Monday, March 23, 2020

The Group: Novel into Film

Shirley Knight and Hal Holbrook in Sidney Lumet's The Group (1966).

When Sidney Lumet made a movie of Mary McCarthy’s The Group in 1966, it was a major event. The 1963 book, about the intersecting lives of a group of Vassar graduates from the class of 1933 up to the end of the decade, had been a sensational bestseller, partly because of the notorious second chapter, where one of the characters loses her virginity to a married artist. The casting of the eight young women with mostly unknown actresses rather than movie stars was hotly debated; Shirley Knight, twice nominated for the Supporting Actress Oscar, was the only one close to being a known quantity. Pauline Kael, two years away from beginning her tenure as The New Yorker’s film critic , wrote a long, fascinating piece about the shooting of the picture for a glossy magazine. (You can read it in her second collection, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.) Yet the film never won general approval – or a single Academy Award nomination. It was, perhaps, the wrong time for a movie adaptation of a novel that straddled the line between social commentary and potboiler. The movies that dominated the art houses in 1966 were, aside from Mike Nichols’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, mostly British imports that were less daring – and way less substantial – than they purported to be but that featured the most exciting generation of English actors in movie history. And within a year the old Hollywood had begun to break apart while the new Hollywood was taking over. Next to a picture like Bonnie and Clyde, The Group felt old-fashioned, already a relic from the late big-studio era, and it was quickly forgotten. So was McCarthy herself, not long after. A witty, literate writer who had broken through with the short story “The Man in the Brooks Brothers Suit” in 1941 and the novel The Company She Keeps in 1942, who published one of the most devastating of all childhood memoirs, the Dickensian 1972 Memories of a Catholic Girlhood, and who was as celebrated for her literary friendships and feuds (generally tinged with politics: though initially a member of the Partisan Review circle, she was, outspokenly, both liberal and anti-Communist), she was a culture hero for young women breaking away from conventional gender roles in the post-war era. But she didn’t class herself as a feminist, and the first wave of official feminists, in the early and mid-seventies, didn’t identify with her.

I saw The Group when I was in high school, though I didn’t read the book until much later – when I was a graduate student at Stanford in the early eighties and McCarthy was invited by the English Department to give a talk. But when the film showed up on Turner Classic Movies last year and both it and the novel had long since faded from my memory I thought it might be interesting to revisit them, this time in the right order. Recently I had the space to do so and, whatever I once might have thought of them, neither was quite what I expected this time around. The book sets the eight young Ivy League graduates, expected by their mothers and certainly by themselves to embody a new, modern kind of young woman, in relief against the period in which McCarthy captures them – not so much the Depression, strangely enough, as the weave of the distinctive social movements of the time (sexual freedom, psychoanalysis, leftist theatre, the latest approaches to child rearing). It’s almost devilishly intelligent but it made me impatient. When I finished it, I thought that perhaps my restlessness had to do with the length and detail of its investigations of ideas that were no longer as relevant as they had once been; two long chapters about Priss’s struggle to satisfy her tyrannical pediatrician husband’s insistence on breast feeding and the proper way to toilet-train their toddler seemed excessive. I thought that maybe the cultural moment for The Group had simply passed, though I was surprised at my reaction, since I generally find novels that encapsulate the social and political nuances of an earlier age – certainly ones that do so with such unwavering precision of observation – rewarding.

It wasn’t until I watched the movie again that I realized that my impatience had another cause. McCarthy presents the stories of her Vassar grads, who stumble into the gap between the world as they’ve theorized it and the one they have to negotiate day by day, as different kinds of battlegrounds for brainy, educated women yet she can’t help presenting their struggles satirically. And though I think that’s a genuine achievement, her tone mutes – if it doesn’t exactly diminish – her kindness to her characters. She’s most sympathetic, oddly, to Polly, who has much less imagination than some of the others but is unfailingly sweet-natured, and to Lakey, who spends years in Europe before returning home, as the war is heating up, with a baroness for a lover. Lumet’s movie abandons most of the satire, which makes it much more likable but also less impressive. The scenes in the book where Polly queries her boyfriend, the editor Gus Leroy, whose wife has promised him a divorce only if they both go through analysis first (and with the same therapist!), made me laugh out loud. He complains that his sessions are stillborn because he isn’t dreaming – that he’s blocked. Eventually Polly works out that his wife’s bargain with him is her way of manipulating him into going back to her; she tells him that’s what he’s going to do before he’s acknowledged it himself. But though Shirley Knight, who plays Polly, and Hal Holbrook, who plays Gus, are both very good in the movie, the scene where she anticipates his departure and gives him permission to leave is played without humor. You lose the idea that McCarthy has structured Polly’s story as a romantic comedy with satirical undercurrents – more or less as Paul Mazursky might have fashioned it. After Gus hits the road, Polly has to put up with a bipolar papa who moves in with her upon divorcing her mother, but she winds up with a very nice doctor who even agrees to let her father live with them. (McCarthy is less incisive about Polly than about most of the other young women because Gus is the target of the satire in this particular narrative.)

