Sunday 29 January 2023

Middle of the Night (1959)

Director: Delbert Mann
Writer: Paddy Chayefsky, based on his play
Stars: Kim Novak, Fredric March, Glenda Farrell, Albert Dekker, Martin Balsam, Lee Grant and Lee Philips

Index: 2023 Centennials.

Not all people important to film are actors and not all of them had long running careers. Sidney Aaron Chayefsky, better known as Paddy from an army nickname, was a writer. He only has a short list of films to his name, because his early Hollywood experiences were far from positive and he preferred writing for other media, but he won three Academy Awards for his work, the only person to do so without a co-writing credit. He initially went to Hollywood in 1947, planning to become a screenwriter, and landed a job at Universal with the help of a couple of friends, Garson Kanin, a playwright and director with whom he’d worked on a documentary in London, The True Glory, and his wife, the actress Ruth Gordon. However, Universal rejected all his scripts and fired him after six weeks. He went back one year later after writing a play in New York that was bought by 20th Century Fox, but he found Hollywood a world that didn’t value writers and rewrote everything, so he quit and went back to New York, vowing never to return.

He did return, of course, or you wouldn’t be reading about him here, but not until he’d built a reputation on radio and especially on television, where he wrote plays that were performed on dramatic anthology shows like Philco Television Playhouse. Once he made it big with Marty, a 1953 Philco play starring Rod Steiger before it was adapted into an Oscar-winning film in 1955 with Ernest Borgnine, Hollywood proved eager to adapt more of Chayefsky’s television plays. The Catered Affair was a 1955 play for Goodyear Television Playhouse before it was a 1956 movie; The Bachelor Party was a 1953 play for Philco before it was a 1957 movie; and Middle of the Night was a 1954 play for Philco before it was a 1959 movie. It starred E. G. Marshall and Eva Marie Saint on television, a success which prompted a Broadway production in 1956 with Edward G. Robinson and Gena Rowlands that obtained a national tour and that became this feature version with Fredric March and Kim Novak. Suddenly Chayefsky was a big name in film.

What Chayefsky did better than almost anyone else was to shine a spotlight on regular people and the drama in their lives without making it seem artificial. Middle of the Night is a perfect example of this, looking at a May to December relationship between a young divorcee and an older widower. Kim Novak was top billed as Betty Preisser, who works in the office at a textile manufacturer called Lock Lee Inc. She was twenty-five at the time, so believably playing twenty-four. She’s beautiful, as you might expect, but she finds a way to be grounded. She doesn’t look like a movie star slumming it. She looks like a regular secretary who looks good but appears a little manic, because of what’s going on in her life. Fredric March plays her boss, Jerry Kingsley, a hard worker and a decent man, who’s poured himself into his work after the death of his wife. He was sixty-one playing fifty-six, and his wife’s been gone for long enough that his sister’s match-making for him and his daughter’s asking him about his sex life.

The trigger for the story is Betty going home early because she doesn’t feel well. Her husband has left her to play music in another town, but she went along with the divorce just as she went along with the marriage. She never loved him for the three years they’d been married, even though she aches for him now. “Everybody else we knew were getting married,” she tells Jerry, who stops in to pick up some paperwork from her and listens to her troubles, “so we got married.” It can’t help that the older men in the office are aware of her new status. One of them, a married grandfather called Walter Lockman, wants to take her out and resists taking no for an answer. He’d be disciplined nowadays for sexual harassment, maybe dismissed. No wonder Betty goes home to settle her nerves. It helps when Jerry listens and when he offers friendly advice, which he gives in the fatherly tone he’d use when talking to his own daughter, Lillian, who’s a year older than Betty. And who wouldn’t feel comforted listening to Fredric March?

But—and you knew that was coming—Betty is now firmly stuck in Jerry’s mind, at a time when he’s being deluged with suggestions that he should enjoy life and he discovers that his only occasional date is engaged to someone else. He talks about Betty at dinner at Lillian’s that night, describing her so often as beautiful that his sister Evelyn comments on it. And, after that, he becomes distracted whenever he’s around her, which is all the time at work. There’s a fantastic scene when Betty’s swapping outfits to model for one of the company’s bigger clients and Jerry’s mere feet away mirroring on a mannequin what he would like to do with Betty. Eventually he asks her to dinner, consumed by nerves and plagued by second guesses. “What are you doing?” he asks himself but it soon works out, even if it’s not in ways they might acknowledge. Both of them are clearly lonely and sharing each other’s company helps. She’s a troubled and rejected young lady being given attention. He’s going through a midlife crisis and being acknowledged. It’s enough.

