It’s impossible to view Husbands and Wives as just a movie, or evaluate it purely on its own merits. It arrived in the dark cloud of one of the most shocking personal scandals in tabloid history, and now, nearly 20 years later, it still carries those unshakable associations. Even if you’re somehow able to cognitively separate the movie drama from the real-life drama, it’s still burdened with wide-reaching implications. It’s Woody Allen’s last movie with Mia Farrow, and his last great, personal drama prior to an increasingly uneven body of work plagued by disinterest. It feels inescapably like a goodbye — both to Mia Farrow, and to us.
For those somehow out of the gossip loop, the afore-mentioned scandal involved Allen, Farrow, and Farrow’s adopted daughter, Soon-Yi Previn. It was like The Graduate, if Mrs. Robinson had been Benjamin’s age. The news broke just as Husbands and Wives was being released into theaters.
In Woody Allen’s version of the story, he innocently fell in love with a nice, young girl who just so happened to be the adopted daughter of his ex-girlfriend. In Mia Farrow’s version, Allen is a pedophile, abusive father, and all-around disgusting human being who used and manipulated Soon-Yi in order to exact petty revenge on Farrow. I think we can all agree the real story lies somewhere in between.
The subject matter of Husbands and Wives does Allen no favors. It involves Allen and Farrow breaking up, with Allen setting his sights on a student 30 years younger than himself. But even more significantly, it reveals an overwhelmingly cynical opinion of long-term relationships.
Woody Allen insists, as he’s always insisted, that any similarities between his movies and his real life are purely coincidental. Allen is a strict enough Freudian, however, that he should know how ridiculous that is. If any other director made that claim, Allen would likely remind them that there are no coincidences.
Allen even drops not-so-subtle hints that he was trying to work through personal issues with this movie. He plays a character in the film, for example, who’s working on a novel based explicitly on his current relationship (he describes it as “confessional”). Another character leaves his manuscript in a taxi, and when it’s suggested that it was an innocent mistake, she points out Freud’s theory of the subconscious and concludes that she must have felt subconsciously threatened by it.
Allen’s relationship with his audience in this regard is starting to resemble this Saturday Night Live sketch, in which a musician says one thing and sings something completely the opposite. In interviews, Allen wholeheartedly dismisses any relationship between his film’s content and his real life, but then keeps making movies that “coincidentally” parallel famous moments in his life, and he fills his dialogue with things we know he’s actually said to Farrow (i.e. “the hearts wants what it wants;” the argument about Connecticut houses in Hannah and her Sisters).
I remember in the Stardust Memories, Annie Hall and Hannah and her Sisters reviews I also noted parallels, only to defend Allen, pointing out that for every similarity between Allen and his characters, there were a dozen equally notable differences. For the record, I still feel that way — that Allen’s films and characters are fictional, but fleshed out with occasional real-life inspiration — and I have no objection to that. It’s Allen’s claims otherwise that fascinate me — as of 1992, in film alone, he’s created almost a dozen different characters who write plays, movies and novels about their own lives, then he makes movies that look a lot like his own life and says people are crazy for thinking his movies have anything to do with his own life.
Anyway, as if to prove my own point about how difficult it is to view this movie on its own terms, I’ve managed to plow through nearly 1,000 words in its ostensible review without even mentioning it. It’s a testament to our curiosity with personal scandal that it manages to overshadow this, one of Allen’s most fascinating films. Husbands and Wives is Woody Allen’s harshest, ugliest movie yet, and, despite its familiar subject matter, feels completely unlike anything he’s directed.
The opening scene shows the film’s four protagonists gathered for dinner — Gabe (Woody Allen) and Judy (Mia Farrow), who are married to each other, and Sally (Judy Davis) and Jack (Sydney Pollack), who are also married. What was supposed to be a low-key event turns ugly when Jack and Sally announce they’re separating. Sally and Jack insist they’re fine, and remain friends, but Judy is devastated by the news that her best friends are divorcing after over 10 years of marriage.
Husbands and Wives is Allen’s third “mockumentary,” and the first time he’s used the technique in a purely dramatic film. Somehow, this manages to be both the best and worst thing about the movie. There are camera-facing confessionals where the characters answer questions from the “documentarian,” as well as some occasional narration. This is quite awkward and forced, and it often feels suspiciously like lazy storytelling.
Then there’s the distracting matter of realism. Characters are shown doing many things they would never allow themselves to be filmed doing — visiting prostitutes, cheating on partners, revealing secrets to friends, etc. There are also things that would be logistically impossible for a documentary crew to film. Most brazenly, the film features numerous “flashbacks,” in which we see moments that took place months (or more) previously, meaning the documentary crew either has the power to travel through time, or has been walking around New York filming everything for years, in the hopes that it might one day contribute to a documentary of these four people.
That said, the approach also gives the movie an incredibly raw, unpredictable feel that is a large part of what makes it successful. When I said the film was ugly, I wasn’t just referring to its subject matter. Like a real television documentary, Husbands and Wives was filmed on grainy, handheld cameras, which shake and dart nervously around the room, the actors wear no makeup and are often filmed in harsh light, and the dialogue is inelegant and profane. The result is an incredible urgency. The drama is magnified, and there’s a thrilling sense of spontaneity and unpredictability.
