The Woman in Red (1984, dir. Gene Wilder)
Teddy Pierce (Gene Wilder) begins the film standing on a ledge, just outside a window. Through voiceover, he takes us back to his fateful meeting with the Woman in Red (Kelly LeBrock) and how it led him to this place. He was a faithful husband and a doting father, comfortable in his job as an advertising executive. At first, Teddy’s gestures towards The Woman are scrambled around, and co-worker believes they are aimed at her (Gilda Radner). When the relationship finally does get off the ground, it becomes a series of lies and comically awkward scenarios where Teddy tries to dodge and mislead his wife (Judith Ivey).
One of the biggest wrinkles for me as I watched this film was the way Teddy’s infidelity was played for laughs. I can’t imagine this film being made today without some genuine pathos being written in for Teddy’s wife. There is a single moment in the third act that seems slapped in to handle any dislike the audience had for our protagonist, but it didn’t make me feel that he was justified in any way. I kept thinking about the culture Mad Men depicted and how this felt like the last vestiges of that, crumbling away in the early 1980s. Teddy has a cohort of buddies (Charles Grodin, Joseph Bologna, and Michael Huddleston) he pals around with and engages in raucous pranks on unsuspecting people. It appears that the intent was to make us think this was cute. Instead, it comes across as obnoxious and beneath characters that are supposed to be grown, professional men.
Despite the odd dismissiveness of the wife’s feelings, there are some moments of real consequence for side characters. Joseph Bologna’s character is notorious for his infidelities and early on in the film his wife leaves him. It feels like this will be handled seriously, as a counterpoint to what Teddy is contemplating. But then the film undercuts this plot halfway through, and it leaves Bologna’s character as having learned nothing from the ordeal. These are not “manly-men” per se though; they are a type of “fraternity of men” in their dynamic. So it shocked me that around the halfway mark it is very subtly and very honestly revealed that Charles Grodin’s character is gay. The words “gay” or “homosexual” are never spoken, the rest of the guys never rib him about it and the fact is just something they all knew and accepted. Grodin’s partner learns he’s been cheating on him and leaves their home. Grodin has a very real, emotional moment contemplating how his philandering has affected his life. For 1984, I was honestly shocked that a gay relationship was shown with such acceptance.
Wilder adapted the film from a French picture titled Pardon Man Affaire but infuses it with the Wilder tropes (red-faced hysterics, sad puppy-faced mugging, bawdy nebbish-ness). It just doesn’t work in the end. Reflecting on the films Wilder directed (Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother, The World’s Greatest Lover, and this) it becomes a parade of diminishing returns. His work has moments of brilliance, but as a whole, they are muddled, confusing, and rarely funny. It’s clear to me Wilder has a very distinct point of view throughout his work, it is just messy and meandering. The one bright spot in The Woman in Red is Gilda Radner in a nearly wordless performance as a co-worker who mistakenly believes Teddy is after an affair with her. Where in Hanky Panky she is cast as “generic female supporting character” here she is allowed to flex her comedy and acting chops, proving what a great talent she was just with her face.
At this point in his career, Wilder has settled into the role of the WASP-y milquetoast, and it is clear that his greatest performances were behind him. He would direct one more film, though, Haunted Honeymoon, which is what I’ll be reviewing next time.