Jeanine Basinger has been happily married for 45 years, so she knows a lot about how to make a marriage work. Basinger, the founder and director of the Film Studies Department at Wesleyan University in Middletown, also knows a lot about marriage movies, and what makes them work.
"People in the audience are familar with marriage, whether they are married or not, so it's a problem if it's just too fake," Basinger says."If their problems are solved too early, if there is no serious problem, if they do not behave the way married people actually behave."
Moviegoers' familiarity with the concept of marriage is a blessing and a curse: Audiences can relate to the concept immediately, but they also can spot what's phony a mile away, and they won't tolerate fantasy in the way they'd tolerate it in another genre.
In her new book, "I Do and I Don't: A History of Marriage in the Movies" (Knopf; 395 pp., $30), Basinger meticulously dissects just about every American movie from the sound era that is about marriage. That, all by itself, proved to be a challenge.
"Marriage just isn't there in the history of film in the way that other genres are. It's kind of a phantom genre, the genre that dare not speak its name," says Basinger, whose previous books were about the film "It's a Wonderful Life," silent stars, the star system, women's movies, World War II combat films, Shirley Temple and Anthony Mann. "When you do historical research through the advertising materials or movie magazines of the past ... films are all clearly labeled by genre. ... But there is no marriage film.
"People went to the movies to escape and have fun and excitement or maybe a sad ending where they could cry, a story that takes them out of their lives in some way. But marriage is the only story that the audience knows better than the filmmakers. Hollywood felt ... they needed to sneak up on the audience a little bit ... to tell the marriage story in a kind of covert way."
Marriage Themes Buried
Basinger found that film marketers, aware of audience familiarity with the concept, buried marriage themes in promotional materials.
So for example, the poster for the 1934 version of "The Painted Veil," which is about a marriage derailed by infidelity, plays up the casting of Greta Garbo — "the star whose flame fires the world!" — and makes no mention of marriage. The poster for the 1939 drama "Made for Each Other" prominently displays its stars, Carole Lombard and James Stewart, and promises "heartbreak, laughter, melodrama." Inconspicuously, down in the corner, is a small photo of a baby. The 1941 drama "Penny Serenade" hid its central message — that some marriages are doomed without children — under pretty music, flashy subplots and great casting, including Cary Grant and Irene Dunne.
Basinger also found that movie lovers she talked to often didn't know what a "marriage movie" is. She gave as an example a film such as "The Thin Man." That movie series, about a married couple who solved crimes, isn't a marriage movie but a whodunit.
"The average person talking about a film is not a historian or critic or analyst. They're just an average person. They remember what they remember. With 'The Thin Man,' you remember William Powell and Myrna Loy as the husband and wife. Who ever remembers the plot of a detective movie?" she says. "It's a triumph of stardom that they remember, but those films are not about marriage."
Still, marriage is all over the film scene. After spending three years watching movies and plowing through reams of misleading advertising and promotional materials, Basinger zeroes in on hundreds of movies, bad and good, whose plots are about marriage, marriage and only marriage.
These movies have common conflicts that set husbands and wives against each other: money, infidelity, in-laws and kids, class differences, incompatibility (competition, control or communication), addiction and, most ominous, one's desire to murder the other. Also, marriage movies can be divided in two groups: the "I do" movies, about a marriage, and the "I don't" movies, about divorce.
"Dodsworth," from 1936, starring Walter Huston and Ruth Chatterton, is an example of both, the story of a long marriage that finally, slowly and sadly falls apart. "The marriage does not endure even though it has endured for years. When Dodsworth sells his auto factory, he's very rich. He and his wife take a Grand Tour to Europe and everything changes," Basinger says. "It tells the story of a couple who had never really understood one another or communicated to each other. ... Removed from its small-town cocoon of regular life, it just completely falls apart."
Another great marriage movie is "The Marrying Kind," the 1952 comic drama starring Judy Holliday and Aldo Ray. The story begins in divorce court and moves backwards, to discover the answer to the ultimate question hovering over every divorce movie: "What happened to us?"
"It's hilarious and deeply touching. There is a lot of honesty in it," Basinger says. "Judy Holliday and Aldo Ray are a Hepburn and Tracy for the masses." Another marriage movie that gets high praise is "Mr. & Mrs. Bridge," the 1990 drama starring Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, which "depicts a steady relationship that has no real communication between its couple," Basinger writes in her book. Another excellent marriage movie is "Two for the Road," a 1967 Audrey Hepburn-Albert Finney road movie about a couple and their troubled 10-year marriage.
