Posted by Moira Finnie on September 16, 2009
Melancholia! Sex! The New Deal! Alcoholism! Brooding Artists! Swedish Modern Furniture! Psychoanalysis! Contraception! Lesbians! The Abraham Lincoln Brigade! The La Leche League! Cocktail Parties! The Theatre with a capital “T”!
The Group (1966-Sidney Lumet) had it all, dear readers, in spades.
At this distance, the gulf between personal and public faces and the political skirmishes touched on in this movie between Trotskyites, Stalinists, socialists and the battle of the sexes seems even more long ago and far away than it must have appeared in the 1960s. Still, I couldn’t help being drawn into the story, thanks largely to the talented cast and the sometimes uneven but breezy, episodic nature of the movie.
I also remembered that this may have been one of the first “adult” movies I was aware of as a kid. You couldn’t miss it. Producer Charles K. Feldman, an old Hollywood hand, drummed up enormous publicity for the book and movie. Every time Esquire, Look or Life magazine landed on our coffee table, there seemed to be one more inevitable article about The Making of The Group, with special focus on the youthful and talented actresses chosen to play in the edgy film, along with one stunning 19 year old model who happened to have grown up in Hollywood, Candice Bergen, but who had no idea what she was getting into as an actress, even though she was asked to play an icy, enigmatic figure well beyond her own limited experience at the time.
I suppose it was one of the first times I realized that movies could spark so much friction in social discourse. The novel that it was based on was also in our house, as were the other books of the talented if tart-tongued author. Having read most of her work, I was always hoping to check out the film version, though I have to admit that I haven’t read any of this now nearly forgotten writer’s work in over a decade.
Finally seeing this once groundbreaking movie on TCM for the first time recently, I’m now glad that most of the alumni notices that come in the mail for me are filed in the recycling bin–pronto. Sure, I’m still in touch with some beloved individuals from the old gang from school, but this movie renewed my faith in keeping in touch–at a distance. My slightly jaundiced view of the good old days of college may have been influenced by this movie, which reflected only a portion of the blistering caricatures of her peers that writer Mary McCarthy put on paper in her best-selling novel, which was much more frank than this movie. The novel was published in 1963 to scandalous notices for its frankness and its author’s sharp assessment of her generation, focusing on a gaggle of golden girls as they came of age between 1933 and 1940. When McCarthy transferred her own dispassionate, satirical but barely fictionalized view of her former Vassar classmates to paper she applied the same rigorous evaluations of their flawed character that she normally reserved for her critiques of politics and prose in the more daunting periodicals of her time. In tackling this massive story, it seemed that Sidney Lumet, making one of his earlier big budget movies, adopted a similarly cool approach to the then ticklish aspects of the story which was being told just as the production code disintegrated for good. Glossy, sometimes funny, at other moments teetering near melodrama, and yet often curiously flat, the film seemed to be a parody made for an audience of intellectual New Yorkers who read The Partisan Review and New York Review of Books before Woody Allen got up a head of steam. Like her fellow writers, John Cheever and John Updike, McCarthy was a brilliant short story writer, adding a precise woman’s voice to the masculine chorus by capturing the feel of the period and the quiet truths learned or sidestepped by her educated characters between the wars with just a few words and incidents. Like Cheever and Updike, however, she too felt obligated to tackle that “great American novel” to prove her mettle along with the boys, resulting in The Group in the early ’60s. Too bad. Earlier stories such as “The Man in the Brooks Brothers Suit” created intimate portraits of piercing insight into the spiritual and political drift that she saw in her upper class characters, many of whom were drawn from her own life. Elaborating further on this same dearth of purpose and lack of self-knowledge in The Group, McCarthy’s satirical observations of her own college classmates’s foibles and pretensions drew blood from this same vein but I think it got away from her, just as the subject proved fairly ungainly for Stanley Lumet too. In his exceptionally honest book, Making Movies (Knopf, 1995), Lumet mentions that he had a tendency to “work so intensely on something meant to be light in spirit”. That may be one of the reasons why in this movie, which “needed the kind of comic madness which turns to tragedy” to bring it to life on screen, that satiric tone is attempted but never quite comes off–though there are moments that are both funny and sad. (One of these occurs when a peripheral character played by Carrie Nye‘s nimbly skewered a Group member’s sheltered world view). The look of the film was also problematical for me. Not only did few of the actresses have marcelled hair, (most had some pretty big ’60s ‘dos), nor did they wear hats and gloves as they would have in the period, but the color in this film, which was photographed by the normally excellent cinematographer Boris Kaufman seemed listless and one dimensional. Though much of the movie was photographed on the streets of New York, (a favorite setting for Sidney Lumet‘s movies), there seemed to be little of the realistic activity in the background of scenes or the energy that this director usually injects into his movies. Perhaps that may come from the subject matter. It must have been difficult to film a period movie on the streets in that period, despite the older buildings used in the movie. I suspect that this movie might have been more compelling (and serious, if need be) if it had been photographed in black and white, which would have been more evocative of the period of the story as well.
