In 1965, Jack Lemon starred in a film called “How to Murder Your Wife“. It was one of the “battle of the sexes” films that were popular back then. You might say that Hollywood films in the fifties had tended to celebrate a return to family life after the war. Some films in the sixties started to question the conventions underlying that lifestyle. This is one of those films.
Bosley Crowther’s NYT review of the film starts off this way
IT’S a good thing nobody is likely to take “How to Murder Your Wife” seriously, or the public impulse it could kindle might be headed “How to Murder George Axelrod.”
In case you are wondering, Axelrod wrote the screenplay.
Never have I seen a movie, serious, comic or otherwise, that so frankly, deliberately and grossly belittled and ridiculed wives.
This sounds bad. But it turns out that Crowther actually enjoyed watching the film — because its female lead, “luscious” Virna Lisi, is so pleasant to look at! He writes
She does not suffer from arrested development.
Wink wink! Nudge nudge!
And there is no denying that the actress Virna Lisi was a very beautiful woman, whose role in the film was to trigger male sexual fantasies. Here she is
Crowther sends us a confused message. And we are more attuned to that confusion these days than folks were back in 1965. We have less tolerance for statements about women as “objects” of male sexual fantasies. At least this is what feminism wishes to accomplish.
And yet, while our dialogue has changed, the tensions underlying relations between males and females appear to be about the same. On the one hand, social norms dictate that men are respectful and caring and authentic towards women in how we speak and in what we do. On the other hand, we are reminded from the news, of the more primal reactions that at least some men find difficult to control when they are in positions of power. Progress? Yes! At least now, women are less afraid to complain!
BTW, for a science fiction view of these tension, you might read Kurt Vonnegut’s “Welcome to the Monkey House”. The short story is about a rebel who seeks to upend a society that has removed sex from social interactions. According to Vonnegut, that is even worse than the mess that hormonal influences lead us to.
In light of our changed sensibilities, I seriously doubt whether a film such as “How to Murder Your Wife” could be made by a major studio today. It would be as likely as a comedy about Bill Cosby’s alleged sex scandals. And many might say that this does reflect progress. After all, is sexism funny?
I would argue that there is in fact, a humorous side to all of this. The proposition in the film is that in a world gone mad (the premise), an individual (Stanley Ford, who in this case happens to be male) can construct a “perfect lifestyle” without being tied to social conventions (marriage). Stanley is happy in himself — which is both a bit mad and funny. So is his butler, which is a bit more nutty and funny. This is a perfect set up for a challenge from mad reality.
This is precisely the set up that Oscar Wilde offered us in “An Ideal Husband”. Lord Goring is happy in himself, detesting others, and Phipps, his butler, emulates him. Compared to their rapport, the real world tends to look shabby. As in “How to Murder Your Wife”, the real world will intrude on this paradise.
But in the film, Stanley is required to go through a metamorphosis that Lord Goring is spared. The reason apparently, is that Stanley had embraced a life based on fantasy. He writes a cartoon series depicting a macho fantasy hero by the name of Bash Brannigan. Applying social norms that we still adhere to, Stanley must learn that reality is more important than fantasy. He does by the end of the story, which gives the film its “meaning”.
I would argue that this fantasy versus reality theme is as important to the story as the sexual tensions between the characters. And while we are more attuned to matters of sexual predation, we are less attuned to our own addiction to fantasy and denial of that addiction. We love it and condemn it. We flock to see fantasy films and buy clothing that celebrities endorse. And then there is Donald Trump. All the while, we claim to be practical, tough-minded, realistic people. Humorous, n’est ce pas?
Wouldn’t our confused relationship with fantasy be worth a bit of skewering?