Director Joan Tewkesbury in 1979
Tewkesbury at age 11
Tewkesbury (far right) with actress Shelley Duvall and director Robert Altman
Joan Tewkesbury today
OLD BOYFRIENDS B+
USA (103 mi) 1979 d Joan Tewkesbury
It’s simply one of the things we're going to get over, this business of thinking and writing about “women directors.”
―Roger Ebert, Interview with Claudia Weill | Interviews | Roger Ebert, October 20, 1980
I realized if I could figure out why I loved them then, I could figure out myself and love myself.
―Dianne Cruise (Talia Shire)
From the writer of Robert Altman’s THIEVES LIKE US (1974) and Nashville (1975), also appearing onscreen briefly in McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971), Tewkesbury was a child actress and ballerina who apparently worked her way up the ranks in the Altman network, starting off as a script girl (listed under continuity) in McCabe, eventually given greater responsibility over time. According to Jan Stuart’s The Nashville Chronicles: The Making of Robert Altman’s Masterpiece, “Altman sent Thieves Like Us screenwriter Joan Tewkesbury on a guided tour of Nashville, where she went to the Country Music Hall of Fame and other stage-managed tourist attractions. She found the experience boring, and told Altman she didn’t see a movie set there; he sent her back for a second trip, this time on her own, and she managed to suss out more of the authentic texture of the town. Many of the elements of the film—the traffic jam, the visit to the recording studio, the way Robert DoQui’s Wade sits down next to Lily Tomlin at the Exit/In—were directly inspired by things that happened to her on that trip.” Perhaps most surprising, Tewkesbury’s script on this film was reworked from an original script written by Paul and Leonard Schrader entitled Old Girlfriends, with Tewkesbury altering the male perspective to a decidedly female point of view, where it may not be the revenge-based, nihilistic saga the Schrader brothers had in mind. Much aligned at the time of its release, with charges of being stridently feminist or anti-men, yet it’s neither, offering a glimpse behind a door where nothing is spelled out, inhabiting layers of mystery, exploring an almost choreographed sense of female intimacy that becomes weaponized, which can be unnerving, though it was made in a time before blockbusters when small personal films could be made, with Tewkesbury recalling Schrader’s reflections that he “would have been more comfortable if we had directed it like a horror film.” In Schrader on Schrader & Other Writings, he writes, “I would have pushed things more and made them more edgy, more spooky, more scary, with characters that are more mesmerizing and more obsessive.” Thankfully that’s not at all where this film goes, becoming more of a character study, one of the few independent or studio films of the time directed by a woman, typically disregarded by the nearly all-male critics who didn’t have a clue and weren’t particularly interested in understanding the female psychology. According to Maya Montañez Smukler in her new book Liberating Hollywood: Women Directors and the Feminist Reform of 1970s American Cinema (head of the research and study center at the UCLA Film & Television Archive that restored more than a dozen of these mostly unseen films, including a brand new print of this film), she claims over the entire decade of the 1970’s (actually 1966-1980) only sixteen American women directed a narrative feature film, all white women: Penny Allen, Karen Arthur, Anne Bancroft, Joan Darling, Lee Grant, Barbara Loden, Elaine May, Barbara Peeters, Joan Rivers, Stephanie Rothman, Beverly Sebastian, Joan Micklin Silver, Joan Tewkesbury, Jane Wagner, Nancy Walker, and Claudia Weill. Now this would not include experimental or documentary films, apparently, like Shirley Clarke or Barbara Kopple. The point being, all were subjected to a cascade of sexist male critics writing them off, suggesting they were unworthy, and basically derailing their careers in the industry. Unfortunately, this is the only film made by Tewkesbury, spending the rest of her career working in television, which is not at all an uncommon fate for women even today.
An uncompromising work, to the extent that was possible when it was made, remarkably original, not exactly feminist, more in tune with the everyday and ordinary, yet not really like anything else from the 70’s, suggestive of an anti-heroine version of Five Easy Pieces (1970), perhaps more like Altman’s That Cold Day In the Park (1969), part of his “female subjectivity” trilogy that also includes Images (1972) and 3 Women (1977), though not as alienated and out of touch as those women, feeling more like a woman in a particularly vulnerable place in her life experiencing problems with trauma, disassociation, and a fractured identity, consumed by guilt, using sex inappropriately to make up for what she’s missing in her life. Recalling the Jim Jarmusch film BROKEN FLOWERS (2005) about retracing various people in your life, Tewkesbury’s practice of keeping a written journal documenting various incidents she witnesses plays a part in this film as well, as the inner narrative voiceovers, a device prominently featured in Paul Schrader films like Taxi Driver (1976) and First Reformed (2017), are first-person extracts from the leading character’s personal diary, using different female voices at different ages to represent different phases of a developing character. Fresh off her screen success with THE GODFATHER I (1972) and II (1974), as well as ROCKY (1976), all pictures that made a gazillion bucks, this is a stab at something else, smaller and less commercial, starring Talia Shire as Dianne Cruise, providing a very open-ended performance where she’s allowed to breathe life into something unformulaic, working as a clinical psychologist in Los Angeles before abruptly deciding to go on an extended road trip revisiting various boyfriends from her past, thinking this might in some way give her perspective on the detoured direction of her own life, though by all accounts she was extremely successful at the clinic, but undergoing a midlife crisis that includes a deeply scarred psychological depression from a rocky divorce, leaving her unhinged from any comfort zone. Of interest, during the time the film was made, Talia Shire was undergoing her own divorce to David Shire, a composer who also wrote the campy music to the film (handing out sample soundtrack LP’s at the premiere), perhaps best known for scoring Coppola’s The Conversation (1974), a film made by Talia’s big brother. Perhaps just as intriguing, Shire bears a striking similarity in looks to Tewkesbury (who underwent her own divorce just a few years earlier), though ten years younger, becoming a stand-in for the director and the film she’s trying to make. The opening sequence is an adrenaline-racing car scene weaving in and out of traffic, more typical of the era in when it was made, speeding past all the other cars, exiting off the highway into a peculiar dead-end, crashing into the concrete barriers, Old Boyfriends – opening YouTube (1:31). It’s not until close to the end of the film that this scene is provided context, leaving viewers hanging through most of the film, like an unfinished thought, but it certainly foreshadows the trainwreck that is about to happen. This unique style very much reflects the film, continually meandering into unknown territory, taking twists and turns that aren’t accounted for until the very end, and even then this is a mysteriously ambiguous film, going against the grain by allowing a vulnerable lead character to be human, to make mistakes along the road, some with tragic consequences, questioning the wisdom of her ways, yet that’s exactly what makes this film interesting, as her flaws are so glaring, making her easy to identify with, even as we may not share or understand her motives. It’s not like our lives are perfect, but this naturalistic quality is the most compelling aspect of the film, much like a Sam Shepard play, occasionally veering into cringeworthy territory, where this is never wrapped up in a bow and sold as anything other than what it is, a strange and harrowing journey of self-discovery, very much reflective of the times.
