The cinema is an ideal medium for telling stories involving lots of action. If your plot encompasses car chases, gunfights, and explosions, turning it into a movie will be a cinch. It is only natural, then, that filmmakers, especially in the United States, have a tendency to gravitate toward such stories, populating them with larger than life figures in life or death struggles.
On the other hand, dozens and dozens of filmmakers through the years have demonstrated that movies can also tell quieter, subtler stories. It is perfectly possible for a carefully made film to lead us quietly into the middle of a narrative about average people with ordinary problems without sacrificing any of the emotional impact we normally associate with the fast paced action pictures. In fact, we may well find ourselves even more affected by screen characters who look and act more like us, grappling with problems to which we can relate personally and directly.
This latter type of movie is more difficult to make well, however, and, once made, it is more difficult to market than the car chase movies. Still, every now and then such a film does get made and does manage to find its audience. That appears to be the case with "American Beauty," which is currently playing to both appreciative audiences and glowing critical notices. It takes as its theme a problem with which we are all familiar - the midlife crisis. Virtually all of us have either experienced this firsthand or known someone who has. It's not a new problem, certainly. Middle aged men, shocked into self-destructive behavior by the sudden realization of their mortality, have been creating domestic chaos since before there were movies. For a sampling of how earlier movies have treated the "middle age crazy" syndrome, look for these titles on home video.
"Death of a Salesman" (1951). The unquestioned Mount Everest of midlife crisis dramas, Arthur Miller's shattering story of Willy Loman, a down and out traveling salesman at the end of his rope, packs just as much of a punch as it did when it premiered on the stage in 1949. The success of the recent Broadway revival starring Brian Dennehy provides ample proof of that. The role of Willy was memorably created on stage by Lee J. Cobb, but for the film version Fredric March was cast. Faced with the difficult task of living up to Cobb's already legendary performance, March acquitted himself admirably.
"The Arrangement" (1969). Kirk Douglas stars as an advertising executive who takes stock of his successful but empty life and finds it wanting. He attempts suicide, but survives. Thereafter his despair finds expression in bizarre behavior, leaving both his wife (Deborah Kerr) and his mistress (Faye Dunaway) unsure of what to do with him. Director Elia Kazan's own novel was the basis for this film. It isn't the best material Kazan ever worked with, but anytime Kazan directs actors of this caliber, the result is well woth seeing.
"Husbands" (1970). The films of actor-director John Cassavetes are not for everyone. Deliberately paced and maddeningly unfocused for those who demand a strong, linear narrative, they nevertheless remain supreme examples of penetrating character study. In "Husbands," the characters in question are three middle aged men (Cassavetes, Peter Falk, and Ben Gazzara) who are unable to cope with the sudden death of a friend. Leaving their families behind, they hop a plane for London to drown their fear of mortality in drunken revelry.
"Twice in a Lifetime" (1985). It's an old, familiar story: Gene Hackman plays a middle aged husband who leaves his wife (Ellen Burstyn) for another woman (Ann-Margret), thereby alienating his daughers (Amy Madigan and Ally Sheedy). This one, however, is a cut above most such films, owing to the determination of screenwriter Collin Welland to mine some genuine drama out of the morass of cliches, and to a set of exceptional performances from all the principle cast members.
Each of these films portrays the midlife crisis as a singularly grim episode, as indeed it often is in real life. There is, however, another way of looking at it. Given that the behavior of middle aged men can often be strikingly absurd, it shouldn't be surprising that a great many comedies have also been made about the "middle age crazies." Next week we'll look at the lighter side of midlife madness in the movies.