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Diary of a Mad Housewife: The cinema of Eleanor and Frank Perry.

Updated: 2 days ago

When director Frank Perry passed in 1995 at age 65 he was remembered, if he was remembered at all, as the director of one of Hollywood’s most famous artistic (though not commercial) disasters, “Mommie Dearest”. Today his name is also linked with that of his niece singer Katy Perry who, a decade ago, became a megastar with the release of the multiplatinum album “Teenage Dream" but, in a career arc that is eerily reminiscent of her uncle's, is now viewed as a bit uncool and possibly past her prime. Whether Mr. Perry got any satisfaction from the fact that Faye Dunaway's ferocious performance ("No Wire Hangers, Ever!") made his otherwise dreadful adaptation of Christina Crawford's memoir and exposé an instant cult classic is like asking what veteran director Mark Robson thought about "Valley of the Dolls" ("Sparkle Neely, Sparkle!") or getting director Paul Verhoeven's take on "Showgirls" ("Thrust It! Thrust It!"). What is clear, is that "Mommie Dearest " was hobbled from the beginning by a dreadful script stitched together by a gaggle of hacks, with final screen credit going to Robert ("Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore") Getchell, Tracy Hotchner (who wrote the original draft), the film's producer Frank Yablans and Perry himself. The irony here is that, a decade earlier, between 1968 and1970, Frank Perry directed three great movies each emblematic of it's time and place. And all three started life as adapted screenplays that captured the spirit of their source material with extraordinary economy and grace. The three films are "The Swimmer" (1968, based on the 1964 short story of the same name by John Cheever which first appeared in The New Yorker), "Last Summer" (1969, based on the 1968 novel of the same name by Evan Hunter) and "Diary of a Mad Housewife" (1970, based on the 1967 novel of the same name by Sue Kaufman). All three screenplays were written by Perry's then wife, the enormously gifted Eleanor Perry. These movies were made on the East Coast, outside of the Hollywood system, and were highly influential, if not essential, in establishing the American Independent Film. In fact, I would argue that Eleanor Perry and Frank Perry should be mentioned in the same breath as Gena Rowlands and John Cassavetes.

Eleanor Perry

Eleanor Perry (née Rosenfeld; nom-de-plume Oliver Weld Bayer) had a whole career and whole other life before she met and married Frank Perry in 1960. He was 30 and she was 45, 15 years his senior. Even by today's standards, her life was an astonishingly productive one. Born into a Jewish family in Cleveland, Ohio in 1914, after attending Western Reserve University (now Case Western Reserve University) she married attorney Leo G. Bayer. Together, they wrote a series of suspense novels. One of them, "Paper Chase” (1942) was even made into an MGM B-movie entitled "Dangerous Partners" in 1945. It was Eleanor's first taste of Hollywood even though she was credited under her nom-de-plume. She became interested in psychiatry, getting a master's degree in psychiatric social work. Her studies in this area would greatly influence her first major collaboration with Perry "David and Lisa" (see below) and her last with Bayer, a play starring Celeste Holm called "Third Best Sport" which ran on Broadway from December 1958 to March 1959. They were divorced shortly after. While married to Bayer she raised two children one of whom, William Bayer, is a best-selling novelist specializing in psychological crime fiction.

Frank and Eleanor's first collaboration.
"David and Lisa": Keir Dullea and Janet Margolin

Released in 1962, "David and Lisa" was made on a shoestring budget and featured two unknown actors, Keir Dullea and Janet Margolin (making her movie debut), playing troubled teenagers whose paths cross after they have been admitted to a mental health facility. The psychiatrist is played by Howard da Silva, making his first movie in 12 years, after being blacklisted in Hollywood. Eleanor based the film on the second story from the two-in-one novellas "Jordi/Lisa and David " by Theodore Isaac Rubin an American psychiatrist and author whose work she had read while doing her master's degree. Rubin's speciality was psychoanalysis, then at it's zenith in The United States, and, many of his beliefs have now fallen out of favor., Seen from today's vantage point, the movie, despite its sensitive moments, seems dangerously simplistic and naive. À la "Rebel Without a Cause", the parents are blamed for everything, especially Dullea's mother who thinks of her son only in terms of her own needs and expectations. Nevertheless, when the movie was released, it became an art house sensation, particularly in New York, and the Perrys were on their way. When the nominations for the 35th Academy Awards (1962) were announced in early 1963, to almost everyone's surprise, both Eleanor and Frank we're nominated in their respective categories and The American Independent Film was born. Eleanor joined the esteemed list of Vladimir Nabokov ("Lolita"), William Gibson ("The Miracle Worker"), Robert Bolt and Michael Wilson ("Lawrence of Arabia ") and the winner, Horton Foote ("To Kill a Mockingbird"), while Frank found himself in the company of Pietro Germi ("Divorce Italian Style"), Arthur Penn ("The Miracle Worker"), Robert Mulligan ("To Kill Mockingbird"), and the winner, David Lean ("Lawrence of Arabia"). Despite it's superannuated view of both the causes and treatments of mental illness, Eleanor's screenplay was itself adapted into a stage play in1967 and an Oprah Winfrey-produced TV Movie in 1998.

Burt Lancaster and Janet Landgard in The Swimmer