Desperate Characters (1971)

Desperate Characters (1971)

“I think I’ve got rabies.”

When a bored housewife (Shirley MacLaine) in New York City is bit by a stray cat, her lawyer-husband (Kenneth Mars) insists she have her hand looked at by a doctor; meanwhile, Sophie (MacLaine) reflects back on a former affair and socializes with various friends — including her husband’s soon-to-be ex-partner (Gerald S. O’Loughlin) and a former-activist friend (Sada Thompson) who is visited frequently by her ex-boyfriend (Jack Somack).

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Housewives
  • Marital Problems
  • Shirley MacLaine Films

Playwright Frank D. Gilroy’s directorial debut was this adaptation of a novel by Paula Fox about an upper-middle-class childless wife seeking meaning and connection of some kind. Despite MacLaine’s decent performance, it’s excruciatingly challenging to care much about her character’s overall malaise; in an interview, Fox herself complained that the film “lacked a certain kind of inner gravity”. Sophie’s life is at least beautifully shot, as we see her lounging around in her apartment:

… wandering the city in the wee hours of the morning with O’Loughlin:

… and having lunch in the cavernous apartment of her very-odd friends.

Eventually she and Mars end up at their summer house, where they encounter an unpleasant surprise:

… but again, it’s hard to feel too sorry for this privileged if clearly troubled couple. If the point is that money can’t buy happiness, point taken — but it’s been made elsewhere many times, to more lasting effect.

Note: It was interesting reading DVD Savant’s review of this film, in which he refers to it as “a real downer, an intelligent but unrewarding slice of despair” that is “a theater owner’s worst nightmare, a picture that inspires mass walkouts.” He notes that it “must be the antithesis of a Date Flick,” as he “can’t imagine a marginal relationship surviving the experience of a trip to this picture.”

Notable Performances, Qualities, and Moments:

  • Urs Furrer’s cinematography

Must See?
Nope. Listed as a Sleeper and a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book.


One thought on “Desperate Characters (1971)

  1. First viewing. Not must-see, though it’s not a bad film, just a challenging one.

    Having just read Paula Fox’s novel, I’m glad I did before seeing the movie. I think those who appreciate the film most will tend to be those who have read the book. (But I think even *they* will much prefer the book.) Gilroy’s adaptation is surprisingly faithful and – superficially – little seems to have been left out: the larger percentage of the dialogue seems to have been preserved and the incidents of the book and the film are the same.

    What we don’t get is a lot of what makes Fox’s novel literature. A whole lot of the internal stuff is gone, along with Fox’s gifts of language and observation. Overall… it isn’t a novel that needed to be made into a film, just because it *could* be. Some novels are like that. Though, on some level, it may be admirable to attempt a film, that’s just not something that the novel is asking for.

    That said, the film is an interesting approximation.

    I don’t see Sophie as a “bored” housewife; that would imply a lack of intelligence, something I don’t think Sophie lacks. I do think she is a person of active longing, not someone given to the finality of chronic boredom.

    I also don’t see Sophie and Otto as an overtly privileged couple. Yes, they’re white but they’re not particularly moneyed. They seem a bit well-off; not ostentatious. To me, they seem trapped in an upper-middle-class oblivion of sorts. They’re not terrible people; they’re very New York.

    I don’t think the point of the film is that “money can’t buy happiness”. I don’t think money is part of what the story takes the scalpel to – but pain is.

    Gilroy has extracted some; esp. the book’s more compassionate ending (which is just cut). He has reimagined a little, esp. the way Otto revives his passion for Sophie. And in one significant moment of levity, Gilroy allows a little more of the love that underscores the long marriage. In a little ‘debate’ over Sophie’s lack of knowledge of Gilbert & Sullivan, we get the following – said in jest on both their parts:

    Mars: That’s what I get for more marrying beneath my station.
    MacLaine: That’s what you get for marrying.

    MacLaine and Mars give nicely complex performances – as do O’Loughlin and Thompson.

    The film may be a “downer” but it’s not “unrewarding”. Not surprisingly, it won 4 awards at the Berlin Film Festival; Germans are a perfect audience for it. But, I would think, so are Swedes; the film is just about as somber as the bulk of Ingmar Bergman’s work.

    My review of the novel:

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