable of a girl's ungirded passion for everything: the hero grants her her every wish except his own dream: that she desire him. He finally commits mass murder in an attempt to bring his own mad reason to an insane world. Suited to its subject, the film was low-low budget in black-and-white with excellent acting from Lola Albright, Roddy McDowall, Tuesday Weld. Martin West and Ruth Gordon. It was as valid a comment on murder as a means of self-expression and protest as the psychological penetrations of In Cold Blood.

Axelrod's second and latest as writer-producer-director was made for 20th Century-Fox in colour, but not in that company's Cinemascope. The Secret Life Of An American Wife has Axelrod back in the bedroom with a retooled set of ideas. In the cast he has selected the brilliant Walter Matthau. who's been around a long time but never quite made it until his role as the whiplash lawyer in Wilder's The Fortune Cookie, and Anne Jackson, the "intelligent" mistress from Shapiro's How To Save a Marriage . . . This time it is the cowed and frustrated wife, exiled to the never-nevers of Connecticut in a world of commuting high presure executive husbands and the PTA syndrome. The suburban sexual neuroses, or as the ads (banned as it happens) put it: sex and sin in suburbia. The Wife (Anne Jackson) opens the film with a monologue savouring her precious three minutes before seven by running through the list of men she has experienced before she met Him (Patrick O'Neal).

The alarm rings at seven and an hour later Him and the kids are off and she is Faced with vet another day to herself and her frustrations haunted by the over-sexed bosomy neighbour Mrs Suzie Steinberg (Edy Williams). The husband is employed by the great movie Star (Matthau) who pays $100 for a woman's services: she ponders and dreams but does nothing until the visit of the delivery boy (at nineteen he is at the peak of his sexual drive) who tails to react to her stark nakedness in the kitchen. This failure leads her to a final desperate attempt to recapture her sexual attractions. In a bumbled but eventually conclusive phone call to the Star she manages to persuade him to employ her services for the afternoon. The confrontation between the Star, a potbellied, slouchy hulk with an everlasting smirk, and the Wife, an inexperienced, but impressionable dabbler in sex, takes up the remainder of the film.

It starts off on the wrong leg, as it were, and rapidly progresses from worse to better. The Star confesses he has enjoyed few of the girls his reputation alleges; she prefers to administer chicken soup and jettison the intellectual patter. They get on like a house on fire. The consummation is not the convenient swap as in Kiss Me Stupid but the full-blooded rupturing of the traditional bedroom hang-up. Nor is it the carnal obsession that would he found in European movies where infidelity seems so healthy and wise (which of course it generally isn't exception for ploitation a la Sexy Nudo). If films like A Man And A Woman and Dear John are tasteful evocations of love as envisaged by a gullible public, this one proclaims only the logical conclusion.

Without dragging over too much old turf, perhaps we could draw comparisons with Bunuel's Belle de Jour (Christmas attraction at the Lido). The same glossiness and animal primitivism, reality and inhibition, fantasy and freedom, are orchestrated—the wives in both films are both fascinated and satisfied in extra-marital sex, their infidelity being an integral part of their schizoid existence. The husbands are unaware of their wittol role, although jealousy would soon overcome them. The male objectivity in sex must destroy the female's subjectivity. Axelrod and Bunuel, each in their own ways, have extracted their own forms of sensationalism and blatancy while both finding a measure of empathy, For Axelrod Life American Style is hell reduced to sublimity; for Bunuel Life a la Bourgeoise is erotic consumption. For both the Secre Life is one of seeming deception, but at least it's life more interesting.

Walter Matthau: Star of "The Secret Life of An American Wife" seen above with Jack Lemmon in 'The Fortune Cookie". Matthau and Lemmon will be seen together again as "The Odd Couple", made before "Secret Life . . .", in the film of the Broadway comedy by Neil Simon.

Walter Matthau: Star of "The Secret Life of An American Wife" seen above with Jack Lemmon in 'The Fortune Cookie". Matthau and Lemmon will be seen together again as "The Odd Couple", made before "Secret Life . . .", in the film of the Broadway comedy by Neil Simon.