Desperate Characters


1h 27m 1971

Film Details

MPAA Rating
Release Date
Sep 1971
Premiere Information
World premiere at Berlin Film Festival: week of 25 Jun 1971; Moscow Film Festival: 31 Jul 1971; New York opening: 22 Sep 1971
Production Company
Independent Television Corporation; TDJ Productions, Inc.
Distribution Company
Paramount Pictures Corp.
Country
United States
Location
New York City, New York, United States
Screenplay Information
Based on the novel Desperate Characters by Paula Fox (New York, 1970).

Technical Specs

Duration
1h 27m
Sound
Mono
Color
Color (Eastmancolor)

Synopsis

On a Friday night in her upper-middle-class home in Brooklyn Heights, Sophie Bentwood barely listens as her husband Otto drones on about the dissolution of his law partnership with his best friend, Charlie Russell. Sophie is distracted by the presence of a stray cat, and feeling responsible for it, she feeds it milk. When she pets the cat, it bites her, to which Otto retorts that the animal is savage. As the couple prepares for a party that night, Sophie objects to Otto's treatment of Charlie, and he snaps at her to "shut up," then quickly apologizes. On their way to the party, they note a man passed out on the sidewalk, and assuming he is drunk, step over him, quarreling, as usual, about their opposing worldviews. Noting that the cat bite has deepened, Otto urges Sophie to have a rabies shot, but she refuses, insisting the cat is not sick. The party is being given by the Bentwood's good friends, Mike and Flo Holstein. Mike, a psychiatrist, tries to call a physician friend for advice about Sophie's bite, but there is no answer. As they leave the bedroom, they notice that a rock has been thrown through Mike's window. In the kitchen, Mike's son and his girl friend taunt Sophie for "her" party, insinuating that it is square and conservative. Bored with the party's banal conversations, Sophie is struck to see Francis Early there. She and Francis had ended a love affair months earlier, and now she admits to him that she is still heartbroken. Otto is watching her conversation carefully, and in the cab on the way home, he complains about their friends. They enter their apartment, where Sophie is frightened by a prank phone call, after which Otto screams at the stray cat to keep away from them. They lie awake in bed, where Otto casually mentions that he considers Francis "a phony." In the middle of the night, Charlie knocks on the door, slightly drunk, and insists on talking with Otto. Upon entering, however, he changes his mind and, telling her not to awaken Otto, asks Sophie to join him for coffee. In the next few hours, the two wander the city and discuss Charlie's break with Otto, Charlie's wife Ruth, who has embraced women's liberation, and Sophie's alcoholic father. Charlie tells Sophie that he feels that Otto has turned against him, labeling him a "bleeding-heart liberal," then states that both men want to go back in time. When he suggests that she visit the hospital for her cat bite, Sophie responds that she is too afraid of pain. The next morning, the man is still collapsed on the street outside the apartment. Otto, insisting the man is merely drunk, turns away and tries to make love to Sophie, who refuses. Over breakfast, she reveals that Charlie visited her the previous night, and Otto, hurt, cuts her off. When Sophie tries to ask why their long friendship has come to this, Otto blames Charlie, stating that he wants a new life. Sophie takes the subway to visit her friend Claire, and like all the other passengers, ignores a man in a business suit conducting a conversation with himself. On the street, she spots Ruth, who blithely says that the men were too codependent, then mutters something that Sophie thinks is "go away." Claire's ex-husband Leon has moved in with her to get over his latest love affair. Watching the two bicker constantly, Sophie is horrified at the arrangement in which they use each other for an uneasy companionship. After rushing out, Sophie calls Francis from a phone booth, but he is in bed with his new lover and does not answer. Over dinner that night, Otto once again holds forth on Charlie, whom he accuses of distracting himself with liberal causes so he can avoid thinking about real subjects. As Otto repeats that he no longer trusts his friend, Sophie realizes that he is talking about her. Just then, a black man comes to the door asking to use the phone. Afterward, he asks for money for the train, and although Otto does not believe his assurance that he will repay them, he gives the man money and ushers him out. Otto then brings Sophie to the hospital emergency room, which is filled with wounded and desperate people. Sophie pleads to leave, but Otto snaps, "Put up with it, everyone else does." The doctors tell her she must have either a rabies shot, or find the cat and have it checked out. Sophie scoffs at Otto's certainty that they can catch the cat, but later that night, the cat returns and Otto grabs it. Sophie, unable to help trap it, allows it to get away, but Otto recaptures it and brings it to the authorities. Returning home later, he tells her that they will call on Monday to report on the cat's health. To soothe Sophie's guilt that the cat will be put down, he makes a plan for them to go to their country house on Sunday. In the car on the next day, Sophie is disgusted and saddened by the state of the city and Otto frets about Charlie, but both find their spirits lifted by the sight of the country. When they enter the house, however, they find it ransacked. In response to the destruction, Otto tries to make love to Sophie, who first pushes him away, then consents, crying. During the drive back home, Otto suggests that they try once more to adopt a child, after which Sophie asks him to stay home with her the next day to receive the news about the cat. Exasperated, Otto asks if she wants to be rabid, and she replies, "If I was I'd be equal to what's outside." When they finally reach their apartment, Sophie lags outside and wonders aloud if the vandals have attacked the apartment, and leading her inside, Otto responds, "Not yet."

