Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Another Woman’s Husband (Hearst Entertainment/Lifetime, 2000)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Another Woman’s Husband, a 2000 film from Hearst Entertainment shown on the Lifetime channel and being pretty much the sort of thing you could guess at from the title and the source. Directed by Noel Nosseck (any relation to Max Nosseck, director of the 1945 Dillinger? didn’t say) from a script by Susan Arnout Smith based on a novel with the rather bland title Swimming Lessons by Anna Tuttle Villegas and Lynette Hugo, Another Woman’s Husband was obviously retitled to let Lifetime’s audiences know exactly what they could expect, and it delivers: swimming instructor Susan Miller (Gail O’Grady) works at a community center, where most of her students are senior citizens (including Charlotte Rae from the late 1970’s/early 1980’s TV series The Facts of Life).

She was born when her mother was 16 and already “playing around” with various men; her mother, Roxie (a marvelously slatternly performance by Sally Kirkland), was already leading a multiple-partner sexual lifestyle when she had Susan and never stopped, making it seem like she did her a big favor by having her and keeping her instead of farming her out to a relative. As a result, Susan went in the other direction, latching on to the first remotely suitable piece of husband material she could find — who was Johnny Miller (Dale Midkiff, darker-haired than the usual Lifetime leading man but otherwise cast pretty much according to type: tall, lanky and reasonably handsome without being drop-dead gorgeous), a fellow student in high school. Susan turned down an athletic scholarship and a chance at the U.S. Olympic swimming team to go to the local state college with Johnny and marry him, and when the movie starts they’ve been together 10 years.

The film cuts between Susan’s life and that of Laurel McArthur (Lisa Rinna), a psychologist with a deathly fear of water — she acquired it during her childhood when her younger brother drowned at a beach while she was supposed to be watching him — and at first we’re not sure what linkage these two stories have until we see Johnny enter the picture, meeting Laurel, calling himself “Jake” and offering her a dinner invitation. Wifey thinks hubby is doing a lot of out-of-town business trips (which he is, or at least was when his eyes started to wander), and the two women meet when “Jake” invites Laurel to go with him on a trip to the Bahamas, she decides that she needs to overcome her aversion to swimming first, and guess whom she goes to in order to learn to swim? That’s right, the wife of the guy she’s having an affair with, though of course she doesn’t know that — yes, this is one of those stories in which two women are, unbeknownst to each other, involved with the same man, and most of the suspense lies in waiting for how they’re going to find out and what’s going to happen when they do.

Before that they even compare notes on the men in their lives — marveling over them having the same last name but not getting that they are the same person since he’s given different forms of his first name — and at first Jake has told Laurel he’s already divorced his previous wife, and it’s only midway through the relationship that Jake sort-of confesses he’s still married. Meanwhile Susan has caught on that Johnny is having an affair because she found his wedding ring, which he stopped wearing and told her had been stolen, in a drawer with some of his things — and he admits the affair but doesn’t tell her with whom.

Johnny tells Susan he wants a separation and Susan at first refuses; Susan confesses that she’s been taking birth-control pills throughout their relationship even though he wanted them to have a child (she says that after her own dysfunctional upbringing she doesn’t trust herself to be a mother); and the final disclosure happens when Al, one of Susan’s students, accidentally drowns after having a heart attack in the community center swimming pool where Susan teaches, she, Johnny and Laurel all attend the funeral, and a marvelous little bit of direction by Nosseck shows Johnny bending over when Laurel arrives so she doesn’t see his face at first — then she does, realizes he’s with Susan and that her best friend is the woman whose husband she’s been having her affair with, and breaks it off. Susan feels betrayed by both her husband and her friend — and by now we feel pretty betrayed by the husband ourselves; he’s clearly an asshole who doesn’t deserve any consideration at all and we can’t help but want both these women to be rid of him — and an interesting twist in the script has Susan go through with her marital breakup but salvage her friendship with Laurel, whom she’s decided is more important than Johnny as a source of emotional support. (One practically expects them to decide they’ve had enough of men, move in together and become Lesbians.)

Another Woman’s Husband is for the most part as banal and obvious as its title, but it’s got one saving grace: a marvelous performance by Gail O’Grady. Even before she speaks, we see by her posture that she’s a closed-in person, holding a lot inside and restraining herself physically and emotionally — the former she can sublimate by working with her senior citizens in the pool, the latter has clearly stunted her — and Susan Arnout Smith has given her some marvelous role-reversal scenes with Sally Kirkland as Rosie: one early on in which Rosie and her boyfriend de jour Al (Michael Kagan), a repulsive hail-fellow-well-met type, can’t wait for this bothersome person to leave so they can get to the down ’n’ dirty (while Susan is acting just like the stereotypical censorious parent who can’t bear to leave her daughter and the daughter’s boyfriend alone because she knows what they’ll be doing as soon as she absents herself), and another one later in the game in which Roxie has picked up a much younger man, Mark (Bill Ferrell), and Susan shows up for a confrontation with mom (one she’s literally been waiting all her life for the chance to have!) and scares Mark away when she responds to his “Who are you?” by spitting out, all righteous moral indignation and fervor, “I’m her daughter!”

Mom panics — “I had you really early! Tell him! You’ve got to back me up!,” while a quizzical and repulsed Mark just goes, “How old are you?,” on his way out the door in a tizzy of disgust. Even the clichéd scene in which Laurel takes Susan on a shopping trip to get her out of the drab clothes she’s been wearing all movie — and Susan makes a sudden appearance in an electric blue dress, showing a cleavage and wearing her hair down for the first time in the film — somehow works because O’Grady carries it off with perfect conviction and we’re not thinking, “Oh, not that old plot gimmick.” We’re heaving sighs of relief that this person we’ve grown to like has finally taken a key step out of her self-imposed straitjacket of misery. O’Grady’s performance here deserved better than this sporadically interesting but also awfully predictable script, but even as it stands she makes Another Woman’s Husband much more worth watching than one would guess from the abysmal title and the predictable, clichéd plot.