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In 1963, Mary McCarthy's novel, The Group, which chronicled the lives of eight graduates of Vassar's class of 1933, was a scandalous bestseller. The book was a sophisticated satire of women, men, and the upper-middle-class in the 1930s, but what made it a hit was that it was considered a "dirty book," with very frank depictions of women's sexuality. When the book was published, every major studio turned down the film rights. Charles K. Feldman, an agent turned independent packager, finally bought them, and spent thousands of dollars publicizing the book, hoping to increase interest in the forthcoming movie. It worked.
Then Feldman upped the publicity ante for The Group (1966) by casting seven little-known but very talented young actresses...and Candice Bergen. Nineteen-year-old Bergen, the daughter of ventriloquist Edgar Bergen, had become highly visible as a fashion model. She had never acted, and had no interest in acting, but was at loose ends after flunking out of college, so she agreed to play the relatively small role of Lakey, the group's leader, who is revealed as a lesbian. Shirley Knight, who played Polly, was the best known among the young cast, having been twice nominated for Academy Awards as Best Supporting Actress for The Dark at the Top of the Stairs (1960) and Sweet Bird of Youth (1962). Elizabeth Hartman, who played Priss, was also an Oscar nominee for her debut film, A Patch of Blue (1965). Jessica Walter, who played the brittle Libby, had appeared in just one film, though she had done theater and television. Making their film debuts in The Group were stage actresses Joan Hackett as Dottie, whose sexual awakening had been the most-discussed scene in the book; Joanna Pettet as Kay, whose wedding and funeral begin and end the story; Kathleen Widdoes as Helena, the group's artist and chronicler; and Mary-Robin Redd, as rich, dopey Pokey.
Feldman hired veteran screenwriter Sidney Buchman to adapt the book and produce the film. Sidney Lumet was hired to direct -- an odd choice, some thought, for a story of WASPy Vassar girls. Lumet came from a theatrical family. His parents were actors in the Yiddish theater (his father would play Mr. Schneider in The Group), and Lumet had been a child actor. He'd started as a director in television, and had made nine features, although he'd never had a box-office hit. Critic Pauline Kael, in her long essay on the making of The Group, describes Lumet when the film began as "the director producers settled for when they couldn't get the one they wanted - everybody's second choice." But with his background in television, Lumet worked quickly and economically. And, Kael conceded, "he showed a professional respect for acting and his job." And Lumet's work was getting attention. While he was making The Group, two of his other films, The Pawnbroker (1965) and The Hill (1965), opened to great critical acclaim. "By the time The Group was finished," Kael wrote, "everybody knew he was going to be a big director."
Most of the film was made in and around New York, still a rarity in 1966. With a budget of $2,600,000, The Group was the most expensive movie made to date in that city. But the film came in on time and on budget. It was made with no major logistical problems and, in spite of the huge, mostly female cast, no major catfights. However, Candice Bergen recalls in her autobiography that she did encounter some hostility from the other girls. For one thing, she got the lion's share of attention from the press. For another, she was an aspiring journalist, and was writing an article for Esquire about the making of the film. Bergen claimed her notes disappeared, and she received some not-so-veiled threats from one of the other actresses. But she also concedes that she was snotty, undiplomatic, and not a serious actress.
The Kael article, which is critical of the filmmaking process, is nevertheless a fascinating and detailed look at how a film gets made. The highly opinionated critic attacked the filmmakers for failing to pay attention to the novel's depictions of the characters' motivations. And she could be scathing, as when she describes Lumet telling an actress to play a scene with a "terrible smile" on her face. "Lumet is prodigal with bad ideas," she harrumphed. Yet in spite of her complaints, Kael liked the movie, calling it "one of the few interesting American movies of recent years...the talented, fresh young performers are given some material to work with."
In spite of all the publicity, The Group was not a commercial success, and barely made back its cost. But over the years, it has become something of a cult favorite. As for the notoriously curmudgeonly Mary McCarthy, she was already annoyed that the book had gotten the bestseller treatment and that she was getting so much attention. But the film had been remarkably faithful to the novel, and a friend who accompanied her to a screening said McCarthy liked the film visually. At the end of the film, the author murmured, "It'll do."
Producer: Sidney Buchman
Director: Sidney Lumet
Screenplay: Sidney Buchman, from the novel by Mary McCarthy
Editor: Ralph Rosenblum
Cinematography: Boris Kaufman
Production Designer: Gene CallahanSet Decorator: Jack Wright, Jr.
Costume Designer: Anna Hill Johnstone
Principal Cast: Candice Bergen (Elinor Eastlake), Joan Hackett (Dottie Renfrew), Elizabeth Hartman (Priss Hartshorn), Shirley Knight (Polly Andrews), Joanna Pettet (Kay Strong), Mary-Robin Redd (Pokey Prothero), Jessica Walter (Libby McAusland), Kathleen Widdoes (Helena Davison).
by Margarita Landazuri