Diary of a Mad Housewife: The cinema of Eleanor and Frank Perry

When director Frank Perry passed in 1995 at age 65 he was remembered, if he was remembered at all, as the director of one of Hollywood’s most famous artistic (though not commercial) disasters, “Mommie Dearest”. Today his name is also linked with that of his niece singer Katy Perry who, a decade ago, became a megastar with the release of the multiplatinum album “Teenage Dreambut, in a career arc that is eerily reminiscent of her uncle’s, is now viewed as a bit uncool and possibly past her prime. Whether Mr. Perry got any satisfaction from the fact that Faye Dunaway’s ferocious performance (“No Wire Hangers, Ever!”) made his otherwise dreadful adaptation of Christina Crawford’s memoir and exposé an instant cult classic is like asking what veteran director Mark Robson thought about “Valley of the Dolls” (“Sparkle Neely, Sparkle!”) or getting director Paul Verhoeven’s take on “Showgirls” (“Thrust It! Thrust It!”). What is clear, is that “Mommie Dearest ” was hobbled from the beginning by a dreadful script stitched together by a gaggle of hacks, with final screen credit going to Robert (“Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore”) Getchell, Tracy Hotchner (who wrote the original draft), the film’s producer Frank Yablans and Perry himself. The irony here is that, a decade earlier, between 1968 and1970, Frank Perry directed three great movies each emblematic of it’s time and place. And all three started life as adapted screenplays that captured the spirit of their source material with extraordinary economy and grace. The three films are “The Swimmer” (1968, based on the 1964 short story of the same name by John Cheever which first appeared in The New Yorker), “Last Summer” (1969, based on the 1968 novel of the same name by Evan Hunter) and “Diary of a Mad Housewife” (1970, based on the 1967 novel of the same name by Sue Kaufman). All three screenplays were written by Perry’s then wife, the enormously gifted Eleanor Perry. These movies were made on the East Coast, outside of the Hollywood system, and were highly influential, if not essential, in establishing the American Independent Film. In fact, I would argue that Eleanor Perry and Frank Perry should be mentioned in the same breath as Gena Rowlands and John Cassavetes.

Eleanor Perry (née Rosenfeld; nom-de-plume Oliver Weld Bayer) had a whole career and whole other life before she met and married Frank Perry in 1960. He was 30 and she was 45, 15 years his senior. Even by today’s standards, her life was an astonishingly productive one. Born into a Jewish family in Cleveland, Ohio in 1914, after attending Western Reserve University (now Case Western Reserve University) she married attorney Leo G. Bayer. Together, they wrote a series of suspense novels. One of them, “Paper Chase” (1942) was even made into an MGM B-movie entitled “Dangerous Partners” in 1945. It was Eleanor’s first taste of Hollywood even though she was credited under her nom-de-plume. She became interested in psychiatry, getting a master’s degree in psychiatric social work. Her studies in this area would greatly influence her first major collaboration with Perry “David and Lisa” (see below) and her last with Bayer, a play starring Celeste Holm called “Third Best Sport” which ran on Broadway from December 1958 to March 1959. They were divorced shortly after. While married to Bayer she raised two children one of whom, William Bayer, is a best-selling novelist specializing in psychological crime fiction.

Frank and Eleanor

Released in 1962, “David and Lisa” was made on a shoestring budget and featured two unknown actors, Keir Dullea and Janet Margolin (making her movie debut), playing troubled teenagers whose paths cross after they have been admitted to a mental health facility. The psychiatrist is played by Howard da Silva, making his first movie in 12 years, after being blacklisted in Hollywood. Eleanor based the film on the second story from the two-in-one novellas “Jordi/Lisa and David ” by Theodore Isaac Rubin an American psychiatrist and author whose work she had read while doing her master’s degree. Rubin’s speciality was psychoanalysis, then at it’s zenith in The United States, and, many of his beliefs have now fallen out of favor., Seen from today’s vantage point, the movie, despite its sensitive moments, seems dangerously simplistic and naive. À la “Rebel Without a Cause”, the parents are blamed for everything, especially Dullea’s mother who thinks of her son only in terms of her own needs and expectations. Nevertheless, when the movie was released, it became an art house sensation, particularly in New York, and the Perrys were on their way. When the nominations for the 35th Academy Awards (1962) were announced in early 1963, to almost everyone’s surprise, both Eleanor and Frank we’re nominated in their respective categories and The American Independent Film was born. Eleanor joined the esteemed list of Vladimir Nabokov (“Lolita”), William Gibson (“The Miracle Worker”), Robert Bolt and Michael Wilson (“Lawrence of Arabia”) and the winner, Horton Foote (“To Kill a Mockingbird”), while Frank found himself in the company of Pietro Germi (“Divorce Italian Style”), Arthur Penn (“The Miracle Worker”), Robert Mulligan (“To Kill Mockingbird”), and the winner, David Lean (“Lawrence of Arabia”). Despite it’s superannuated view of both the causes and treatments of mental illness, Eleanor’s screenplay was itself adapted into a stage play in1967 and an Oprah Winfrey-produced TV Movie in 1998.

