#1 — Marriage is for suckers
This one needs a thousand words of its own, at least, but here goes:
The groom might have been a tad reluctant, but as far as female characters (and audiences, and studio heads were concerned) marriage was almost always the end game in movies. 1955′s The Tender Trap is the exception that proves the rule, and even it has a happy (that is, matrimonial) ending (while nevertheless leaving a bitter aftertaste.)
If marriages failed, like in Dodsworth, the couple was to blame, not the institution.
Cynical, fatalistic post-war films noir more or less invented the now-ubiquitious “dark underbelly of the American dream” trope, with its “who can say what’s right and wrong?” subtext.
So I can’t blame Boomers for that corrosive cliche, as much as I’d like to; no matter how worthy a number of them are, how many more “suburbia is crawling with horrible secrets” movies — The Ice Storm, Donny Darko, Blue Velvet, American Beauty — can we take?
(Especially when you consider that the characters of British “kitchen sink” cinema at the time, still “living” under rationing in a rundown nation in which widespread home, appliance or car ownership — and even in parts of London, indoor plumbing — was unheard of) would have gladly traded places with their whining gilded-cage U.S. counterparts on Revolutionary Road.)
It was just a simple step from bashing suburbia to denigrating its raison d’etre, matrimony.
Just like any old fashioned romance, The Graduate (1967) concludes with a wedding — sort of.
Our hero kidnaps the woman he loves just as she’s about to marry another.
We all cheer and they’re thrilled with themselves… for about 30 seconds:
Many other 60s and 70s films begin where The Graduate ends. Marriage is a “bummer.” Domesticity is boring. Divorce isn’t the end of the world. Heck, you don’t even have to “go to Reno” to do it anymore:
It’s really tough to hand a first-place ribbon to any particular movie in this category of films, which helped normalize and sanction attitudes and behaviors that poisoned untold millions of children, never mind adults.
Scenes from a Marriage (1973) played art houses, and despite its title, 1967′s Divorce American Style doesn’t quite live up to its title.
Did any man really want to end up like the guys in The Odd Couple (1968)?
That said, Neil Simon deserves some blame for popularizing the acceptance of marriage/divorce culture of the era, as a mere glance at his credits indicates.
While it pains me to do so, I’m obliged to cite An Unmarried Woman as one of the most (unintentionally) destructive movies in this category.
My respect for Jill Clayburgh is a matter of record. Her performance in this film in particular is one for the ages. What a contrast to the simpering Tina in Diary of a Mad Housewife, released six years earlier. American women sure had “come a long way” baby in a very short time.
Her face’s metamorphosis when she’s unceremoniously dumped by her husband in the middle of a busy morning rush hour street is the precise cinematic counterpoint to Garbo’s famously frozen, enigmatic visage at the conclusion of Queen Christina, but just as memorable, as her New York Times obituary noted in 2010:
In the most famous scene in Jill Clayburgh’s most influential movie, her character reacted to the news that her husband wanted to leave her. Ms. Clayburgh’s Erica responded with such naturalness, confusion and wounded pride that she captured the imagination of a generation.
“As Miss Clayburgh plays this scene,” Vincent Canby wrote about “An Unmarried Woman” in 1978, “one has a vision of all the immutable things that can be destroyed in less than a minute, from landscapes and ships and reputations to perfect marriages.” But she proved that a reputation could be made in less than a minute too.
Clayburgh’s character and her daughter endure great suffering and confusion. Her first forays into the singles scene are excruciating. This is not a pro-divorce movie.
Can anyone deny that the iconic vision of Clayburgh at the very end of the film, draped in sexy, flowing white and maneuvering her new lover’s giant canvas along (another) busy street without a single misstep, isn’t downright aspirational?
How bad can divorce be if you end up looking this amazing?