I also wonder if Lumet may have had some difficulty directing so many women in one movie. Many of his most popular movies center on men and their ethical choices in life, such as 12 Angry Men, The Hill, Serpico, Prince of the City and The Verdict, though he has directed some films, such as Beatrice Straight and Fay Dunaway in Network, Christine Lahti in Running on Empty and Katharine Hepburn as Mary Tyrone in Long Day’s Journey Into Night that showcased individual female performances that were extraordinary. Unfortunately, Lumet‘s ponderous approach to this big canvas story doesn’t deserve the leaden seriousness that nearly sinks the lumbering movie, despite the talented cast’s yeoman efforts.
The crowd of highly educated, privileged characters on the screen in The Group approached their postgraduate life in the Great Depression as though it was a midterm exam to be aced and filed away, with each milestone treated like a fast course in typing or dancing, another skill acquired, to be trotted out at the next luncheon with the other girls in the group. Full of ideas about a woman’s role in the society, but with little real life experience other than in school, the movie chronicles their continued education in the real world. Viewing a collection of actresses in some of their screen roles, it’s hard not to be impressed with the talent of each of the eight leads, especially a luminous Shirley Knight as the grounded, seemingly timid hospital worker Polly saddled with her Princess Leia hairdos and manic-depressive father (Robert Emhart, who is very funny, describing himself as the ‘aristocrat of madmen’), or the soft-spoken yet intense Joan Hackett as Dottie, a Boston-bred girl surprised and undone by the carnal side of her nature, which she genteelly mistakes for love for artist Richard Mulligan, playing a bohemian bum masquerading as a listless adventurer. Hackett‘s disappearance from the proceedings for much of the movie leaves a viewer longing for the return of her edgy nervousness, as she babbles about pantheism, skyscraper design, the love of rituals, and her own excitement at the prospect of living dangerously.
