Moviecrazed
  Web www.moviecrazed.com   

 



MY DINNER WITH FRANK AND ELEANOR

Director Frank Perry and his wife, screenwriter Eleanor Perry, were a hot movie couple when I talked with them for The New York Times in 1970. And, as Eleanor pointed out, they were quite an odd couple in many other respects. Not all that long after this interview, the Perrys uncoupled, and now they are no longer with us. I miss them, and I miss their quirky, passionate style of filmmaking. --GUY FLATLEY


"They say you’re supposed to work out all your neuroses in your first marriage, so that you’ll be marvelous in your second marriage,” she says, smiling sweetly across the dining room table at her husband.

“Second marriage?” scoffs her husband. “I should live so long!”

“You’ll live, dear.”

Liz and Dickie? Sibyl and Jordan? Jackie and Ari? Vicky and Tiny? Give up? It’s the Perrys – Eleanor and Frank – and they’re talking marriage because that’s what their new movie is all about. And, as always – from “David and Lisa” in 1962 to “Last Summer” in 1969 – Eleanor is crafting the words and Frank is calling the directorial shots, this time on “Diary of a Mad Housewife,” based on Sue Kaufman’s novel about a bored-to-tears woman who takes a lover when her husband becomes blindly devoted to getting ahead. (Frank, holding a coffee mug, is shown at top with "Mad Housewife" cinematographer Gerald Hirschfeld, and Eleanor is just beneath them.)

“I honestly don’t feel that the marriage in the film is at all like ours,” Eleanor says. She is an attractive woman with graying hair who seems not the least reluctant to admit that she is 53. “But it is a little like my first marriage.”

“I don’t think that it bears any resemblance to your first marriage,” says Frank, clasping his hands. “And I’m reasonably familiar with your first marriage.”

“You sure are,” says Eleanor with a grin. The dinner dishes have been cleared away by a motherly servant and now, at the end of a high-pressure day on an Upper West Side movie set, the Perrys – with the aid of candlelight and red wine – unwind in the comfort of their Central Park South apartment.

“Our marriage is offbeat, Frank. I mean, my having a son almost as old as you, and a daughter in her twenties.”

“Nonsense, you’re very young,” says Frank, who is 39, has black hippie-length hair, a moustache and sometimes wears love beads.
“My screenplay for ‘Diary’ goes pretty tough on the husband,” says Eleanor, who has been happily married to Frank for 10 years. “But you know that never for a moment was it meant to be you.”

“I know, my angel.”

“The husband in the movie is absurd,” Eleanor says, “and yet I find myself very moved by him. He strives so hard to get what he wants and when he finally gets it, what does he really have? He’s so funny and yet so sad. You laugh, but your heart is breaking for him at the same time.”

“I call it a hard-ass comedy,” Frank says.

Eleanor looks pained, as though her husband had passed gas in public. “Oh, Frank, don’t say that. What does it mean, anyway – to say that it’s a hard-ass comedy? I don’t understand that.”

“It means it’s hard-ass,” says Frank.

“I consider it satiric,” she says thoughtfully.

“Well, neither the cast nor the director is treating it as satire, dear. It’s being done truthfully; satire comes too easily. I tell my actors that none of them has a right to make comments about the characters they are playing. What makes them big enough to make snot-nose fun of American marriage?”

“In the novel, the husband and wife stay together,” says Eleanor, half-changing the subject. “The husband decides to go into analysis. But that’s such a simple-minded ending. Our ending is totally ambiguous.”

“No! No! No!” differs Frank.

“Well, it is ambiguous, darling. People will leave the theater arguing about whether they stay together.”

Just as moviegoers left the theater arguing about “Last Summer,” the disturbing drama that put the Perrys back on top after a run of bad luck and medium-to-bad pictures. It concluded with the horrifying rape of a sensitive ugly-duckling by three aimless youths whose friendship she had desperately sought. What were the Perrys trying to say? That the brutal adolescents were in fact victims of a cold-blooded, materialistic society and were doing precisely what they had been conditioned to do? Or that evil is an integral part of man’s nature and can erupt without warning at a dismayingly tender age?

