There’s a reason, beyond basic Judd Apatow oversaturation, that hardly anyone went to see his mewl of middle-aged despair This Is 40. A movie about a marriage already in progress—as opposed to one about a marriage just waiting to happen, the province of the romantic comedy—is always a tough sell. Forget that marriage movies offer fewer opportunities for full-on movie-star glamour (not that we get enough of that these days, anyway). There’s something soul-killing about watching Leslie Mann dress down Paul Rudd while he’s perched on the john. Real marriage involves enough toilet-bowl diplomacy as it is. Why go the movies to see it?
Jeanine Basinger pinpoints the problem in her perceptive and nimble book I Do and I Don’t: A History of Marriage in the Movies. Making movies that are truly about the state of being married has always been a thorny proposition. “Marriage, after all, was the known, not the unknown: the dull dinner party, not the madcap masquerade,” Basinger writes in her introduction. (She doesn’t say anything about toilets, but then, she doesn’t have to.) “Worst of all,” she continues, “marriage had no story arc. It just went on, day after day, month after month, year after year. Marriage took time, and movies had no time to give to it. A good story was usually a story in a hurry—good pacing being one of its best characteristics.”
Considering how hard it is to make a decent marriage movie, Basinger has dug up a surprising number of them for this book, her tenth. She approaches the subject with a sense of adventure that’s something like the euphoric energy that makes people crazy enough to put a gold ring on the third finger in the first place. Her prose is fluid and adamantly unacademic, whether she’s outlining and analyzing the plot details of a Depression-era picture about the pratfalls of hasty marriage—the way, for example, James Stewart and Carole Lombard stumble toward potential happiness in the 1939 Made for Each Other—or launching into a dazzling riff on the rambunctious yet delicately calibrated partnership of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz on I Love Lucy. (That show isn’t, of course, a marriage movie, but it exploded previous notions of how marriage—and pregnancy—could be portrayed onscreen).
Basinger begins with the silent era, in which comic actors like Fatty Arbuckle and Mabel Normand depicted “wretched marital behavior”—including Mabel throwing things and Fatty falling down a lot, with occasional intervention by the police or an organ grinder and his monkey—to draw the audience into a misery-loves-company embrace. “What made it work,” Basinger writes, “was that although the movies were saying ‘marriage is a disaster’ they were also winking and adding, ‘but it’s our disaster.’ ” She nominates Cecil B. DeMille for the title “Father of the American Movie Marriage,” pointing out that the director’s Don’t Change Your Husband and Why Change Your Wife? “nailed down the pattern of serenity, chaos and restored order that wouldn’t be abandoned by marriage movies for decades to come.”
The bulk of the book is devoted to movies made under the studio system, addressing the ways Hollywood struggled to find new and engaging obstacles to throw in the path of its ring-bound couples. Basinger boils down a short list of the movies’ basic threats to happily-ever-afters: money, infidelity and/or adultery, in-laws and children, incompatibility, class, addiction, and murder. The first two, of course, are the most common, but Basinger really gets cooking when it comes to murder and addiction. Her breakdown of Nicholas Ray’s 1956 Bigger Than Life, “a monster movie in which the monster is a very nice husband,” captures the picture’s sense of reluctant hopelessness. James Mason plays a loving husband and father who’s transformed into an aggressive megalomaniac when he begins taking doctor-prescribed cortisone; wife Barbara Rush and son Christopher Olsen suffer immeasurably. Basinger notes that the happy conclusion is “neither convincing nor reassuring.”
Basinger spends the last section of the book, a very small chunk, on movies of the modern era, addressing pictures like Nora Ephron’s Heartburn but also enlarging the conversation to television shows like Friday Night Lights. But the best parts of I Do and I Don’t are somewhere in the middle—the section, for example, where Basinger contrasts the three film versions of W. Somerset Maugham’s The Painted Veil, made in 1934 (with Greta Garbo), 1957 (titled The Seventh Sin and starring Eleanor Parker) and 2006 (with Naomi Watts and Edward Norton). “With different shadings about the importance of love, the need for sex, the issues of motherhood, obedience, couples working together, reputations ruined by affairs,” Basinger concludes, “The Painted Veil offers options to each generation, and each era can make the Painted Veil it needs.”
It’s a shame This Is 40 was released just before the book’s publication. Basinger would have found a lot of meat there, but it’s probably safe to say that the picture’s poor us, with our too-big house and our not-quite-satisfactory sex life self-indulgence wouldn’t have escaped her. Not much escapes Basinger in I Do and I Don’t. In her introduction, she notes that when she first conceived the idea for the book, friends like Molly Haskell and David Thomson warned her of the dangers ahead. But then, embarking on a book like this is just as chancy an enterprise as getting into that shaky “I Do” boat and pushing offshore. In I Do and I Don’t, Basinger navigates the choppy waters deftly, and somehow, the strain of paddling rarely shows.