Recent events have led me to wonder when, and indeed if, same-sex marriage will be a theme taken up by Hollywood. To gain perspective, I took the opportunity to pull down a never read book from my shelf, I Do and I Don’t A History of Marriage in the Movies by Jeanine Basinger.
I’m a fan of Basinger’s, having read her book, The Star Machine, which is an account of how the studio and post studio systems manufactured stardom.
Hollywood almost always markets movies about marriage as if they were movies about romance, even if the couple are already married when the film opens and the movie is really not about courtship. Basinger also notes the interesting sub genre of the wedding movie, which covers plans for the ceremony, the clothes, the families, but which stops short of peering into the marriage itself.
Basinger points out that an important meme in marriage movies has always been furniture and clothes. Hollywood operates by a kind of materialist sleight of hand. It tries to persuade moviegoers that seeing glamorous clothes or beautifully appointed rooms is the existential equivalent of having them. Just like interior design tomes, suitable for coffee table display, function as wish books…possessing the book, or buying a ticket, becomes the magical equivalent of owning the dream.
Basinger’s technique is to pile on the details. I’m a fan of old movies. But even I was gobsmacked by the number of films about marriage that I had never heard of.
The meaning of the title, incidentally, is that marriage movies end in one of two ways, the marriage is affirmed (I do) or it’s destroyed (I don’t). The Hollywood focus has mostly been on persuading the audience to affirm the marriage bond.
I’ve always loved Basinger’s obsessiveness…mostly. Based on her watching hundreds of movies about marriage, here are the seven issues of marriage that keep recurring. Keep in mind that this is “according to Hollywood”.
Money: the single most important cause of marital stress. Hollywood realized that in making pictures about marriage it was treating a subject with which almost everyone in the audience would be familiar, and that the viewer would try to relate what they saw on the screen to their own marriage.
Infidelity or Adultery: Quoting…”outside the domestic window, the grass is always greener.” This can be a brief dalliance, immediately regretted, or a long drawn out affair. This issue and money are the most common marital problems according to the movies.
In laws and children: The baggage of marriage…”The movies clearly teach that the ideal mate would be an orphan.” This issue is usually not a major focus of marriage movies. It comes up more like a sideshow.
Incompatibility: Clashes of temperament or habits. Movies suggest that you don’t discover this issue until after you are married.
Class: Basinger says that although Americans claim to have no class distinctions, the movies are saying otherwise. In one old forties movie cited, A Letter to Three Wives, a woman who has moved up the social ladder finds herself embarrassed because her clothes are not up to the standards of her husband’s country club. Hint: avoid ruffles. Hollywood teaches that movement between classes is always a mistake, whether the character moves up or down the social scale.
Addiction: This ruins everything. Movies show that the addicted character must either reform or die.
Murder: This is the most far-fetched. Basinger seems to throw up her hands at this cause of marital friction. You’d think the threat of murder within marriages would be extremely rare, but according to the movies, it was common. Movies about husbands plotting to kill their wives (mostly) always seemed to work with audiences.
Conflict in the depiction of marriage was usually necessary for the sake of telling a good story. The basic plot movement was presentation of the issue(s) and then a demonstration of their resolution. In many cases for traditional Hollywood movies, the restoration of the marriage was hard to believe, considering what the plot had put the characters through. But most marriage movies in old Hollywood had to end with restoration of the marriage bond. Hollywood wanted to tell the audience: No matter how much hardship you were enduring in your marriage, it was almost always worth sticking with it.
Hollywood was always astute at balancing the story with its subtext. For much of the history of the marriage movie, the subtext was sex. It couldn’t be explicitly depicted for many decades, either within the marriage bond or outside it.
The best movie about infidelity that I’ve seen, discussed by Basinger of course, is the British classic, Brief Encounter. A lonely suburban wife meets a doctor at a train station who assists in removing a cinder from her eye. A friendship forms and they arrange to meet secretly as they undertake routine trips through the transit system as the cover story for their spouses. At one point they are in a flat together. But it’s not clear that they have actually slept together. The audience may guess as it likes and the movie is stronger for it.