Lovers and Other Strangers (1970) is a surprisingly endearing comedy about a groom who gets cold feet three days before his wedding, adapted by Renee Taylor and Joseph Bologna from their play (with the help of David Goodman). The central characters of the film are Mike and Susan (Michael Brandon and Bonnie Bedelia). Mike wakes Susan up in the middle of the night and tells her, “Remember when I asked you to marry me and you said I could take it back if I wanted to? Well, I’m taking it back.” He rants and rants about why they shouldn’t get married, and Susan listens coolly until he’s finished; then she softly reminds him to pick up his tuxedo in the morning while she straddles her fingers peacefully along his back. I love that reaction. Susan doesn’t have a meltdown, screaming “Don’t you love me anymore?” But she’s also not letting Mike off the hook. She simply understands that he’s nervous and that he may very well change his mind again.
The whole movie is a kind of examination of the clash between modern and traditional values and the way married people mythologize marriage, often because they’re so unhappy. When Mike’s parents (played brilliantly by John Castelana and Bea Arthur) offer up countless examples of married couples who are horrible to each other and miserable, they proudly assert that all of those couples are still together. Divorce, it seems, is unthinkable, and total misery is better than ending a marriage.
What strikes me about Lovers and Other Strangers is its comic ease and its well-drawn characters. This is a film very much of its time and absolutely immersed in the sexual politics of the 1960s, but it never feels militant or preachy because the characters are so well-drawn and the conversations they have feel authentic and complex. When Anne Meara, playing Susan’s sister, has to work to get some sexual attention from her husband (Harry Guardino), her needs spark a big fight about their own roles in their marriage. Meara is sexy and intelligent even as she lets her husband think he’s winning the argument, because basically he’s a big child who needs to feel that he’s in control and that his wife submits to him. Meara deftly walks through this minefield, and we marvel at her comic timing and the ways in which she alternately reacts to her husband and manages him.
Mike and Susan’s marriage is also not the central focus of the film. It’s really about the ways various people in their circle grapple with the choices they’ve made and with the urges and impulse they have. One of the funniest threads of the movie involves Mike’s friend Jerry (Robert Dishy) repeatedly trying to score with Susan’s flaky but smart cousin Brenda (Marian Hailey). Jerry hesitantly agrees to take Brenda out. (He only wants a sure thing.) Brenda, who’s shy but has deep reserves of emotion and devotion if only she can find the right guy, keeps quoting the hip books she’s read (like Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex), and Jerry presumably takes a lot of cold showers.
Robert Castellano and Bea Arthur play Mike’s parents, the most miserable couple in the film. And yet, there’s tenderness between them, a tenderness perhaps born of familiarity. Lovers and Other Strangers taps into the mystery of marriage. It also reminds us that one of the worst things we can do is put expectations on other people who are getting married. They have to create their own marriage, and saddling them with demands is really quite selfish. (Mike’s brother, Richie, is taking a lot of heat from Mom and Dad for breaking up with his wife, played by Diane Keaton in her first movie role.) And in the end, it appears that Mike and Susan are best suited for marriage because they walk through life with a sense of humor and a healthy lack of expectation. This is a movie that I really loved, full of spark and insight and surprisingly not dated.
With Cloris Leachman, Gig Young, Joseph Hindy and Anne Jackson. Directed by Cy Howard.