The Ideal Couple
"They are together. They know each others' moods and rhythms. They are a pair who has accepted each others' flaws. They move through the world and they bicker and are cranky. But let something threaten the two of them from the outside, and they pull together instantly and go on the attack," she says. "They endure. They are side by side in completely unified action."
In the modern day, the sexual revolution took a lot of steam out of another genre, the romantic comedy, slowly crippling that genre and strengthening the footing of marriage movies. But at the same time, in the last few decades, TV has stepped up strongly in honest depictions of married couples, in ways that movies are incapable of.
"TV doesn't have to create a story arc where things happen and get ruined and get put back together in a 90- to 100-minute format. TV can show you a marriage over months and everything doesn't have to be dramatized and doesn't have to zero in on one single terrible event. It's more day to day, good one day, bad the next," she says. "Marriage needs time. Movies don't have time to give it."
"That marriage was beautifully written and acted. It was a real marriage," she says. "These people behaved in a way that married people behave. ... It's a great series otherwise, too."
Basinger is madly in love with the strictly heterosexual Golden Age of Cinema. Still, she gives shout-outs to contemporary films with same-sex couples, legally married or not. She raves about the relationship between J. Edgar Hoover and Clyde Tolson in "J. Edgar," from 2011, which director Clint Eastwood left ambiguous, as "one of the best portraits of a marriage relationship that has been seen in the motion picture." Domestic and intimate scenes between the two men, she writes, "are about silent communication, years of shared experience, secret confidences and common ideas."
Basinger is reserved in her praise for "The Kids Are All Right," from 2010. "The couple (lesbians) and the kids (father by the same sperm donor) seem to be very new indeed, but the movie plot might easily have been concocted in 1935," she writes. She also was let down by 2002's "Far From Heaven," set in 1950s Connecticut, but she praised it for bringing "the issues of homosexuality and racism out of the category of implied subtext."
Although her book is about movies that are all about marriage, she praises a few films of other genres for their "little yoo-hoos of honesty" about marriage, including the Coen Brothers' "Fargo" and the same-sex comedy "The Birdcage," both from 1996.
Considering she's spent three years researching marriage, and 45 years living one with John Basinger (a retired college teacher know for performing Milton's 60,000 word poem "Paradise Lost" from memory), she must have some insight into what makes a marriage work.
"We get along. We talk to each other. We make each other laugh. We have common interests, and we have interests apart from each other and do a lot of things separately," she says. "When we come home at night, we have many things to tell each other. My husband is never boring, and I trust he feels the same about me.
"Marriage is a mystery. Sometimes it's a mystery to the people in it, too," Basinger said. "One of the things you learn from a marriage movie is that you can get a big shock, like someone who is married a long time running off with the girl who works in the ice-cream shop. Who knows? I may run off with the Good Humor man. You never know."
From School To College
Wesleyan's film studies program is known all over the world for excellence, so much so that even seasoned film-industry professionals assume it is a bigger school than it is.
"I'm a trustee of the American Film Institute. Only yesterday at the board meeting, we were comparing grad schools in film. The others said to me, 'Jeanine, what about your grad school?' I said 'We're an undergraduate film major.' They were all saying 'Oh, my God'," Basinger says, laughing. "We are ranked with the biggest grad schools internationally."
In recognition of this status, Wesleyan recently established the College of Film and the Moving Image. That college will encompass the film school, its film series, the Wesleyan Cinema Archive and the Center for Film Studies. It joins Wesleyan's College of Letters, College of the Environment and College of Social Studies in the roster of interdisciplinary colleges on the Middletown campus.
Basinger — whose official title is Corwin-Fuller Professor of Film Studies and founder and curator of the Wesleyan Cinema Archives — says she appreciates the confidence that Wesleyan President Michael Roth has shown by boosting the film school's status in the university community. She says that at least for now, little will change in the educational and archival operation.
"The College of Film and the Moving Image is a recognition title of something the Department of Film Studies and the Center for Film Studies and the Wesleyan Cinema Archive already kind of represented," she says. "It's really a nomenclature issue."
Wesleyan's film program, which added a minor last fall, differs from many other film schools in that it offers not just film-production training, but provides those classes within the context of a liberal-arts education. That will continue, Basinger says.
She says that the new status "will afford us to work together and do more things ... in a better-organized manner."