The first moment that we realize we’re watching something completely new from Allen is when Sally is on her first date after Jack’s departure. The brave front she put for Judy and Gabe has dissipated, and she terrorizes her date with the anger and despair that have consumed her since the separation. She screams at Jack on the phone from the next room while her date awkwardly pretends not to listen. Afterwards, he politely asks about Don Giovanni (the opera they’re supposedly going to see) and she says “It’s a Don Juan story isn’t it? Someone should just cut their fucking dicks off.” He doesn’t know what to say, and the silence is agonizing. This “mockumentary” doesn’t feel like a gimmick anymore; it’s as electric and intrusive as the real thing.
Eventually, Sally is able to collect herself (a little bit), and finds herself with a nice, smart magazine editor named Michael (Liam Neeson). Allen has demonstrated great enthusiasm for taking rugged leading men and running them through a filter of effete sentimentality, and he now adds Liam Neeson to a list that already includes Gene Hackman, Michael Caine and Sam Shepard. Neeson, with his lilting Irish accent, actually plays the part quite well, and emerges as the film’s most simple, likable character. There’s a certain cruelty to his portrayal, though — as a tall, handsome man interested in poetry, candlelight dinners, and romantic commitment, he’s an old-fashioned romantic awash in an aggressively unromantic movie. He would have been more suited to a silent melodrama, a Tyler Perry movie, or maybe even The Purple Rose of Cairo (the 1930s adventure film, not the 1985 Woody Allen movie).
Sally’s husband Jack, meanwhile, has moved in with a young aerobics instructor named Sam (Lysette Anthony). In telling Jack’s story, Woody Allen revisits one of his favorite themes, and depicts a man torn between a smart but castrating woman, and a fun but ditzy woman. Jack’s wife Sally is intelligent, accomplished, and cold, while Sam is a fun, sexy girl who doesn’t know who Shakespeare is. At first, he’s thrilled with Sam — she teaches him aerobics, makes food with something called “tofu", lets him watch silly movies, and just generally doesn’t make him think too hard.
But soon, he finds himself increasingly frustrated and embarrassed by her cluelessness, which leads to one of the most shocking scenes in any of Allen’s movies. Jack literally grabs and drags Sam, who’s screaming for help, out of a party and into his car after she humiliates him by going on about astrology at a party filled with his academic friends. Perhaps even worse, he drives over to Sally’s to beg for her return, with Sam still in the car.
There are numerous other scenes of comparably brutal power in the movie. The film’s style, as I said, lends it great urgency, as does its writing. In this sense, it’s a near polar opposite of Crimes and Misdemeanors, its most recent parallel. Crimes was a dark movie, but there was a certain elegance to it. People spoke precisely and in full sentences, and their words carried meaning beyond their immediate context. In Husbands and Wives, people shout irrationally, stumble over their words, swear profusely, and call each other names. The result is that it becomes less ponderous and more emotional, something very welcome at this point in Allen’s career.
Elsewhere, Farrow and Allen have their final and most engaging on-screen relationship. It hits on many familiar points — once again, Farrow is preoccupied with thoughts of children while Allen finds her increasingly cold and distant — but it feels more authentic. Removing the staginess that had crept into recent movies like September and Another Woman, Gabe and Judy speak and react to each other in a way that makes it seems like they genuinely don’t know what they’re going to hear next. There is a real fly-on-the-wall feel to their many moments together.
Their relationship is tense from the beginning, but things are exacerbated when Gabe, who is a professor at Columbia, becomes infatuated with Rain (Juliette Lewis), a promising, 20-year-old student in his literature class.
The May/November student/teacher romance angle is pretty common, although this is one of the stronger examples you’ll find. Nothing about Rain and Gabe’s time scenes together feels forced, even if many of the details exist elsewhere as clichés. When Rain describes her love for his work, she does so believably. Allen is never afraid to just film them talking, often about nothing in particular, and the dialogue flows naturally and realistically. Juliette Lewis, who was only 19 at the time, is convincingly intelligent and self-aware. She contrasts hugely with Manhattan’s Tracey (Mariel Hemingway), Allen’s other famous under-age ingénue. Tracey was a nice girl, and smart for her age, but Rain is nearly Gabe’s intellectual equal, and possibly even more mature.
One of the movie’s only purely funny scenes involves Rain’s walk through her romantic history. Gabe is equally frightened and intrigued to learn that every man she’s dated has been a middle-aged, intellectual father-figure. He was once worried about their relationship seeming inappropriate, but he comes to see that, actually, he’s exactly her type.
In a move that likely disappointed gossip-seekers, nothing lurid ever happens between Gabe and Rain. At Rain’s 21st birthday party, the two are left alone in a darkened kitchen after a power outage and engage in a striking, funny, and genuinely exciting back-and-forth that ends only with an awkward kiss and an agreement to not take things further.
