An entire book, or at the very least some sort of monograph, could be written about the ways that various old-school Hollywood directors (and even some not entirely old-school and/or studio-system-raised filmmakers) dealt with the license to show rather than imply that the collapse of the Production Code and the permissive culture of the '60s and '70s didn't just allow, but encouraged. Consider the very tasteful nudity of Wyler's 1965 The Collector, the deeply uncomfortable rape-and-strangulation scene in Hitchcock's 1972 Frenzy, the way Kubrick pigged out with the nudity and violence with 1971's A Clockwork Orange. And then there's Preminger. As Chris Fujiwara points out in his excellent critical biography The World And Its Double: The Life And Work Of Otto Preminger, the "vogue for nudity in American films" of the early '70s was something for which Preminger, "as a public opponent of censorship and a producer whose challenges to the Production Code helped lead to the MPAA's adoption of the ratings system [...] might have taken a little credit." It instead was, Fujiwara continues, "something from which he refrained from drawing much benefit in his films." Looking at the first few minutes of his 1971 film Such Good Friends one might conclude that Preminger was in fact rather befuddled by the access his camera could now conceivably enjoy. The movie opens with Dyan Cannon's character Julie Messinger dressing for a Manhattan literary party that just EVERYBODY will be at (Norman Mailer's name is dropped, repeatedly, by Julie's husband Richard, played by Laurence Luckinbill) and wearing this very revealing knit top (one of those things that looks like a mislabeled macrame plant holder; man, the counterculture really yielded some weird fashions, didn't it?) with a heavy-duty and entirely visible bra underneath; on being advised that the visible bra just isn't making it, she doffs the bra, and the top in this context is sufficiently revealing that Cannon's reported refusal to actually appear nude in the film (the very peculiar naked Polaroid we see of her later in the film is quite clearly a doctored photo) seems a little beside the point.
In any event, she leaves her building to catch a cab, and the reaction of her doorman (one Oscar Grossman) to her virtual deshabille inspires a sight gag that would seem more at home in a Three Stooges short than in any Preminger film (with, of course, the ever-possible-exception of Skidoo).
One can almost hear the perhaps-stifling-a-"boner" "BOING!" sound effect, although, blessedly, it does not in fact materialize on the soundtrack.
And Julie is at first confused...
...and then affronted. Life is confusing in this ever-changing world in which we're living, that's for sure.
Such Good Friends is a strange duck to be sure; as Dave Kehr pointed out in his excellent Times piece on the recent DVDs of it and Preminger's prior Hurry Sundown, both recent DVD releases on the invaluable Olive label. Dave calls it a a picture that "seems in active opposition to its cultural moment" in the review proper, and "a provocatively unpleasant comedy" on his own website, where there's a good comments thread (as usual) on the topic. Both assessments strike me as about right. Many synopses of the film describe it as a story of a woman who, upon discovering that her unexpectedly comatose husband has been serially and relentlessly and elaborately cheating on her, embarks on a series of affairs. That's not quite right. Julie doesn't make this discovery into about an hour into this hour-and-forty-minute film, and once she does, what she embarks on aren't so much affairs as they are mutually humiliating sexual encounters. The hour leading up to her discovery largely concerns itself with a relentless and merciless examination of the New York media world of its time. Fujiwara makes an indirect link in his book between the subject matter here and the fact that Preminger himself was one of the "characters" in Tom Wolfe's famed account of that Black Panther fundraising party at Leonard Bernstein's place, in Wolfe's reportorial essay "Radical Chic." Julie's husband is a magazine art director who's just published a book, and the world they share—one from which their two little boys seem entirely estranged from—is cramped and snotty and oppressive, for all its bourgeois comforts. And the film's first hour takes its own sweet time dissecting that world, albeit in a desultory way that sometimes reveals flashes of mise-en-scene brilliance from Preminger and only occasional glimpses of the scalpel-like wit of Elaine May, who was the pseudonymously credited writer (adapting Lois Gould's novel), the last in a long line of scribes on this project. The picture is rather preoccupied, early on, with Julie's own insecurities, both sexual and emotional, and the viewer is made privy to her bizarre fantasies, including a ravishing by a hunky, glass-smashing cabbie. Most bizarre is the instance of nudity Fujiwara cites as Preminger's "ironic reaction" to the prior-noted vogue for nudity. At the all-important party where Norman Mailer is supposed to turn up, Julie and her husband instead meet the aged and slightly truculent egomaniacal novelist Bernard Kalman, whose new book is entitled Weissman. And for some reason Julie is compelled to imagine Kalman naked. Was it ever said that the late, great Burgess Meredith was ever anything less than game? If so, below you shall find your possible not-safe-for-work refutation of that notion.
"Unclothing Meredith is Preminger's way of making fun of the audience for expecting nudity; it also relieve the erotic pressure of the film, letting it be about something besides eroticism," says Fujiwara. Indeed. Also, aiiee.
Dave Kehr's piece discusses the picture's acute visual depiction of the claustrophobia of urban/family life, and I think there are certain shot/compositions in the film conveying this that are as great as anything in Sirk's There's Always Tomorrow, ever my benchmark for imagery-of-domestic-suffocation. As here:
And let the heterosexual males in the audience pause at their leisure for a serene contemplation of Jennifer O'Neill's divine midsection. Ahem. The other individuals in the shot are, from left, James Coco, Ken Howard, Cannon and Luckinbill.
Also of interest are a couple of cameos, one from theater director and impresario Joseph Papp, playing his own self...
...and another from then B-leading-man-sunken-into-obscurity Lawrence Tierney, playing a hospital guard. I imagine that at the time he was inclined to take his day rate directly down to Terminal Bar, where he was among the more renowned regulars, poor sod.
The image quality on the Olive DVD of Such Good Friends is acceptable, nothing to write home about though, but I for one am just glad to be able to see it at all after so many years. It's a fascinating picture; hardly the utter disaster some might have you believe it is but rather a picture whose flaws are very nearly as compelling and curious as its triumphs.