It's been a banner year for breaking the Sixth Commandment at the movies, and that's not even counting the cheating couples who rendezvous in the back row. In fact, if adultery were a movie—instead of serving as a crucial plot line in so many of them—our sexiest sin would be up for seven Oscars at this year's Academy Awards—one behind Dreamgirls.
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Notes on a Scandal, the story of a married pottery teacher whose affair with one of her students throws her personal and professional lives into turmoil, is nominated for four Oscars. Cate Blanchett, who earned a Best Supporting Actress nomination for her portrayal of the cheating teacher, has been winning all kinds of hardware—four trophies at press time—at other awards shows for that same performance, and more are likely coming.
Little Children, which centers mostly on a young mother and father—not married to one another—who fill their empty lives by climbing into bed with one another, is in contention for three Oscars. That includes a Best Supporting Actor nomination for Jack Earle Haley, who so far has won six other awards for his role as a convicted sex offender. Hey, at least hedidn't cheat on anyone—but co-star Kate Winslett did, and she's up for Best Actress.
Not that playing someone who plays around guarantees a date with Oscar. Naomi Watts was wonderful in The Painted Veil as a woman who, dissatisfied with her marriage, achieves self-discovery when she falls into an affair, but neither she nor the movie attracted any attention from Academy nominators. However, The Painted Veil has won at least one award from every other competition it's entered, and the Independent Spirit Awards have still yet to be bestowed.
Two other noteworthy 2006 films also dealt with bedroom time among not-married-to-each-others, although they've shot blanks during the awards season. At Last shows us separately married fortysomethings rekindling their lost love, and presents it as something that's sweet and inevitable—their lies, deceits and now-broken homes be damned. The rediscovery of long-lost love also drove the plot of Tristan & Isolde, the titular characters being a British warrior and his lover who is married to the king. Then there was Lies and Alibis, a British film set in modern times, in which the hilarious Steve Coogan runs an alibi service for adulterous husbands.
The best adultery-themed movie of 2005 was Woody Allen's Match Point, which also was set in the U.K. (sounds like somebody's got issues!) and starred Scarlett Johansson and Jonathan Rhys Meyers. The story was familiar: poor guy marries into wealth and privilege, only to be stopped in his upwardly mobile tracks by an equally poor femme fatale. They have a torrid affair and are set to run off together—until he comes to his senses about the life he'd be leaving and decides to stick with the old money. But when his now-jilted love prepares to expose their trysts, he resorts to the final solution. Allen cut the gags, stuck to his director's chair (not even a Hitchcockian cameo) and created a stylish pic with such panache, that Match Point received an Oscar nomination, won some other awards and, more importantly, broke the Woodman's string of money-losing films at 19.
But two other adultery-themed films from 2005 were gawdawful. In We Don't Live Here Anymore, mopey, self-absorbed marrieds have affairs so dull it's a toss up who'll die of boredom first—them or the audience. Derailed, starring Clive Owen and Jennifer Aniston, also stretched the boundaries of tedium, never good in a movie billed as a "thriller." Worse, its central theme—don't cheat on your wife or your life will fall apart—is a tired cinematic clich, ranking up there with funny fat sidekicks, sweeping John Williams scores and bad guys who can walk faster than people running away from them.
Moralistic critics might use the movies I've mentioned—and some more I've forgotten—to fuel long-running complaints about how an out-of-touch Hollywood glorifies adultery, further destroys the sanctity of marriage and blah-blah-repent-heathens-blah. A popcorn movie-watcher in Maryland says he and his wife made a vow in the 1990s not to watch any more flicks featuring unnecessarily adulterous subplots after noticing the trend in films like The Firm, True Lies and The Prince of Tides. The capper for them? When adultery was associated with heroism in 1997's Tomorrow Never Dies, which features James Bond seducing the main villain's wife.
But embroiling our modern American movie heroes in adultery is nothing new. Remember when the married U.S. president had an affair that ended when the Secret Service killed his mistress to cover up the scandal in JFK? Oh, wait, check that. That happened in Absolute Power(1997), directed by Clint Eastwood, who also played a thief who witnessed the crime. Don't feel bad for Clint, though: two years earlier, he was the one getting it on with a married farmer's wife (Meryl Streep) in The Bridges of Madison County.
Mel Gibson may have won over the movie moralistas with The Passion of the Christ(2004), but nine years earlier he was on their shit list for all the nudity, homosexuality, foul language and, yes, adultery in Braveheart. Funny, they didn't complain so much about the violence.
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 blas. But way back in 1949, withPattes Blanches, Jean Grmillon 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, Danile Thompson'sLa Bchedisproved the clich 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.
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Adultery was a storyline in a movie about the earliest North Americans. Zacharias Kunuk's three-hour Atanarjuat, the Fast Runner(2001), the first ever Inuit language fiction feature and the winner of the Camera d'Or at Cannes, dramatizes a popular myth of the first people of the Great White North involving adultery, rape, pillage, murder and eventual reconciliation.
Jungle Fever(1991) explored the inevitable adultery that occurs when a married African American man is left alone in an empty office with a white woman—or at least that's how I seem to recall Spike Lee explaining it. It's considered one of Lee's weaker films, but we can thank urban culture for the term "movie adultery," which means to betray someone by seeing a film you promised to see with them first.
America's moral police will be happy to know that movies coming out the rest of this year won't be focused as much on adultery. No, based on the just-concluded Sundance Film Festival, child rape—emotionally and/or physically—is what will soon be coming to a cineplex near you.
Hallelujah, the sanctity of marriage survives!