Basinger’s "I Do and I Don’t: A History of
Marriage in the Movies" (Alfred A. Knopf, $30) is a
breezy, fun excursion into Hollywood’s presentation of
matrimony, from the earliest days of cinema through the
rather than celebrating how well cinema has depicted the
institution, the book illustrates how rarely Hollywood
has captured the complexities and realities of marriage.
book is deeply personal for Basinger, 76, on sabbatical
from Wesleyan University in Connecticut where she is the
Corwin-Fuller Professor of Film Studies and founder and
curator of the university’s Cinema Archives. Among her
graduates are current director Oscar nominee Benh
Zeitlin as well as Joss Whedon, Paul Weitz, Dana Delany
and Jon Turteltaub.
and her husband, John Basinger, have been married 45
years. "There is a mystery to marriage and an
inexplicable quality," said Basinger by phone.
is kind of an untenable concept, and yet we stay with
it," she continued. "Real marriage is about
communication that is often not verbalized in any
particular way. When you are married as long as I have
been married — we couldn’t even bother to argue
because what’s the point? We are committed. We knew we
are going to work it out."
she looks at marriage on screen, "I do occasionally
see something I can identify as actual marital
behavior," she said. "I saw in the (TV series)
‘Friday Night Lights.’ That felt normal to me. But I
don’t see it too much in the movies."
she said, realized that marriage "doesn’t have
any dramatic arcs, it isn’t going anywhere. It is a
merry-go-round, not a roller coaster ride, so they have
to pull a plot together and give it some arcs,
destination and some shape that a real marriage doesn’t
have. Movies don’t have time to give the kind of
rhythms that marriage has."
who has written such biographies and histories as
"The Star Machine," which explores the height
of the studio system in Hollywood, and "Silent
Stars," takes a less academic approach in "I
Do and I Don’t."
book is descriptive, historical and personally
speculative," she writes in the forward. "It
is not heavily footnoted (except with personal asides),
but it is carefully researched. It’s a book for people
who like movies and want to share a conversation about
who spent three years screening marriage movies,
identifies seven key difficulties couples encountered in
films: money, infidelity/adultery, in-laws and children,
incompatibility, class, addiction and murder.
your mate tries to murder you, your marriage is in
trouble," said Basinger, laughing.
cover of the book features Jimmy Stewart and Carole
Lombard from 1939’s "Made for Each Other." A
melodramatic marriage movie, it explores incompatibility
(they marry almost immediately after meeting), money
issues, in-law problems and even a seriously ill child.
But despite the obstacles, the couple endure.
pattern of pretense toward honesty, capped off by
exaggerated resolution, was the ‘I do’ marriage
movie pattern," Basinger notes in the book.
"Affirm, question, reaffirm and resolve. Destroy a
marriage in order to reassemble it as a form of
the films she discusses in the book are Spencer Tracy
and Katharine Hepburn’s first feature together, 1942’s
"Woman of the Year," in which they play rival
reporters who fall in love and get married. In the nine
films Tracy and Hepburn played together, they were
married in all but three.
Tracy and Hepburn, a couple for 25 years, never married
because the actor, who was a Catholic, would not divorce
marriage movie that had a strong impact on Basinger as a
teenager was 1950’s "The Breaking Point,"
starring John Garfield and Phyllis Thaxter — a far
more faithful adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s
"To Have and Have Not" than the 1944 Humphrey
Bogart and Lauren Bacall classic.
ushered for that film in its original release and saw it
20 times," said Basinger of her days working in a
movie theater. "It does have raw honesty. This
couple is struggling because they don’t have enough
money. They can’t get ahead of the game and that
affects everything. He wants to escape it. She’s
for the Road," released in 1967 and starring Albert
Finney and Audrey Hepburn, was the "definitive
modern story of a marriage" for its era. "It
also puts on the screen very brutally the issues of a
couple really viciously quarreling and saying mean
things to one another but staying with the
marriage," said Basinger.
"I Do and I Don’t" focuses primarily on
films through the 1960s when traditional marriage was
more culturally central than it is today, she doesn’t
leave out the modern era. In her concise 50-page final
chapter she covers all the bases, from Paul Mazursky’s
swinging 1969 comedy "Bob & Carol & Ted
& Alice" to 2010’s "The Kids Are All
Right," about a lesbian couple with two children
whose relationship falters when one has an affair with a
man — the sperm donor for their children.
feels the majority of modern films dealing with marriage
are a throwback to the golden age. "The couple
(lesbians) and the children (sperm donations) seem to be
very new indeed, but the movie plot might easily have
been concocted in 1935," she writes about "The
Kids Are All Right."
sexuality and the science give a ‘now’ flip to what
is essentially a set of marriage-plot issues from the