Friday, April 19, 2013

Secrets of a Married Man (1984)

Director: William A. Graham
Writer: Dennis Nemec
Producers: R.W. Goodwin, Dennis Nemec
Music: Mark Snow
Cinematographer: Robert Steadman
Original Air Date: Sept. 24, 1984 on NBC (Tristine Rainer - Executive Producer); 96min

William Shatner (Chris Jordan), Michelle Phillips (Katie Jordan),  Glynn Turman (Jesse), Cybill Shepherd (Elaine), Jackson Davies (Terry), Kevin George (Brian), Dameon Clarke (Alex), Tiffany Michas (Beth)

I remember seeing the promo for this back in the day. Imagine seeing William Shatner with his plastic "TJ Hooker" hair, uttering: "Wear. Something. SE-XY!" Cut to Cybill Shepherd wearing something sexy. Cut to Bill Shatner looking like he's seen a ghost, as his necktie gets removed. This ad promised a camp classic for lovers of The Shat. The truth is something else, again.

Chris Jordan is a middle-aged aircraft engineer who has trouble with getting any engine started: not just with trying to fix the toaster in the kitchen, but especially in trying to stir some passion in the bedroom. Since he and his wife Katie are both professionals, and have three energetic kids to boot, there is little time for intimacy. After hours, Chris cruises the red light districts, looking longingly at the call girls strutting their merchandise on the sidewalks. One weekend, while at a trade show in Vancouver, he spends the night with a prostitute to satisfy his sexual needs. He continues having anonymous sex with call girls, until meeting a prostitute named Elaine, and becomes a regular client of hers. In addition to satisfying his physical needs, she also seems to connect with his emotions. This philandering and wavering attention takes a toll on the big project at his job, and causes even more strain on his family life.

On a surface level, this typically brightly lit, antiseptic 1980s made-for-TV film may seem remarkably sleazy. Underneath the upper class milieux of suburban homes, business meetings and posh hotel suites is an unsettling atmosphere of depravity. Witness the scene where Chris pops on his cassette tape of classical music while in his sedan cruising the red light district. Because his movements feel so mechanical, so rehearsed, we sense that this is part of a ritual that had already been going on before the movie's opening credits. (Plus, moments depicting sexual desire onscreen always seem creepier when classical music is playing. I don't know...)  Jordan's sexual repression is accented further with the constant foreground images of streetwalkers in hot leather pants, or cocktail waitresses' cleavage: the content may seem lurid, but it isn't really exploitative.

Yet at the same time, this is also an admirable study of infidelity. The filmmakers don't condone Chris' behaviour, as his moments with prostitutes aren't depicted as erotic. (The first call girl he sleeps with says, "No kissing on the mouth; I'm saving some for my boyfriend").  A physical urge may be satisfied in these rendezvous, but a deeper need remains unfulfilled. Whenever we see Chris and Katie attempt to be intimate, the end result is always miscommunication, hurt feelings and frustration.

It is clear from the opening scene that the marriage is in trouble, as both parties are unable to give the other what they want. Obviously, Chris causes the greater harm to the marriage because of his infidelities, yet neither spouse is presented as a monster. Refreshingly, Dennis Nemec's script doesn't take the easy way out by presenting Katie as a cold-hearted bitch in order to somehow justify Chris' betrayal. It was very wise to cast magazine-cover beauties like Michelle Phillips and Cybill Shepherd as the wife and the other woman, respectively, to emphasize the point that Chris' infidelity isn't founded upon visual attraction, but rather his blockheaded attempt at achieving a communication with someone.

A rare attempt at intimacy between Chris and Katie that once again leads to frustration.
"Special guest star" Cybill Shepherd was becoming a hot property again when this was made. Her career had floundered for a few years- appearing in subpar films after her separation with Peter Bogdanovich, until she landed the female lead and good notices in the NBC series, The Yellow Rose, which sadly only lasted a year. When she achieved even greater stardom on the series Moonlighting in 1985, NBC would occasionally schedule this movie to attract her new fans. William Shatner is surprisingly good: his performance is wisely restrained, further emphasizing Chris' bottled up emotions that he cannot properly express. (The promo stated above selected the obscure bits they could find to make this movie seem more sensationalistic than it really is. Television lied? Nah....)

However, the movie becomes far less interesting in the latter half with the inclusion of a stupid twist where Elaine's pimp forces her to blackmail Chris, or else he'll tell his wife that he's been unfaithful. One has the hunch that originally Dennis Nemec's script was more character-driven, until someone at an NBC board meeting prompted him to write a new ending, with some more sellable ingredients. In another film, this Screenwriting 101 contrivance might be okay, but here, it is maddening to see such a complex study of marriage and betrayal being thrown away for the sake of some ridiculous thriller clich├ęs. Seriously? They couldn't find a better way for Chris to come to terms with his infidelities than Jesse the Killer Pimp?

While Secrets of a Married Man is never a great movie, it could have however been unique. It is a rare picture to give an honest look at the complex issues surrounding modern marriage and infidelity. The decision to tone down the films' cerebral aspects and beef up the visceral moments is another example of dumbing something down to the lowest common denominator and appeal to the masses.

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