Portnoy's Complaint


1h 41m 1972

Brief Synopsis

During a session with his psychoanalyst, Alexander Portnoy rants about everything that is bothering him and it's a long list. His complaints include his childhood and his family with an emphasis on his mother, his sexual fantasies and the problems that he has with women, and his obsessive feelings about his Judaism.

Film Details

MPAA Rating
Genre
Comedy
Drama
Adaptation
Release Date
Jul 1972
Premiere Information
World premiere in New York: 19 Jun 1972; Chicago opening: 6 Jul 1972; Los Angeles opening: 12 Jul 1972
Production Company
Chenault Productions, Inc.; Warner Bros., Inc.
Distribution Company
Warner Bros., Inc.
Country
United States
Location
Dorset, Vermont, United States; New York City, New York, United States; Tel Aviv, Israel; Athens, Greece; Rome, Italy
Screenplay Information
Based on the novel Portnoy's Complaint by Philip Roth (New York, 1969).

Technical Specs

Duration
1h 41m
Sound
Mono
Color
Color (Technicolor)
Theatrical Aspect Ratio
2.35 : 1

Synopsis

Thirty-three-year-old New York Commissioner of Human Opportunity Alexander Portnoy is obsessed with sexual thoughts. Walking down the street, he is attracted to almost every woman he passes, but his lecherous impulses are curtailed by the image in his mind of his ex-girl friend, Mary Jane Reid, falling from the sky. At the office of his analyst, Dr. Otto Speilvogel, Portnoy describes his adolescence in his Jewish home, claiming that his mother Sophie's oppressive smothering engendered an anguishing rift between his desire to be "a good boy" and his need to satisfy his increasingly dysfunctional sexual desires. Portnoy recounts how his mother taught him to urinate in the toilet bowl by tickling the underside of his penis, while his father Jack drank mineral oil to alleviate his severe constipation. One Rosh Hashanah, Portnoy recalls, he enrages his father by declaring Judaism "a bunch of lies," then visits his mother in the hospital, where she proudly introduces him to the patient beside her. When she mentions the Portnoys' rabbi, he imagines himself giving a bar mitzvah speech in which he denounces Judaism and Jewish bigotry against goyim , or non-Jews, causing everyone to applaud and throw their yarmulkes in the air. Still on the analyst's couch, Portnoy remembers lying in bed with Mary Jane, who is called The Monkey in honor of a sexual position she created. He explains to The Monkey his constant need to masturbate when he was a teenager, even using a piece of liver and rushing to the bathroom multiple times during family dinners to pleasure himself with his sister's underwear. Despite his mother's anxiety over what she believes is his sickly stomach and his father's need to use the bathroom himself, Portnoy ignores his parents' meddlesome cries. Recalling the chaos, Portnoy points out to Dr. Spielvogel that the only thing he had of his own was his body. He then remembers his first sexual encounter with a woman: Portnoy and his friends Arnold Mandel and Smolka go to the home of Bubbles Girardi, a slovenly Italian girl. While Smolka takes his turn with Bubbles, Portnoy imagines his mother discovering he has syphilis when his penis falls off in front of her. Smolka finishes, but Bubbles says she will manually masturbate only one of the others. Portnoy wins the coin toss and rushes into her bedroom, only to encounter difficulties performing to Bubbles' satisfaction. She continues to the count of fifty, after which he finishes himself, horrifying her by staining her couch. As she calls him a "cheap bastard fairy Jew," his friends laugh hysterically and Portnoy imagines telling his mother he went blind from having sexual contact with a shiksa , or non-Jewish woman. Now, Portnoy tells Dr. Spielvogel, he sees his parents only once a month, during which time they carp endlessly and blame their health problems on Portnoy failing to visit more often. Complaining that his whole life is a Jewish joke, Portnoy raves that he wants to be "bad" but cannot accomplish this without immeasurable guilt. He then recounts meeting The Monkey, the "lewd, wanton, gorgeous creature of all his waking dreams": In New York City, Portnoy spots a flamboyant fashion model hailing a taxi. He offers to buy her a drink, but she rebuffs him until he uses explicit sexual language. She brings him to her apartment, where they begin a torrid, mutually gratifying relationship. He loves her sexual adventurousness and she feels that he helps her be more cultured. Over their first months together they both experiment sexually and talk endlessly, and she reveals that she once attempted suicide after her divorce from her wealthy older husband. When Sophie hears from her city friends that Portnoy has been spotted with a blonde, she insists on learning about The Monkey, and soon predicts with great anguish that she will "eat him alive." That weekend, Portnoy takes The Monkey to a Vermont inn, where they confess their love in the bucolic countryside. Once she mentions marriage, however, he retreats emotionally. Weeks later, Portnoy invites The Monkey to the mayor's formal dinner party, but even before they leave her apartment, he disparages her skimpy outfit and the barely literate note she has left for her maid. They fight in the cab, and once at the mansion, she runs off into the park, where she sobs that he is hypercritical of her. Realizing that he has been cruel, Portnoy apologizes and they make love just outside the mayor's windows. He invites her to Europe, and in Rome, she offers to join him in a ménage à trois, willing to do anything to make him happy. They find a prostitute and bring her home for a night of passion, but afterward he vomits and The Monkey collapses in tears, accusing him of degrading her. As she cries that she wants to marry him and considers his treatment of her cruel, he remains impassive. They travel on to Greece, where Portnoy prepares to fly home. The Monkey begs to accompany him and warns that if he leaves, she will jump off the balcony. Fed up and unable to commit to her, he challenges her to do as she pleases and boards a plane to Tel Aviv in an attempt to rediscover his Jewish heritage. Unsure whether The Monkey has survived, Portnoy picks up a hitchhiker, Naomi, who agrees to join him for dinner in order to learn more about the way Jewish men live in America. After dinner, she lectures him on capitalist commercialism while he ogles her legs. When he declares his love for her and grabs her, she hits him, calling him an unhappy, infantile, self-hating Jew. Portnoy declares that he is tired of never being good enough for "the chosen people" and forces himself on her, but finds himself impotent. After Naomi kicks him, Portnoy hears a judge sentencing him to impotence to keep him from hurting any more women. Imagining now that police are surrounding him, Portnoy weeps in Dr. Spielvogel's office. He collects himself and leaves, not noticing as he trudges down the city street that The Monkey is happily walking by.

