Last night Charles and I watched a movie that had somehow eluded me before even though I’d certainly heard of it — for some reason, it was a major hit when new — the original 1972 version of The Heartbreak Kid, based on a story by Bruce Jay Friedman called “A Change of Plan” which Neil Simon, of all people, adapted into a screenplay (most of Simon’s films were either adaptations of his plays or stories he write directly for the screen; this is a rare instance of him writing a screenplay based on a story by someone else) and Elaine May, formerly of the comedy team of Mike Nichols and Elaine May, directed. By 1972 Nichols was a “name” director with major hits like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, The Graduate and Carnal Knowledge under his belt (along with a major flop, the star-crossed 1970 film of Joseph Heller’s 1962 World War II satire Catch-22) and May was trying to catch up. Her first film, A New Leaf, starring Walter Matthau, hadn’t done badly at the box office but hadn’t done especially well, either. Turner Classic Movies was showing The Heartbreak Kid as part of “Trailblazing Women,” their series on women film directors, which had begun last Thursday night with a program of women who’d directed in the silent era. One was Alice Guy-Blaché, who began at the Gaumont studios in the late 19th century, continued to 1920 and, though she wasn’t a technical pioneer (her films were still static tableaux in which the cameras didn’t move or cut within a scene the way D. W. Griffith’s did), did demand an understated acting style; her studio had a sign reading, “Be natural,” and the one moment in her program when an actor did lapse into the kind of arm-over-head swooning most people who’ve never seen a silent film all the way through think they were all acted like — when the actor playing Judas in her 34-minute biopic of Jesus from 1906 has to react to Jesus at the Last Supper saying to his apostles, “One of you will betray me,” it stands out like a sore thumb. They also showed the 1921 film The Blot by director Lois Weber, a genuinely formidable filmmaker whom critics at the time thought would never be forgotten, even though the only film of hers I’d seen previously — her greatest hit, Where Are Your Children? from 1916 (starring Tyrone Power’s father) — was a strident anti-abortion propaganda piece, rather un-P.C. for feminist critics today. The Blot was also a propaganda piece, denouncing how shabbily teachers and ministers get paid compared to other professionals, and featured Louis Calhern (of all people!) as the romantic lead, a spoiled rich kid who romances the daughter of a poor professor and, of course, turns around his attitude, and it was a quite impressive piece of filmmaking. After that they showed the 1920 film The Love Light, written and directed by Frances Marion and starring her mentor, Mary Pickford, as a girl in a small Italian village during World War I; when Charles and I watched it earlier (as part of another TCM tribute to unjustly forgotten women directors) I’d thought it almost impossibly melodramatic — if I hadn’t known the director and writer were the same person, I’d have thought she was working her ass off as director to town down the excesses of the script she’d been given — but this time around seemed better (and it anticipated Rex Ingram’s Mare Nostrum by five years in having the central character get snookered into a spy plot that ends up with the death of a family member — her brother in The Love Light, the hero’s son in Mare Nostrum).
