Monday, July 24, 2017

1980 Week: A Change of Seasons & The Last Married Couple in America & Loving Couples

          Turns out Blake Edwards’ hit sex comedy 10 (1979) presaged a string of Hollywood movies exploring the angst of middle-aged white men who consider marriage and success so inhibiting they must reaffirm their identities with extramarital sex, all under the guise of “finding themselves.” Yes, this is Me Decade entitlement taken to an absurd extreme—adultery as personal growth. Films about midlife crises were nothing new, of course, but something about this group of pictures reflects a collective reaction to body blows inflicted upon the institution of marriage during the Sexual Revolution. In fact, many of these flicks directly question the relevance of lifelong monogamous relationships. Yet despite all their with-it posturing, these pictures are also moralistic and old-fashioned. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.
          Cowritten by Love Story’s Erich Segal, A Change of Seasons begins on a lurid note—nubile coed Lindsey Rutledge (Bo Derek) repeatedly emerges from the bubbling water of a hot tub, her long hair flailing and her pert breasts glistening in slow motion. What better illustration of the fantasy element coursing through this subgenre’s veins? The fellow in the hot tub with Bo is graying college professor Adam Evans (Anthony Hopkins). Later, Adam’s wife, Karyn (Shirley MacLaine), correctly guesses that he’s having an affair. He seems perplexed that she’s upset, offering idiotic remarks such as the following: “Men are different—our needs are more baroque.” Karyn responds by taking a lover of her own, freespirited handyman Pete Lachapelle (Michael Brandon). The two couples take a vacation together, and the trip is staged like a watered-down version of French farce, complete with the surprise appearances of new characters at awkward moments. Notwithstanding the spicy opening sequence, A Change of Seasons is all talk, with the cast spewing endless psychobabble about Oedipal issues and such, and the quasi-feminist ending is but one of many false notes. Costar Mary Beth Hurt lands a few jokes as the flummoxed daughter of philandering parents, and Brandon has a nice moment of pathos revealing his character’s overwrought backstory, but A Change of Seasons is ultimately just a lot of navel-gazing superficiality set to sickly-sweet music by Henry Mancini and a slew of awful songs. A baroque-en record, if you will.
          The Last Married Couple in America proceeds from a stronger comic premise and mostly avoids melodrama, but it’s not much better as a cinematic experience. George Segal and Natalie Wood play Jeff and Mari Thompson, an affluent Los Angeles couple who, as the title suggests, become exceptions to the rule as all of their friends divorce. Predictably, Jeff and Mari stray from each other, although the reasons why are neither clear nor convincing. After all, they’re still so hot for each other that at one point, they get hassled by police for making out in their car. Apparently the issue has to do with boredom, peer pressure, and the fact that Jeff has become a fuddy-duddy—somewhat hard to believe seeing as how he married an artist. (Mari is a sculptor.) In a sign of the movie’s desperation to generate hard-punchline jokes, the filmmakers include a pointless subplot about Walter (Dom DeLuise), a friend of the Thompsons who becomes a porn star. This leads to a “wild” party featuring adult-film actors and hookers, but rarely will you witness a tamer depiction of debauchery. Only the bits with Bob Dishy as a sleazy lawyer who seduces divorcées are amusing, simply because Dishy commits so wholeheartedly to his role.
          Loving Couples has echoes of A Change of Seasons, and not just because Shirley MacLaine costars—it’s another story about spouses attempting to accommodate each other’s infidelities. This time, the wife is the first to wander. In the opening scene, Dr. Evelyn Kirby (MacLaine) rides a horse and catches the eye of young stud Greg Plunkett (Stephen Collins) as he drives alongside a horse trail. He crashes his car but suffers only minor injuries, so his recovery provides an opportunity for wooing Evelyn. After these two begin sleeping together, Greg’s hot girlfriend, Stephanie Beck (Susan Sarandon), breaks the news to Evelyn’s husband, self-absorbed Dr. Walter Kirby (James Coburn). Naturally, Walter responds by commencing a fling with Stephanie. Once the truth outs, the Kirbys separate and move in with their young lovers. Complications ensue. Featuring a threadbare storyline and noxious montages, Loving Couples is perhaps the most cynical of these films, playing the destruction of relationships for lighthearted humor.
          Quite frankly, however, there’s a bit of nihilism in all of these pictures. By abandoning their principles for cheap thrills, the spouses in these films embrace a sort of spiritual nothingness. In that sense, perhaps even more disquieting than asking what these films say about their era is asking whether the filmmakers recognized the obligation—or even the opportunity—to make any sort of statement whatsoever. One more sign, perhaps, that it was just as well the ’70s were over. As a footnote, while it’s tempting to lump the 1980 Canada/U.S. coproduction Middle Age Crazy into the same category as these pictures, Middle Age Crazy casts a wider thematic net, treating adultery as a symptom of rampant consumerism. Even though it’s a weak film, Middle Age Crazy is a damn sight more thoughtful than any of these vapid flicks.

A Change of Seasons: FUNKY
The Last Married Couple in America: FUNKY
Loving Couples: FUNKY


Unknown said...

Any necessity in referring to them as "middle-aged white men" instead of simply middle-aged men?

By Peter Hanson said...

As these movies unintentionally speak to white-male privilege, yes. If made with integrity, similar stories told from the person-of-color perspective would integrate issues not present here, such as impediments to economic advancement, the pressures within professional spheres for POCs to defy stereotypes, and the impact prejudice has on how POCs move through daily life. The protagonists in these movies experience American life with a freedom unique to successful white men, hence their feelings of entitlement for extramarital sexual gratification, their frustration when wives demand equal standing within relationships, and so on. For instance, the college professor played by Hopkins in "A Change of Seasons" presumably would get a few raised eyebrows from peers for sleeping with a student (if not outright professional rebuke), but his actions wouldn't activate prejudicial confirmation bias validating stereotypes, as would happen were the same character black.

Douglas said...

A Change of Season reminds me of a story told to me once. A female acquaintance once went to see the movie with friends albeit reluctantly. After watching a few moments the opening hot tub scene (not particularly happily), she said to her friends "if that woman (Bo Derek) spits out water, I'm leaving. True to form Bo complied on the screen, and she and her friends left the theater.

Unknown said...

Loving Couples:

I recall that when this picture was announced as about to start production, the part of Shirley MacLaine's husband was earmarked for Johnny Carson.
This was during one of Carson's periodic contract dances with NBC, where he would threaten to quit Tonight unless he got whatever he asked for (the joke went that although Carson wasn't shy, he was always retiring).
This got quite a bit of publicity, because apart from an as-himself cameo in something back in the '60s, Carson had never acted in a movie before.
Another story went that MacLaine had pitched the project to Carson personally; she had a high opinion of Johnny, and was convinced that he'd be a smash on the big screen.
All of that became academic when Carson and NBC came to terms on Tonight, the producers went to the equally white-haired James Coburn, and Loving Couples was made and released to no noticeable response.

It happens ...

Unknown said...

"Last Married Couple" is atrocious and deserves a LAME rating. Stuck with me as one of the worst movies I've ever seen. Watched it again recently (because I'm a masochist) and time has only made it worse.