Sunday, August 31, 2014

A Familiar Tale

Jerry (Fredric March): I can't tell you how often recently I've found myself thinking about dying. 'Dying' to you is something that happens to old relatives, but it's a very intimate business to me. I don't expect you to understand this, but in those moments when I'm suddenly impossible to live with, that's probably what's at the bottom of my bad temper.

"Middle of the Night," which hit U.S. theaters on this day in 1959, was a reminder that there really isn't anything new under the sun — and it reminded viewers of that in many ways.

Fredric March, nearing the end of his career, played Jerry, a recent widower. He was lonely so he threw himself into his clothing business to keep his mind off such things.

Kim Novak played one of his employees, Betty, a recently divorced secretary. She married too young, mostly because everyone else was getting married, and discovered quickly that she had made a mistake.

They sort of fell into each other's arms.

How many Jerrys and Bettys have I known in my life? Quite a few, it seems. They come in all shapes and sizes.

They weren't always dealing with the emotional baggage of a deceased spouse, as Jerry was. More often, they were coming off a bad marriage, like Betty was — or, at least, a bad relationship.

But sometimes, they were trapped in unhappy marriages and found some comfort with each other.

Sometimes the relationship was between an employer and an employee. Sometimes they were co–workers. Sometimes they were neighbors or classmates.

Sometimes there was a genuine relationship; sometimes it was fake and coerced.

Sometimes there was a considerable age difference, as there was in "Middle of the Night." Jerry was 56. Betty was 24. (In reality, March was 61, and Novak was 26.)

It was an Everyperson story.

And if all those minefields were navigated successfully, there was still the matter of relatives. "Middle of the Night" threw that into the mix as well.

Jerry, although widowed, had a sister living with him and a daughter living nearby. Both were deeply involved in his life and worried about him — and felt increasingly alienated from him the deeper he got into his relationship with Betty.

Initially, Jerry brought some typing work to Betty's home and was drawn into her personal life. His interest and attention kindled something in Betty, too. Jerry struck her as fatherly, and she reacted positively to his encouragement.

But he was falling in love with her, and she wasn't as interested in him as he was in her. He protested that it was "the age thing," and Betty acknowledged that it probably was — but I felt she was much closer to the truth when she admitted that she didn't really know what love was, that she might have been more likely to fall for him if he had clearly been "on the make."

Perhaps against her better judgment, Betty acquiesced to Jerry's rather timid advances (at least compared to those a woman could expect from a man who was "on the make"); for a time, they were in a relationship together. At that point it became a fascinating character study; the two sort of reversed roles. Betty, who had been the vulnerable and sort of needy one at first, became the independent one who really didn't need the relationship, at least not as much as Jerry did. Jerry, who had been the strong yet empathetic one at first, became the needy one who couldn't function without the relationship. It brought up all his loneliness issues, all his abandonment issues, all the things he had repressed since his wife died.

As Jerry feared, it was the "age thing," at least to an extent. In such cases, doesn't it always seem that the older person is the last one to see what was so obvious to everyone else? March did a splendid job of portraying a man in that kind of dream state.

It occurs to me: If the movie had been made a decade later, it might have been promoted as a creative take on the generation gap of which so much was said in those days.

Jerry suffered when he learned that Betty, who had said she wanted to avoid a relationship before "someone" was hurt, had been seeing her ex.

He was playing a game he hadn't played in decades — and the rules were different than he remembered. He was frustrated, and it boiled over into other areas of his life.

Betty was scared by the negative side of his personality that emerged after she agreed to marry him. She was a decent enough young woman, but she was hardly a saint. When he lavished her with gifts, Betty told him she felt "like a tramp." Her mother, self–absorbed and indifferent, was of no help; nor was her mother's friend.

As a young man, Jerry may have been the one to whom exes turned for what is known today as a "booty call." This time, he found himself on the other side of that fence — and he didn't care for it. He broke up with Betty and went home to his sister, who was not happy that he was so sad, but she was glad the relationship appeared to be over.

In the end, though, Jerry realized that he felt alive when he was with Betty. "There weren't enough hours in the day for me," he said near the end before reconciling with her — and the on again, off again wedding appeared to be on again.

That left me wondering several things: Will they find happiness? Will the daughter allow Betty to inherit Jerry's money? Will his sister give up the Upper West Side apartment and move back to Brooklyn? Will Betty's mom and friend stop undermining her? And can Betty stop having sex with her ex?

There was no sequel so those questions were never addressed.

But I think I know how they would have been answered. I've seen this story played out before — in real life. And in some other movies, too.

As he did with his TV script for "Marty" a few years earlier, screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky expanded his original story into the big–screen version of "Middle of the Night."

They were similar kinds of stories, really.

The results weren't quite as astonishing. "Middle of the Night" received no Oscar nominations whereas "Marty" won Best Picture.