Film Details

MPAA Rating
Release Date
Sep 1971
Premiere Information
World premiere at Berlin Film Festival: week of 25 Jun 1971; Moscow Film Festival: 31 Jul 1971; New York opening: 22 Sep 1971
Production Company
Independent Television Corporation; TDJ Productions, Inc.
Distribution Company
Paramount Pictures Corp.
Country
United States
Location
New York City, New York, United States
Screenplay Information
Based on the novel Desperate Characters by Paula Fox (New York, 1970).

Technical Specs

Duration
1h 27m
Sound
Mono
Color
Color (Eastmancolor)

Articles

Desperate Characters - Shirley MacLaine in the 1971 Drama DESPERATE CHARACTERS on DVD


The filmic freedom of the early 1970s, with the demise of the production code and the breakdown of the incestuous studio system, resulted in many great movies but also a number of very strange shows that simply didn't connect with audiences. Viewers in major markets may have noticed certain titles zipping in and out of theaters too fast to catch, items as varied as T.R. Baskin, The Lolly-Madonna War, Hammersmith Is Out and The Angel Levine. Genre pictures like The Valley of Gwangi and No Blade of Grass probably fit into this blink-and-you-missed-it category as well. Most of us never got a chance to find out if they were unfairly discarded or rightly shunned.

Desperate Characters stars Shirley MacLaine and is written and directed by Frank D. Gilroy, the TV scribe and playwright of the Pulitzer Prize winner The Subject Was Roses. He also wrote and directed the wonderfully thought out but poorly executed From Noon 'Til Three. Roses was warmly received despite its relentless pessimism. Dysfunctional families were cultural news in 1968, and audiences were gratified to see actress Patricia Neal acting again after recovering from a series of catastrophic strokes.

In Desperate Characters the misery is relentless. Shirley MacLaine plays the part of an emotionally brutalized woman reeling from the casual cruelties of a New York City interpreted as an outer circle of Hell. Gilroy populates the picture with a dozen excellent and unfamiliar stage actors, but the film is a real downer, an intelligent but unrewarding slice of despair. The well-crafted curiosity was a theater owner's worst nightmare, a picture that inspires mass walkouts.

Frankly, that fact alone should be reason enough to see it.

Synopsis: Brooklyn housewife Sophie Bentwood (Shirley MacLaine) is collapsing into a state of emotional anxiety. Her lawyer husband Otto (Kenneth Mars) is obsessed with work problems and holds her in low esteem. Their conversations are full of unfinished thoughts and suppressed resentments and when they disagree he tells her to "shut up." Their small circle of friends is also collapsing. Young people, strangers and even friends seem quietly contemptuous of Sophie, and she notices that several either ignore her or refuse to acknowledge her attempts at conversation. Sophie visits old friends Claire (Sada Thompson) and Leon (Jack Somack), former activist lovers who have broken up, even though he visits regularly. Sophie cannot bear it when they argue, and has to leave. She spends the small hours of the morning listening to the complaints of her husband's ex- law partner Mike Holstein (Chris Gampel). The weekend is tense because Sophie's been bitten by a stray cat that might be rabid. The Bentwoods try to relieve the pressure by visiting their Summer House, only to find that strangers have broken in and created a big mess. The picnic ends in emotional disaster when Otto takes out his frustrations by 'making love' to Sophie -- totally against her will.

Jack Valenti's rating system saw a number of satires bemoaning the collapse of living conditions in big cities. The Out-Of-Towners was an unfunny comedy about tourists brought low by dozens of petty indignities, and the anarchic Little Murders tried to make a black comedy out of dog dirt on the sidewalks and families that release their anxieties by shooting pedestrians from their windows. Neil Simon and Jules Feiffer had widely diverging aims but the result was the same -- audiences came out of their movies more disturbed than when they went in.

