Summers and Swimmers

With a new retrospective, the screenwriter Eleanor Perry gets belated recognition.

Still from The Swimmer.

The 1972 Cannes Film Festival was marked by protests against Italy’s reigning auteur, Federico Fellini, who had green-lit an ill-advised poster for his movie Roma. Depicting a nude, three-breasted “she-wolf” perched suggestively on all fours, the advertisement drew opprobrium from the venerable American screenwriter Eleanor Perry and five others, who, according to the Chicago Tribune, “stirred up a hornet’s nest when they set up ladders in front of the Carlton Hotel before the [Roma] showing … and tried to deface [the] sign.”

The protestors waved signs that read WOMEN ARE PEOPLE—NOT DIRTY JOKES; soon they ascended a tall aluminum ladder “and threw four cans of red paint on the Fellini poster,” the Tribune reported. The cops started “shaking the ladder and trying to knock them to the ground while Mrs. Perry screamed mechant (a French word meaning wicked and evil) and ripped epaulets from their uniforms.” Asked later about the demonstrations, which had sent three people to jail, Perry told the paper: “I adore Fellini, he’s one of my idols, but this ugly distortion of the female anatomy is a humiliating offense to women everywhere.” 

Hollywood bigwigs took notice of Eleanor’s willingness to confront misogyny, and soon they attempted to use it to their advantage. In 1975, at the behest of Columbia Pictures, Perry hosted a private screening of The Stepford Wives—about men who kill their wives and replace them with humanoid robotsahead of its release. “Finally, a movie that is not about two guys and their adventures,” Perry deadpanned before the film started. But some moviegoers believed she was sincere, apparently; in a New York Times article, Judy Klemesrud skewered the film, noting that Perry’s screening had prompted walkouts from the likes of Betty Friedan, who called it a “rip-off of the women’s movement.”

When it was over, Perry asked the crowd: “Men made this film, right?” It was obvious to her, especially given the dialogue about bra burning: “Well, it’s just something no woman would have put in as a line,” she said. And Perry would know: the many screenplays she’d written had a knowing edge to them, brimming with complex, headstrong women who fended for themselves in moments of duress, often while fending off men. One of her most memorable characters, Tina Balser (played by Carrie Snodgress in the 1970 adaptation of Sue Kaufman’s Diary of a Mad Housewife) ripped the man she’d been having an affair with, George Prager (Frank Langella), for being just as cold and sex-obsessed as her abusive husband was. “You don’t need a woman,” Tina spits at George, seconds before she splits. “You need a sex machine.”

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Since her death in 1981, Perry’s rebukes of the Hollywood status quo have sustained her reputation in certain circles—but her artistic contributions to film are too often footnotes, especially compared to those of her former husband, Frank Perry, who directed eight of her screenplays, including The Swimmer, Last Summer, and David and Lisa. (The two divorced in 1971, after Diary of a Mad Housewife.) Sure, Frank’s skill is undeniable—it takes a director of considerable talent to coax the notoriously prickly Burt Lancaster into running around practically naked for the duration of The Swimmer—but Frank wouldn’t have made pictures at all without Eleanor, whom he married in 1958.

Before her film career took off, Eleanor had earned a master’s degree in psychiatric social work; she’d published suspense novels. The experience gave her a keen instinct for building tension. In the early sixties, her daughter gave her Dr. Theodore Isaac Rubin’s novel Lisa and David. Eleanor decided to adapt it into a screenplay, putting Frank in the director’s chair. As Frank’s Los Angeles Times obit notes, the pair financed the film with a staggering $200,000 in independent funding after both major and minor distributors passed on the film. They shot David and Lisa in a few weeks, with enough money leftover to pop a bottle or two. The 1962 film—which oozes with angst, unrequited desire, and venom—garnered Frank a nomination for Best Director from the Academy, and Eleanor a nomination for Adapted Screenplay.

Eleanor’s penchant for a good caper, as well as for amplifying drama, gave her screenplays a rare power to wedge themselves into audiences’ consciousnesses. Her sensibility led her to Last Summer, Evan Hunter’s novel of teen romance gone awry, which became in Perry’s hands both controversial and unforgettable. “Mrs. Perry’s screenplay, like the novel, is tough and laconic and exclusively centered on the young people, an isolation that spares us the most of the familiar, easy explanations about How They Got That Way,” wrote the New York Times in their 1969 review.