In 1959, it’s clear that this was all about age, because that’s how the various supporting characters react to the relationship. In fact, it’s how the couple react to it too, because there’s a real connection here, on both sides, even if it isn’t initially love. Betty attempts to break it off after a handful of dates, because she doesn’t think it could last but she can tell that they’re getting closer and she has no intention of hurting Jerry. “It’s the age thing?” he asks. “I guess so,” she replies. It didn’t escape me that March had played both Henry Jekyll and Edward Hyde before Novak was even born, but those roles are separated here. March is Jekyll, a good man who is always driven by good intentions. Hyde is Lockman’s character, an inveterate wolf who preys on young ladies and boasts about his prowess. The contrast is clearly drawn. Today, it seems clear that it’s not about age at all, but about two people who need someone and find someone. It’s clearer now that Betty is broken more than she is young and Jerry is decent more than he is old.

However, I can’t help but see the double standard between American society looking down on non-traditional relationships at this point in time and Hollywood constantly selling them to us by pairing aging star actors with new bombshells. Chayefsky tackles that by making the relationship believable, grounded and sometimes awkward, not a traditional Hollywood fairy tale romance. He’s also astute enough to add other details too. Betty and Jerry have family and friends who gradually figure things out. Initially, they’re all for it because they naturally want their loved ones to be happy but then they discover the age gap and promptly change their tune. It’s telling that the women are universally against but the men are far more tolerant. May to December relationships, those where the age gap exceeds ten years, are more likely to be between older men and younger women than the other way around, and those older men are happier in those relationships than their younger women. That’s what the data says, making this a pretty traditional example and those male and female reactions back up why. The individual reasons help build the supporting characters.

And I’ll happily get to those soon enough, a few of whom reprised their roles from the Broadway play, but I should emphasise how good the leads are first. Unlike the television play and the Broadway production, the female lead got top billing, because Novak was at the height of her career. She’d become a star in 1955 in another adaptation of a play, this one Picnic with William Holden (fifteen years older than her), and she followed that up with The Man with the Golden Arm as Frank Sinatra’s girlriend (eighteen years older than her). 1957 saw Vertigo, sometimes listed as the greatest film ever made, as the object of obsession for James Stewart (twenty-five years older than her). It’s easy to see how she connected to Betty Preisser, as she suffered from bipolar disorder and fought her boss, Harry Cohn, over her relationships with men of colour, Ramfis Trujillo and Sammy Davis, Jr., as different race was much less acceptable than an age gap in the mid-fifties. She’s said that the rehearsals made this production feel more like a stage play than a regular film, right down to an actual dress rehearsal, and it’s easy to see how that would work on a film like this.

Whatever she brought to the role, she’s magnificent, so grounded as Betty that we forget that she’s a Hollywood star. She may look good, but she’s fundamentally broken. We understand why Jerry talks about their time together later as sweet torture. She’s highly desirable but she is not without substantial warning signs that he acknowledges but ignores. March was a magnificent actor before Novak was born and he hadn’t lost any of his powers in the thirty-eight years since his debut in a string of 1921 silent movies. They both remain natural here, with all sorts of clever touches that we catch but don’t always quite grasp the full meaning of until later. I’m an admirer of the British brand of fifties realism, kitchen sink drama, but I’ve never enjoyed it because it’s usually drenched in pain and poverty. Look Back in Anger and This Sporting Life are incredible films that I never want to see again. The American brand is usually stagier, films like On the Waterfront and A Streetcar Named Desire focused on virtuoso acting. I like this much more.

So to the supporting actors, who are universally excellent, every one of them able to take Chayefsky’s nuanced characters and give them three dimensions, regardless of how much screen time they have or haven’t to work with. Jerry’s sister, who lives with him and caters to his every need, is Edith Meiser, almost at the end of a distinguished career not only as an actress, mostly on stage, but as a writer, who adapted Sherlock Holmes to radio and wrote plays and novels. His daughter is Joan Copeland, who has the stage in her blood as the sister of Arthur Miller. She is particularly notable here, both through calculated movement and skilful slip ups. Her husband Jack is Martin Balsam, two years after 12 Angry Men. He’s quiet and tolerant but blows up gloriously when the time decrees it to be necessary. Betty’s mother, Mrs. Mueller, is Glenda Farrell in blistering form as the least tolerant recipient of the news about the wedding. Jan Norris and Lee Grant are quieter but just as effective as sister Alice and friend Marilyn.