The image of a smiling Shirley MacLaine on the cover of this DVD must come from some universe other than that of Desperate Characters; the original poster was a grainy B&W photo of two isolated figures on a sidewalk. Writer-director Frank Gilroy seems to be reaching for a cosmic notion of human misery. Sophie Bentwood is a fairly affluent New Yorker who won't automatically elicit sympathy. But ugly social pressures brought on by the breakup of her insensitive husband's law partnership have left Sophie alienated and hurt. Every personal encounter leaves Sophie feeling as if she's committed some grave offense, but nobody will tell her what she's done. It's Kafka in Queens.

The entire narrative basically repeats the same situation: hoping for a meaningful human contact, meek Sophie puts out a pitiful feeler only to suffer yet another affront to her crumbling spirit. Husband Otto is a closed-off drudge who takes her existence almost totally for granted. Sophie goes on a long walk in the middle of the night with her husband's ex-partner, but he mostly expects her to support his wounded ego. She seeks solace with old friends, and cannot bear the tension when the couple launches into a fight. Many of the situations remind us of the oppressive, soul-crushing cruelties in the stories cof James Joyce's Dubliners. Acquaintances and shopkeepers are intolerably rude, as if Sophie didn't merit simple courtesy. An old friend in the street ignores Sophie friendly greeting, and then exits rolling her eyes, as if Sophie had become a social untouchable.

In an altogether too symbolic development, Sophie reaches out for affection to a neighborhood cat, and gets a nasty scratch for her trouble. For the entire weekend, people remark about the scratch, as if she's some idiot who doesn't know how to care for herself.

It goes without saying that the sun never shines in this part of New York. Nowhere is there to be found a truly sincere human relationship. The Bentwood's cozy row house fronts on a street frequented by derelicts and sleazes, one of which intimidates $20 from Otto with a cheap con game. The crowning indignity arrives when Otto and Sophie discover that their summer place has been ransacked. Otto becomes furious when the duplicitous watchman and the local police claim that the place was intact just the day before, implying that the vandalism is Otto's fault. The already angry Otto takes out his rage on the easiest target around: Sophie. What was meant to be a healing weekend turns brutal when Otto more or less rapes his own wife.

Like Diary of a Mad Housewife, Desperate Characters must be the antithesis of a Date Flick; I can't imagine a marginal relationship surviving the experience of a trip to this picture. Yes, it's emotionally honest and Shirley MacLaine can be proud of her good performance. She gets excellent support from Kenneth Mars (who we're most used to seeing in silly comedies), Sada Thompson, Chris Gampel, Mary Alan Hokanson, Rose Gregorio and the talented Michael Higgins, of Barbara Loden's Wanda and Horton Foote's On Valentine's Day and Courtship. Carol Kane has a brief bit as a rude young woman. This one's for students of quality acting, sociologists and psychiatric specialists. Placed in the hands of someone suffering from depression, it could be a dangerous weapon.

Legend Films presents Desperate Characters in a good but not exceptional transfer that probably reflects the look of the original film. The many dark interiors and dank colors seem designed to smother joy in its cradle; Sophie's attractive house is a claustrophobic trap. The audio is functional and the dialogue clear, and the disc has no extras. Perhaps the movie needed a song, like Judy Collins' haunting Who Knows Where the Time Goes in The Subject Was Roses;, or From Noon Til' Three's darkly pragmatic love ballad Hello and Goodbye by Elmer Bernstein and Alan and Marilyn Bergman. I don't think Ted Nugent's Cat Scratch Fever will do.

For more information about Desperate Characters, visit Legend Films. To order Desperate Characters, go to TCM Shopping.

by Glenn Erickson
Desperate Characters - Shirley Maclaine In The 1971 Drama Desperate Characters On Dvd

Desperate Characters - Shirley MacLaine in the 1971 Drama DESPERATE CHARACTERS on DVD

