Making a fuss about recent movie adultery seems sillier still when you consider that violating the marriage vow has been plum pickings for movie plots since before there were movies to plot. Lots of classic literature is steeped in adultery, and those books have been inspiring films since the pictures started moving. Adaptations or re-imaginings of Laclos' Dangerous Liaisons, Flaubert's Madame Bovary and Tolstoy's Anna Kareninaare but three. Don't get me started on the Bible.
When it comes to marrieds cheating, the granddaddy of source material is the Old Testament, the dramatic tension being provided by Moses in Exodus, when he came down the mountain with those stone tablets. Right there in the Commandments—No. 6 if you are Catholic, No. 7 if you are Jewish or Protestant—it reads: Thou Shalt Not Commit Adultery.
Perhaps the most ambitious movie project based on that ancient list of do's and don'ts was Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski's 10-part, made-for-television drama The Decalogue (1988), where each part was dedicated to one commandment. The one that concerned adultery was called A Short Film About Love.I haven't seen it because I'm still waiting the see what Kieslowski did with Thou Shalt Not Covet Thy Neighbor's Oxen. It's No. 208 on my Netflix list.Rants against the supposedly moral emptiness of today's films are typically capped by the tired question, "Why can't they make movies like the old days?" But movies in the old days touched on adultery, too. InMildred Pierce (1945), title character Joan Crawford catches her daughter (Ann Blyth) having an affair with her stepfather. (Talk about someone deserving a wire-hanger beating!) In A Life of Her Own(1950), Lana Turner reaches the top of the modeling profession before spending her washed-up years in an affair with Ray Milland, who has no intention of ever leaving his wife. From Here to Eternity(1953), the winner of eight Oscars, not only actively supported adultery, it explained it away.
In the late 1950s, back-to-back courtroom dramas centered on legal questions concerning adultery. In 1958'sA Question of Adultery, Julie London loses her baby in an accident that also renders her husband infertile. In a bid to bring them closer together, she suggests artificial insemination, which he first agrees to but then changes his mind. Too late—she's already preggers, prompting her father-in-law to demand his son divorce the bitch on grounds of adultery. The jury can't decide, but it matters not because the couple gets back together at the end. And then come the brain-sucking aliens.
Even more serious is 1959'sAnatomy of a Murder, which finds lawyer Jimmy Stewart arguing that a married woman was a rape victim, not an adulteress, in order to keep her husband from being convicted of murdering the alleged rapist. He wins, then discovers the man he got off: a) ain't gonna pay his legal bills, and b) probably beat his wife.
Although Anatomy of a Murderis deservedly hailed as a classic, when A Summer Place—starring Sandra Dee and Troy Donahue as young, blond lovers—hit the screen that same year, adultery was considered too "shocking" for teeny boppers. It was banned across America.
In 1959, Billy Wilder'sThe Apartmentstarted out by presenting adultery as fun with Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine, but ultimately showed us its hollowness. Later, amid anti-war protests, civil rights marches and cultural revolution, adultery got hip withThe Graduate(1967) andBob & Ted & Carol & Alice(1969). But even later, whenThe Ice Storm(1997) looked back on this era of moral deterioration it decided that adultery was a hollow experience again.
The cinematic poster child for adultery is Michael Douglas, who got the short end of the ultimate affair gone bad inFatal Attraction(1987), was the victim of adulterous sexual harassment in Disclosure (1994), and finally got to turn the tables on his philandering wife inA Perfect Murder(1998). Douglas received perhaps the best notices of his career forThe Wonder Boys(2000), in which he plays a college professor whose third wife leaves him the same day he finds out his married mistress is pregnant with his child.
By the way, it is required by law that any story about movie adultery must mentionFatal Attraction, which was directed by Adrian Lyne, who went back to the cheatin' well in 2002 withUnfaithful, a ho-hum Richard Gere/Diane Lane vehicle that was based on Claude Chabrol's much better 1969 French film (aren't they all?)La Femme Infidele.Speaking of the French, it is generally assumed that their highfalutin' cinema mixed with societal views indifferent to open marriages always lead to movie plots that present adultery as blasé. But way back in 1949, withPattes Blanches, Jean Grémillon showed that none of the 18 people tied up in his picture's complex, interlocking romantic relationships could stand the pain of adultery. And as recently as 2000, Danièle Thompson'sLa Bûchedisproved the cliché that adultery holds French marriages together.
You don't have to be a movie fan in a decadent capitalistic society to get your share of movie adultery. Back in 1990, Ju Doucame out of closed, commie China and its acclaimed director Zhang Yimou. Set in 1920, it's the story of a beautiful young woman who marries a belligerent older man but later gets down with his middle-aged adopted son. They have an illegitimate child together, she gives herself an abortion and this Hallmark Moment of a movie is further filled out with murder attempts and vengeful acts of arson. In 2004, adultery in a Chinese movie spilled over into the society at large whenCellphonerevealed to suspecting marrieds that they could check their spouses' recent cell-phone call records for evidence of cheating.