Jack Clayton’s 1964 The Pumpkin Eater, based on Penelope Mortimer’s confessional novel, is infused with 60s British heavy-dutiness, what with Anne Bancroft morosely encased in adapter Harold Pinter’s inchoate sensitivity on women’s issues, by Oswald Morris’s cloudy-gray photography and his distracting penchant for closeups, and by Maggie Smith, Cedric Hardwicke, James Mason and Yootha Joyce needling her at every (excessive) opportunity. Though Clayton allows Bancroft too many contemplative gazes through windows and a showy breakdown at Harrods, during which we’re required to guess what’s ailing her, both he and Pinter are smugly vague about what’s really the matter. We’re told she can’t help getting preggers at the start of every marriage (three of them), that she loves her children, but except for bits here and there, like washing her titless daughters in the bathtub, she displays little love, especially for the two older boys who are sent off to boarding school and when they return for visits, they and Mom seem so apprehensive that they respond as strangers. Her unexpressed bliss of conceiving as sexual pleasure turns into presumed postpartum depression, threatening the marriage to Peter Finch, and when another pregnancy arrives, even her own mother blesses the necessity she undergo “that sensible operation.” But there’s more to Bancroft’s character than after-birth emptiness, or abortion and sterilization; the novel is an autobiographical sketch of Mortimer’s own messy vicissitudes, including the sexual abuse she endured by her Anglican clergyman-father, her serial promiscuity, the six children she had—two from her first husband, two from extra-martial affairs, and two from her marriage to writer John Mortimer. What seems to have happened in the script cleanup is that Pinter, who had his own adulterous involvements, dents only the outer cover of the character, allowing that while men can maintain duplicity at will, women (and their emotions) are hold-your-nose problems best left to the whims of indifferent doctors. Implicit is what hadn’t been coined when Pinter was trying to figure out why his own women turned bitter and cold: Bancroft appears to be suffering from Pinter postfartum despondency. There’s another puzzle skirted—the lack of anything desirous or magnetic about her that would attract a man, much less numbers of men. (Judith Crist, in the N.Y. Herald Tribune, got close: “She seems a cowlike creature with no aspirations or intellect above her pelvis.”) At least Mortimer was a writer, who replaced another Penelope (Gilliatt) as critic at London’s Observer, and Pinter’s adulterous mates were career-minded and challenging, whereas Bancroft’s a baby-dropping party-pooping hostess. While awaiting whatever the resolution, we also wonder why Finch as John Mortimer would want to get involved with her; as if she’s not already enough of a depressant, in various millinery Bancroft is Anna Maria Alberghetti’s chilling future and when she has her hair down she looks so much like Susan Sontag that she turns into an ice block. The movie’s most rousing moment comes when she goes into a fury over Finch’s affairs, the angry row having been instigated by four-eyed Mason’s brazen scene-stealing crooked-teeth venting over a letter he discovered from his wife to Finch. Swacking Finch repeatedly, Bancroft doesn’t get our sympathies—we want him to swack her back, not in self-defense but because she’s been such a god damned droopy dullard. (That’s why the audience is very thankful that Mason gets to deliver a second dose of enjoyable nastiness on the phone.) Bancroft’s framed gloomy posing was Oscar-nominated for 1964’s Best Actress (losing to Miss Poppins); she won the Cannes and Golden Globe awards; she earned the BAFTA Best Foreign Actress honor and the movie received BAFTA awards for best screenplay, best b/w cinematography and costumes. Georges Delerue’s opening music is soft jazzy stuff and deceptively receptive.
At Harold Pinter’s funeral, author Tom Stoppard is reported to have said, “You can cut the grief with a knife.” Other than those attending the farewell, I can’t quite believe anyone else could feel a deep thickening of sorrow. Is there, has there ever been, a more alienating modern British playwright? One who didn’t move audiences by any emotions in his work but by the lack of them? Except anger: more than a few of us might have wanted to grab anything handy to shatter his recoiling deliberateness, both in life and his writing. For example, in the semi-autobiographical Betrayal, Pinter turned his own experiences into talking set pieces about deceit—his highly scandalous affairs with then-married British broadcaster-later-BFI governor Joan Bakewell (known as “the thinking man’s crumpet”) and with then-married biographer Lady Antonia Fraser while he was still married to actress Vivien Merchant. His aim is to intellectualize the gossip the London tabloids salivated over—using language as the supposed attraction: it’s speedy, attempting to be laconic, bordering on Attic, the way civilized people under stress and scrutiny are presumed to talk to each other. Coming from Ben Kingsley, Patricia Hodge and Jeremy Irons, the chatter is empty and brittle; we keep waiting for the staid, simple-minded repetition to crack. After the first few longish scenes, the dreariness is all set before us and there isn’t any need to want to know more about these emotive retards. Pinter’s device to entice is not to go forward to find out what’ll become of their lives once the inevitable breakups begin but to go backward, every year or two until—count 'em!—seven so we can see how the boring betrayal started. But he never reverses to the present for oxygen; we’re trapped in a suffocating funnel. Going against the critics pigging out on superlatives to describe the cast, I can’t remember this level of bad acting from British-trained actors in a single movie any time in the 80s; they ooze crumminess in scene after scene, mumbling, fumbling, being monotonous and clonishly mechanical (watch the two men drink). Kingsley’s miscast as the husband whose wife (Hodge) is sleeping with his best friend (Irons). He uses his lack of belonging as (I’m assuming) non-directed humor, and there’s unintended gratefulness for it: if this man has that kind of permanent tan, wouldn’t it rub off on his kids, just a bit? Doesn’t; they’re positively British—pudgy, with sickly white skin covered with red blotches. There’s an incriminating excuse for sticking with flashbacks and not returning to real time: Pinter eventually married Fraser and pitiable Merchant died from chronic alcoholism and disconsolateness a short time afterwards. Betrayal isn’t but could pass as a belated chapter of the American Film Theatre series, that British-loaded experiment that produced A Delicate Balance, Butley (directed by Pinter), The Homecoming (another Pinter wonder), The Maids, Luther, Galileo, The Three Sisters, etc. With that scaled look of theatre and just enough camera movement to pretend it isn’t, Betrayal is retrogressive with the sourest of twists—it’s not even good theatre. Yet quintessentially Pinter: we’re never sure why we’ve journeyed into the “What is Real?/There are No Answers” snittiness of a hardcore reactionary leftist bastard.
Text COPYRIGHT © 2007 RALPH BENNER Revised 10/2012 All Rights Reserved.