New York director Frank Perry’s films tended toward pretentiousness, but amid his arty flourishes he demonstrated a fine gift for guiding performances, especially by actresses. Thus, it’s no surprise that his most widely admired film, Diary of a Mad Housewife, is virtually a one-woman show for leading lady Carrie Snodgress. With Perry’s sympathetic but unflinching camera studying every nuance of her suffering, Snodgress plays Tina Balser, the underappreciated spouse of successful young attorney Jonathan Balser (Richard Benjamin). Jonathan is an asshole of the first order, a name-dropping narcissist obsessed with professional and social advancement; he alternately treats Tina as a sex toy, a shrink, a slave, a sounding board, and a subject for psychological abuse. In the film’s arresting opening scenes, Perry and screenwriter Eleanor Perry (the director’s then-wife) succinctly illustrate every aspect of the Balsers’ suffocating lifestyle—we’re so primed for Tina’s escape from Jonathan’s oppression that when she meets a potential partner for an adulterous tryst, it feels like a triumphant moment.
Alas, Tina’s would-be paramour, writer George Prager (Frank Langella), is merely a different breed of asshole. One of those smug swingers who justifies his callous behavior with fancy language about surmounting bourgeois hang-ups, George treats Tina tenderly when they’re in bed, and abysmally when they’re not. The journey of the movie is Tina’s quest for some kind of validation—whether it’s George complimenting her lovemaking or Jonathan recognizing the work she invests keeping their household afloat—because she’s beyond desperate for evidence proving her life means something. The fascinating quality of Diary of a Mad Housewife is that Tina never really snaps, which would have been the predictable path for the story to follow; instead, even when Jonathan belittles her in front of their two impressionable daughters, Tina barks but doesn’t bite.
Emboldened by her adultery, however, she relishes keeping a secret from her schmuck spouse, and interesting questions get raised about how deeply Tina savors the creature comforts Jonathan’s success provides—has she been co-opted by the status-symbol system that’s oppressing her?
Benjamin is terrific here, transforming obsequiousness into an art form, and Langella, in his first feature, mostly surmounts the overwritten extremes of his role. However, since she’s in nearly every scene, it’s all about Snodgress, who came virtually out of nowhere to score in this movie—her previous screen credits comprised a handful of minor guest shots on television. Snodgress’ relatable vulnerability earned the actress a Golden Globe award and an Oscar nomination. Following a second 1970 feature and a 1971 telefilm, though, Snodgress left Hollywood for a long romance with rock legend Neil Young. She didn’t return to movies until 1978’s The Fury, the project that began her transition from leading roles to minor character roles.
Diary of a Mad Housewife: GROOVY