1992’s Mistress is a dramedy starring Robert Wuhl as a morally conflicted screenwriter trying to get his movie made without totally selling out his artistic vision. It sports quite the big name cast, including Martin Landau, Eli Wallach, Jean Smart, and Robert De Niro.
The first third or so of the film works reasonably well as a comedy. In the middle third, one gets a little better feel for why the screenwriter cares so much about his film and about not compromising his artistic vision, and I found myself getting into the serious side of the film more.
But by the final third, my interest gradually waned. I never fully turned against the movie, but I wasn’t finding much to laugh at any more, and the serious part didn’t develop in a way that hit me at a deep level. The film kind of fizzled for me.
For one thing, the ending itself is puzzling. (Spoiler alert.) The screenwriter is still torn up about having to compromise, and finally the producer–who up until this point has been much more willing to humble himself and schmooze the investors and do anything it takes to get the film made–decides he’s had enough and blows up. As they walk away, having lost the deal, the producer announces that they never should have compromised at all, that he’s willing to gamble on the original project with all he’s got.
I would have thought the screenwriter would have responded very favorably to this, since it means getting at least some funding for doing the film exactly the way he wants, and even if they still have to go to investors for some of the money, at least now he has someone fully in his corner who will work with him to make sure the film gets done right, rather than just another voice urging him to play the game and compromise. Instead he just gets a look of disgust and drives off.
Well maybe it means that he’s so fed up with the whole process that in his mind all that’s changed is he’s now being offered a way that he foresees will still eventually require compromises, just fewer, and even that isn’t acceptable to him. Except that in the closing scene, he’s told about a possible new investor, and he jumps back in after all.
So I don’t know. Maybe there’s not supposed to be a consistency to his behavior. But it wasn’t an ending that connected with me.
The whole issue of sticking to your principles versus playing the game to achieve success is obviously very important. Even though it’s in part played for laughs here, the portrayal of the movie business is certainly an unpleasant one. It’s a miserable world where the people with money call the shots and get to behave abominably, and the more you care about art and creating something of value and being true to yourself, the less you’ll fit in the culture.
I wanted the screenwriter to stick to his guns even more than he does. Even if his were just a generic movie I would hope someone in his position would insist on making it the best it could be, but in this case the specifics of the movie are profoundly important to him on a personal level, so there’s all the more justification for him to take a “my way or not at all” attitude.
So when his wife turns out to be unsupportive, chastising him for letting his stubbornness keep him a failure in life in spite of starting with so much talent, I don’t sympathize with her position. I mean, I understand in the abstract why a viewer is supposed to, why someone in her position could understandably feel the way she does, but it’s so diametrically opposed to my values that to me she’s just a bitch he’s better rid of.
The film did make me think about how no doubt in the case of just about any film that gets made, the filmmaker had to adjust it in ways he’d have preferred not to in order to placate a studio or investor or someone. I mean, for a lot of films that doesn’t really matter, because the filmmaker’s just a hack trying for the highest commercial success, so there are no principles to compromise. But for those who are trying to create something according to their own artistic vision, they must have to let themselves be influenced by other factors or their film would never see the light of day. They never say that publicly of course–“My movie is in part what I wanted, but I also compromised a lot along the way”–so there’s this perception that what you’re seeing in a film is some sort of autonomous creation of the filmmaker, but I’m sure there’s a large element of myth to that. As there is with authors and journalists and just about anyone expressing himself or herself in a commercialized context that requires the cooperation of other people with other agendas.
Another thing I reflected on after the film is how I’d instinctively reacted to the “mistresses” of the title. (One of the ongoing gags is that the investors all have girlfriends they expect to be cast in the movie.)
When the mistress is a “bimbo with a heart of gold” type, I found her at least a somewhat positive character. You know, someone who benefits from dating a rich guy, but isn’t real conniving about it. Someone who gains certain advantages from being young and attractive, but is nice to everybody along the way. And I didn’t care that much one way or the other about the rich guys; I wasn’t appalled at their exploiting such willing women. As far as the overall “casting couch” element of pretty girls benefiting by putting out, I mostly chuckled at it rather than was offended by it.
But the more “empowered” mistress (Sheryl Lee Ralph)–who is deceitful and doing everything with eyes open, and knows all along it’s a corrupt practice but refuses to feel the slightest bit guilty about it as long as she gets what she wants–I found to be a real turn off. I mean, I know the character is purposely over the top because the movie is in part a comedy, but she’s so ugly in her personal interactions and so smug about her amorality that I strongly rooted against her.
It’s one thing to naively participate in a common social practice that is arguably a negative one, and to be a good and sweet person on an individual level while doing so. It’s another to knowingly participate in it with no conscience because all you care about is yourself and getting ahead.
So maybe my reacting viscerally much more negatively to her than to the old guys getting better quality sex partners because of their money indicates some remaining latent sexism in me. I’m sure a lot of people, especially women, would be far more outraged by the casting couch or sugar daddy practice in general, and would excuse the bitchy mistress if not applaud her for turning it to her advantage and using the other people as much or more than they’re using her.
Mistress has more potential than it ultimately lives up to, both as a comedy and as a serious movie about the pressure to compromise one’s principles as an artist. But it has some laughs, it raises some serious subjects worth pondering, the production values are high, and the quality of acting is high, so overall it’s worth a mild recommendation.