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Diary of a Mad Housewife
The darkly funny Diary of a Mad Housewife was somewhat unsurprisingly the final film from married filmmaking team Eleanor and Frank Perry (David and Lisa, The Swimmer). The film was released in 1970; the couple were divorced and creatively went their separate ways in 1971.
Based on a popular novel by Sue Kaufman, the film describes the dissatisfaction of Upper West Side housewife Tina Balser (Carrie Snodgress). Reportedly, the book is composed (as advertised) like a journal, but the film avoids typical diaristic devices like voice-over and instead puts us in Tina's headspace simply through the placement of the camera and the construction of its scenes.
From the first scene, we are on Tina's side, as her awful and self-involved husband Jonathan (Richard Benjamin) criticizes her for how she behaves and how she looks and how lazy she is. Snodgress is as eloquent at communicating her character with no dialogue as Benjamin is with pages of words. It's immediately apparent that Jonathan is a social climber, who sees his wife as only an employee -- or worse, a prop -- who can be utilized in his quest for greater power and popularity.
Benjamin perfectly nails the spirit of a tiny tyrant, who wields his meager power over his wife, but is seemingly unaware that no one else in the world bothers themselves with him. Even better, Benjamin unselfconsciously makes Jonathan's verbal affectations into the most unconscionable atrocities against humanity, whether it's the way he whinily refers to his wife Tina as "Teen," his abuse of the upper crust swear word "bloody," or -- most unbearably -- his would-be cutesy requests to "roll in the hay." An Italian waiter speaks for us all when, after a frustrating back-and-forth with Jonathan, he turns to an also clearly beleaguered Tina and simply offers, "Coraggio."
Tina just takes the abuse, though. From Jonathan, from their precociously snobby young daughters, even from the man with which she starts having an affair. Frank Langella -- looking far dreamier than viewers who know Langella best from his later work as villainous bureaucrats and Richard Nixon would expect -- is writer George Prager, a very '70s New York literary figure who seems to meld the erudition of John Updike with the macho bullshit of Norman Mailer. George picks Tina up at a party by essentially negging her -- meanwhile, her husband Jonathan could not be more thrilled that Tina is mingling with a famous person.
George and Tina connect over the fact that they have fantastic sex. Director Perry films their encounters in tight close-ups that suggest their combined heat more than they actually portray anything. George says he doesn't want any attachments, just fun sex. Tina agrees. Both of them play it cool, though there seems to be more affection there than either will admit.
Snodgress picked up a Golden Globe and an Oscar nomination for her performance. As suggested by the participants on Kino's Blu-ray commentary (see Special Features below), it's a performance not unlike Dustin Hoffman's in The Graduate. Snodgress was a virtual nobody at time, and she brings an everywoman quality to her performance, which makes it easier to stomach when the character doesn't turn into a movie superhero. She doesn't bash her rotten husband in the head with a frying pan. She doesn't kick her overbearing boyfriend in the dick. She just absorbs the emotional blows, adrift like Benjamin Braddock floating in his parent's pool.
The very ending of the film gently intimates that what we have just seen might have been brought to us by an unreliable narrator, but it makes little difference in how we feel about Tina. Her pain, especially as Snodgress feels it (and, to some extent, as screenwriter Eleanor Perry feels it), is real enough.
The AVC-encoded 1080p 1.85:1 presentation hasn't been picked clean of dirt and debris, but there's no major damage. Image is stable with a grainy, filmic look. Lighting and colors are fairly soft, although fine detail is strongly reproduced.
No major complaints from the DTS-HD MA 2.0 mono audio. It's a little quiet and not a showstopper, but this seems like a clear and accurate reproduction of the soundtrack. English subtitles are available; I noticed during a brief sampling, the person doing the transcript skipped over some of Richard Benjamin's "bloody"s, which kind of ruins the effect. Ah, well.
- A spirited discussion of the film that rarely refers to what is happening onscreen, but veers off into interesting tangents like a lengthy one on the additional scenes exclusive to the officially unavailable TV edit of the film (as well as Universal's TV edits of various films and the unusual business of "director's cuts"). It's like a really good film podcast that you can leave on whether you're re-watching the movie or not.
Diary of a Mad Housewife hasn't been on home video since the VHS days, so it's a rare pleasure to see it now on Blu-ray. The combination of a sharp script, perfectly calibrated performances, and understated but stylish direction make this a special experience. Highly Recommended.
Justin Remer is a filmmaker, oddball musician, and frequent wearer of beards. His new holiday single, Oh Hanukkah / Last Night of Hanukkah, is now available to stream or download on Bandcamp, Spotify, Amazon, Apple, and wherever else fine music is enjoyed.