The gentle Elizabeth Hartman is perhaps the most touching figure among the group, as the waifish, committed Roosevelt foot soldier in the NRA who is turned into a brood mare dominated by her doctor husband who chides her when she miscarries their baby because it might be a blow to his professional reputation. The seemingly brash and sexy Jessica Walter as the garrulous, privately inhibited Libby is also exceptional in the cast, though naturally she is, it turns out, a professional virgin despite her demeanor. While their efforts might be undermined by the sheer size of the cast and the episodic nature of the movie, each of them left an impression that lasts long after the movie. Joanna Pettet as Kay, the restless striver whose marriage and funeral bookend the movie is less effective in a thankless part, in part due to the constantly shifting tone of the script which never allows her to stand still for a moment, the panicky nature of her characterization, and a surfeit of camera time for her character, whose political and social pretensions seems to pall beside the mess of her marriage to a “man of the theater”, Harald. Much of the time when screeching Kay was on screen, I kept wondering what might have been if Prozac was invented in 1930. The lovely Kathleen Widdoes as Helena, an artist and the group’s chronicler shows flashes of spine, crowing like a rooster and confronting Carrie Nye‘s languid artist, who is having an affair with Kay’s souse of a husband. Still, her character has scant screen time and leaves a ghostly impression ultimately. Mary-Robin Redd played Pokey, a character who is largely confined to mouthing “Who’d a thunk it?” and babbling about learning to fly a plane to Cornell, was the one actress whose career. Most striking in the smallest but most talked about part was 19 year old Candice Bergen as Lakey the “Lesbo”. In her memoir, Knock Wood, Bergen recalled her own puzzlement over this acting business, wondering what this “sense memory” stuff was all about and why people were bowled over by her spectacular looks, which really had nothing to do with her as a person. It would be years before Bergen could find a way to develop her ensemble comedic talents on Saturday Night Live and in Murphy Brown. As it was, she garnered the most press attention during the filming, earning her the lion’s share of professional jealousy from some of her castmates and the most biting reviews, including critic Pauline Kael‘s observation that “the only flair in Candice Bergen‘s acting” was found in the “arch of her patrician nostrils”. Actually, with her minimal amount of lines, wearing jodhpurs and slightly masculine bowler with a veil, she seems pretty close to the character in the book of The Group, with her enigmatic “Mona Lisa” smile and a contented air of self-knowledge that few of the other characters ever display.
I’m a card-carrying sucker for certain chick flicks–even when they are slightly guilty pleasures. This genre is especially appealing when the filmmakers try–however imperfectly–to tell stories that normally go unspoken in our cinematic history and one of the pleasures derived from this sort of movie is the way that once taboo topics were gingerly introduced as the production code disintegrated. Despite my weakness for this often disparaged type of film, I still found myself wrestling with some nagging questions that kept nipping away at my wavering attention. By the end of two hours and thirty minutes, I did lose patience with several of the gals, particularly the anxiety-ridden, serious minded Kay (Joanna Pettet), whose demise in the film while leaning backwards out of a window to see a plane’s markings was funny in its clumsiness rather than a trenchant social commentary. While I chided myself for throwing another few hours away on a movie, (but why examine that peccadillo of mine?), a few questions kept intruding on my wavering attention span by the last half hour.
What movie did this remind me of? At first the efforts of director Sidney Lumet and scenarist Sidney Buchman to squeeze the almost 500 pages of Mary MCarthy’s novel into one movie made The Group‘s stories seemed to belong to that sorority of ensemble movies such as The Women, Stage Door, Three Coins in the Fountain, The Best of Everything, and, inevitably, their ghastly recent descendant, Sex and the City. However, none of these movies seemed as apt an ancestor of The Group to me as a brisk little flick featuring another parade of gal-power, Thirteen Women (1932-George Archainbaud). That pre-code slay ride, featuring Myrna Loy as an evil Eurasian wreaking her revenge on a passel of former boarding school classmates for their snobbery and racism set up a series of straw women for darling Myrna to destroy. The classmates showed some solidarity, though once they were alone few of them put up much of a struggle as life (in the form of the destructive Loy character), steamrolled over them. The cast included poor Peg Entwistle (of doomed Hollywoodland sign fame), Jill Esmond, (the first Mrs. Laurence Olivier), Kay Johnson, (Madam Satan herself), and Florence Eldridge (Mrs. Fredric March), each of whom fall like dominoes when Myrna wounds finds their Achilles’ heels. Things are finally set aright when condescendingly oily policeman Ricardo Cortez and self-assured Irene Dunne thwart Myrna‘s machinations and Loy‘s mad character gets her just desserts. In less than half the running time of The Group, Thirteen Women certainly knew how to condense events and still make some points about women and society while entertaining a viewer.
Couldn’t any of the women in The Group have found some livelier men?
