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Forgotten By Fox: "The Secret Life of an American Wife"

Anne Jackson's neglected housewife masquerades as a hooker to seduce the world's most desirable man... Walter Matthau.
David Cairns
As Disney quietly disappears huge swathes of film history into its vaults, I'm going to spend 2020 celebrating Twentieth Century Fox and the Fox Film Corporation's films, what one might call their output if only someone were putting it out.
Twentieth Century Fox didn't weather the 60s terribly well, but what American studio did? At least they hit the 70s running with M*A*S*H, which was more or less through luck (they execs were too busy having heart failure over the cost of Patton (1970) and Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970) to bother Robert Altman, who then became a semi-regular director for them during the next decade).
George Axelrod's The Secret Life of an American Wife (1968) pops out as an endearing oddity in an output mostly divided between the last gasps of formerly reliable or even inspired filmmakers (try Frank Tashlin's Doris Day spy caper Caprice [1967]), weird experiments (Stanley Donen's Bedazzled [1967] is sublime, George Cukor's Justine [1969], less so) and cheap fodder for the drive-in (Fox were distributing Hammer horrors at this time). The success of that rather execrable sketch film A Guide for the Married Man (1967) may have inspired Axelrod's attempt at a woman's picture, a really fascinating choice for the original author of The Seven Year Itch (1955) and Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (1957), for whom women had largely been glamorous fantasy figures, not thinking characters with needs and imaginations and so on.
Axelrod was only an intermittent director, more often a screenwriter, but his Lord Love a Duck (1966) is truly indescribable and he ought to be a cinema deity for that alone. After this one he retreated back behind the typewriter. A shame. Although, while Duck has a certain crazed energy, in The Secret Life of an American Wife he's fighting the tendencies of his script to turn into a sitcom with satiric edge but no cinematic verve. But we can't really judge: the cinematography by the great Leon Shamroy has been chopped down to old 4:3 TV shape, and this is currently the only (illegitimate) way to see this film.
Anne Jackson is married to The Thing (Patrick O'Neal), a publicity agent, and they have two enervating children. The Thing represents The Movie Star:
"He won't fly with anyone more important than he is."

"Why not?"

"In case the plane crashes he won't get top billing."
That's adapted from a Billy Wilder line (Axelrod's collaborator on the film version of The Seven Year Itch), who remarked on all the publicity when producer Mike Todd died in a plane crash, while screenwriter Art Cohn, also slain, was barely mentioned: "Additional dying by Art Cohn."
The Movie Star is played by Walter Matthau, who was a star but never looked like one, and had just been in the aforementioned Married Man (title role). But never mind that, who is Anne Jackson? Though billed below Matthau she is obviously the lead, the American Wife personified, and she's magnificent. She makes Axelrod's witty script seem much wittier than it already is. She has this unique delivery. It's quiet and almost flat, and it lands every zinger without seeming to care. She's so good, and so unexpected in where she aims the laughs, that I find myself wondering whether the script is actually witty at all or if it's just that it gives her lots to say and she says it brilliantly.
Also, we're accustomed to thinking these days of movie/TV housewives as Desperate, Indiscrete, Mad, or On The Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. Jackson's character is conceived along those lines, so it's wonderful when she plays it as poised, distanced, with a honey-smooth voice.
I'm not also certain which movie star Walter Matthau's character of The Movie Star is based on, but I don't think it's Walter Matthau. And Marlon Brando's ill-fated son Christian does turn up in a bit part, so that might mean something. Then again, Axelrod's main Big Movie Star experience was probably scripting The Manchurian Candidate (1962) for Sinatra. The Movie Star goes from luxury hotel to luxury hotel with a colossal entourage, closing the blinds and turning the lights on to create "an eternal electric now." He also demands a hi-fi, a pool table, a grand piano (cue some Laurel & Hardy business)...
The farce element kicks in when Jackson, disconsolate over the lack of affection from her husband (perpetually stewed, at least an incipient alcoholic, though the film doesn't see that as a major worry), takes the place of one of the Movie Star's $100 hookers. And then, oddly enough, the Movie Star, who had seemed a monster, turns sweet. Jackson gets to enjoy an adulterous fling with the man we are told is the most handsome and desired in the world, which is never less than hilarious, applied to Matthau, who looks like a carelessly folded bloodhound, and spends most of his screen time in pajama bottoms pulled up to his sternum, arms trailing ouranglike, complaining of sinus trouble. He's another booze-hound, so Jackson's suggestion of aspirin is brushed aside: "Aspirin I take automatically, I mean even on good days." Jackson treats him with chicken soup, defined as "Jewish penicillin."
Matthau aims to teach Jackson "the facts of life," which according to Axelrod consist of
1) Everybody likes Italian food
2) Nobody ever does anything he or she does not want to do
3) Nothing is more miserable than "goodbye"
From the above, it may not sound like sex is on the cards, but it is, as indicated by the chaste fade-out of an earlier era, but unlike in an earlier era our heroine doesn't have to fall under a bus for enjoying it. In fact, all her problems are solved: she regains self-esteem (like her male counterpart in The Seven Year Itch) and The Thing comes back to her bed, all apologies for his negligence.
It's pretty delightful and the characters become hugely endearing. I wish it were more filmic: Axelrod's characteristic use of fantasy sequences is fun, Jackson narrates the story from inside the story, talking to us like Richard III in an above-the-knee orange number, or the raincoat she uses as a dressing gown (moving to Connecticutt does this to a woman, apparently)... but it just has this flat look. A look that followed Matthau around, rather: think of all those Neil Simon movies.
Still, The Secret Life of an American Wife suggests a fascinating road not taken. When Hollywood reinvented itself in the seventies it was with a decidedly masculine viewpoint. You were more likely to find misogyny, whether as conscious subject or as unconscious bias, than a sympathetic, empowering, wry and intelligent look at gender roles and Freud's whole What does a woman want? question. You certainly weren't likely to get that question answered in this manner (she wants to sleep, for one night or day, with the world's most desired movie star, as played by Walter Matthau).
Forgotten by Fox is a regular fortnightly series by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.


Forgotten by FoxGeorge AxelrodColumnsThe Forgotten
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