The latest Film Comment Selects Double Feature brings together two adaptations from the early Seventies: one from a notorious source, Philip Roth’s seminal novel Portnoy's Complaint (pun intended),and one lesser known—Sue Kaufman’s Diary of a Mad Housewife—but no less deserving of notice. Both starring Richard Benjamin, they’re time capsules dealing with sex and therapy, the screening lets the films creep back into our consciousness (like so many sexual thoughts).
Diary of a Mad Housewife
In Frank Perry’s adaptation of the Kaufman novel, Benjamin plays Jonathan Balser, the lawyer husband who does much to drive Tina (Carrie Snodgress), the housewife of the title, mad. Jonathan is an insensitive, not to mention wholly irritating, man; he repeatedly uses the word “bloody” as an insult, though he’s not British, and the cloying, childlike voice he uses every time he says “roll in the hay” is the opposite of sexy. (Roth’s Alexander Portnoy, with his famously ravenous sexual appetites, ends up being the more “likable” depiction of early Seventies male—relatively speaking.) Jonathan’s pretentiousness aligns our sympathies with Tina. She never reaches the depths of Gena Rowlands’s unraveling character in A Woman Under the Influence, but we can see the stifling nature of being a housewife in every little gesture; the first word we hear her say, in her distinctively soft and nasal voice, is “sorry.” In that early scene, she gets dressed and ready for the day while Jonathan berates her. The couple is in the bedroom, and she’s partially unclothed, but there’s no sexual energy, and the patterns of the unloving marriage (which will only worsen) are clear. The small gesture of Tina putting on her bra askew is a sure sign of trouble.
The tale of the dissatisfied housewife is nothing new, but what’s interesting about Diary of a Mad Housewife is that it takes place in New York City rather than the suburbs (the place in which this specific type of melancholy is often thought to take root), and the way in which it is so clearly a product of the burgeoning women’s lib movement. While not explicitly about women’s lib (Tina doesn’t label herself a feminist, and it’s painfully clear that those around her would consider the word taboo), Diary of a Mad Housewife exists in a world on the cusp of change: the housewives are starting to realize that they deserve better, and trying to figure out what to do about it, while the husbands are too obtuse to care. This datedness can give some of the dialogue a stilted quality (at a party, a man with whom Tina ends up having an affair asks: “Does screwing appeal to you?”); the phrase “male chauvinist pig” frequently comes to mind. With its near-caricature depiction of sleazy males whose very existence justifies the need for feminism, Diary of a Mad Housewife becomes somewhat tragic, and almost painful to watch. The men are so priggish that one wants to grab them by the shoulders and scream, and Tina has no female friends to confide in. Most damagingly, Jonathan’s constant belittling of her is picked up by their two daughters. Every time we see Tina’s therapist, shown upside down from her POV on the couch, he’s talking at her, not to her, offering nothing but the hollow sentiments of the patriarchy: “Why can’t you accept the force of your husband without resentment?” Let her count the ways.
If Diary of a Mad Housewife probes the female psyche, Portnoy’s Complaint attempts the same with the male of the species, using Roth’s still-shocking source material. The sole feature directed by Ernest Lehman—the screenwriter of North by Northwest, Sabrina, and West Side Story, among others—never quite leaves the territory of sex romp. Most of its amusements come not from the title character but from Mary Jane Reid, also known as “the Monkey”—Portnoy’s female equal in perversion, played by Karen Black, all fluffy hair, spangly coordinated outfits, and saucy cooing. It may be worth the price of admission just for the moment in which she exclaims “Ooh, thighs!” as Portnoy reads “Leda and the Swan” aloud to her. Alongside Diary of a Mad Housewife, the limited pleasures of the film come not from genuine subversion but images of subversion flattened into kitsch. In the opening scene, miniskirt-clad women suddenly appear naked, in a flash of Portnoy’s dirty mind. It’s funny in the way a Sixties Playboy comic is funny: endearing because we can recognize its naughtiness as tied to a specific time and mindset.
In the days before the on-screen proliferation of the bawdy bro, Benjamin’s sinister undercurrent of smug entitlement, combined with his clean-cut, somewhat nerdy look, make him a viable sketch of the educated male in the era of sexual revolution. (The sense of entitlement is uncomfortably oppressive when Portnoy is forcing himself upon an Israeli girl—and whenever Jonathan says or does almost anything in Diary of a Mad Housewife.) Similarly, Black’s idiosyncratic sex appeal is well suited to the role of flighty fashion model/pervert. She’s a “free spirit,” a woman who, unlike Tina, revels in carnal freedom and attempts to call the shots in the bedroom. Roth’s novel, unlike the film, hits on a more universal form of perversion. The very fact that it’s filled with dirty energy makes it challenging to adapt—how, during this time, with these resources, could one make the film sexually shocking without being silly?
Both movies present early-Seventies archetypes that verge on clichés. The key difference is that in Portnoy’s Complaint, they pass by in a blur of miniskirts and sex jokes that feel of no great consequence, while in Diary of a Mad Housewife, we fear that the consistently misunderstood protagonist may crack under their weight.