A significant commercial and critical hit back in the day, the ensemble dramedy Lovers and Other Strangers mixes keen observations about marriage with hit-or-miss sex-comedy vignettes. Based on a play by Joseph Bologna and Renée Taylor, the movie concerns the wedding of a young couple and how the event impacts the couple’s friends and relatives. On a deeper level, the story is an exploration of changing values during the Women’s Liberation era. Does marriage mean anything during a time when young people embrace premarital cohabitation? Is the old notion of accepting contentment in marriage passé for kids who expect to sustain passion forever? And how can young women protect themselves from predatory men who use with-it lingo to pressure women into sex? These were important questions in 1970, so even though time has dulled the edge off Lovers and Other Strangers, the picture is still interesting as a snapshot of a turbulent period. Additionally, some of the characters are rendered so well that they’re timeless.
The youngsters preparing to marry are Mike (Michael Brandon) and Susan (Bonnie Bedelia). He’s terrified of commitment even though he and Susan have lived together for some time, and he’s nervous that his old-fashioned Italian parents will find out he’s “living in sin.” The engaged couple’s anxieties are juxtaposed with problems plaguing new marriages, troubles faced by single people, and the wisdom of people who have been married for decades. One of the imperiled new marriages is between Susan’s sister, Wilma (Anne Meara), and Johnny (Harry Guardino)—she tries to keep the sexual spark alive while he resents her rejection of the idea that being male entitles Johnny to unconditional dominance. The other endangered new union is between Mike’s brother, Richie (Joseph Hindy), and Joan (Diane Keaton, in her first movie role), who have scandalized the family by announcing plans to divorce. Representing the singles scene is Susan’s friend Brenda (Marian Hailey), who runs hot and cold with fast-talking horndog Jerry (Bob Dishy). There’s also a subplot about Susan’s father, Hal (Gig Young), having an affair with his sister-in-law, Kathy (Anne Jackson). Rounding out the principal cast are Mike’s parents, Frank (Richard Castellano) and Bea (Beatrice Arthur).
Some threads of the story have more punch than others. The stuff with Bea and Frank is terrific because veteran stage actors Arthur and Castellano give pitch-perfect comic performances; Castellano earned an Oscar nomination for his work, and Lovers and Other Strangers helped pave the way for Arthur’s conquest of television a few years later. The Brenda/Jerry storyline gets old quickly because Brenda is depicted as a mess of catch phrases and neuroses, while Jerry is portrayed as nothing but a compendium of come-on lines. Similarly, the Hal/Kathy storyline is mostly a vehicle for Hal contriving ways to string Kathy along while Kathy endures humiliating treatment because the alternative of being alone is too dismaying. Whereas those two subplots feel shallow and trite, the Johnny/Wilma storyline pays off nicely when the couple embraces compromise.
Lovers and Other Strangers gives viewers a lot to digest, but despite some honest insights and zippy one-liners, the movie never achieves real depth or hilarity. Although the film is thoroughly respectable, the writers (including David Zelag Goodman, who helped adapt the play) employ comedy as a means of dancing around tough issues. Nonetheless, the mere fact that Lovers and Other Strangers engages with serious topics places the movie a few notches above the average bedroom farce, and the presence of consistently good acting raises the movie’s quality even higher.
Lovers and Other Strangers: GROOVY