Eleanor’s characters often illuminated aspects of womanhood that were deeply familiar and yet seldom depicted onscreen. She was especially shrewd at showing the innate defensive tactics that women use to protect themselves from men’s unwanted advances. Take her adaptation of The Swimmer, John Cheever’s famous 1964 story, in which Ned Merrill (Burt Lancaster) reckons with his delusions by electing to “swim home,” navigating the many swimming pools that dot his affluent Connecticut county. Along the way, he encounters his mistress, Shirley Abbott (Janice Rule), and a neighbor, Julie Hooper (Janet Landgard). He makes advances on Shirley, and when she’s unable to get him out of her yard, she insists that a man’s coming over. Then he puts the moves on Julie, too. She admits at first that she used to have a crush on him, but she becomes uncomfortable, understandably, with his leading questions and offers to meet her every day. So she tries to stave off his discomfiting advances by bringing up her jealous boyfriend. When he doesn’t quit, she bolts.

Though we only see her for part of The Swimmer, Shirley is a particularly acerbic, unapologetic character. Instead of edging into trope territory, Shirley refuses to bend to Ned’s charms, isn’t afraid to bring him back down to Earth, and calls him out on how he treated her. During one tense scene by her poolside, she chastises Ned for how he broke it off with her. It also happened to be the only time he ever took her to a nice restaurant in New York. “You did the usual red-blooded married man thing,” she says. “You took me out to lunch and gave me that lecture about the duties of a father and a husband.” Ned claims he doesn’t remember and denies intentionally trying to hurt her. “Did you really think you could get rid of me in no more noise than the sound of finger bowls tinkling?” she fires back.

Eleanor never wrote women in film as bit parts, plot devices, or vehicles for arguments about men. Though her characterization of women onscreen was progressive, it was hardly perfect—nor was it entirely inclusive. Perry lived through feminism’s first wave, and her films are circumscribed to a degree: they focus almost exclusively on white, upper-middle-class people on the coasts of the U.S. While her politics concern the well-being and representation of women, she sometimes misstepped in her depiction of these characters. For instance, Mrs. Clemens (Neva Patterson), David’s mother in David and Lisa, is depicted as an overbearing part of his life, and it’s implied that she is partially to blame for some of his emotional and mental issues. Eleanor’s screenplays paid no particular attention to the plight that women of color, LGBTQ women, and transgender women faced in Hollywood and beyond, either.

But it’s hard to know what work Perry might have gone on to make: her career didn’t last into the seventies. After she divorced Frank, Eleanor was banished to Hollywood purgatory, more or less. As a 1979 Washington Post profile notes, Perry was, at that point, being “paid, but her work isn’t seen, and she feels too old to devote the years necessary to direct a film herself.” What’s more, she had eleven unproduced screenplays burning a hole in the bottom drawer of her desk and seemed slighted by the “strain of incredulity and anger at the baffling status of women in her lifetime.” (She touched on the film industry’s dismissal of women of a certain age—and the dissolution of her marriage—in the only novel she published under her own name, 1979’s Blue Pages.)

Earlier this month, New York’s Quad Cinema hosted a Frank and Eleanor Perry retrospective: the start of what I hope will be a reappraisal of the feminist screenwriter. Revisiting films like David and Lisa, Ladybug Ladybug, and Diary of a Mad Housewife—all of which featured characters who pushed back against antiquated norms of what it means to be a woman in the worldoffers a disturbing reminder that Eleanor’s work remains on the outside of Hollywood norms, which continue to favor binary depictions of women as either madonnas or whores. Her rise to prominence also highlights how few women are in positions to call the shots—the industry today is still in the condition that Perry spent her lifetime railing against. “It seems women are always getting killed or raped,” she once noted of the movies. “Those are men’s fantasies we’re seeing, right?”

Paula Mejia writes about arts and culture for the New York Times, NPR, Rolling Stone, Vulture, and others. Her first book, a 33 1/3 series volume on the Jesus and Mary Chain’s Psychocandy, was released in October 2016.

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