Gabe and Rain’s chaste parting fails to prevent the dissolution of his relationship with Judy, however, so we get to see Woody Allen and Mia Farrow break up one last time. The urgency, fly-on-the-wall naturalism and real-world baggage makes this scene one of the most emotional in Allen’s entire filmography. It doesn’t start off as a “breakup scene,” but rather just another quiet moment at home, until the conversation naturally, unexpectedly, leads Mia Farrow to devastatingly state “It’s over, and we both know it.”
One of the movie’s running themes is the impact of a relationship’s history on a relationship’s present. Jack and Sally reunite based, at least in part, on their inability to let go of the memories they have of each other (memories which include raising two children). Gabe tries a similar tact with Judy to try and talk her out of leaving — he recounts their fondest moments together, only to have Judy say “those are just memories. They don’t tell the whole story.”
As Gabe and Judy split, Sally and Jack get back together, reversing the relationship situation in the movie’s opening. Mourning the loss of Sally, Michael (Neeson) turns to his friend Judy for comfort, and the two of them quickly fall in love and marry, leaving only Gabe alone in the end. However, even the seemingly happy endings have cynical undertones. In a closing “interview,” Jack and Sally admit the problems they had before still exist. They’ve just learned that, unhappy as they may be together, they were even less happy apart. Sally describes their marriage as “a buffer against loneliness,” which is not exactly a Hallmark-worthy sentiment.
Michael and Judy, meanwhile, seem happy, but it’s implied that Michael was manipulated into the relationship. Interviews with Judy’s ex-husband (her husband before Gabe) reveal a history of passive-aggressive manipulation. In their closing scenes, Michael insists that he pursued Judy, but actually, we’ve seen that it was Judy who turned to him, acting in a vulnerable way that obligated him to care for her when, at the time, he wasn’t yet interested.
It’s interesting to chart the way Farrow has been portrayed in Allen’s movies over time. In Zelig and The Purple Rose of Cairo, she was angelic and saintly — a wide-eyed, big-hearted, unsinkable doer of good. As Hannah in Hannah and her Sisters, she was a bit colder, and a little calculating. In Crimes and Misdemeanors she seems nice enough, but when it came down to it, she’d rather run off with a rich, smarmy TV producer than a man who really cares for her. Finally, in Husbands and Wives, she’s a shrewd social manipulator, pulling the strings and getting what she wants all while hiding behind her trademark delicate exterior.
Watching it now, Husbands and Wives feels like the third part of a trilogy that started with Hannah and her Sisters and Crimes and Misdemeanors. All three are eclectic, multi-faceted stories of relationships starting and ending, but each is done in a wildly different style. Hannah is effervescent, Crimes is staid and gloomy, and Husbands is raw and unhinged. I’m not sure if it’s the personal subject matter, or just his skill as a filmmaker, but either way, Woody Allen has made something that feels more than any of his other films like a window into his soul.
- Woody Allen considers this one of his best movies.
- This is Mia Farrow’s last movie with Allen, so this seems an appropriate time to quantify their on-screen history a little bit:
- Mia Farrow appeared in every single movie Allen directed from 1982-1992 (thirteen in total, including the short Oedipus Wrecks), but none outside of that timeframe.
- Allen and Farrow had a love affair of some kind in 6 films, but Zelig is the only one in which they’re together at the end.
- Broadway Danny Rose and Shadows and Fog were the only movies that both Allen and Farrow appeared in as actors but didn’t have a romance... although, in both cases, there was a little romantic tension.
- Between 1982 and 1992, Mia Farrow only had two non-Woody Allen acting roles: as the title character in the animated film The Last Unicorn, and in Supergirl, as Alura, Supergirl’s Kryptonian mother.
- This was Woody Allen’s first ever R-rated movie. Update: As pointed out by Christopher below, this was actually Allen’s 3rd R-rated movie. Unbeknownst to me, Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex But Were Afraid to Ask and Manhattan each somehow earned ‘R’ ratings.
- Allen’s movies had long-since been relegated to limited-release, art-house openings, but given that the scandal was making national headlines, TriStar opened the movie relatively wide (865 screens), hoping to cash in. Alas, in the end, it only made about $10.5 million, significantly less than Crimes and Misdemeanors, and only a little more than Scenes From a Mall.
- The unseen documentarian/narrator is costume designer Jeffrey Kurland, whose only other acting role is as Oedipus in Mighty Aphrodite.
- Two Academy Award nominations: Best Original Screenplay, and Best Supporting Actress for Judy Davis. Davis was nominated by most other awards-givers as well: BAFTA, Golden Globe, National Critics, etc.
- Jane Fonda was allegedly considered for the role of Sally, which seems strange. Sally is supposed to act as a contrast to Jack’s ditzy blonde girlfriend.
- Woody Allen’s character, full name Gabe Roth, is possibly inspired in part by Philip Roth, another novelist with a lecherous reputation.
- Frank Sinatra, Mia Farrow’s ex-husband, reportedly offered to have Woody Allen’s legs broken. That is a conversation I would do anything to have overheard.
- Allen’s relationship with Soon-Yi, incidentally, is still going strong. So far, it’s lasted nearly 20 years — already twice as long as his relationship with Soon-Yi’s mother (Mia Farrow). Just like The Graduate, it’s a happy ending for everyone but Mrs. Robinson.