The Heartbreak Kid is an interesting movie but I’m not sure I like it. Though it was made in 1972 it has a common failing with a lot of recent movies: there’s really no one in the dramatis personae we actually like. It opens with the wedding day of hot-shot athletic gear salesman Leonard “Lenny” Cantrow (Charles Grodin) and Lila Kolodny (played by Elaine May’s real-life daughter, Jeannie Berlin), a sort-of traditional Jewish ceremony (though the “glass” the groom stomps on and breaks at the end of the ceremony is actually a Dixie cup, which is hardly the same but at least is considerably safer), following which they drive down the East Coast from their home in New York to the resort hotel in Florida where they plan to spend the honeymoon. Only the first day of their trip, Lila stays out in the sun too long, blows off Lenny’s warnings that she should be wearing sunscreen (this was beginning to sound like Charles and me!) and ends up with a humongous sunburn that makes her so unpresentable in polite company that Lenny decrees she must spend the next few days holed up in her room with nothing to do but watch TV. The next day Lenny goes to the beach — and finds a gorgeous blonde woman, Kelly Corcoran (Cybill Shepherd), standing over him insisting, “You’re in my spot.” It’s lust at first sight for Lenny, and he spends the next few days trying to get in as much face (and other parts) time with Kelly as he can while palming Lila off with an increasingly preposterous set of excuses — he went out to visit an old Army buddy (he was in the Army for three years but because of a bad back never actually saw combat), they were in a car crash, he was in the emergency room for hours and then had to spend the day testifying in court (and when Lila wonders how he got such a great suntan on a day he was supposedly indoors all day, he says there were a lot of recesses during which he sunbathed). He also meets Kelly’s parents; her mom (Audra Lindley) likes him but her dad (Eddie Albert) reads him as a phony the first thing and issues a series of increasingly dire threats in case he ever sees Lenny in his or his daughter’s presence ever again. Nonetheless, he’s so convinced he made a mistake in marrying Lila and so desperate to get Kelly he takes Lila to dinner and tells her he has bad news for her — she thinks he’s got a terminal illness and, when she finally realizes he’s telling her he wants out of their marriage, of course she wants to throw up — and sees an attorney friend to have the marriage annulled. In the second act (given Simon’s day job as a playwright, it’s obvious he was still thinking in terms of curtains) Lenny has actually come to Kelly’s home town in Minnesota and shows up at her home to resume his courtship of her. Dad is still pissed at him — when Lenny asks him if it’s O.K. for him to date his daughter, dad says, “Not if they tied me to a horse and pulled me forty miles by my tongue” — but Lenny is such a good salesperson and is so dementedly determined that he manages to get Kelly away from her dad and both the boyfriends she’s been dating at college, and there’s a full-dress church wedding ceremony followed by an ambiguous ending in which we’re not sure Lenny will finally be happy with the shiksa of his wet dreams or he’ll be dumping her as soon as his roving eye roves on to someone else.
TCM was showing this as part of a tribute to women directors and complaining about their relative neglect — the two rather pretentious women hosting the screening claimed that Elaine May’s next film was the mega-flop Ishtar and argued that she wasn’t allowed to direct again because “women aren’t allowed to have flops,” but in fact May made a notorious movie between them, Mikey and Nicky, a gangster comedy with Peter Falk whose post-production stretched out over five years because May made the mistake of recording the soundtrack on two separate machines and then had the devil’s own time trying to synchronize them (at one film festival May ruefully told the audience that she was taking so long on the film not because it was so fantastically complicated but “I’m just trying to get it so you can hear it”), and that was a technical boner that would have been enough to deter even the least sexist producer in Hollywood from hiring her. But it seems to me the Zeitgeist of The Heartbreak Kid was determined less by its director being a woman than the original story writer, the screenwriter and the director all being Jews. In some ways it anticipates Woody Allen’s serio-comic masterpieces of the late 1970’s and 1980’s — Annie Hall, Manhattan, Hannah and Her Sisters — in their comic clashes between Jews and goyim and the mutual incomprehension between the Jewish and non-Jewish worlds, except that May was traversing this territory well before Allen was and doing it in a considerably grimmer and less ironic way. There’s also a good deal of Philip Roth in this story — the Jewish guy who can’t make it with a girl from his own tribe but goes wild with lust at the thought of bedding a shiksa — a scenario we’ve seen not only in other fiction but real life as well (it seems to have been what drove the sexual/political downfalls of Jewish-American politicians Elliot Spitzer, Anthony Weiner and Bob Filner) — and one of the most impressive aspects of the film is the careful counterpointing of the Jewish wedding at the beginning at the Christian wedding at the end. (Charles noted the irony that at the Jewish wedding they’re playing the Lohengrin wedding march by the anti-Semitic Richard Wagner, and at the Christian one they’re playing the Midsummer Night’s Dream wedding march by the Lutheran but Jewish-descended Felix Mendelssohn.) The two women hosts mentioned a remake of The Heartbreak Kid from 2007, made by a male director and starring Ben Stiller, and said that the male filmmaker had stacked the deck against the Jewish (first) wife much more than May and Simon had, including making her parents fat (thereby suggesting that she would end up this way as well), which was ironic given that throughout the movie I’d been doing a Production Code-era version in my head in which the man would realize he was making a big mistake and realize he’d be better off with the woman he had married originally. In fact, quite frankly, that’s how I would have wanted to see it end!