Film Details

MPAA Rating
Genre
Comedy
Drama
Adaptation
Release Date
Jul 1972
Premiere Information
World premiere in New York: 19 Jun 1972; Chicago opening: 6 Jul 1972; Los Angeles opening: 12 Jul 1972
Production Company
Chenault Productions, Inc.; Warner Bros., Inc.
Distribution Company
Warner Bros., Inc.
Country
United States
Location
Dorset, Vermont, United States; New York City, New York, United States; Tel Aviv, Israel; Athens, Greece; Rome, Italy
Screenplay Information
Based on the novel Portnoy's Complaint by Philip Roth (New York, 1969).

Technical Specs

Duration
1h 41m
Sound
Mono
Color
Color (Technicolor)
Theatrical Aspect Ratio
2.35 : 1

Quotes

Trivia

Notes

Ernest Lehman's onscreen credit reads: "Written for the screen and directed by." Lehman, a celebrated screenwriter of such films as Sweet Smell of Success (1957, see below) and North by Northwest (1959, ), produced, wrote and, for the first time, directed Portnoy's Complaint. Philip Roth's critically acclaimed 1969 novel of the same name, written as a monologue delivered by "Alexander Portnoy" to his analyst, used black humor and what was then considered shockingly scatological language to examine Portnoy's sexual frustration and guilt caused by his controlling parents, as well as the nature of Jewish life in America. Despite the exaggerated and sometimes stereotypical situations and characters, Roth's satirical tone was considered by most critics to elevate the book above cliché.
       In September 1968, prior to the novel's publication, producer Sidney Beckerman acquired the film rights to the novel for $250,000, as noted in Daily Variety. On December 5, 1968, Daily Variety announced that Beckerman would produce the film in late 1969 as part of a three-picture deal with Twentieth Century-Fox, and by December 23, 1968, Box Office reported that Lehman's company, Chenault Productions, would make the film in association with Beckerman.
       Many contemporary critics were skeptical that the idiosyncratic novel could be adapted satisfactorily to the screen. A Variety news item in December 1969 described concerns over the book's explicit sexual content, but noted that Lehman was unconcerned, although he had been quoted in a March 1969 Hollywood Reporter "Rambling Reporter" item as calling the script "the trickiest of my career." The Variety news item named Gene Wilder as a possible star, and a February 1970 Newsday article added Elliott Gould, George Segal, Dustin Hoffman, Jerry Orbach, Ron Leibman, Tony Curtis, Barry Newman and Woody Allen as actors considered for the role of Alexander. That article noted that Mike Nichols urged Lehman to cast Richard Benjamin, who had acted in Nichols' 1970 film Catch-22. Benjamin had previously appeared in 1969's Goodbye, Columbus, another Roth novel adapted to the screen.
       In October 1970, Variety reported that Fox had given up Portnoy's Complaint and Warner Bros. would take over, paying all costs that Fox had invested. According to many contemporary sources, producer Richard D. Zanuck supervised the project at Fox but brought it with him when he was fired by Fox and joined Warner Brothers. Some sources state that Fox dropped the film because of the critical drubbing received by the studio's other non-mainstream films, such as Myra Breckinridge (1970, ). The Variety article, however, speculated that Fox passed on the film because of the cost and the possibility of it garnering an X rating.
       As noted in press materials, some scenes were shot on location in New York City, Dorset, VT, Rome, Athens and Tel Aviv, as well as at the Warner Bros. studio. A modern source adds Curt Richards to the cast. Upon its release, the picture, which contains very little nudity or explicit sex, received an R rating, sparking protest from several critics and religious groups. A June 1972 Variety article noted that the Broadcasting and Film Commission of the National Council of Protestant Churches objected to the "explicit and vulgar language" in the film, and suggesting it warranted an X rating. In addition, the Division for Film and Broadcasting of the US Catholic Conference, the Protestant Film Bulletin and the Jewish Film Review condemned the film, and the Chicago police department declared it "adults only" entertainment.
       Apart from a few positive reviews, most critics disliked the film and disparaged Lehman, who never directed another film. The New York Times stated that "Lehman... seems to have absolutely no sense of humor," while Chicago Sun-Times called the film "a true fiasco." Charges of anti-Semitism in the film version are reflected in the letters to the editor section of New York Times on September 10, 1972, in which both the national director of the Anti-Defamation League of B'Nai B'Rith and an Illinois rabbi argued that Portnoy's Complaint vilified Jews by perpetuating dangerous stereotypes.

Miscellaneous Notes

Released in United States Winter January 1, 1972

Released in United States Winter January 1, 1972