“I Do and I Don’t”: Hollywood’s marriage problem

A film historian asks why the movies are so bad at depicting one of life's most important relationships

Topics: Nonfiction, Movies, Marriage, Gender Roles, Hollywood, I Do and I Don't, Film History, Jeanine Basinger, What to Read, Books, Editor's Picks,

"I Do and I Don't": Hollywood's marriage problemBrad Pitt and Angelina Jolie in "Mr. and Mrs. Smith"

Marriage is both mundane and notoriously mysterious. It is also a subject that has perplexed Hollywood from the very beginning, according to Jeanine Basinger, a film historian and author of the lively new book “I Do and I Don’t: A History of Marriage in the Movies.” From one of the early silent classics, F.W. Murnau’s “Sunrise” (in which a seemingly happy country husband briefly contemplates murdering his fresh-faced wife so he can run off with a hussy from the city), all the way up to the lesbian couple in “The Kids are Alright,” what seem like basic facts of life remain impossible to fathom. Why do two people decide to spend the rest of their lives together? Why do some of them fail, and how do others succeed? What does it mean to be married?

Basinger, chair of film studies at Wesleyan University and best known for the marvelous book “A Woman’s View: How Hollywood Spoke to Women 1930-1960,” specializes in the movies of the studio era; her romp through that period takes up well over two-thirds of this new volume — the most knowing and illuminating portion. This focus is both an asset and a shame because so many of today’s young cineastes are unfamiliar with or put off by movies made before 1960, and for this reason they may not appreciate “I Do and I Don’t.” Sometimes it’s the black-and-white imagery they reject, but more often they’re simply unable to read or adjust to the stylized codes of an era in popular culture that’s vanishing in our collective rear-view mirror.

Nevertheless, Basinger insists, the movies’ depiction of marriage hasn’t changed all that much in the past 90 years. Couples are still expected to unite under the influence of Hollywood’s great crypto-religious obsession — true love — and they are still sundered by the same divisive forces: income, infidelity, incompatibility and in-laws. Although heavily self-censored and catering to an often prudish audience, Hollywood movies of the studio era were not, as Basinger takes pains to point out, produced by naifs. Many of them convey sophisticated references to sexual intercourse, prostitution, even homosexuality — if you know how to interpret them. That some of us still do is often thanks to popular scholars like Basinger.

“The main thing about pictures is love or sex,” said Sam Briskin, production chief at RKO. “Here you’ve got a man and woman married at the start — who’s interested in that?” Marriage has always been presented as the culmination of true love, the holy grail glowing at the end of the movie. But the allure of the movies was all about getting there, whether it took the amorous battling of should-be lovers in a romantic comedy or the conquering of more serious obstacles by the lovers in dramas and melodramas. The movies of the 1920s and 1930s attracted audiences with exotic, luxurious and exciting spectacles: escapism, essentially. Marriage was just too familiar. As Basinger writes, “the one thing that audiences really understood and had personal knowledge of turns out to be one of the most elusive and confusing topics to tease out of motion picture history.”

There were legendary cinematic marriages, such as the union between Dashiell Hammett’s Nick and Nora Charles in the series of “Thin Man” mysteries. But those movies don’t meet Basinger’s criteria because they aren’t stories in which “the plot was clearly about the state of being married.” (Instead, they were about solving crimes, with the witty, cocktail-fueled marriage as part of the backdrop.) The examples that do fit her bill — such as the James Stewart and Carole Lombard vehicle, “Made for Each Other” — are often less iconic and well-known. (This is the sort of movie book that will plump up your Netflix queue with overlooked gems and intriguing curiosities.)

But what about the rapport of a longtime partnership, the ability to communicate with little more than a significant glance and to fall into a well-oiled response to an oncoming challenge, or the irritability of people who known each other all too well, yet would never dream of parting? Basinger finds that dynamic most persuasively portrayed by comedic duos like Laurel and Hardy or Hope and Crosby, rather than by heterosexual pairings. (She also wanders into an extended, hilarious, spot-on riff about the comic duo of Martin and Lewis, in which Jerry Lewis plays the part of the madly enamored partner, going to ever greater lengths to secure the other’s attention, while Dean Martin reacts by becoming more and more indifferent and remote until they finally break up.)

