Having been bored by the Coen brothers’ “A Serious Man,” (2009) set in a suburb of the Twin Cities in 1967 two nights ago, last night I found myself back in 1967 in Richard Lester’s “Petulia” last night. I was surprised that they had more than 1967 in common. Both show a middle-aged man – an orthopedic surgeon named Archie, played by George C. Scott in “Petulia,” an assistant professor of physics named Larry, played by Michael Stuhlbarg in “A Serious Man” – beset by many frustrations, particularly the man whom the wife (Shirley Knight. Sari Lennick) who is divorcing them is going to marry (Roger Bowen, Fred Melamed).
Both of them have an attractive married woman (Julie Christie as Petulia, Amy Landecker as Mrs. Samsky) throw herself at him. The absent husband does not add any problems for Larry, but Richard Chamberlain’s brooding socialite David most certainly does, and he has gone through life with a powerful father (played by Joseph Cotten) to suppress evidence of his misdeeds. David is one of those physical abusers who has brainwashed his victim (Petulia) that she makes him hit her. This is depressing to see in any case, and given the schoolboy crush on Julie Christie that has never completely died in me, especially painful when she is the one battered.
A nearly fatal beating occurred in Archie’s apartment while he was out and he endeavors mightily to protected Petulia, but she is not willing to be rescued, though she cringes in the presence of her husband and is panicked to be alone with him.
I don’t think that Larry suffers anything on the scale of the tribulations of Job, and neither did Archie in the movie made four decades earlier. I didn’t much care what happened to Larry (I was more concerned with his son’s transistor radio that was confiscated in Hebrew class). Archie was made of sterner stuff. (I can remember George C. Scott backing off, but never that I can remember wilting!) And Archie does not reflect on what God is intending and/or doing to mess up his life, as Larry does in the Coen brothers’ movie.
Having grown up in Minnesota during the 1960s, I can vouch for the verisimilitude of the look in “A Serious Man.” I’ve lived in San Francisco for a long time, but did not visit it for the first time until 1975 (indeed, I saw “Petulia” in its initial release in rural Minnesota). There is a lot that I recognize as the characters in “Petulia” move around town (David and Petulia also go to Mexico twice, once in flashbacks). Archie’s apartment with a view of the Bay Bridge is obviously on Telegraph Hill, but I can’t believe that the mansion with a dock where David lives with his parents can be in San Francisco (I’d guess Tiburon).
The opening scene shows Janis Joplin. I’m somewhat dubious that a hospital fundraiser would have employed Big Brother and the Holding Company, but they are gone before Julie Christie seducing George C. Scott. who is trying to leave the black-tie shindig. distracted me. The movie also includes, even more briefly, the Jefferson Airplane. Acid rock was going strong in “the summer of love” in San Francisco, whereas in Prince’s hometown, the Turtles crooning “Happy Together” was more the norm… (BTW, the Coens exaggerate high-water pants in “A Serious Man” as much as they exaggerate “You bet” into “You betcha” over and over in “Fargo.” Julie Christie was clad in very short skirts in “Petulia.”)
Beyond its interest as a time capsule of the swinging sixties )in there with “Blow-Up” and “Zabriskie Point”) in an epicenter of sociocultural revolution (which Bloomington, MN definitely was not!), “Petulia” had an impressive cast: not just Christie, Scott, and Chamberlain, but Shirley Knight and Kathleed Widdoes. And it had very flamboyant technique. The really flash-length flashbacks and flash-forwards were very innovative in 1967 and, I think, influential, if not always in good ways. One obvious instance involved Julie Christie again, distraught in Venice in “Don’t Look Now,” which was directed by Nicholas Roeg, who was the cinematographer on “Petulia.”
At the risk of belaboring comparisons with “A Serious Man,” both movies have quite open endings with intimations of death, but no resolutions. It seems to me that “Petulia” is much more layered. It took me decades to watch it again, but should I live so long, I very much doubt that I would ever watch “A Serious Man” again. (Moreover, I think I saw “Petulia” a second time between its theatrical release and its DVD release.)
Director Richard Lester (who I think must have been British, though he was born in Philadelphia in 1932) made major splashes with his frenetic jump-cutting movies showing the “swinging sixties”: the two Beatles movies – A Hard Day’s Night (1964) and Help! (1965) – and “The Knack… and How to Get It” (1965), which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes.
I didn’t (and don’t) think that his adaptations of the plays “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” (1966) and “How I Won the War” (1967) were very good. “Petulia,” mostly disappointed those expecting zaniness even with her stolen tuba, though the movie was a box-office success and is credited with saving the career of Richard Chamberlain (who had been popular on tv as “Dr. Kildare” and had some major miniseries ahead of him).
After his venture into Albeeland (Joseph Cotton also appeared in the movie version of “A Delicate Balance” in 1973, and Lester’s next movie after “Petulia” was the disastrous “The Bed Sitting Room), Lester left corrosive black comedy for the lighter and zanier Musketeer movies and “Royal Flash” (which seems forgotten along with his quite good thriller “Juggernaut” and successful “Superman” movies of the 1980s.
The “Serious Man” DVD has an interesting bonus feature on recreating the 1967 look and a primer on Yiddish and Hebrew words used in the movie. The “Petulia” one includes an original trailer (3 minutes), an original (12-minute) making-of piece that is heavy on lauding location shooting in San Francisco, and a 14-minute retrospective with Chamberlain and editor Tony Gibbs, but without Lester or Christie (or Scott, who was deceased).