Jeanine Basinger’s “I Do and I Don’t: A History of Marriage in the Movies” (Knopf, $30) ventures into Hollywood’s presentation of matrimony, from the earliest days of cinema through the modern era.
But rather than celebrating how well cinema has depicted the institution, the book illustrates how rarely Hollywood has captured the complexities and realities of marriage.
Basinger, 76, is on sabbatical from Wesleyan University in Connecticut, where she teaches film studies and is founder of its Cinema Archives.
She and husband, John Basinger, have been married 45 years. “There is a mystery to marriage and an inexplicable quality,” she said. “Real marriage is about communication that is often not verbalized in any particular way.”
When she looks at marriage on screen, “I do occasionally see something I can identify as actual marital behavior.” “I saw in the (TV series) ‘Friday Night Lights.’ That felt normal to me. But I don’t see it too much in the movies.”
Hollywood, she said, realized that marriage “doesn’t have any dramatic arcs, it isn’t going anywhere. It is a merry-go-round, not a roller coaster ride, so they have to pull a plot together and give it some arcs, destination and some shape ... a real marriage doesn’t have.”
Basinger says couples face seven key difficulties in films: money, infidelity, in-laws and kids, incompatibility, class, addiction and murder. “When your mate tries to murder you, your marriage is in trouble,” said Basinger, laughing.
The book cover features James Stewart and Carole Lombard from 1939’s “Made for Each Other.” A melodramatic movie that explores incompatibility, money issues, in-laws and even an ill child. But the couple endure.
Among the films she discusses in the book are Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn’s first feature together, 1942’s “Woman of the Year,” in which they play rival reporters who get married.
A marriage movie that had a strong impact on Basinger as a teen was 1950’s “The Breaking Point,” with John Garfield and Phyllis Thaxter, a more faith- ful adaptation of Ernest Hem- ingway’s “To Have and Have Not” than the 1944 Bogart and Bacall classic.
“It does have raw honesty. This couple is struggling because they don’t have enough money. They can’t get ahead ... and that affects everything.”