Bonus Chapter! (i.e. deemed unfit for publication!)Posted: June 9, 2009
Well, maybe “unfit” is harsh; in truth, my intrepid editor suggested I exclude this as one of the “Recommended Viewing” chapters of the book. Why? Because I can’t, in all good conscience, recommend the movie. The impact of Helen Gurley Brown and Sex and the Single Girl on Mad Men is impossible to dismiss. And yet it is quite easy to dismiss this wrongheaded attempt to adapt it for the big screen.
However, I am a fan of recycling (and I hate to waste writing), so please enjoy this excised chapter from Kings of Madison Avenue, both on its own and as a taste of what to expect in the book.
Sex and the Single Girl
The allure of an “unfilmable” best-seller is often too great for a movie studio to ignore, provided the sales are enough to warrant the effort. Helen Gurley Brown’s risque magnum opus wouldn’t strike anyone as material too weighty to defy Hollywood adaptation (which explains no dramatic versions of Unsafe at Any Speed or The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich) but in an industry powered by the three act dramatic structure, a manual comprised of frothy vignettes does not offer a ready-made story arc that leads to a happy ending.
Pity the poor Hollywood screenwriter. Charged with the task of constructing a viable story whose only purpose is to make a movie that a studio can release with the same provocative title as a recent best-seller, it is no wonder that what unspools bears little of the kittenish empowerment found in Brown’s book. It is even less surprising that a story concocted by a seasoned television writer relies on mistaken identities, sledgehammer satire and a multi-vehicle chase-to-the-airport finale while missing the point of Brown’s French-tipped feminist manifesto by making the women characters look and sound like flibbertigibbety twits. And even less surprising is the complete failure of the film. Joseph Hoffman (Leave it to Beaver, My Three Sons, The Patty Duke Show) cast the die on the film by concocting a number of tissue-paper-thin characters involved in an increasingly frenetic number of crossed-purposes that is reminiscent of Shakespearean farce produced by a high school dramatic club, or a lazy episode of Love, American Style (to which he also contributed).
There are precisely two shocks in the entire enterprise: the caliber of talent involved in this weak pastel-coloured romp and how little of Helen Gurley Brown’s book (and actual biography) play in the final result.
No one would confuse director Richard Quine with a brilliant iconoclast like Billy Wilder (The Apartment, Sabrina) or suggest he had the same effortless touch as Stanley Donen (An American in Paris, Funny Face). But he distinguished himself as a reliable hired gun whose Shaker chair-style direction never intruded on enjoyable studio pictures that were representative of their time (Bell, Book and Candle, So This is Paris) but lacked the light touch or jaundiced eye that might have lifted Sex and the Single Girl to the level of a solid Rock Hudson/Doris Day programmer.
Screen legends Henry Fonda and Lauren Bacall look profoundly uncomfortable as the older married couple presented to dramatize the troubles of married life. Although at least Bacall delivers some spicy dialogue that sounds right framed by her trademark husky voice; as a hosiery salesman too busy to even think about infidelity, Fonda walks through the film as if wearing a suit lined with asbestos. The less said about the starchy frug he unleashes on the dance floor the better, even if he is backed by the Count Basie Orchestra.
The strangest name attached to this endeavor is Joseph Heller, author of Catch-22 and noted jet-back satirist non paraliel. This film is one of Heller’s few screenwriting credits, along with the Frank Sinatra comedy-western Dirty Dingus McGee and an uncredited polish on the James Bond spoof Casino Royale, and even though the quality of these efforts fails to match the National Book Award-finalist level of his first novel, it does suggest that his ironic sensibility does not translate well to the screen. Although his suitability in scripting this big-screen sitcom might have a better antecedent in his first screen credit, an episode of McHale’s Navy.
The passing acquaintance the film has with the book and reality are quite astounding. In the film, Bob Weston (Tony Curtis) is the gleefully unscrupulous editor of gossip rag STOP magazine, which has recently published a salacious article on young female psychologist Dr. Helen Brown (Natalie Wood) recently catapulted to stardom through the publication of her book Sex and the Single Girl. Not only does the article attack her credibility as a reasoned voice on the subject of male-female relations, it also debunks the work she performs at the International Institute of Advanced Marital and Pre-Marital Studies (“Dr. Helen Brown: Juvenile or Delinquent?”). Weston suggests personally writing a follow-up article to tarnish her reputation further by asking the all-important question of whether or not she’s a virgin. To that end he sneaks into her office at the institute under the disguise of unhappy husband Henry Fonda, describing the man’s marital ills as his own so that he might catch the young Dr. Brown unawares and gobsmack her with his rakish charm and answer the question: does she or doesn’t she?
Identities are mixed. “Hilarity” ensues.
Now I hate to ruin a good story by casting a weary eye on the facts, but as this film isn’t within miles of a good story, I’ll continue. To wit:
1. Helen Gurley Brown was not a psychologist.
2. She did not work for any such institute.
3. She was forty years-old at the time of publication and no one’s idea of a “juvenile”.
4. After reading her book, there was no doubt whether she did or didn’t.
The only thing the filmmakers got right was the cigarette holder Natalie Wood uses throughout. Otherwise, the character of Dr. Helen Brown is a fidgety, neurotic bundle of twine who, get this for irony, is just as loopy as the patients she treats! And despite a “happy” ending where inveterate womanizer Bob Weston changes his ways, against all logic and common sense, for the woman he loves, is the tacit argument that this upstart Dr. Brown and her nutty ideas on female emancipation are ruining it for swinging men everywhere. The filmmakers might mouth the argument of the original source material, but every female character in the film is half the Gurleyean girl: all definition of self through men with none of the independence.
This is no more evident than in Natalie Wood’s performance. A gifted actress with a knack for this sort of soufflé, she suffers through what I can only call the inversion of the Oscar-bait acting gig: instead of assaying a real person to receive accolades for a brave and accurate portrayal, we have a caricature substituting for the real thing and looking pale by comparison. Inventions for a sex farce are one thing, but when a protagonist bears the name of a publically-known entity and is the antipathy of that person (weak where the other is strong, savvy where the other is bookish, foolish where the other is wise) then criticism is not only invited but expected.
The only redeeming quality, and one notable for the Mad Men fan, is the set design by Edward G. Boyle (How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, The Thomas Crown Affair). His design for the offices of STOP Magazine is a knowing modification of his similar setting for Academy Award-winning Billy Wilder film The Apartment. Where that film’s design explored the dehumanizing effect of fluorescent light banks and desk farms, the scope here is smaller and warmer without losing any of the sophistication; it looks as though Sterling Cooper could occupy the offices one floor above STOP Magazine.
But it is there that any comparison between Mad Men and Sex and the Single Girl halts.
Yes, it’s only a film. And if it were a good film, then all could be forgiven. But it is not a good film, so it is not forgiven.