However, it look about five more years for Eleanor to really hit her stride and when she did, she created one of the great triptych’s in American cinema. I use the word triptych advisedly since I think that “The Swimmer”/”Last Summer”/”Housewife” can be viewed a single great work of art that captures the gradual shift of sixties optimism to seventies disillusionment and cynicism. “The Swimmer” is, probably the most upsetting of the three. As Burt Lancaster, in one of his greatest roles, “swims his way home” through his “river” of backyard swimming pools in affluent, suburban Connecticut, we gradually realize that what we thought was a nostalgic journey in swimming trunks is actually a cry from the soul of a broken man grieving for a life he can never reclaim. That the film got finished at all is a minor miracle since, after principle photography was finished in September of 1966 Frank Perry was fired by producer Sam Spiegel and replaced by Lancaster’s director friend Sydney Pollack who shot several transitions and scenes and replaced several actors in supporting roles, most notably Barbara Loden by Janice Rule. However, although the film is almost always listed in Pollack’s filmography, Perry got sole directorial credit.

Eleanor and Frank then turned her their attention to Evan Hunter’s just published coming-of-age movie “Last Summer”. Decades before cyberbullying became a public debate, this film captures how cruel young people can be as we observe Peter (Richard Thomas – before he became a household name on “The Waltons” ), Dan (Bruce Davison) and Sandy (Barbara Hershey), three bored teenagers trying to find ways to pass the long hot summer days on the beaches of Fire Island. Thomas and Davison are extremely good here prefiguring their later work. but it is Hershey who is really stunning as the manipulative Sandy. It is in “Last Summer” (together with his work with Lancaster and Snodgress) that you really see Frank Perry’s strength as a director of actors. Given the right material by Eleanor, like William Wyler, he had that rare ability to step back and observe, capturing great acting with a minimum of fuss The movie’s other jewel is the beautiful work of Cathy Burns who plays Rhoda, an outsider who desperately wants to join the group. Burns has a great monologue, done in what appears to be a single take, directly to the camera, about the death of her mother. Takes like this are common today but back in 1969 this scene was quite striking and was doubtless instrumental in getting Burns an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress at the 42nd Academy Awards in 1969 (Her competitors were Dyan Cannon in “Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice”, Sylvia Miles in “Midnight Cowboy”, and Susannah York in “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?” with the winner, Goldie Hawn in “Cactus Flower”). The movie ends with a brutal rape scene which resulted in the film, like “Midnight Cowboy”, being slapped with an X-rating by the newly-formed MPAA. The rape scene was then re-edited so that the movie could be released with an R-rating. This is the version I saw. I do not know if the original X-rated version survives! If anyone knows please let us know!

She should have won Best Actress that year.

Their last movie together was their best, a wonderful adaptation of Sue Kaufman’s “Diary of a Mad Housewife”. The film boasts in Carrie Snodgress’ incandescent Tina Balser, one of the great leading performances by an actress. Brilliantly structured by Eleanor, so that the story of a an upper middle class housewife who gets no respsect from either her whining and demanding husband (Richard Benjamin) or her arrogant and demanding lover (Frank Langella making his film debut) is seen from Tina’s point of view. The film also brings out Frank’s comedic side – it’s got a wonderful humorous subtext. But above all, we have Carrie as Tina, a true original who takes shape and grows before our eyes as we realize that she is the only sane person in the picture. In 1970, everyone was so enraptured by Glenda Jackson in “Women in Love” that they failed to see that it was Snodgress who gave the great performance of 1970 and, although she did nab an Oscar nomination, she should have won (in addition to Jackson, the other Best Actress nominees at the 43rd Academy Awards in 1970 were: Ali McGraw in “Love Story”, Jane Alexander in ‘The Great White Hope” and Sarah Miles in “Ryan’s Daughter”).

Neil Young was so taken with Carrie’s performance that it inspired him to write “A Man Needs a Maid”. The song was included on his 1972 landmark album “Harvest”. Soon after, Young and Snodgress became romantically involved for several years. She moved to his ranch in Northern California, putting her career on the back-burner. Unfortunately, it never recovered.

By this time the Perry’s marriage was over and they divorced in 1971. Frank was unfaithful with younger women and his ego had, supposedly, ballooned, to enormous proportions. All of this is outlined in delicious detail in Eleanor’s 1979 roman à clef Blue Pages” (available on ebay) Sadly, Eleanor died of cancer in New York in 1981, age 66.

After their divorce, Frank’s carrer floundered. He directed several films, most of them artistic and commercial failures. The closest he came to success was “Play It as It Lays” with Tuesday Weld which was adapted by Joan Didion and her husband John Gregory Dunne from Joan’s novel of the same name. However, even this one lacked something. That something was Eleanor’s intelligence, insight and empathy and the ability to create the perfect adapted screenplay. He was nothing without her!

DAVID and LISA is available for streaming on The Criterion Channel.

THE SWIMMER is available for streaming on The Criterion Channel, Amazon Prime Video and Apple TV

LAST SUMMER is not available for streaming. All original 35mm prints of the film were lost for years. In 2001, a 16mm print was located at the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia, after a two-year search, and was brought to Los Angeles. Apparently, it was the only surviving film version of the movie. The film had a rare showing in 2012 by American Cinematheque here in LA. A shout out therefore to The Criterion Chanel, Kino Lorber and Martin Scorsese to restore this seminal film.

DIARY OF A MAD HOUSEWIFE is available for streaming on The Criterion Channel.

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