The girls in Thirteen Women and The Group were both married to or looking for some pretty poor quality of the men. Neither presents that half of the human race in a gentle light, but gee, among the 8 million people in NYC, wouldn’t you think these ladies in The Group could have found a few more live ones than the drunken playwright (Larry Hagman) who throws his play down the incinerator, the indecisive editor (Hal Holbrook in his debut) who longs to fight in The Spanish Civil War, if only his analyst would give him permission to go, the jaded Greenwich Village artist (Richard Mulligan), and the Eurotrash Baron (Bruno Di Cosmi) who doesn’t find virgins interesting, or the Republican pediatrician (James Congdon) who looks upon his wife’s maternity as a science experiment. Jeez, we’ve all encountered some losers in our time, girls, but if it hadn’t been for the pragmatic romanticism of James Broderick‘s decent doctor, and the generous-spirited if mad father of Shirley Knight‘s Polly, played by Robert Emhardt with great, obtuse warmth, I wouldn’t have been surprised if most of these women ended up celibate or gay, instead of the conflicted creatures they mostly are, ambivalent at best about the loss of emotional and economic autonomy that sex presents to them.
Sadly, most of the men in the book are skewered but apparently factual renderings of author Mary McCarthy‘s men friends and Kay’s brutal husband is a combination of McCarthy’s first two husbands, actor and sometime playwright Harald Johnsrud and the noted critic Edmund Wilson. Despite these two corrosive relationships, the writer went on to marry twice more.
As the movie went into its seventh inning stretch, I started to wonder how I might have cast The Group if it could have been made in the period it depicted?
Hmm, it’s silly I know, but intriguing to think of how this might be cast in the ’30s…Neurotic Kay (the Joanna Pettet character), might have been perfect for a young Bette Davis, circa 1934, who could have brought her particular aggressive neediness to this social climbing character. The Candice Bergen character of enigmatic Lakey might have been right for Merle Oberon (remember her in those pants as George Sand in A Song to Remember) or perhaps a self-possessed beauty such as Madeleine Carroll could bring haughtiness and naughtiness together.
Libby, (Jessica Walter), that appealingly avid face “with a red gash for a mouth” could have been a plum for Eve Arden to play in the ’30s since this actress could give a simple line the most delicious spin, and in the next moment convey a pang of doubt and loneliness with just a glance. Priss, the vulnerable idealist played so beautifully by Elizabeth Hartman might have given a Maureen O’Sullivan a chance to come down from Tarzan’s tree house just in time to break your heart as her identity disappeared into domestic “bliss”. The capable, insightful Polly (Shirley Knight) might have been just right for Margaret Sullavan, blending her fragile strength with a glowing intelligence and subtle sensuality. A coltish Katharine Hepburn might have been able to play the Bostonian character brought to life by the inimitable Joan Hackett. The actresses who received the short end of the script, Kathleen Widdoes as Helen, described so cruelly as “a sexless mule”, could have given the deceptively prim Ann Harding (seen above) a chance to reveal her inner fire and Pokey (Mary-Robin Redd) would have been ideal for the slightly clumsy charm of a Lucille Ball, whose apologetic eagerness would have given her character some spark. Oh, and the envious seductress Norine (Carrie Nye) should have been played by–who else?–Helen Vinson!
Why did I keep watching to the bitter end?
I kept waiting for one simple, down to earth character to show up. You know who I mean. Sometimes she was played by a Margaret Hamilton playing a maid, an earthy Marjorie Main scratching her head or a salty-tongued Ruth Donnelly observing the foibles of “her betters”. Such a character might have grounded the pretentious flibbertigibbets as they struck a pose or two. The interaction of these characters with someone other than one another might even have guided the story from comic satire into tragedy, giving The Group more reality.
The Group (1966), which was broadcast on TCM recently and may be again in the future, is not commercially available on DVD, but may be found on pricey OOP VHS on the internet.
My thanks to Bronxgirl, who shares my vice through her enjoyment of such movies. You inspired me to write this post.
Bergen, Candice, Knock Wood,Linden Press, 1984.
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