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Essential Cinema: Diary of a Mad Housewife

By Rob Christopher in Arts & Entertainment on May 4, 2009 4:20PM

2009_5_3diaryofamadhousewife.jpg Her husband Jonathan is a partner in a successful law firm. They live with their two young daughters in a luxurious highrise just off the park. So why is Tina so lifeless and exhausted? Well, for starters, her husband (Richard Benjamin, exquisitely obnoxious) is an egocentric nag who only seems interested in climbing the next rung on the social ladder. And her children are goggle-eyed aliens who constantly whine, when they're not being openly hostile towards her. At a party, Tina happens to meet George, a celebrity writer with a streak of narcissism a mile wide. He propositions her. Eventually, she gives in. And that's when the story really takes off.

But this is no angst-ridden drama of infidelity. Diary of a Mad Housewife, screening at 7 p.m. on Thursday at U of C's Doc Films, is a comedy that makes adjectives like "blistering" and "astringent" seem hopelessly toothless, and its humor is so dark it could serve as cover for a midnight air raid. When it was released in 1970, it was an immediate sensation. Park Ridge-native Carrie Snodgress became the next Bright Young Thing overnight, earning a Best Actress nomination. But Snodgress wanted no part of the Hollywood machine, even neglecting to show up at the Academy Awards ceremony. She dropped out of the movies for several years to live with boyfriend Neil Young and their son Zeke on his ranch. On the other hand, her co-star Frank Langella, who had been a theater actor for years, suddenly had a movie and television career; after many years playing moody Lotharios (cue 1979's Dracula) he's settled into brilliant character work, triumphing in last year's Frost/Nixon.

Decades of spotty distribution (it's not on DVD) and critical neglect have transformed DOAMH into an almost forgotten film. Yet it anticipates movies such as Carnal Knowledge, The Ice Storm, most of Neil LaBute's best work (especially Your Friends & Neighbors), and possibly even American Beauty. Director Frank Perry, whose wife Eleanor adapted Sue Kaufman's novel for the screenplay, films the action in a cool, clean style, capturing the daily rhythms of Tina's routine: housework, shopping, sneaking a quick belt of vodka while fixing dinner. Between the drudgery and the male chauvinism, it's no wonder she's "mad." Akin to Paddy Chayefsky's institutional satires The Hospital and Network, Perry's film is nothing less than the ultimate satire of the institution of modern marriage. Be there Thursday night for a rare screening of a true classic.