Comfortable and Furious

Assholes of the Cinema: Richard Benjamin in Diary of a Mad Housewife

Jonathan Balser (Richard Benjamin) is the biggest asshole in the history of the cinema. He’s so supremely awful, I’ve all but forgotten Erin Brockovich. Even the Hitler of Downfall has to step aside as a mere pretender. While Diary of a Mad Housewife is so teeming with unpleasant humanity it’s all we can do to hang on and await the film’s messy suicide, Mr. Balser manages to scratch, claw, and whine his way to the front of the line. 

This is, after all, the 1970’s writ large: unhappy marriages, even unhappier affairs, shallow parties, unchecked narcissism, and social interactions that begin and end with self-serving obnoxiousness. There’s no one to root for, and even the children are boorish and nasty. I hated everyone and everything that transpired in this open sore of a motion picture, yet I can’t remember when I’ve had such a good time feeling bad. I cackled, roared, and even wiped away a tear or two. Not out of any pity or sadness, mind you, but out of sheer, unadulterated delight. Something about sick, sadistic pricks who don’t even begin to apologize for it. Whatever you want to say about 1970 compared to 2024, it was certainly more honest.

Jonathan is a lawyer. A good lawyer by all appearances, although his job has done to him exactly what you think it might: created a level of self-importance so staggering it threatens to inhale all of New York. He’s a creep, a bum, a liar, and a bully, and that’s all before breakfast. When we first meet him, he’s singing at the top of his lungs in the bathroom because he can’t stand that his wife is getting a good night’s sleep.

His wife (the “mad housewife” of the title), is played by Carrie Snodgress as if channeling a century of abused women; she’s brittle, exhausted, and, while having grounds to stab her spouse in the neck, is far too dehumanized to muster any sort of defense. She’s run ragged before the sun has bothered to rise, and at no point in her day will she be treated as a human being with a point of view. In a lovely twist worthy of the best misanthropic design, her character is simply treated as the cipher she really is. And no, she’s not secretly working on a novel as her husband rests. It’s enough that she stuffs a Thanksgiving turkey properly. 

And please, do not think for a moment that this is one of those Burning Bed revenge pieces where we bask in the glories of a feminism newly awakened. The change, at least for Tina Balser, never comes. She thinks she’s looking inward as she falls into a predictable affair with vapidity incarnate (Frank Langella, channeling Stalin), but it turns out the man she’s cheating with is even worse than the man she’s cheating on. Langella’s George is vile beyond all imagining; a creep who takes calls from other women immediately following pillow talk with another, though that would be the least of his crimes. As with Jonathan, though, he’s a force of nature so brutal and unapologetic, we can’t help but wish to be thrust back to a time when we hadn’t invented cover stories for our depravity. We’ve always been SOB’s at full volume, only now we have someone to blame.

But back to Jonathan, the true bastard of the piece. He yells pretty much all the time, especially when he’s lying in bed. He defaults to insults like a man possessed. He screams like a diapered infant when he’s under the weather, demanding not only a lemonade, but the kind that requires wife to squeeze the lemons herself. He barks and bellows, rants and raves, and just when we thought he couldn’t get worse, he throws away the family fortune on a wine venture so idiotic, it can’t even be explained without blushing.

Naturally, Jonathan pulls the hangdog eyes and self-pity just as the shit hits the fan and his life (and hers, though that’s an afterthought) is about to go straight down the toilet; but in a masterstroke of masochism, dopey little Tina isn’t going anywhere. Group therapy, maybe, but not into the arms of George, or a summer internship at Ms. Magazine. She’s here for the duration, because of course she is. She married the puke, and she sure as hell doesn’t believe she deserves any better. Maybe she doesn’t. 

Diary of a Mad Housewife doesn’t so much as end, as it simply runs out of fissionable material. There’s no real conclusion, no coda, and certainly no “where are they now” explanation. Everyone just runs out of steam, largely because bullshit can only take you so far. Not one of these characters deserves anything within earshot of joy, and as we know in hindsight, the 1970’s weren’t handing out bouquets to anyone. It would only get worse. At this stage, NYC still had a clean street or two. But yes, it all does come back to Jonathan. A man for all seasons, provided the season is always cold, dark, and pitiless. A man who can have a wife and kids and money to burn, but not a whit of ability to enjoy it because he can’t stand the sight of himself. A man in full, and a man we all knew was at the center of the American rot. And like poor, poor Tina, he too isn’t going anywhere.



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