“The real point of the film is that there is always a moral choice,” says Frank, with force. “Those kids made their own choice, and to blame their parents, or pot, is a cop-out. The rape is the responsibility of certain individuals in a certain time and a certain place. And they must assume the guilt for what they have done.”

“I agree totally,” says Eleanor. “It’s true that the kids had no heroes, no guardians, no authority figures, but they did know right from wrong. It’s hideous to grow older and older and continue to blame your parents. When I was a girl, all I wanted to do was grow up and have the privileges and the responsibilities of adulthood.”

“I don’t think it’s any tougher being a kid today than it ever was,” Frank says. “As a matter of fact, it’s easier. I never had any privileges. Today, everything is The Kids – let’s see what The Kids think. What a bore!”

“But you know, Frank, it really is better than it was in my day, when you were supposed to shut up until you grew up. I admit I don’t understand what today’s drug culture is all about, but the sex stuff is the same as it was then. Only, in my day, it was such a trauma if anybody found out you were sleeping with somebody.”

“Oh, really?” says Frank in astonishment.

“Young people were very political in those days, too. Oh, God, were we ever active! I can remember a picture of me in the newspaper – I was demonstrating outside a factory in Cleveland, wearing my raccoon coat and carrying a sign saying ‘Books, Not Battleships.’ We knew that people were building bomb shelters in London but we said, ‘That’s ridiculous! Who would ever drop bombs on people?’ That was 1938, and we thought there would be no more wars. Yes, we demonstrated, but in the most polite way.”

Eleanor laughs softly and her brown eyes glow with the memory of those impetuous years. “I can still remember picketing with Robert Newman – Paul Newman’s cousin. I was very much in love with him, and when he went off to school at M.I.T., we wrote to each other every day. Then one day I received a brown envelope in the mail, and when I opened it, out fell all this hair!”

Eleanor makes a wounded face. “Conservative students had shaved Robert’s head and he sent his hair to me. If I’m not mistaken, that was the end of our affair. Today, Robert is a reactionary.”

The phone rings, and when Eleanor leaves the room, Frank sighs deeply and says, “My wife is the best screenwriter in America, and yet she didn’t get an Oscar nomination for ‘Last Summer.’ Hollywood was too busy denying the revolution that has taken place within the last year to notice her work. The big studios have become dinosaurs, artifacts. I confess that I take a certain amount of pride in the fact that ‘David and Lisa’ was the first low-budget independent American film to achieve a major commercial success and that, in a way, it was the beginning of the revolution. Today there are far more movies being made in New York than in Hollywood. It’s not just a simple matter of geography; it’s a matter of the gestalt of a place. And the gestalt of anywhere in the world is better than the gestalt of Hollywood.”

The Perrys have a right to be bitter. They have known, close-up, the heartbreak of Hollywood – even though they have never made a movie there. Much more painful than making a movie in Hollywood is having your movie made over there, which is what happened to Frank and Eleanor in 1967. “The Swimmer,” based on John Cheever’s story of an aging suburbanite who is suddenly forced to face certain ugly truths about himself, was begun with the highest of hopes but it turned out to be the movie which nearly sank the Perrys.

“What was on the screen, by actual count – was less than 50 per cent my work,” says Frank. “Three other directors worked on it in Hollywood. Sydney Pollack re-shot Barbara Loden’s big scene, using Janice Rule in her place. It was the scene where Burt Lancaster comes to his former mistress, hoping that there is still some warmth, some love, and she tells him that there was never really anything, that she hadn’t even enjoyed sex with him. Barbara wiped that scene up. Maybe she was too good. When Eleanor and I heard she was being cut, we called Sam Spiegel, the producer, in Paris and told him Barbara was marvelous, that the movie would undoubtedly make her a sensational star. She was magnificent, but not according to Gadge Kazan.”

“But we don’t really know where Gadge fits into the picture,” says Eleanor, back from her telephone chat with her son, a budding filmmaker.

“Well, there was something strange,” says Frank with a dark frown. “A man’s in love with a girl and yet he can’t see that she’s giving a great performance? And then he doesn’t give her a chance to be in ‘The Arrangement,’ when it’s her story!”

