A lurid psych-ward melodrama produced by Roger Corman in one of his more ambitious moments, I Never Promised You a Rose Garden suffers from schizophrenia, just like its leading character. On one level, the picture is a fairly serious examination of the troubles facing an unbalanced young woman as she seeks to end a cycle of delusions, hysterical episodes, and self-destructive impulses. On another level, the picture is as sensationalistic as an old Sam Fuller flick, because the filmmakers unwisely attempt to depict the imaginary realm that the protagonist visits whenever her mind departs everyday reality. Moreover, the filmmakers’ idea of hard-hitting drama skews toward undisciplined actors performing freak-show antics at top volume, with endless repetition the name of the game. Add in nudity and rape scenes, and I Never Promised You a Rose Garden ends up resembling Corman’s typical drive-in fare, instead of evoking the movie upon which this picture was obviously modeled, Milos Forman’s extraordinary One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975). Thanks to sincere work by leading lady Kathleen Quinlan and supporting actress Bibi Andersson, I Never Promised You a Rose Garden isn’t completely awful, though it comes close at regular intervals.
The simple story revolves around Deborah Blake (Quinlan), a disturbed young woman who is admitted to a psychiatric hospital following a suicide attempt. In quiet scenes, she does talking-and-listening therapy with the stalwart Dr. Fried (Andersson). In not-so-quiet scenes, Deborah suffers epic delusions of belonging to some imaginary primitive tribe. Deborah also witnesses the extreme behavior of fellow patients, and the nastiest narrative thread concerns orderlies who rape patients with impunity. The script, credited to idiosyncratic filmmaker Lewis John Carlino and Hollywood wit Gavin Lambert, is a mess in terms of tone, though director Anthony Page and co-producer Daniel H. Blatt must shoulder some of the blame. (Joanna Greenberg, who wrote the novel upon which the film was based, reportedly hated the way her work was adapted.) While Quinlan’s uneven work is tethered to the chaotic storytelling, costars Sylvia Sidney and Susan Tyrell thrive on the picture’s gonzo energy; Sidney’s work has a touch of black comedy, and Tyrell’s inhibited performance seems like a transmission from another universe. I Never Promised You a Rose Garden is far too tawdry to take seriously, so it’s unsurprising that Greenberg tried to reclaim the material by cooperating with the creation of a 2004 stage adaptation of her book. Almost anything would be an improvement over this version.
I Never Promised You a Rose Garden: FUNKY