The filmic freedom of the early 1970s, with the demise of the production code and the breakdown of the incestuous studio system, resulted in many great movies but also a number of very strange shows that simply didn't connect with audiences. Viewers in major markets may have noticed certain titles zipping in and out of theaters too fast to catch, items as varied as T.R. Baskin, The Lolly-Madonna War, Hammersmith Is Out and The Angel Levine. Genre pictures like The Valley of Gwangi and No Blade of Grass probably fit into this blink-and-you-missed-it category as well. Most of us never got a chance to find out if they were unfairly discarded or rightly shunned. Desperate Characters stars Shirley MacLaine and is written and directed by Frank D. Gilroy, the TV scribe and playwright of the Pulitzer Prize winner The Subject Was Roses. He also wrote and directed the wonderfully thought out but poorly executed From Noon 'Til Three. Roses was warmly received despite its relentless pessimism. Dysfunctional families were cultural news in 1968, and audiences were gratified to see actress Patricia Neal acting again after recovering from a series of catastrophic strokes. In Desperate Characters the misery is relentless. Shirley MacLaine plays the part of an emotionally brutalized woman reeling from the casual cruelties of a New York City interpreted as an outer circle of Hell. Gilroy populates the picture with a dozen excellent and unfamiliar stage actors, but the film is a real downer, an intelligent but unrewarding slice of despair. The well-crafted curiosity was a theater owner's worst nightmare, a picture that inspires mass walkouts. Frankly, that fact alone should be reason enough to see it. Synopsis: Brooklyn housewife Sophie Bentwood (Shirley MacLaine) is collapsing into a state of emotional anxiety. Her lawyer husband Otto (Kenneth Mars) is obsessed with work problems and holds her in low esteem. Their conversations are full of unfinished thoughts and suppressed resentments and when they disagree he tells her to "shut up." Their small circle of friends is also collapsing. Young people, strangers and even friends seem quietly contemptuous of Sophie, and she notices that several either ignore her or refuse to acknowledge her attempts at conversation. Sophie visits old friends Claire (Sada Thompson) and Leon (Jack Somack), former activist lovers who have broken up, even though he visits regularly. Sophie cannot bear it when they argue, and has to leave. She spends the small hours of the morning listening to the complaints of her husband's ex- law partner Mike Holstein (Chris Gampel). The weekend is tense because Sophie's been bitten by a stray cat that might be rabid. The Bentwoods try to relieve the pressure by visiting their Summer House, only to find that strangers have broken in and created a big mess. The picnic ends in emotional disaster when Otto takes out his frustrations by 'making love' to Sophie -- totally against her will. Jack Valenti's rating system saw a number of satires bemoaning the collapse of living conditions in big cities. The Out-Of-Towners was an unfunny comedy about tourists brought low by dozens of petty indignities, and the anarchic Little Murders tried to make a black comedy out of dog dirt on the sidewalks and families that release their anxieties by shooting pedestrians from their windows. Neil Simon and Jules Feiffer had widely diverging aims but the result was the same -- audiences came out of their movies more disturbed than when they went in. The image of a smiling Shirley MacLaine on the cover of this DVD must come from some universe other than that of Desperate Characters; the original poster was a grainy B&W photo of two isolated figures on a sidewalk. Writer-director Frank Gilroy seems to be reaching for a cosmic notion of human misery. Sophie Bentwood is a fairly affluent New Yorker who won't automatically elicit sympathy. But ugly social pressures brought on by the breakup of her insensitive husband's law partnership have left Sophie alienated and hurt. Every personal encounter leaves Sophie feeling as if she's committed some grave offense, but nobody will tell her what she's done. It's Kafka in Queens. The entire narrative basically repeats the same situation: hoping for a meaningful human contact, meek Sophie puts out a pitiful feeler only to suffer yet another affront to her crumbling spirit. Husband Otto is a closed-off drudge who takes her existence almost totally for granted. Sophie goes on a long walk in the middle of the night with her husband's ex-partner, but he mostly expects her to support his wounded ego. She seeks solace with old friends, and cannot bear the tension when the couple launches into a fight. Many of the situations remind us of the oppressive, soul-crushing cruelties in the stories cof James Joyce's Dubliners. Acquaintances and shopkeepers are intolerably rude, as if Sophie didn't merit simple courtesy. An old friend in the street ignores Sophie friendly greeting, and then exits rolling her eyes, as if Sophie had become a social untouchable. In an altogether too symbolic development, Sophie reaches out for affection to a neighborhood cat, and gets a nasty scratch for her trouble. For the entire weekend, people remark about the scratch, as if she's some idiot who doesn't know how to care for herself. It goes without saying that the sun never shines in this part of New York. Nowhere is there to be found a truly sincere human relationship. The Bentwood's cozy row house fronts on a street frequented by derelicts and sleazes, one of which intimidates $20 from Otto with a cheap con game. The crowning indignity arrives when Otto and Sophie discover that their summer place has been ransacked. Otto becomes furious when the duplicitous watchman and the local police claim that the place was intact just the day before, implying that the vandalism is Otto's fault. The already angry Otto takes out his rage on the easiest target around: Sophie. What was meant to be a healing weekend turns brutal when Otto more or less rapes his own wife. Like Diary of a Mad Housewife, Desperate Characters must be the antithesis of a Date Flick; I can't imagine a marginal relationship surviving the experience of a trip to this picture. Yes, it's emotionally honest and Shirley MacLaine can be proud of her good performance. She gets excellent support from Kenneth Mars (who we're most used to seeing in silly comedies), Sada Thompson, Chris Gampel, Mary Alan Hokanson, Rose Gregorio and the talented Michael Higgins, of Barbara Loden's Wanda and Horton Foote's On Valentine's Day and Courtship. Carol Kane has a brief bit as a rude young woman. This one's for students of quality acting, sociologists and psychiatric specialists. Placed in the hands of someone suffering from depression, it could be a dangerous weapon. Legend Films presents Desperate Characters in a good but not exceptional transfer that probably reflects the look of the original film. The many dark interiors and dank colors seem designed to smother joy in its cradle; Sophie's attractive house is a claustrophobic trap. The audio is functional and the dialogue clear, and the disc has no extras. Perhaps the movie needed a song, like Judy Collins' haunting Who Knows Where the Time Goes in The Subject Was Roses;, or From Noon Til' Three's darkly pragmatic love ballad Hello and Goodbye by Elmer Bernstein and Alan and Marilyn Bergman. I don't think Ted Nugent's Cat Scratch Fever will do. For more information about Desperate Characters, visit Legend Films. To order Desperate Characters, go to TCM Shopping. by Glenn Erickson

