Diary of a Mad Housewife (1970)


By Richard Winters

My Rating: 9 out of 10

4-Word Review: Married to a jerk.

Director Frank Perry may not be a name one throws out when mentioning some of the top directors, but a lot of his early work that he did with his screenwriter wife Eleanor were definite forerunners of the independent film movement and ahead of their time. David and Lisa was their first and it dealt with the budding romance between two patients at a mental hospital. Ladybug Ladybug was their follow-up and it was the true story of what happens when an errant nuclear warning siren goes off and the staff and students of a small rural school think it is for real. There was also the critically acclaimed film Last Summer dealing with the brutal gang rape of a teen girl by her so called ‘friends’.  They also did the revisionist western Doc starring Stacy Keach as well as the brilliantly quirky Rancho Deluxe.  However, it is Diary of a Mad Housewife that I find to be their very best.

It is the story based on the best-selling novel by Sue Kaufman dealing with the character of Tina Balser.  On the outside she seems to be living the American dream. She is married to a up and coming lawyer, living in a swank Manhattan apartment, and the mother of two beautiful girls.  Unfortunately the husband is an obnoxious bore, the girls are spoiled and mouthy, and she feels lonely and depressed.  She decides to have an affair with a novelist, but he ends up treating her just as poorly and when she tells her troubles to a support group, they end up doing the same.

I have seen this film many times over the past twenty years and am always impressed at the fluid way it goes between satire and drama as well as the fact that it doesn’t seem dated at all. The scenes with Richard Benjamin as the jerk husband are hilariously over-the-top.  Yet the scenes involving Frank Langella as the lover who is bitter about his lagging writing career and repressed homosexuality and takes these frustrations out on Tina, are just as interesting, but in a much more subtle way.  In fact these scenes feature some great dialogue and character development and I find them more intriguing with each viewing.  Langella, in his film debut, makes a lasting impression.

The cinematography, editing, and color schemes are also first-rate. Perry does a great job in infusing the counter-culture movement of the time with the old values of marriage and family. The mod party that they go to is well staged with scantily clad mannequins in a provocative poses placed throughout.  The pretentious attitudes of the party goers is nicely captured.  This scene also features the Alice Cooper Band as well as giant pillow fight.

Carrie Snodgrass performance is what really makes this work.  She was nominated for the Academy Award and she should have won it. Her ability to display her characters feelings through such subtle methods as facial expressions, body gestures, and reactions is impressive.  The viewer can easily relate to the character and feel her pain.  Rock singer Neil Young was so impressed with her that he wrote her a fan letter and the two ended up getting into a relationship. Unfortunately because of this she dropped out of Hollywood and didn’t do another movie until almost nine years later.  When she returned all the top roles were no longer accessible and she was relegated to ‘B’ movies and small supporting roles until finally succumbing to cancer in 2004. This was a real shame because her talents were never fully utilized, but at least this was a perfect vehicle for her and one that movie fans today can really appreciate.

In the end though what makes this film so very good is that it makes a great statement on the fact that isolation is a part of modern day living and at some point everyone will have to deal with.  Getting married, having kids, even having a lover or a support group will not necessarily be an effective buffer and may actually only exacerbate it. The whole film kind of reminded me of a statement made by a character on the old ‘Ally McBeal’ TV-show “My loneliest times in life are when someone is lying in bed next to me.”

My Rating: 9 out of 10

Released: August 10, 1970

Runtime: 1Hour 43Minutes (Theater Version) 1Hour 35Minutes (TV Version)

Rated R

Director: Frank Perry

Studio: Universal

Available: VHS

9 responses to “Diary of a Mad Housewife (1970)

  1. This is a nicely written review! I loved it!

  2. Never released on DVD , used VHS on amazon starts at 10$ and new at 119. Eleanor and Perry were an awesome team who deserve their accolades in the legend of cinema. The Swimmer with Burt Lancaster is one of the most chilling character studies ever put on screen and they adapted the whole thing from a five page short story. A majorly talented team.

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  5. Joseph Kearny

    Though Five Easy Pieces, Patton, Airport, MASH and Love Story were the Best Picture nominees in 1970 Diary of a Mad Housewife deserved the award more as did Snodgress who’s terrific and this is Perry’s most accomplished film.

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