Petulia (1968) is a movie I find myself returning to from time to time, but I wouldn’t classifiy it as a comfort movie. It’s not even a film I necessarily think of when I find myself in a particular mood or or recalling the highlights of a specific genre. However, it does share some major elements with several other movies I found myself watching during the past month, chief among these being the mid-life crisis.
Several weeks ago, Matt and I rented Weekend With the Babysitter (1970) from Netflix, a second choice after our gleeful dreams of a schlock-filled evening were dampened after finding that The Babysitter (1969) was not available on commercial DVD. Even before turing on our television set, we both knew that we were not in for the wild ride that The Babysitter promised, but pragmatically settled for this, our next available option. I won’t go into a substantial commentary, but what struck me most about this film was the inescapable creeper factor of the entire story arc. George E. Cary plays Jim Carlton, a modestly successful screenwriter who is currently working on a swinging new picture about youth culture. He lets his son’s nubile twenty-something babysitter read a couple of pages of dialogue, which she roundly dismisses as a feeble and unsuccessful attempt to capture the true spirit of how kids really talk to each other. Intrigued, he joins her and some of her friends at a go-go bar, smokes up with them, and spends a carefree and uninhibited weekend away with the babysitter, who also happens to be named Candy (and is rather stiltingly played by Susan Romen). The film was co-written by Cary, and is most obviously the titilating product of his (probably unfulfilled) fantasies. Doughy, pasty, and decidedly unhip, both Cary and Jim Carlton are incredibly unlikely to be surrounded by a bevy of young willing girls like Candy, let alone take off for a sexy weekend getaway with one of them.
The Arrangement (1969) takes a more dignified view of the mid-life crisis, this time pitting Kirk Douglas as successful adman Eddie Anderson against the free-spirited Gwen, who is rather inconsistently portrayed by Faye Dunaway. The Arrangement is an Elia Kazan film, and comes from an autobiographical novel that Kazan had penned not too long before the film’s production. Driven mad by the soul-crushing nature of “making it” in the advertising world, Eddie Anderson almost commits suicide by driving his car under the wheels of a towering semi truck. Kazan takes pains to mirror the lifelessness of Eddie’s home life with the emptiness he feels in the face of financial success, and even in his wife, Florence (Deborah Kerr, who rather gamely plays to the shrillness demanded of her by both the part and no doubt Kazan himself). Kazan makes it perfectly clear that Eddie and Florence have the “perfect marriage,” but the effectiveness of this cliche is marred by the heavy-handed way in which it is at all times shown.
Eddie looks for salvation from his wife, job, and the demands of his dying father and finds something like it in Gwen (Faye Dunaway, who unfortunately turns out a largely forgettable performance) and they start an affair. Gwen’s character is meant to provide someone who is so totally opposite of Florence, someone so without roots that she doesn’t even have a last name. As far as Eddie is concerned, her only mistake is that she is too demanding in asking him to divorce Florence so that they may marry. The Arrangement is obviously an ‘A’ picture compared to the likes of Weekend With the Babysitter, but its storyline indulges in many of the same pitfalls of the latter. Eddie’s wife, like Jim’s drug-addicted shrew of a spouse, is a little too easy to villify and lacks any kind of real human complexity. All too often, the viewer distinctly feels Kazan’s sputtering attitude of “I’m right, and they’re all wrong” in Eddie’s reflexive flight from his everyday responsibilities. We always see this, but Kazan never makes the connection to allow his audience to understand it.
Richard Lester ‘s Petulia (1968) succeeds not only where these other films have failed, but is also one of the most underrated films of the 1960s. The film’s effectiveness lies in the effortless sincerity that is brought out in George C. Scott’s Archie and Julie Christie’s title character, Petulia Danner. Archie is recently divorced from wife Polo (Shirley Knight), but seemingly not for any tangible reason other than an emotional deadness which can clearly be seen in Archie’s eyes as well as through his own admission that he just wants to “feel something.” We never hear an explanation of the separation, but perhaps this is because he has none to offer anyone, even himself. Archie’s more passive confusion and discontent contrasts with Petulia’s active (at some points aggressive) boredom and fear of the emotional unpredictability of her physically abusive husband David (played to slithering perfection by Richard Chamberlain). Archie and Petulia have almost nothing in common save for their shared frustrations, but they find a certain kind of sympathy in each other that assuages each other’s private grief. They don’t know where they’re going, but it really doesn’t matter as long as they can share in each other’s limbo.
The disjointed nature of Petulia’s narrative works not only through the skill of its featured players, but also through its impeccable editing which cuts forward, backward, up, and down with an understanding of the linearity that much remain for the audience’s sake. This allows for an incredibly nuanced understanding of Archie’s characterization as well as the nature of his mid-life crisis. While sharing many similarities with the predicaments of Jim Carlton and Eddie Anderson, he understands himself well enough to know that riding off into the sunset with some sweet young thing is definitely not an option. He knows his affair with Petulia is doomed to be short-lived because it can’t possibly maintain itself. By the end of the film, his initial emotional detachment from her grows into genuine affection, due in part to the fact that she has made him into a “kook” like herself but also because of his fear for her physical safety from David. He wants to protect her, but by the end he understands that with a baby on the way, she feels some obligation to make the union last as long and as well as it can. The poignancy of Petulia does not lie in Archie and Petulia’s breakup, but more so in the fact that Petulia has grown up; responsibility and impending motherhood has matured her irreparably, something that both she and the audience cannot ignore or deny.