Eleanor Perry: One of The Great Screenwriters

Mommy Dearest.

Director Frank Perry is remembered as the director of one of Hollywood’s most famous artistic (though not commercial) disasters, “Mommie Dearest”.

No Wire Hangers, Ever!

Did Mr. Perry get any satisfaction from the fact that Faye Dunaway’s ferocious performance (“No Wire Hangers, Ever!”) made his otherwise underwhelming adaptation of Christina Crawford’s memoir and exposé an instant cult classic? This 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. A script that is Perry himself had a hand in writing.

Cheever, Hunter and Kaufman.

The irony here is that, a decade earlier, between 1968 and 1970, Frank Perry directed three great movies. .Each was 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” from 1968, which is based on the 1964 short story (in the New Yorker) by John Cheever. “Last Summer” from 1969, based on the 1968 novel by Evan Hunter. And “Diary of a Mad Housewife” from 1970, based on the 1967 novel by Sue Kaufman. All three screenplays were written by Perry’s then wife, one of the great screenwriters, Eleanor Perry.

The American Independent Film.

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 and Frank Perry should be mentioned in the same breath as Gena Rowlands and John Cassavetes.

Eleanor Perry

Enter Eleanor Bayer née Rosenfeld.

Eleanor Perry (née Rosenfeld; nom-de-plume Oliver Weld Bayer) had a whole career and a whole other life before she met and married Frank Perry in 1960. He was 30 and she was 45. Even by today’s standards, her life was an astonishingly productive one. Born into a Jewish family in Cleveland, Ohio in 1914, after attending Case Western Reserve University she married attorney Leo G. Bayer.

Hollywood B-movie.

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. This was 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.

Eleanor Perry (David and Lisa)

“David and Lisa.

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. They play troubled teenagers whose paths cross when they are admitted to a mental health facility. The psychiatrist is played by Howard da Silva, making his first movie in 12 years, after being blacklisted by Hollywood.

Theodore Isaac Rubin.

Eleanor based the film on the second story from the two-in-one novellas “Jordi/Lisa and David ” by Theodore Isaac Rubin. Rubin was an American psychiatrist and author whose work she had read while doing her master’s degree. His speciality was psychoanalysis, then at it’s zenith in The United States. In fact many of his beliefs have now fallen out of favor. From today’s vantage point, the movie, despite its sensitive moments, seems dangerously simplistic and naive. Like “Rebel Without a Cause”, the parents are blamed for everything. This is especially true of Dullea’s mother who thinks of her son only in terms of her own needs and expectations.

35th Academy Awards.

Nevertheless, when the movie was released, it became an art house sensation, particularly in New York. 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.

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”) in the Best Adapted Screenplay category, while Frank found himself in the company of Pietro Germi (“Divorce Italian Style”), Arthur Penn (“The Miracle Worker”), Robert Mulligan (“To Kill a Mockingbird”), and the winner, David Lean (“Lawrence of Arabia”) in the Best Director category .

Eleanor’s screenplay becomes its own accomplishment.

Despite it’s superannuated view of both the causes and treatments of mental illness, Eleanor’s screenplay was itself adapted into a stage play in 1967 and an Oprah Winfrey-produced TV Movie in 1998.

Eleanor Perry (The Swimmer)

The swimmer

However, it took about five more years for Eleanor to hit her stride with three perfect adaptations: “The Swimmer”, “Last Summer” and “Diary of a Mad Housewife

“The Swimmer” is, probably the most upsetting of the three. Burt Lancaster, in one of his greatest roles, is the title character who “swims his way home” through his “river” of backyard swimming pools in affluent, suburban Connecticut. Watching the movie, 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. He’s grieving for a life he can never reclaim.

Spiegel and Pollack.

That the film got finished at all is a minor miracle since, after principle photography was finished Frank Perry was fired by producer Sam Spiegel. Replacing him was Lancaster’s director friend Sydney Pollack. Pollack shot several transitions 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 Perry (Last Summer)

Last Summer

Eleanor and Frank then turned their attention to Evan Hunter’s just published coming-of-age movie “Last Summer”. Decades before cyberbullying became a public debate, this film captured how cruel young people can be. We are introduced to 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 prefiguring their later work. but it is Hershey who is really stunning as the manipulative Sandy.

It is in “Last Summer” 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.

Cathy Burns.

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”).

From an X to an R.

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 (please see the additional information below on Streaming).

Eleanor Perry (Diary of a Mad Housewife)
She should have won Best Actress that year.

Carrie Snodgress in Diary of a Mad Housewife

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. The film is beautifully structured by Eleanor, so that the story is always seen from Tina’s point of view. An upper middle class housewife who gets no respect from either her whining and demanding husband (Richard Benjamin) or her arrogant and demanding lover (Frank Langella making his film debut), Carrie as Tina is a true original. She takes shape and grows before our eyes as we realize that she is the only sane person in the picture. The film also brings out Frank’s comedic side – it’s got a wonderful humorous subtext.

The 43rd Academy Awards.

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 beaten Jackson, Ali McGraw in “Love Story”, Jane Alexander in ‘The Great White Hope” and Sarah Miles in “Ryan’s Daughter”.

Neil Young.

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.

The Marriage is Over.

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” . Sadly, Eleanor died of cancer in New York in 1981, age 66.

Frank’s career flounders.

After their divorce, Frank’s career floundered. He directed several films, most of them artistic and commercial failures. The closest he came to an artistic success was “Play It as It Lays” with Tuesday Weld. This was adapted by Joan Didion and her husband John Gregory Dunne from Joan’s novel of the same name. And he had a small commercial success in 1985 with Susan Isaacs’ adaptation of her own best-seller “Compromising Positions” which starred Susan Sarandon and Judith Ivey. However, even these minor achievements lacked something. That something was Eleanor’s intelligence, insight and empathy and the ability to create the perfect script. He was less of a creative force 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 Channel, 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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