Under the studio system, which produced a phenomenal number of films (many of them fairly disposable, but seemingly all of them seen by Basinger), certain popular star pairings were used over and over again, becoming like marriages even when their characters weren’t married in a particular film. (Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, for example, were only husband and wife in two of their 10 movies.) Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, a couple in real life but never legally wed, played married characters in six of their nine movies. Because those characters were on equal footing, often competing or clashing over their work lives, Hepburn and Tracy have become synonymous with such “love teams” in contemporary minds, but there were many more: Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald, Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon, Olivia de Havilland and Errol Flynn.

In order to place a marriage on center stage, however, a movie would also have to put it in jeopardy; otherwise, no plot. Before the 1970s, Hollywood films were expected to uphold the “sanctity” of marriage, so this made things tricky. Husbands and wives would face money troubles, unwilling separations (a common theme during World War II), class differences, sponging and interfering in-laws, and — above all — the temptations of adultery. Sometimes they married for extra-romantic reasons or discovered that, due to some administrative snafu, they weren’t legally married at all. But whatever their differences, they almost always got back together and affirmed their marital love by the closing credits. (So ingrained is this convention that the otherwise innocuous recent comedy about a divorced couple fooling around behind everyone else’s backs, “It’s Complicated,” gained a maverick frisson by having Meryl Streep pick a budding romance with Steve Martin over reuniting with her ex, Alec Baldwin — even though the latter choice would have been manifestly nuts.)

Although the decay of the studio system liberated filmmakers to explore marriage and its discontents in a more realistic way, they seldom did so. Instead, “films began to be more and more about men, with fewer great female stars and fewer roles for the ones that existed,” Basinger writes. Depictions of marriage became largely the province of television, although many of the families portrayed there — from the farcical high jinks of “I Love Lucy” to the idealized domesticity of “Father Knows Best” — were not especially believable. The female audiences that once turned out to theaters to see countless “programmers” (inexpensive films about regular people’s lives), watched small-screen versions at home instead. In recent years, the Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie vehicle “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” had to juice up the couple’s marital conflict with explosions and automatic weapons (the characters are both paid assassins) to make the subject exciting enough for a film audience dominated by the tastes of teenage boys.

It was on television that Basinger finally found her personal holy grail; she writes of the dramatic series “Friday Night Lights,” “it’s possible that there’s never been a more honest and natural marriage portrayed in film or television.” Where the movies had to up the narrative ante by tempting Greta Garbo with lotharios in sultry Asian settings or tormenting Joan Fontaine with the fear that Cary Grant was trying to murder her or subjecting countless other cinematic couples to the stress of wealth (rich people, as Basinger points out, almost always have bad marriages in Hollywood films), Coach Taylor and his wife, Tami, enjoy a rock-solid partnership. Yes, they sometimes fight and their marriage requires much negotiation, patience and strategizing, but there are “no clever plot twists,” Basinger marvels, “no dream episodes, no other woman or man, no cheap theatrics or misunderstandings.”

As Basinger sees it, marriage fell through the cinematic cracks. In the studio era, it was too commonplace and obligatory to interest audiences seeking a fantasy getaway. Now it’s too inconsequential to hang a sufficiently high-stakes plot on. It has become a thoroughly optional condition that can be easily abandoned should it prove inconvenient or confining. Still, a long, happy marriage is something many (if not most) people dream of attaining. “Marriage movies are hard to make,” Basinger concludes, because marriage itself is a “locked-room mystery” that even the two people who belong to it probably don’t entirely understand. Yet Basinger herself seems to have a pretty good grasp of what a real marriage looks like; she recognizes it in “Friday Night Lights,” after all. It’s not that this story can’t be told; it’s that some screens are just too big for it.

Laura Miller

Laura Miller is a senior writer for Salon. She is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia" and has a Web site, magiciansbook.com.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>