Wives and Lovers (1963)
Directed by John Rich
Starring: Janet Leigh, Van Johnson, Shelley Winters, Martha Hyer, Ray Walston, Jeremy Slate
* Published specifically for The Fourth Van Johnson Blogathon hosted by Michaela at Love Letters to Old Hollywood *
Bill and Bertie Austin (Van Johnson and Janet Leigh) are a thirty-something married couple with everything ahead of them… whenever it will come.
For the past two and a half years, they have been living in a small, run-down apartment on 87th Street in New York City. The sketchy neighbourhood is deemed unsatisfactory for their 7-year-old daughter, Julie, who spends most of her time watching television. What was at first supposed to be a temporary arrangement has become unbearably the norm. While Bertie is content in her job as a dental assistant, Bill is fed up with being a kept husband and “dad who stays at home all day”. Although he has written 23 stories and 1 novel, Bill has not been able to sell any of his work. Instead, his efforts are reduced to writing recipes for cookbooks – until a stroke of luck comes the Austin’s way.
One evening, publicist Lucinda Ford (Martha Hyer) comes over to announce that Bill’s novel has been purchased by Holliman House to be featured as their August novel of the month. Not only that, a studio has picked up the option on the book and wishes to make it into a film with Bill writing the script. All of this turns into a tremendous payday that amounts $390,000 (superior to $3.3 million in today’s money) and this promises to just be the beginning of a prosperous career. The family immediately leaves NYC for Connecticut where they have purchased a luxurious home, complete with a maid. They quickly become friends with their next door neighbours, Fran Cabrell and Wiley Driberg (Shelley Winters and Ray Walston), who have kindly offered them use of their pool so that Julie can learn how to swim.
The Austins gradually settle into their new life but we quickly see the rift forming between Bill, who is blinded by money, and Bertie, who feels out of place. Things do not get any easier as Bill spends increased amounts of time working with Lucinda since she has a chequered reputation when it comes to men, particularly male clients. To complicate matters, a famous movie star named Gar Aldrich (Jeremy Slate), tries his best to manipulate Bertie by seducing and stealing her away from Bill. Can this once innocent, mild-mannered couple survive such trials and tribulations?
Thoughts & Discussion
Wives and Lovers is not your typical, clean romantic comedy from the era of classic cinema, especially the ones for which Van Johnson was known. It was made at a time when the Hays Code was becoming less relevant and its enforcement was on the outs. As a result, more provocative, daring projects were being made and getting approval from censors for distribution. This film in particular openly pushes the boundaries of political correctness by mocking the lifestyle and behaviours of those within coveted Hollywood social circles. Much more than a mere farce, the picture has the overwhelming overtone of a satire that roasts the movie industry in its own juice. Some of the dialogue is still so daring in nature that it really makes you wonder how such sharp-tongued language got to stay in the script. That, however, is to our benefit because it makes the film all the more enjoyable since much of the humour is still relevant.
For anyone who has followed Hollywood gossip for any length of time, it is easy to establish some typical stereotypes based on relationships and the effect of fame. Each main character has a specific demeanour that is relatable to these generalisations.
Bill: He is an overnight success who immediately becomes blinded by money and keeping up appearances. Everything has to be BIG. His ineptness leads to moments of comic relief because he purchases luxury items that he does not know how to maintain (a vintage car) or even manipulate (a modern sound system). Added to that is his growing temptation to fool around with his publicist, partially out of sheer desire and partially out of the belief that that sort of conduct comes with “the territory”.
Bertie: Before Bill’s newfound prestige, she had more independence by getting out of the house for work. As soon as they move to Connecticut, she takes a backseat to Bill in every way possible. Not only did she give up a career for him, she becomes a neglected wife and seemingly single mother. This marital abandonment makes her appear as vulnerable bait for other men.
Bertie: “Don’t you like being an actor?”
Gar: “Absolutely not. It forces me to lead a ridiculous public life.”
Fran: She is a former first wife who was later traded in by her superstar husband for a newer, younger model. Hefty alimony payments allow her to still live a high-class lifestyle. Her attitude towards her ex-husband remains sour but she uses her bad experience to help Bertie when things start going south in her marriage. It also helps that she still knows pretty much everyone in showbiz.
Lucinda: “Down the Hatch!”
Fran: “An anatomically accurate description if I ever heard one.”
– “Lucinda knows how to massage all the studio heads.”
– “Just that game of musical beds they play out there (Hollywood).”
Wylie: Although he is passed off as Fran’s gardener or even just someone living in the guest house, Wylie is Fran’s live-in lover. His labelling is not related to bad publicity; it is an after-effect of Fran’s divorce due to her lack of trust in men and need to retain control of a relationship. He is the notable exception to the others in that he is not exactly your usual pool boy-style kept man.
Wiley to Julie:
“Sweetie, your trouble is you’re 36 years old and everybody else is 7 and ¾.”
Lucinda: The ever ambitious dragon lady who goes through men like a box of assorted chocolates. She is immune to emotional commitments, thinking only of her career and how she can boost her clientele in order to pocket a generous 10% commission. Work and rubbing elbows with the rich and famous comes before all else. Nothing deters her from bedding a man she desires. She is completely clueless when it comes to children.
