Diary of a Mad Housewife
Director: Frank Perry. Cast: Carrie Snodgress, Richard Benjamin, Frank Langella. Screenplay: Eleanor Perry (based on the novel by Sue Kaufman).

Who knows what to make of this film in the late 1990s, when its pleas for companionship and parity within a marriage obviously still seem necessary to reward, but which stacks the deck against its heroine with such a preposterously unfeeling and insensitive husband that the scenario seems almost too exaggerated, too stylized to be believed? In other words, was it really this bad for women in 1970? And if the most likely answer is the right one—that for some women at least, it was this bad—what were the attendant circumstances beyond the essential miscommunication between the sexes that could produce such untenable relationships?

Carrie Snodgress is dynamite in her breakthrough role, though the fact that she never actually "broke through" to anything substantial afterward lends her excellence here an extra aura of sadness it could not have had when the film first opened. She plays Tina Balser, an upper-middle-class New York City wife whose husband Jonathan (Richard Benjamin) essentially consigns her to a role like those of the circus attendants who follow the elephants around and tidy up their droppings. Tina's suffocation and frustration reach new depths when Jonathan takes on ambitions to join the urban jet-set of literati and financial speculators, which is the only explanation for why she would begin an affair with George (Frank Langella), a grotesquely self-absorbed writer whose first conversation with Tina is a barrage of criticisms and who never appreciably elevates himself above such bullying behavior.

If the liaison seems implausible, it's nothing compared to Benjamin's shrill over-playing of the egomaniacal Jonathan, a caricature of sexism painted so broadly that the film threatens to do more harm than good: stylizing and exaggerating men's assaults on female independence and self-consciousness to such an extreme that an impressionable viewer could reasonably dismiss the whole set-up as histrionic and ignore the movie's valuable insights into power structures and domestic imprisonment. It is not coincidental, given her inhumanly unattractive costars, that Snodgress has her greatest moments in scenes that involve neither man: namely, her interactions with her daughters, who have been raised to believe their father's estimations of Tina's incompetence and spaciness; her tense confrontations with snobbish party guests; and the stoic way she meets the hugely disparate reactions her self-narrated story generates among a group-therapy audience, different members of which congratulate her liberated impulses and damn her for hypocrisy and manipulative behavior.

Diary of a Mad Housewife has real and pressing things to say, but a stilted and distorted voice in which to say them. As a result, the film has probably seen its greatest role to be that of inspiring subsequent more probing dramas like the 70s-set The Ice Storm, from which Joan Allen admitted to watching Diary several times to understand the spirit of her own jilted-wife character. Clearly, Frank and Eleanor Perry's film has things to teach people, but it is too heavy-handed to convert those audiences most in need of hearing and processing its lessons. C+


Academy Award Nominations:
Best Actress: Carrie Snodgress

Golden Globe Nominations and Winners:
Best Picture (Musical/Comedy)
Best Actress (Musical/Comedy): Carrie Snodgress
Best Actor (Musical/Comedy): Richard Benjamin
Most Promising Newcomer (Female): Carrie Snodgress
Most Promising Newcomer (Male): Frank Langella

Other Awards:
National Board of Review: Best Supporting Actor (Langella; also cited for The Twelve Chairs)

Permalink Home ABC Blog E-Mail