Faye Dunaway in Puzzle of a Downfall Child (1970) | Kino Lorber (2021)
Faye Dunaway in Puzzle of a Downfall Child (1970) | Kino Lorber (2021)

Frank Perry and Jerry Schatzberg Show Us How to Be a Woman in the ’70s

Frank Perry and Jerry Schatzberg jolted audiences who weren’t used to unsatisfied and belittled housewives starring in a film, or to the concept of such people existing.

Diary of a Mad Housewife (1970)
Frank Perry
Kino Lorber
15 December 2021
Puzzle of a Downfall Child (1970)
Jerry Schatzberg
Kino Lorber
15 December 2021

The New American Cinema circa 1970 had so many giddy freedoms to work with. The old censorship system had been junked in favor of the MPAA ratings, and films were trying new styles and themes and swear words and nude scenes. Among the many trends exploding at this time was “Women’s Lib” with its attendant consciousness about what being a woman meant in society, particularly a middle-class woman.

Early examples of such films include Rachel, Rachel (1968), directed by Paul Newman from a Margaret Laurence novel as a vehicle for his wife Joanne Woodward, and Wanda (1970), a long-neglected masterpiece written and directed by Barbara Loden, now available from Criterion.

The year 1971 brought Otto Preminger‘s Such Good Friends, scripted by Elaine May from Lois Gould‘s novel; Herbert Ross’ lovely and forgotten T.R. Baskin with Candice Bergen; and Bibi Andersson’s magnificent performance in Ingmar Bergman‘s The Touch.

Then 1972 served up Irvin Kershner‘s Up the Sandbox (1972) for Barbra Streisand, written by Paul Zindel from Anne Roiphe‘s novel, and Frank Perry‘s Play It As It Lays, scripted by married couple Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne from Didion’s 1970 titular novel.

Soon came another Oscar nod for Woodward in Gilbert Cates‘ Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams (1973); the Oscar-nominated work of John Cassavetes and Gena Rowlands‘ in A Woman Under the Influence (1974); and Sidney J. Furie‘s Sheila Levine Is Dead and Living in New York (1975), from Gail Parent‘s novel.

I’ll tentatively throw in Liza Minnelli’s Oscar-nominated performance in Alan J. Pakula‘s The Sterile Cuckoo (1969), with the proviso that this adopts a masculine POV, both in the film and its source novel, that renders its heroine “crazy” in a way that’s different from the “crazy” women in the other films. The same is true of Jackie Bisset’s role in The Grasshopper (Jerry Paris, 1970) and even truer of Goldie Hawn’s Oscar-winning role in Gene Saks‘ Cactus Flower (1969), though these films are all worthy of study for that there zeitgeist.

By the way, in addition to being films about what it means to be a woman, the majority are films about what it means to live in New York. At the risk of over-generalizing, several of them share a cluttered, hectic, semi-documentary ambiance. Paradoxically, their heroines also share an impulse toward fantasies and dreams that contrast with that reality–because being a woman makes you crazy! Or rather, living as a woman in this world can drive you crazy.

Good gracious, a retrospective of even half of those titles would be world-beating, but let’s start with two crucial early dispatches from that sexual and cultural front line, or fault line, that have been missing in action for decades. At long last on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber are two films of 1970: Diary of a Mad Housewife, directed by Frank Perry and scripted by Eleanor Perry from Sue Kaufman’s novel, and Puzzle of a Downfall Child, directed by Jerry Schatzberg and scripted by Carole Eastman as “Adrian Joyce”. It’s great to finally see them.

Diary of a Mad Housewife, Frank Perry (1970)

Tina (Carrie Snodgress) wakes up, having overslept slightly, to the strains of be-toweled hubby Jonathan (Richard Benjamin) haranguing her from the bathroom with ear-splitting chatter about her faults, her laziness, her inexplicable sullen and unsatisfied behavior (“I just don’t understand you”), how she’s gotten skinny and gone to hell, etc. etc.

She says nothing, and we gather she’s used to this as she puts on her bra and goes into the bathroom to be confronted by their multiple reflections. The supposedly “affectionate” tirades continue during breakfast, and the camera shows their young daughters absorbing dad’s attitude to mom on their way to disrespectful brat-hood.

Director Frank Perry and photographer Gerald Hirschfeld use many extended shots throughout, either on tracks or hand-held, and a beautiful example occurs in the elevator. The camera begins on yammering dad, then pans one by one to still silent Tina, the daughters, then the blasé poodle looking toward the camera and, as a punchline, the previously hidden elderly elevator operator, who cranes his head as they leave. You can read his mind.

