Marriage plots on the big screen
Jeanine Basinger’s “I Do and I Don’t: A History of Marriage in the Movies” (Alfred A. Knopf: 432 pp., $30) is a breezy, fun excursion into Hollywood’s presentation of matrimony, from the earliest days of cinema through the modern era.
But rather than celebrating how well cinema has depicted the institution, the book illustrates how rarely Hollywood has captured the complexities and realities of marriage.
The book is deeply personal for Basinger, 76, on sabbatical from Wesleyan University in Connecticut where she is the Corwin-Fuller Professor of Film Studies and founder and curator of the university’s Cinema Archives. Among her graduates are current director Oscar nominee Benh Zeitlin as well as Joss Whedon, Paul Weitz, Dana Delany and Jon Turteltaub.
She and her husband, John Basinger, have been married 45 years. “There is a mystery to marriage and an inexplicable quality,” said Basinger by phone.
“It is kind of an untenable concept, and yet we stay with it,” she continued. “Real marriage is about communication that is often not verbalized in any particular way. When you are married as long as I have been married -- we couldn’t even bother to argue because what’s the point? We are committed. We knew we are going to work it out.”
When she looks at marriage on screen, “I do occasionally see something I can identify as actual marital behavior,” she said. “I saw in the [TV series] ‘Friday Night Lights.’ That felt normal to me. But I don’t see it too much in the movies.”
Hollywood, she said, realized that marriage “doesn’t have any dramatic arcs, it isn’t going anywhere. It is a merry-go-round, not a roller coaster ride, so they have to pull a plot together and give it some arcs, destination and some shape that a real marriage doesn’t have. Movies don’t have time to give the kind of rhythms that marriage has.”
Basinger, who has written such biographies and histories as “The Star Machine,” which explores the height of the studio system in Hollywood, and “Silent Stars,” takes a less academic approach in “I Do and I Don’t.”
“The book is descriptive, historical and personally speculative,” she writes in the forward. “It is not heavily footnoted (except with personal asides), but it is carefully researched. It’s a book for people who like movies and want to share a conversation about them.”
Basinger, who spent three years screening marriage movies, identifies seven key difficulties couples encountered in films: money, infidelity/adultery, in-laws and children, incompatibility, class, addiction and murder.
“When your mate tries to murder you, your marriage is in trouble,” said Basinger, laughing.
The cover of the book features Jimmy Stewart and Carole Lombard from 1939’s “Made for Each Other.” A melodramatic marriage movie, it explores incompatibility (they marry almost immediately after meeting), money issues, in-law problems and even a seriously ill child. But despite the obstacles, the couple endure.
“This pattern of pretense toward honesty, capped off by exaggerated resolution, was the ‘I do’ marriage movie pattern,” Basinger notes in the book. “Affirm, question, reaffirm and resolve. Destroy a marriage in order to reassemble it as a form of glamorous reassurance.”
Among the films she discusses in the book are Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn’s first feature together, 1942’s “Woman of the Year,” in which they play rival reporters who fall in love and get married. In the nine films Tracy and Hepburn played together, they were married in all but three.
Ironically, Tracy and Hepburn, a couple for 25 years, never married because the actor, who was a Catholic, would not divorce his wife.
A marriage movie that had a strong impact on Basinger as a teenager was 1950’s “The Breaking Point,” starring John Garfield and Phyllis Thaxter -- a far more faithful adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s “To Have and Have Not” than the 1944 Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall classic.
“I ushered for that film in its original release and saw it 20 times,” said Basinger of her days working in a movie theater. “It does have raw honesty. This couple is struggling because they don’t have enough money. They can’t get ahead of the game and that affects everything. He wants to escape it. She’s afraid.”
“Two for the Road,” released in 1967 and starring Albert Finney and Audrey Hepburn, was the “definitive modern story of a marriage” for its era. “It also puts on the screen very brutally the issues of a couple really viciously quarreling and saying mean things to one another but staying with the marriage,” said Basinger.
Though “I Do and I Don’t” focuses primarily on films through the 1960s when traditional marriage was more culturally central than it is today, she doesn’t leave out the modern era. In her concise 50-page final chapter she covers all the bases, from Paul Mazursky’s swinging 1969 comedy “Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice” to 2010’s “The Kids Are All Right,” about a lesbian couple with two children whose relationship falters when one has an affair with a man -- the sperm donor for their children.
Basinger feels the majority of modern films dealing with marriage are a throwback to the golden age. “The couple (lesbians) and the children (sperm donations) seem to be very new indeed, but the movie plot might easily have been concocted in 1935,” she writes about “The Kids Are All Right.”
“The sexuality and the science give a ‘now’ flip to what is essentially a set of marriage-plot issues from the past.”