Alan Alda's career as auteur is a real puzzler. As a writer and director, he found great success on series television but only partially succeeded in theatrical features. He'd been active since the mid-1950s (he's featured in an early episode of Sgt. Bilko), but of course it was the beloved, long-running television series M*A*S*H (1972-1983) that brought him stardom and, in turn, opportunities to write and direct. He ended up directing 31 episodes of M*A*S*H, most of which he also wrote or co-wrote, and almost all of which are memorable. While the series was still on the air he created a failed pilot, Hickey (1976), a short-lived series, We'll Get By (1975), and both directed and starred (opposite Carol Burnett) in a highly-regarded TV-movie called 6 Rms Riv Vu (1974), an adaptation of a play. At the peak of his popularity as a television actor, he wrote and starred in but did not direct The Seduction of Joe Tynan (1979), then in 1981 wrote, directed, and starred in The Four Seasons, which featured Burnett and Jack Weston, star of Hickey. That movie was a big commercial success, grossing $50 million against a $6.5 million budget.
While M*A*S*H was on hiatus Alda continued taking other acting roles, often to counter his gentle humanist "Hawkeye" Pierce image. He played Caryl W. Chessman in Kill Me If You Can (1977), one of the better TV movies, and gave one of his most enjoyable performances as an excitable, politically conservative philanderer in the delightful Same Time, Next Year (1978).
Shortly after M*A*S*H, Alda returned to writing, directing, and starring in his own movies while continuing to act in other films, most memorably as the obnoxious, self-absorbed TV producer in Woody Allen's Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989). But Alda's later films, Sweet Liberty (1986), A New Life (1988), and Betsy's Wedding (1990), all flopped and he's not directed any since.
A New Life, the story of a married couple in their early 50s divorcing and struggling to restart their lives typifies Alda's own struggles writing and directing features. Like all his films it's sincere and admirably ambitious with particular attention to characterization and inner-personal conflict. Somehow though, it just doesn't quite play as well as you'd think it should, yet there's still more than enough there to keep the viewer interested.
After 26 years of marriage workaholic Wall Street broker Steve Giardino (Alda, sporting a beard and curly hair) and wife Jackie (Ann-Margret) divorce. Steve's trading partner, bachelor Mel (Hal Linden), tries to help Steve back into the Manhattan bar-hopping scene, but Steve only looks foolish and feels ridiculous. Jackie goes back to school, learning sign language and hoping to become a teacher, and soon meets a waiter and aspiring sculptor, "Doc" (John Shea), nearly ten years her junior. Steve, suffering from anxiety-driven heart problems, he falls madly in love with the doctor who treats him, Kay Hutton (Veronica Hamel).
I think the problem with Alda's features as writer-director is that where on M*A*S*H the Korean War setting forced real emotions, exposed like raw nerves, in features Alda inexplicably pulls his punches. He sets up interesting situations but then works through them in unrealistic or superficial ways.
In A New Life Steve and Jackie's marriage ends primarily because he works day and night and has no time for her. After they divorce and Steve meets Kay, and falls madly in love partly because they're more compatible (unlike Jackie, Kay loves basketball as much as he does). This, in turn, inspires him to be more attentive. Old, unattractive habits return a bit, but mostly Kay's love compels Steve to make lifelong changes virtually overnight.
In real life that rarely happens. Most people go from relationship to relationship carrying the same, unattractive baggage they always do. Though not unheard of, the idea of new spouse permanently reversing her partner's decades-old bad habits, even with enormous effort, seems na´ve.
Alda was famous and vocal during the '70s and '80s for his pro-feminist views and, interestingly, while all of the men in A New Life have serious behavioral problems (including Mel, who's a kind of pathetic womanizer), all of the women are guiltless in the various conflicts. Kay, for instance, is a busy doctor at a hospital, which would suggest that Kay and Steve might have difficulty finding and synchronizing their time together. Couldn't she have been a little selfish with her time as he once was? When Kay decides she wants to have Steve's baby, couldn't she have made unreasonable demands on Steve so that she could return to work soon after the baby is born? Instead, the contrived plot has Steve adamantly resisting supporting through attendance Kay's prenatal procedures and classes, Steve having fainted during her amniocentesis test. His passive resistance appears to be a manifestation of a reluctance to raise another child in his middle age, but in the movie he simply acts like a jerk, though predictably he steps up to the plate when the time comes.
Jackie's story is a bit more realistic and less predictable, if less interesting overall. She becomes involved with waiter-sculptor Doc, who at first seems too good to be true: the younger, handsome, super-attentive boyfriend inexhaustibly supportive of everything she does. But quickly she finds this attentiveness suffocating and controlling. In the film's best dialogue she complains, "You're constantly watching me and questioning me and examining me!"
"That's what you do when you care about someone!" protests Doc.
"No," she replies, "That's what you do when you take a hostage!"
Instead, in a good scene, she comes to realize that being actively loved and attended to isn't as important to her as she thought it was. Instead, she's surprised to find comfort learning instead how to be alone.
Little moments like this almost redeem the film. At a party Steve and his adult daughter (played by the director's real-life daughter Beatrice Alda), happily discuss Kay's pregnancy. Then, to his surprise, she gently cautions him to "spend more time with this one."
It's also refreshing to see a big studio film in which the main characters are a man and woman about 50 and about their mid-life crises. No wonder the 18-to-24-year-olds stayed away. (Alda's next film, the Father of the Bride-like Betsy's Wedding tries to rectify this but has similar issues.)
The film is set in New York but much of it was actually filmed in Toronto, though the deception here is much better than most such productions. The performances are all fine - Alda was always good with actors - and the cast includes former M*A*S*H writer and actress Mary Kay Place as Jackie's friend. With her wavy blonde hairstyle I spent most of the movie thinking I was looking at Bette Midler.
Video & Audio
I've never cared for the look of most '80s Hollywood cinematography, which to my eyes tended to be softer and grainier at once, faster film at the expense of gloss and detail. A New Life, in 1.78:1 format from its original 1.85:1, certainly looks better than theatrical prints did but it's still not the kind of thing to have kept a worried Jack Cardiff up late at night. This had to have been one of the last major studio films released in mono audio but that's what she is. The DTS-HD Master Audio does what it can - the jazz-influenced Bach-heavy score benefits slightly - but there's not much there. No other audio or subtitle options, and no Extra Features.
Twenty-five years after its release, A New Life is practically a relic, a dated (mostly) drama by an undeniable major talent who thrived on TV but who never quite made it writing and directing features. And, yet, there's still just enough there that it's hard not to watch even as it disappoints. Recommended.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes film history books, DVD and Blu-ray audio commentaries and special features. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.