Lidia Prochnicka and Candice Bergen The Group (1966).

The best performances in Lumet’s film, aside from Knight’s, are given by Joan Hackett as Dottie, the deflowered virgin from Chapter 2, and Elizabeth Hartman as Priss, two talented actresses who died in their forties (Hartman was a suicide). They’re almost exact opposites in terms of technique. Hartman, best known for playing the blind girl rescued by Sidney Poitier in A Patch of Blue, is a perfect expression of the Method ideal: she slips into the skin of her character and never seems to be acting at all. Hackett is always somewhat stylized, and you’re conscious of her stage training. But she’s gloriously inventive – the scene where she confesses to her mother (Leora Dana) that she’s never gotten over the artist (Richard Mulligan) who persuaded her to get birth control and then casually dumped her is a miracle of tiny mood shifts. And as Helena, the painter, who is clear-eyed but harbors more bitterness than we expect, Kathleen Widdoes has a compelling presence.

The other four are Mary-Robin Redd as Pokey, whose claims to fame are the ejaculation “Who would have thunk it?” and her proclivity for giving birth (she has two sets of twins); Candice Bergen as Lakey; Jessica Walter as Libby, who wants to get into publishing (she introduces Gus, her old boss, to Polly); and Joanna Pettet as Kay, whose story contains the most melodrama and who is the closest the movie comes to a protagonist. In the smallest of the eight roles, Redd doesn’t make much of an impression; Carrie Nye as Norine, whose jealousy of the “Tower girls” in her Vassar class provokes her into stealing Kay’s aspiring-playwright husband Harald (Larry Hagman), makes a much stronger one in her big, well-written scene with Widdoes. (Sidney Buchman is the screenwriter.) Bergen does make an impression in her debut part, because she’s so gorgeous, and she has so little screen time you can’t tell what a terrible actress she’d turn out to be in these early years of her career. Walter and Pettet are awful. Kael suggests in her piece on the making of the movie that Pettet’s problem was miscasting and observes astutely that the character, who is the most seriously damaged of the eight friends from the disjunction between her self-image and the way her life turns out, calls out for someone like the young Katharine Hepburn. Pettet comes across as a second-rate TV sitcom performer, and the rest of her career (which came to a halt thirty years ago) was all in television.

Lumet is a curious director for this material, and it’s not his best work, but he certainly keeps it rolling along; it’s full of incidents, of things to watch, and it feels much shorter than its two and a half hours. It’s a funny picture in a number of ways. The feminist elements are less visible yet the men, except for Polly’s doctor (played with his usual unstressed skill by James Broderick, an actor of underappreciated range), come off worse than they do in the novel. Poor Hagman is especially poorly served: he’s reduced to a spoiled, pretentious wife beater, though if the movie were made now, of course, the fact that Harald sleeps around and slugs his wife would doom any actor who tried to make him more complex to melodramatic villainy. Plus Hagman is stuck with too many drunk scenes and he isn’t convincing in any of them. Still, with everything that’s wrong with the movie of The Group, reacquainting myself with it made me feel sorry that it’s been so completely forgotten. For all the ways in which it misappropriates or simplifies McCarthy’s book, it manages to deliver enough of what she was after to stand out among studio pictures at the end of the old Hollywood era. And Lumet’s refusal to dot it with movie stars is very unconventional. The Group looks like a typical big-budget movie of the mid-sixties (largely, as Kael points out, because of the process finish that wrecks the great cinematographer Boris Kaufman’s work) but in truth it’s less of its cinematic time and closer to the time it seemed, a year or two later, too antiquated for.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

No comments:

Post a Comment