There is something about American films of the 70’s. Many offered frank and artful depictions of adult situations laced with social conscience and a realistic use of language and sexuality. Diary of a Mad Housewife is a good example of this. It’s an awkward comedic drama and social satire that hammers away at the self-centered success-oriented nature of North American society. Has anything changed since 1970? The film depicts the dreary life of upper middle class housewife Tina Balser (Carrie Snodgrass) and the appalling men in her life: two of the most loathsome men in film. I once watched this film with a friend who was traumatized for two days because Jonathan, the self-obsessed spouse of Tina, reminded her of her ex-husband. Oh man, I feel for you Lucy!
Although the film is centered around Tina and her bleak existence, it really sparkles with the two male characters. Jonathan (Richard Benjamin) is an upwardly mobile lawyer who pathetically and pathologically strives for acceptance from New York’s elite. He’s psychologically abusive, hypercritical of Tina, and totally repulsive. The early scene in an elevator where he dictates what he needs packed for a business trip is a stunner. As an outlet - or respite - from her marriage (and her demonic daughters), Tina starts up a relationship with a writer, George Prager, who she meets at a party. George (played by Frank Langella), is a narcissistic intellectual and manipulator who seduces Tina into an affair. There is a subtle ambiguity to Langella’s character that is very interesting, but Tina soon realizes he’s no improvement over her husband. Both male characters are played so far over the top they come across as uncomfortably comedic. Between them they contain almost every disagreeable male trait. So there is something for everyone to feel unconsiously uncomfortable.
Bouncing between these two males, Tina plods along, unable to rise above her situation. She’s educated and attractive, and yet she comes off weak and rarely battles for her rights. She does briefly, when she “loses it” during a family dinner, and when she gets under George’s skin, but then she backs down. The polarity between Tina and the male characters feels a little exaggerated, but it does work as a device to ramp up the satire, exposing what some women endured during the period...and still do.
By the end of the film there is no resolution. We are left with a confessional from Jonathan, a group therapy session with Tina, and much to ponder.
Note: The film is directed by Frank Perry and written by his partner Eleanor Perry. This team also did “The Swimmer,” which is also a notable film.
PS. Look for an early version of the Alice Cooper Band performing during a party scene.
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