Mainstream art reflects the culture of its time. True art portrays the human condition as it is experienced throughout the ages. All art entertains – so how can we distinguish the difference. One way to evaluate the art of drama is to consider the essence of the conflict the heroine or hero confronts. In Sophocles' classic tragedy (442 bc) Antigone must choose between burying her brother in accordance with her faith or leave him decaying in the desert as King Creon commands. She makes the courageous decision to bury him and is condemned death.
Since I wrote a review of the film "Dairy of A Mad Housewife" in 1970, when political feminism was beginning to flourish, women in America have achieved great lifestyle freedoms, legal protection and career opportunities, but one choice many women still invest in is marriage. While the demands of this domestic position have changed in the past 40 years, especially the need for most women to work, the dilemmas of long-term commitment, fidelity and child rearing remain the same. With single lifestyle added to the mix, commercial TV has explored all aspects of the female status and body sensationalizing them beyond sanctity. The all girl-gang sitcom "Sex and the City" (1998-2004) still has legs, but as housewives have more viewing time, they dominate with "Desperate Housewives" (2004 to present) and the charade of narcissism called "Real Housewives" (with state franchises) wherein macho suburbanites join a lexicon of trendy stars. With stakes lowered by nasty kids, credit crisis, cheating husbands, outrageous gossip, cat fights, horny plumbers and fashion insecurities, the dramatic conflict in these shows is diminished to pathos.
The sexploitation continues in print media when young celebs dish up real life cliff hanger episodes of DWI's, drug possession, bi-polar breakdowns and stints at rehab and jail that play to a subtext of puritanical values celebrating fallen woman who can't handle the spotlight. At the end of the other spectrum, super strong diva Madonna carries on the blonde bombshell tradition of the 50's with pinache, while Lady Gaga, who rocketed to fame as the ultimate parody of herself as a pop icon, maintain an intelligent grasp of their power. (Usually it's the brunettes who are gun molls with enough physical prowess to spread their legs and sharp shoot at the same time.)
While these TV episodes and cyber extensions have touched on valid issues contemporary women face with humor and honesty – the gravitas is lost with a quest for titilizing scandal that makes the vulnerable prey. True art is left behind and its up to the audience to scan with the remote and seek upscale redemption for "the world's most honorable professional".
Diary Of A Mad Housewife
A Film by Frank Perry
Producer-Director, Frank Perry, well known for "David and Lisa", "Last Summer" and "The Swimmer" has created another psuedo-study of the human socio-drama. "Diary of a Mad Housewife" released by Universal Pictures and adapted by Eleanor Perry from the novel by Sue Kaufman, could easily be cut to a ten-minute ad for Women's Liberation. Tina Baker, like most women in our society, lives in an environment defined for her by men according to her biology. The film opens with a shot of her, waking between blue sheets, marriage ring on hand, to the nagging voice of her husband, Jonathan. He rationalizes his series of complaints about her straggly hair, compulsive smoking and inadequate figure by concluding, "My wife is a reflection of me." Under his excessive demands, Tina has turned off to a point similar to that of the computer Hal in the movie 2001, who has regressed to his earliest stage of human enslavement.
Tina (played by Connie Snodgrass) and Jonathan Baker (played by Richard Benjamin) cater to a group of New York scenemakers who still hold their own. Their attempts to reconcile their personal lives are made even more pathetic to an audience aware of the social disintegration of which the failure of modern marriage is only a part. This audience would doubt, however, that they will change their lifestyle and become political revolutionaries. They live in a spacious Upper West Side apartment with their two young daughters, matching poodles and a collection of contemporary art. A junior partner in a law firm, Jonathan also wants to belong to the 'now' people, send his children to the 'right' schools and groom Tina as a 'groovy' wife. Admiring the way he tosses a gourmet salad, Tina cynically remarks that perhaps he is 'a Renaissance kind of man'.
Over dinner at Elaine's, Jonathan tells Tina that they have been invited to a loft party, where Tina subsequently meets "tall, dark and handsome" (played by Frank Langella) who is to become her lover. He treats her with no more compassion than her husband and their affair ends after several months of 'fantastic sex'. Returning home after her last rendezvous, Tina finds Jonathan in the kitchen drinking milk and honey. He confesses that not only has he lost their savings in a bad investment, in fear of loosing his job, but 'making hay' with another woman. At the end of the film, we discover that Tina has been telling her story in a group therapy session, the members of which quickly accuse her of hypocrisy.
"Diary of a Mad Housewife" is as guilty as its protagonists of playing the establishment game and crying wolf at the same time. It is typical of the current wave of films from the American motion picture industry, which attempt to cash in on revolutionary phenomena by giving illusory descriptions without provoking change. Despite the lovely performance of Carrie Snodgrass, who according to a recent LIFE article on young actresses is a 'real person', the characters emerge in stereotypes. In defense of Women's Liberation, it says little more for the imagination of feminine writers than any supermarket magazine. The shooting, which follows a low budget formula, occasionally becomes as arty as any of Jonathan's ideas, especially in love scenes reminiscent of European counterparts.
After all, Tina is just a person who takes shit. She takes it from her husband, her daughters, her dogs, and her lover and even from those from whom she seeks help. In the last shot, she rolls her eyes with this revelation and the curtain closes. Without the redeeming attributes of heroism, Tina's diary may be easy to read and have a certain charm, but is it worth it?
Originally published in Interview Magazine, 1970