Jonathan Franzen has been getting extraordinary advance press for his novel “Freedom” — set to be published Aug. 31.
A critic as well as a novelist, Franzen did one of the great literary good deeds of the modern era when he helped to restore the reputation of novelist Paula Fox (below) a decade ago.
Fox had been highly praised for novels she wrote in the 1970s — “Desperate Characters” and “The Widow’s Children,” among them — but the dark tone of the books made them much less popular with readers than critics and they were all out of print by the turn of the century.
Thanks in large part to his support, “Desperate Characters” was reprinted in 1999 with a Franzen introduction in which he wrote about stumbling upon the novel at a writer’s retreat a few years earlier.
“It seemed to me obviously superior to any novel by Fox’s contemporaries, John Updike, Philip Roth and Saul Bellow. It seemed unarguably great…because it’s a completely achieved novel, a rigorously structured, line-by-line brilliant novel”
The restoration of Fox’s reputation eventually lead to the DVD re-appearance of a virtually unknown 1971 movie version of “Desperate Characters” which, like the novel, received some good reviews before falling into the limbo of lost movies.
Although Fox was not crazy about the movie — except for the $35,000 payment that made it possible for her to buy a house in Brooklyn — it remains a terrific time capsule from a period when older city dwellers felt their notions of polite society — and, indeed, “civilization” itself — were threatened by the counterculture and an escalating crime rate that was causing a major city-to-suburb shift by the middle class.
“Desperate Characters” follows a middle-aged couple, Sophie and Otto Brentwood, who feel under siege in the Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, neighborhood in which they have bought and restored an elegant townhouse.
Sophie and Otto are urban adventurers who are beginning to feel that the gentrification around them has stalled and that they are about to be swallowed up by urban chaos.
The film is a fairly faithful adaptation of Fox’s book which critic Irving Howe said “captures, to some extent, a mood of the late sixties, the anxiety of cultivated liberal people that ‘everything is going to hell’ and the threatening hordes are at the gate.”
The movie was a pet project of Shirley MacLaine whose life and career were in transition in the late 1960s. The star had just suffered the box-office and critical failure of the hugely expensive musical “Sweet Charity” in 1969 and was drifting away from acting and into writing and political activism.
The actress made a deal for a TV series with the legendary British producer Lew Grade that also allowed her to produce two low-budget films of her choosing (MacLaine later agreed with cynics in the movie business who joked, “There is high grade and Lew Grade”).
The sitcom was a flop, but MacLaine was able to make two very interesting New York-set films — with great parts for her — just before she went off to work on the McGovern campaign. “Desperate Characters” was followed by “The Possession of Joel Delaney” (1972), a fascinating supernatural thriller about class differences in Manhattan.
Although neither of the MacLaine projects were overtly political, both pictures explored the 1970-71 New York City scene as acutely as they observed the characters in the foreground. The actress brought a maturity and depth to both characterizations that set her up for the triumph she would score in “Terms of Endearment” a decade later.
Paula Fox felt that the movie suffered from a very bad piece of casting: Kenneth Mars in the role of Otto.
Mars was coming off a bunch of comic TV roles and his performance as the crazy Nazi playwright in the 1968 Mel Brooks film “The Producers.”
“If you just looked at him, you’d start laughing, because he was so funny,” Fox told an interviewer a few years ago.
“I remember going to rehearsal, and he was telling people about his wife’s kidney operation, and it made everybody break up with laughter. And I think he spoiled the whole movie, because he was too funny for Otto. The whole thing lacked a certain kind of inner gravity.”
I think Fox is right about Mars, but the movie is still worth watching for MacLaine’s performance, the early 1970s New York City atmosphere and the prickly dialogue and situations lifted directly from the brilliant novel.