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Posts Tagged ‘MadMen’

the group cover

Of course Betty Draper is reading Mary McCarthy’s bestselling book “The Group.” It’s her kind of book. The 1963 bestseller follows the the lives of eight Vassar women from their graduation in the depths of the Great Depression to the brink of American involvement in World War II. Cosmopolitan called it “juicy, shocking, witty and almost continually brilliant.” What’s not to love? For Betty,the Bryn Mawr grad and former jet-setting fashion model, this is just the sort of book that would capture her imagination.

In the episode “The Color Blue,” Betty is absorbed in the book, the way few characters seldom are on a modern TV drama. Like many people drawn into a good book, she is reading it all day long. She’s reading it while soaking in the tub and picks it up again after dinner while Sally does her homework.

This is entirely appropriate given the novel in question. Mary Mc Carthy was more than just a popular novelist. She was something of a literary legend. “The Group” is steeped in details, some imagined, but many of them subtle and not-so-subtle twists on McCarthy’s real-life college experiences. In an interview with The Paris Review in 1962, shortly before the book’s publication, McCarthy said that she conceived the book as a type of progress novel. She wanted to show the “idea of progress in the female sphere … economics, architecture, domestic technology, child bearing, the study of technology in the home, in the playpen, in the bed,” she said. “It’s supposed to be a history of the loss of faith of progress, in the idea of progress in that 20 year period.” The characters were composites of the girls she knew at school, but said that all of their mothers were in the book. “That’s the part I kind of like the best,” she said.

Critics focused, with varying degrees of approval, on what McCarthy called “the feminine sphere.” The New York Times was impressed by the book’s close study of women’s daily lives “in and out of battles, beds and rather contagious boredom.”

Because of its focus on housewives working women, society matrons and publishing assistants, it was easy to dismiss McCarthy’s decision to focus on consumerist details instead of The Big Issues. But even Norman Mailer, who led the charge on this front (and may have missed the entire point of the novel in the process) stopped to admire McCarthy’s ability to use the details of everyday objects and conversations to add depth and insight to her characters. “The real interplay of the novel, ” Mailer wrote, “exists between the characters and the objects which surround them.”

McCarthy’s relentless skewering of the male characters was also notable. “The men in their lives are satirized mercilessly,” the Times wrote. “[T]hey deserve their places in Miss McCarthy’s lampooning carnival. … I got the impression that she was reversing the cast of one of those minor war novels in which the leading characters are not quite human beings but rather representatives of carefully assorted milieus and callings. No heroes here, at any rate. A bunch of sad sacks, compared to the heroines.”

Even though the novel took place 30 years earlier, someone like Betty who’s focused almost solely on herself, her own vague unhappiness and dissatisfaction, she must have identified with McCarthy’s upper class college girls, their sorry consorts and the loss of faith in progress.

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madmen-christinahendricks-MissHallowayThinking about the new season of “Mad Men” has put me in the mood for some more Mid-Century Modern film fare. Watching  Seasons 1 and 2 of “Mad Men” on DVD with the amazing detailed commentary from show creator Matt Weiner reminded me what great movies came out of the late 1950s and early 1960s that also capture the look and feel of the time without the benefit of 20/20 hindsight. While waiting for Season 3 to premiere on AMC this Sunday, I’m revisiting some of my favorite films of the period:

1. The Apartment (1960) This is the movie Joan Halloway (Christina Hendricks, at left) references near the end of her relationship with Roger Sterling (John Slattery).  Billy Wilder’s  classic (and winner of  the Oscar for Best Picture)  about office politics stars Jack Lemon, Shirley MacLaine, Fred MacMurray and a slew of great character actors you’ll recognize from every classic movie and TV show you’ve ever seen.  McLaine is the elevator operator from Brooklyn (or the branch manager from Kansas City depending on your perspective) who’s having an affair with MacMurray, the CEO of a large Manhattan corporation. Lemon is the junior executive  who lends his apartment to dallying executives in exchange for some help moving up the corporate ladder. Mad Men fans will appreciate the pathos of the office Christmas party and Lemon’s memorable wait outside that hot new Broadway show “The Music Man.”  If you haven’t seen this movie, do see it, if you have, it’s worth seeing again.

2. The Best of Everything (1959) This movie comes with a great backstory.  Radcliffe grad and publishing-peon- made-good Rona Jaffe sold the movie rights to her bestselling book before the book had even been written.  The movie chronicles four working girls setting out to make their fortunes in the Big City where there seem to be only two paths: Marriage and Happiness or Miserable Man-Less Success in the Workplace.  In 1960, being good at your job meant being single, childless and probably ugly. Hope Lange plays a prettier Peggy Olson who works her way up from the steno pool with Joan Crawford as her single and unhappy boss.  If you rent the DVD, Jaffe’s comments along with that of a female film historian are a definite must. Jaffee recalls the publishing world of the 1960s and talks about Manhattan on a secretary’s budget.  Things to watch for: the iconic abortion scene and subsequent melodramatic happy ending (which Jaffee fought against and lost); Supermodel Suzy Parker  as a lovelorn actress and Robert Evans (who went on to producer fame and is profiled in “The Kid Stays in the Picture”) playing a character I believe is another Pete Campbell prototype. One of the interesting things about revisiting these period films is how prevalent the Pete “type”  is in movies and books of the era.   And keep an eye out for the winner of the “Miss Best of Everything” Contest winner who gets a walk-on part in the film. Lange’s character Caroline Bender gives directions to the winner halfway through the movie.

3.Born Yesterday (1950). One of that year’s top grossing films, “Born Yesterday”  is a classic even though it takes place about 10 years before “Mad Men.”  Judy Holiday gives a brilliant performance a the showgirl consort of a  corrupt New Jersey junkyard millionaire (Broderick Crawford in an excellent pre-cursor to Tony Soprano) who learns about history and much more when Crawford hires a journalist (a dashing and dreamy William Holden) to “give her some class” to impress his new DC associates.  Holiday’s clothes are very “I Love Lucy” and her gradual awakening is inspiring, but it illustrates a key point about how limited women’s options were and what most men expect of their wives and girlfriends.  Holiday is like a mid-century Eliza Doolittle, who finds herself,  but loses her place in a world of very limited options for women. She does live happily ever after, though and drives off into the sunset at the film’s end.

Mixers for moderns:  If you’re looking for the perfect libation to have while watching these classic period films, the Wall Street Journal talks with Mad Men’s cocktail historian about  making sure the cocktails and the scotch are period correct.

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