Gar: In his head, he is the most attractive and talented man in the universe. No woman can possibly refuse his advances, especially since the experience will most certainly improve their lives. His masks his lack of intelligence with an unwavering sense of entitlement not to mention a monstrous ego.
Gar to Bertie:
“You must never let yourself get agitated over previous… uh, commitments, or you simply won’t have any friends.
You’re a delicious, dirty girl, aren’t you?”
“I’m terribly sorry but I couldn’t let him hit me in the face. I’ve got $7500 worth of caps on my teeth.
Well, Bertie, I can’t really see that much has changed for us. Of course, he’ll have to make some adjustment. You’re my dirty girl now. We’ll have to go steady.”
It may seem as if the behaviour and language of the characters are exaggerated but they largely paint an accurate portrayal of those in the motion picture industry. Money and an elevated social status change people and usually not for the better. Heads become inflated, senses of reality are lost, and couples/families can greatly suffer. In the case of the Austins, a once solid marriage becomes cracked and their young daughter’s care/well-being is put on the shoulders of the maid. They are set up for failure. Luckily, though, the Austin family manages to make everything right again at the end of the film. So while the bulk of the film is pretty realistic, the cherry topped ending is something you only find in fairytales – and Tinseltown.
The only thing that puzzles me about the film is why the influence and constant presence of the paparazzi is never mentioned. Rag mag tabloids have always been around in the entertainment world. Many of them were dedicated to the goings-on in Hollywood but others also talked about the New York scene. Imagine the panel of What’s My Line? not having any information to go on in order to “guess” the identity of their mystery celebrity guests. Thanks to the papers, they knew exactly who was in town… and why… and with whom. Everything was under a microscope.
Now, by the early 1960’s, celebrated – and equally despised – gossip columnists Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons were nearly the end of their careers and were no longer as relevant or as influential as they had been in the heyday of the Golden Age of Hollywood. The controversial magazine Confidential had also lost much of its lustre after several high-profile lawsuits brought against them, costing them tens of millions of dollars (the value back then) in judgement payments. Despite all of this, the public’s desire for information on their favourite stars never faded. Wouldn’t Gar’s fans simply be dying to know which fair lady had caught his eye, likely being scandalised to learn that it was a married woman? Wouldn’t the studio which bought Bill’s novel be worried about him cavorting around town at all hours of the night with Lucinda? Wouldn’t all of the characters be weary of photogs catching them in a sticky situation? It certainly makes you wonder!
Van Johnson & Co.
This film marks the third pairing of Van and Janet Leigh after 1947’s The Romance of Rosy Ridge and 1953’s Confidentially Connie. They worked well together and were good friends off-screen, just as Van had been with other frequent co-stars like June Allyson and Esther Williams. From 1955 onward, which marked his departure from MGM, Van appeared in less romantic comedies and branched out into other genres like thrillers and film noir. His song and dance days were not completely behind him but he did get to show off his acting chops, even receiving some of the best reviews of his career post-MGM.
Much like in Brigadoon and Easy to Love, Van plays a moody kind of guy who seems to be bothered at the drop of a hat. He does not have a forced mid-Atlantic accent but rather speaks with a pronounced north-eastern accent that seems to perfectly emphasise his frustrations. I get the impression that Van was acting a lot like his own self in this film and really felt this in certain scenes with little Claire Wilcox who played Julie, such as when she painstakingly proceeded to eat a peanut butter and jelly sandwich with all the elements separated onto different plates. After reading Van’s biography as well as books written by stepson Ned Wynn and daughter Schuyler Johnson, it was clear to me that Van was not always the easiest man with whom to get along. His reaction to Julie being finicky was almost certainly how he reacted to his own daughter. Even though I am conscious of the unbalanced lifestyle that Van led – his dysfunctional childhood, his hidden homosexuality, his arraigned marriage to Evie, his estrangement from family – I cannot help but to still adore him as a thespian. He was a brilliant man who made a definitive mark in cinema and later on in the theatre. It is also thanks to Schuyler that I was able to embrace Van as a person, with all his good points as well as his faults, because she was able to forgive him and continue to promote his legacy out of the pride she has for her father. Does Van shine in this film? He sure does. He is quick-witted and gives a terrific, lively performance.
Amazing me the most is how none of the players miss a beat when it comes to perfectly delivering their dialogue. You would think that they had performed this as a theatrical play for a number of years before it was made into a film, à la Harvey. There were times when I would immediately re-watch a scene just to re-live the interactions between the characters. The bulk of stinging commentary was given to Shelley Winters who was up there in the leagues of Eve Arden and Thelma Ritter as Fran, whose cynicism was divinely mouth-watering. She also shared good chemistry with Janet and I could not help but wonder if the two shared some not-so-complimentary talk about Tony Curtis. Janet had just divorced Tony less than a year before filming took place and considering that Shelley disliked the self-proclaimed American Prince (and likewise), I am sure they had plenty to talk about.
Watching the trailer for Wives and Lovers prepared me for a completely different film than what I ended up seeing. I had expected a frisky sex comedy with Van Johnson trying to balance life between having a wife and a couple of mistresses. My guess is that Paramount was trying to heighten Van’s masculine appeal to those now grown-up bobby-soxers who had once swooned over him as schoolgirls. Although the trailer was not very accurate in previewing the story, I was nicely surprised with the film and really enjoyed watching it. Happy viewing! 🙂