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When Push Comes to Shove — and Shove Back, Hard

Come See The Chapman Report at BAM Tonight (and Me, Too)

  • 11/2/09 at 1:59 PM

Tonight at BAM at 6:50 I’m going to introduce the rarely screened (and unavailable on DVD) 1962 drama The Chapman Report, directed by George Cukor. It’s part of a 1962 series hatched by New York Film Critics Circle president chairman Armond White and the nice folks at BAMCinématek to celebrate the circle’s 75th anniversary. Why 1962? That was the year that — because of a newspaper strike — the NYFCC gave out no awards. Beyond that, it was a year when the culture was teetering between two violently disparate eras and the cinema was beginning to reflect the tension. No film is more quintessentially 1962 — in its strengths and weaknesses — than The Chapman Report.

It’s based on a potboiler by Irving Wallace, who lightly satirized The Kinsey Report and its impact on women accustomed to keeping their sexual preferences to themselves (and often from themselves). The premise is that Dr. Chapman and his team of bright, well-dressed men jet across the country to the Briars, an affluent suburb of Los Angeles, where women line up to answer questions about … oh, gosh, you know … stuff they don’t even say to their best friends. Jane Fonda (frigid widow), Glynis Johns (chirpy painter), Shelley Winters (adulterous amateur thespian), and Claire Bloom (promiscuous alcoholic divorcée), squirm and lie and perform all sorts of Freudian acrobatics as the camera sits on them with a poker-faced (but inwardly screaming) neutrality. In the end, The Chapman Report is fat slab of moralism: It says those marks on Chapman’s sheets have no relation to love. But Cukor makes you appreciate that for something to qualify as the higher trash it needs an orderly, classical, Hollywood frame.

He was a perfect choice for the material. Often called Hollywood’s finest “women’s” director, he was openly but not flamboyantly gay — reined-in emotionally, hyperaware of decorum, a company man in a company that didn’t much care for homosexuals. (He was fired from Gone With the Wind because Clark Gable hated gays almost as much as he hated Jews — and Cukor was both.) Cukor’s feelings about women were ambivalent, but he could certainly empathize with the Female Gaze and understand both the comedy and tragedy of keeping one’s sexual impulses cloaked. In The Chapman Report, Glynis Johns stares in awe at the perfectly proportioned body of Ty Hardin on a beach, and in this context the image is more potent than Harry Reems at his hardest. Hardin was exactly Cukor’s type (he liked them blond and square-jawed and Not Jewish), and never before had he captured it so nakedly onscreen.

The film has a terrible reputation. After a successful screening in San Francisco but before its release, Daryl F. Zanuck (who had been busy with The Longest Day in Europe) had it bowdlerized, and Cukor considered removing his name. He hated the finished product and spoke about it with regret. It’s true that The Chapman Report is a mixed bag. Several of the running jokes have no finish, no punch line. It could use more sex. (Just about every scene in this movie would serve as a template for the hardcore porn films of the next decade.) The men are mostly horrible, with too much screen time given to the worst — Efrem Zimbalist Jr. as the Chapman associate who saves Fonda from a life of guilt and chastity. (Cukor was saddled with a lot of TV actors.)

But I think its lapses, serious as they are, contribute something intangible to the finished film. That such racy material was put into production (in a year when Rob and Laura Petrie on TV slept in twin beds) says something about 1962. So does the fact that it had to be cast with a sexless male lead like Efrem Zimbalist Jr. So does the fact that it was hacked up by an old-time producer with the assent of Jack Warner. The performances survive the cutting. The amusing young Fonda knows how to stiffen her spine to convey turmoil; Johns does delicious double-takes that seem at once lewd and little-girl innocent; and the oft-prim Claire Bloom is stunning in her ravaged despair. Cukor, whose life was divided between polished Hollywood products and private gay bacchanals, finally had a chance to straddle his two worlds and did so with exquisite deadpan.

Yeah, I know the Yankees are on the verge … but you can always record the game! Come to BAM and help me root for the chicks.