Here’s the film’s observational wit, and the first example of how Tina receives sympathy from working people, such as the waiter at Elaine’s who whispers “Coraggio” (“courage”). “What did he whisper?” bleats Jonathan.

Over on the other side of this film somewhere, Jonathan’s living his own dissatisfaction. We intuit this as it bleeds into Tina’s collateral damage. He’s a successful lawyer but feels he’s blocked his creative impulses, and he curries favor with “celebrities” and rich folks in search of investment opportunities and the like. The extent of his discontent will finally be exposed at the very end.

As far as anything happens amid this excruciating observation, the story follows Tina’s impulsive decision to fall into an affair with a big-deal writer, George Prager (Frank Langella), who’s a ruder and more talented version of her husband. She goes in with eyes wide open and sticks it out even though she accuses him of spoiling every conversation with his overbearing ways. At one heady moment, he explains that Proust’s Albertine is an example of disguised homosexuality, which may or may not be a moment of foreshadowing.

The redeeming feature of their “sex thing”, as he describes it from the start, is that the sex is great. She finds George attractive, perhaps because she sees him for an hour without having to live with him (and because Langella plays him), while Jonathan turns her off with his entreaties for “a little roll in the hay”, always pronounced with the same nasal screech. Tina grasps that George’s cynical predictions are right and that it’s kind of “mad” to begin an affair with another version of Jonathan, one who replaces “control freak” with indifference.

She meets him at a mod party where the Alice Cooper Group (!) are performing, about to initiate a pillow fight in the mob. He utters a word beginning with “C” that R-rated movies had just discovered they could get away with saying. When a hippie woman (Alley Mills) upbraids him for insulting language, he says “Screw off, Pocahontas” (remind you of anyone?), and she answers “I’m reporting you to Women’s Lib.” So Tina can’t plead ignorance or even charm, though she might plead masochism.

She meets George a second time at a gallery opening, another opportunity for Jonathan to schmooze with celebs. He loves that Tina has the wherewithal to banter about sex with a famous writer.

As in the music scene, the film implies that it’s not only Jonathan who exhausts and confuses Tina but his entire world: today’s music and happenings and abstract art and youth culture and a New York beset by garbage strikes and frantic Christmas shopping, as exposed in jagged montage sequences. She’s harassed and out of step with everything, and that’s one strategy for enlisting the audience’s sympathy, although she’s had that from the first scene’s ugly wake-up.

Remarkably, this is among the rare films that stick with a single POV throughout, and a woman’s at that. We only see, hear, and know what she sees, hears, and knows. Eleanor Perry’s detailed, sympathetic writing is a triumph at contouring everything into Tina’s perception, and we don’t fully grasp the extent of this subjectivity until the end.

SPOILER:  Sidney Katz’s editing style propels the momentum with jump cuts to rhyming images and deceptive cross-cuts that leap across time and space. The ending goes from intense, tender, alternating closeups of Tina and Jonathan, staring directly into the camera (each other’s eyes) in a series of subjective set-ups, to the revelation that the whole film has been a flashback–telescoped, fragmentary–in which Tina explains her life to a group therapy session.

Now, her subjective view gazes into the eyes of her grody fellow members (including Peter Boyle and Eileen Brennan) as they shriek every possible critique and response, from “this privileged bitch has no real problems” to “find a good lawyer and get a divorce” to “can we talk about me now?” As the credits roll, the final closeup on Tina still shows her self-contained in a bewildering, hostile world of little sympathy or understanding. It’s the perfect ending. This era wasn’t merely unafraid of harsh endings, they were virtually required.

It’s easy to forget that Diary of a Mad Housewife is a comedy, but that’s the sardonic, satirical intention. Top-billed Benjamin was the box-office name here, and we must credit his brilliance at playing an insufferable egomaniac while exposing his pathetic insecurities for our amusement.

Second-billed Langella had made a name on stage. This was his first film released, followed immediately by Mel Brooks‘ The Twelve Chairs. Previously in PopMatters (“Ambiguously Yours: The Late Works of the Late Otto Preminger“), I wondered whether Langella had a cameo as the fantasy cabdriver in Such Good Friends. I now conclude he didn’t, and I’m sure the world has been waiting for my decision.

RATING 8 / 10