Last night I watched Diary of a Mad Housewife (1970), written and directed by the marvellous husband and wife team of Eleanor Perry and Frank Perry. If you’ve ever seen The Swimmer with Burt Lancaster, which the Perrys did a few years previous, you’ll know the sort of entertainment you’re in for: an acerbic character piece about someone at the end of their rope, exhausted and perhaps flirting with danger as a consequence. It’s an unusual film for its time in that the whole thing is essentially from a woman’s point of view; combine that with an intelligent script filled with memorable zingers and you’ve got a riveting watch.
This film concerns Tina Balser (Carrie Snodgress), who is married to Johnathan Balser (Richard Benjamin) and spends most of her waking moments tending to his every whim and notion. He is childlike and selfish, undeveloped to a shocking degree, and mean on top of all that. She becomes depressed and withdrawn, and takes a lover, the writer George Prager (Frank Langella in a positively revelatory role) who is himself a selfish jerk but with a crass self-awareness of the fact that would appear to appeal to Tina.
Snodgress is fantastic and the role made her something of a star, as well as muse to Neil Young for a time. She won a Golden Globe for her performance and was nominated for Best Actress Oscar, losing out to Glenda Jackson (for Women In Love). Benjamin was so vexing here to me that, after half an hour of his hectoring, I had to pause the film and take a break. Doubtfully the desired effect, but a testament to the character and Benjamin’s passionate portrayal of same.
Finally, Frank Langella, who seems like a smoother, sexier version of James Woods (?). Though I remember him as Dracula first and foremost, I’ve become accustomed to seeing him play generally creepy older men, as in The Ninth Gate, for instance. So to see him play a creepy younger man was quite an interesting surprise. I assume that groovy hairstyle he’s sporting here is a wig, what do you think?
I won’t spill the beans on what happens, but I must add that the film’s ending is a real humdinger, indicative of the ‘downer’ endings of the period (which I love). It’s so seldom that a great film has an ending that kind of takes it up that extra notch, but I would argue this qualifies. Bring back fearlessness in cinema!