“Why go into all that now?” asks Eleanor. “It’s past history.”

“At the time – just before ‘The Swimmer’ opened – I considered running an ad in The Times saying, ‘This is not my picture.’ My decision to keep my mouth shut stemmed from a distaste for washing laundry in public. After all, I had relinquished my right of final cut, so legally I had no bitch.”

“It is heartbreaking, though,” says Eleanor, shaking her head sadly.
“Sam Spiegel spread the word around that my first cut was only 54 minutes.”

“That’s ludicrous!” Eleanor says in outrage. “Nobody makes a cut that’s only 54 minutes. Frank’s first cut was 94 minutes. We kept adding scenes and Sam kept cutting them. We told him that it was going to be too short.”

“But Sam would say ‘I don’t want all those swimming pools. Shorten it.'"

“Oh, Frank, I hate bringing up the past this way. It’s like picking at scabs.”

“The fact is, Sam panicked. He had signed with Columbia to do a number of small films – with a ‘spectacular’ every four years or so, just to keep the yacht afloat. The first three pictures were disasters: ‘The Chase,’ ‘Night of the Generals’ and ‘The Happening,’ about which [New York Times critic] Bosley Crowther said, ‘Sam Spiegel should hang his head in shame.’ It was under that onus that Sam came to deal with me. And one of the things that upset him most of all was the way that Eleanor and I got along so well together. ‘No good film can ever be made without screaming and abrasiveness,’ he said."

“Oh, let’s forget it, Frank.”

“When something went remotely wrong on the set, I would look to my lieutenants and find them absent because they were all on the telephone with daddy Sam. There was a savagery in the air. I guess it’s what Hollywood is like – everyone looking for the brass ring. Only, the brass ring is not a good movie; it’s a favor with the establishment, with the big man. Oh, it’s easy enough to be charitable about Sam Spiegel now, but as [movie director] Aram Avakian used to say, ‘Sam Spiegel left Frank Perry for dead.”

“I think Sam would act entirely differently today,” Eleanor says. “We ran into him at Cannes last year, and we all kissed and hugged, and he invited us to come on his boat.”

“We will never set foot on that yacht.” Frank manages a smile, but his cheeks are flushed, his eyes cold.

The Perrys seem more at ease talking about “Diary of a Mad Housewife.” They are rhapsodic in their praise of Richard Benjamin, who plays the ambitious husband, and Carrie Snodgress, who acts the frustrated wife. And Frank doesn’t mind mentioning that Universal has given him a free hand – and final cut.

“Diary of a Mad Housewife” deals not only with the madness of being a housewife, but also with the madness of struggling for survival in mucked-up Manhattan. “We’re trying to capture the rudeness, the noisiness, the ghastliness of living in New York,” Eleanor says. “The shocking way in which people behave. Just today, I went to that cheese store on 57th street, and the man was so rotten to me. I simply asked him if he would cut the cheese in a particular way, and he began arguing with me, saying abusive things, and suddenly his knife slipped and came down on his finger. There was blood all over the counter!

“But I still love this city,” she continues, “because it’s so dramatic. I don’t want to go where there’s peace and quiet. I love eavesdropping on people’s conversations. It’s fascinating to listen to all that real dialogue.”

“Eleanor’s a great eavesdropper, all right,” says Frank. “When you go to dinner with her, you can be sure there’ll be no conversation, because she’ll be all caught up in the dialogue at the next table.”

Frank, too, is keen on dialogue – and character motivation and substantial stories with beginnings and middles and ends. For him, style without significant content is meaningless. And – heresy of auteur heresies – Frank thinks the actor is of prime importance.

“My films are actors’ films, films of human relationships. I never think, ‘How can I dazzle the audience with my camera?’ I want to dazzle them with the truth. And for that you need the human face. No landscape – and I mean this from the bottom of my gut – can compare with the human face. The complexity, the excitement, all the drama taking place down deep flows up into the human face.

“Of course,” Frank adds, sipping his wine and winking at Eleanor, “there’s very little drama in an empty face.”