Quotes

Trivia

Notes

The title credit reads: "Desperate Characters from the novel by Paula Fox." Frank D. Gilroy's opening credit reads: "Produced, written and directed by." Although there is an onscreen copyright statement for ITC-TDJ Productions, the film was not registered for copyright at the time of its release. However, ITC-TDJ did register a videocassette version of the film on August 18, 1992, under the number PA-599-612.
       Daily Variety announced in January 1970 that Gilroy's TDJ Productions, Inc. had purchased pre-publication film rights to Paula Fox's novel Desperate Characters. In an interview in the November-December 1971 issue of Action, Gilroy, who had won a Pulitzer Prize for his 1964 play The Subject Was Roses, stated that he was made aware of the book by their shared agent, and considered it the right, modest scope for a first-time director. Gilroy noted in the article that he did not initially approve of MacLaine to star, but soon changed his mind, after which she arranged financing through Sir Lew Grade. Grade, the head of the British company Independent Television Corporation, backed MacLaine's television program Shirley's World and had previously agreed to finance MacLaine's future film projects. Desperate Characters was the first production for his ATV-ITC Company, identified onscreen as "ITC."
       Multiple contemporary sources state that the film was shot entirely on location in New York over thirty-two days; however, Hollywood Reporter production charts report a fifty-one-day schedule. Co-producer Paul Leaf asserted in a December 1970 Hollywood Reporter news item that he reduced the budget from an original estimate of $1.5 million to just $300,000, cutting costs by eliminating hair and makeup people, using simple, lightweight cameras, cutting the crew in half and negotiating with MacLaine and others to take a percentage of the picture in lieu of salary.
       In an additional attempt to keep costs low, Grade agreed to handle the film's distribution. A September 1971 Variety news item stated that he had rejected offers for up to $2 million for distribution. ITC released Desperate Characters for its New York premiere on September 22, 1971, but afterward, as noted in a October 7, 1971 Daily Variety news item, Paramount acquired the distribution rights in the U.S. and Canada. The studio's interest was piqued partly by the awards the film had garnered at the June 1971 Berlin Film Festival for Best Screenplay (Gilroy), Best Actress and the International Union of Film Critics' Unicrit Award for Best Film. According to a November 4, 1971 Hollywood Reporter article, Paramount planned to open the film in Los Angeles for Academy Award consideration; the Los Angeles premiere occurred on November 10, 1971.

Miscellaneous Notes

Released in United States 1971

Released in United States on Video February 24, 1993

Released in United States February 1971

Shown at Berlin Film Festival February 1971.

First feature film by Sir Lew Grade's ITC Entertainment Group.

Released in United States 1971

Released in United States on Video February 24, 1993

Released in United States February 1971 (Shown at Berlin Film Festival February 1971.)