I’ll happily call out Albert Dekker as a powerful supporting actor too, because he brings two completely different performances to a surprisingly deep character, Walter Lockman. He’s initially loathsome, because we first meet him as the wolf, but Chayefsky writes him a scene in which all that front breaks away and he exposes all his vulnerabilities to Jerry, leaving almost nothing left. It’s not a surprise to see how his character develops late in the film. By all accounts Dekker was a broken soul too and not merely because he passed in an autoerotic asphyxiation accident. W. K. Stratton, documenting the making of The Wild Bunch described him as the most troubled person on a set filled with eccentrics. He apparently arrived on set in remote Mexico with a thirteen year old girl that he described as his wife (which she wasn’t), claimed to be a medical doctor (which he wasn’t) and also announced that he would retire from acting after shooting completed to help impoverished Africans (which he didn’t). He’s still excellent here.

But, however good the actors are, and they are very good indeed across the board, they’re all acting out characters drawn for them by Paddy Chayefsky. After Marty had won the Palme d’Or six years earlier, this film followed suit as the American entry at Cannes, but it didn’t win, reviews were variable and it didn’t remain in theatres for long. Happier with film at this point, partly because he’d been able to gain a greater level of control over his work, he aimed to write original work for the screen, as he did with The Goddess, which garnered him a second Oscar nomination in 1958. Eventually, he did, winning a second Oscar for The Hospital in 1971 and the almost guaranteed third for Network in 1976, a film he’d based on his disillusion with the television industry. However, he adapted other works to the screen, The Americanization of Emily, which failed to meet expectations, and Paint Your Wagon, which outstripped them. It’s a stellar career, even if he took a pseudonym for Altered States, unhappy with his adaptation of his own novel.

There aren’t a lot of writers who built reputations with the public. We see the stars on the screen and, if we delve deeper, take note of directors and maybe cinematographers or composers. However, movies couldn’t exist without writers and Chayefsky was one of the best at a time known for its good writing. In All His Jazz, a biography about Chayefsky’s friend Bob Fosse, Martin Gottfried called him “the most successful graduate of television’s slice of life school of naturalism” and that rings very true indeed. Often, his work was influenced by what he saw as a human being. Network sprang from his years working in television and his observations that the coverage of violence on television news was a desensitising influence on society. The Hospital came from poor care that his wife had received. Both films included prominent characters, Howard Beale and Dr. Herbert Bock, based on Chayefsky’s own frustrations or views, sometimes even his personal background. He drew on his own fury, for which he underwent pyschoanalysis for years.

He was born in the Bronx in 1923 to Russian Jews who had emigrated to the United States in 1907 and 1909. He was a wunderkind who could speak intelligently at the age of two and a half and shone in school, editing his high school’s literary magazine. Only two weeks before he graduated from college with a degree in social sciences, he was drafted into the army and served in Europe, where he was wounded by a land mine near Aachen. He was scarred physically and mentally and became shy around women, but kept on writing, producing a musical comedy, No T.O. for Love while recovering in a British army hospital. It was produced and toured army bases for two years. It was in England that he worked with Garson Kanin on The True Glory, a World War II Allied propaganda film. Back in the US, he worked in his uncle’s print shop, attempted Hollywood and moved into radio. Then came television plays, Marty and the movies we know and a few that we probably don’t but really should. Even his duds are valuable.

Outspoken on screen through his characters, he was outspoken in his life too. He wasn’t blacklisted during the McCarthy era, even though he publicly opposed it and was listed in The Firing Line, a dangerous place to be noticed at the time. He opposed the Vietnam War, even writing to President Richard Nixon to do so. Because of his heritage, he was involved in the fight to alleviate oppression of Soviet Jews, fearing in the seventies a new genocide. He co-founded an activist group in New York called Writers and Artists for Peace in the Middle East and, through that, created pro-Israel ads during the Yom Kippur War and anti-PLO ads after the massacre at the 1972 Olympics. When casting Network, he rejected Jane Fonda and Vanessa Redgrave, whom he saw as anti-Israel, and both the latter’s comments and his own on stage at the Oscars generated controversy. He married Susan Sackler in 1949, whom he had met in Hollywood during his brief time there in the forties, and they had a son. He died in 1981, aged only fifty-eight.

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