First we see Dianne travel to the Rocky Mountains visiting an old college sweetheart, Jeff Turrin (Richard Jordan), a fledgling documentary filmmaker initially seen clumsily shooting a pathetic low-grade political ad in the clean mountain air, with a sleazy character on the set hitting on her with the corny line, “I got a cameo on STARSKY AND HUTCH… wanna come out and see my Winnebago?” Undeterred, she meets up with Jeff afterwards in a crowded hotel bar that is a blitzkrieg of confusion, very Altmanesque in the multiple streams of dialogue all heard simultaneously, not exactly an intimate setting, but a stark contrast to Dianne alone in her hotel room rehearsing in front of a mirror what she really wants to say. But Jeff is a decent guy who apparently asked her to marry him three times, only to be turned down, and now she’s inexplicably arriving back on his door, stepping into his life, and that of his teenage daughter Dylan (of course, Jordan’s own daughter Nina), fanning the flames of a newly aroused sexual curiosity only to disappear again without a trace, as if paying him back for some unspecified crime. In a humorous aside, he hires a detective to find her, none other than Buck Henry (where the unwritten relationship with his secretary is a thing of beauty), including an office overlooking Grauman’s Chinese Theater with STAR WARS on the marquee, discovering where she lives in a single phone call, countering the Raymond Chandler stereotype that requires unlocking an indecipherable underworld of criminal intrigue. She’s on a similar crusade in Minneapolis revisiting an old high school flame Eric Katz, John Belushi early on performing what is arguably the only serious role of his career, remarkably doing his scumbag shtick, playing a louse who rocks as a lounge lizard on the Holiday Inn circuit, pretending to come on to him, like the girl of his dreams, only to leave him high and dry as well, payback for humiliating her in high school. At this point, we’re well on the way to thinking her deceitful methods resemble Jeanne Moreau’s revenge saga in Truffaut’s near flawless ode to Hitchcock in THE BRIDE WORE BLACK (1968), meticulously tracking down the men who killed her husband on her wedding day. But the eerie diary voiceovers add an element of fairy tale mystique, actually recalling her state of mind at earlier stages in her life, which are counterbalanced by her current motives that remain mysterious and elusive. Her final visit is to Ludington, Michigan, where she spent her childhood years, arriving by ferry, renting a room with windows overlooking a home across the street that has remained exactly as it was, retaining that small town charm, only the inhabitants have grown older. Revisiting her middle school crush, she’s surprised to discover he died in Vietnam a decade ago, survived by his younger brother Wayne, Keith Carradine, a paragon of innocence and virtue who still lives at home with his mother, though somewhat troubled, yet in her eyes takes his brother’s place in a weird Vertigo (1958) transference, quickly making friends, dressing him in clothes that belonged to her brother, which becomes a disturbing prelude to sexual intimacy, with disastrous consequences, sending the poor kid into the psychiatric ward. Trying to visit him there, she receives a stern dressing down lecture from the morally authoritative voice of the John Houseman (no one delivers a lecture like this man from The Paper Chase), the attending psychiatric doctor in charge who derides her profession (and the city where she lives), claiming she should have known better, indulging in a self-absorbed trip down memory lane that may actually have ruined this young man’s life. Whatever the motives of this cross-country trip, it clearly ends with a thud, as it’s perfectly obvious she totally screwed up and fell flat on her ass, yet there’s a timeless quality to her experience. By wrapping her fate around the meaningless lives of men that don’t really matter to her, she has only hitched her wagon to the same dreary emptiness these men experienced, leaving her exposed, suicidal, and a bit remorseful. Yet perhaps paring away all this extraneous baggage is essential, finally stripped of all illusions, allowing her to become a better version of herself, leaving a surprise ending in store, beautifully framed in a picturesque crane shot overlooking a luscious green park lined on each side by a wall of gorgeous palm trees, representing an idyllic picture of Los Angeles, becoming an homage to the final shot of THE THIRD MAN (1949), with Diane assuming Alida Valli’s slow walk towards the camera, her wounded life lost in an ambiguous haze of internalized doubt, wondering whether repair is even an option, a downbeat twist that feels surprisingly refreshing and real, with no easy answers guaranteed.