Saturday, September 08, 2012

THE GROUP (1966)

This episodic soap opera follows the lives of eight young women who graduate from Vassar in 1933—after having been close friends throughout college—and remain in touch for the next decade. Based on a novel by Mary McCarthy, the movie packs a lot of incidents into its 2-1/2 hour running time, and the best way to summarize the action is to tick through the major characters one by one. Kay (Joanna Pettet) gets married soon out of college to an insecure Marxist playwright (Larry Hagman) who becomes an abusive alcoholic. Dottie (Joan Hackett) has sex for the first time with Hagman's former roommate (Richard Mulligan) and is shaken when she realizes she's just a one-night stand for him. Libby (Jessica Walter) wants to break into publishing and gets a job as a manuscript reader for editor Hal Holbrook; she faints when he fires her (for having virtually no gift for recognizing talent) but Holbrook sets her up as a secretary for a literary agent. Polly (Shirley Knight) becomes a nurse and briefly dates Holbrook before falling for a doctor (James Brodrick) who helps her deal with her senile father. 

We don't see as much of the other four women, though they do pop in and out of the larger narrative threads. Pris (Elizabeth Hartman) and Pokey (Mary-Robin Redd) get married and become mothers; Helena (Kathleen Widdoes) writes an alumni newsletter and keeps everyone in touch; Lakey (Candice Bergen) jets off to Europe where she takes a rich, German, female lover—the ever-charming Hagman calls her a "lesbo" to her face. One of the women meets a tragic fate which brings everyone back together one more time for a funeral. Despite the many plotlines which twine in and out of each other, it's not hard to follow the action, but the characterizations do suffer; it might have worked better as a TV series. I kept getting Pris and Pokey mixed up—Pris is the one whose jerk of a husband forces her to breast-feed against her nurses' advice—and, though Libby, as the snotty bitch, is the most fun, she winds up being around mostly for her acid one-liners. The acting is fine, with Walter (dark hair, pictured above), Pettet (behind Walter) and Knight coming off best; Bergen appears in the beginning and vanishes for most of the rest of the movie until the end. If there is an implied message or moral embedded here about American women—or men, or the times for that matter—I didn't get it, but it held my interest. The film does have a period feel, but it seems more like the 50s than the 30s. Favorite line, from Jessica Walter: "I'm appalled by all this vulgar breeding." [TCM]

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