Written, directed and produced by Ernest Lehman; based on the novel by Philip Roth; music by Michel Legrand: cinematography by Phillip H. Lathrop; edited by Sam O’Steen and Gordon Scott; production design by Robert F. Boyle; staring Richard Benjamin, Karen Black, Lee Grant. Jack Somack, and and Jill Clayburgh, DVD, color, 101 min., 1969. A Warner Archive release. www.wbshop.com/Warner-Archive.
Richard Benjamin as Portnoy with Karen Black as "The Monkey"
Portnoy’s Complaint (1969) was an instant bestseller and Phillip Roth’s greatest commercial success. At the same time, the book aroused a great deal of controversy, being denounced by some Jewish community leaders as stereotyping Jewish life. In addition, when it was released, TheNew Yorker called it “one of the dirtiest books ever published.”
The book may have been attacked for its utter lack of inhibition and for indulging in obscenities, as well as for its depiction of controlling Jewish mothers and ineffectual, permanently irritated fathers. But it was also uproariously funny, sharply satiric, and, at its best, a tragicomedy. It also was Roth’s antic declaration of liberation from being a respectable Jewish writer, who feels trapped by the persona of the successful, obedient, good son that his mother always wanted him to be. As Portnoy screams at his therapist in the novel, “LET’S PUT THE ID BACK IN YID!”
The film version, written, produced, and directed—in his first and last attempt to direct—by Ernest Lehman (the author of many critically successful screenplays such as North by Northwest and Sweet Smell of Success). The film is structured around monologues and an analytic session where Portnoy rages, providing his life story to a silent psychoanalyst. Some of the scatological humor of the novel is preserved—Alex’s fantasies about a mythical whore and his use of socks and a piece of liver as masturbatory aids. But the film is generally lifeless without verve or style, and was roundly rejected by critics and never attracted an audience. It just doesn’t work for a film to stay generally true to the letter of the book, while failing to convey its heart.
Richard Benjamin, who had played another Roth character, Neil Klugman, in an earlier, better film, Goodbye Columbus (1969), makes Alexander Portnoy a one-dimensional, too-constricted character. Alex is a whining, carping, lecherous, self-obsessed neurotic who works as an assistant city commissioner of human opportunity. Benjamin is able to capture the surface aspects of Portnoy’s personality (though the whine is gratingly overstated), but fails to convey Portnoy’s desire to escape his personal (Jewish) history by seeking a new identity in his embrace of unrepressed sexuality.
Portnoy’s memories of his obsessive masturbating in the toilet with accompanying moans of pleasure, and the atmosphere of his Jewish lower-middle-class home are the focus of the early section of the film. His mother, Sophie—a too youthful and attractive Lee Grant as the archetypal emasculating Jewish mother—offering her smart, beloved princeling too much controlling love. She constant nags him about avoiding fried food that will only make him sick—a funny, if over-the-top bit. Alex’s father can provide no solace: he is dyspeptic, resentful, and constipated, consuming ex-lax and mineral oil around the clock.
The Portnoys (Jack Somack and Lee Grant)
It’s not that the mother in the novel isn’t caricatured, but in the film her smothering possessiveness feels excessive. In fact, both parents are so crudely rendered they seem like refugees from a sitcom. Alex rails against his father, but his mother’s mixture of love and manipulative hysteria is more difficult for him to fend off. It’s no wonder that he is sexually frustrated and guilt-ridden, fearing cancer and blindness from his penchant for masturbating. His mother’s greatest fear is that he’ll marry a non-Jew—a shiksa—so predictably most of the women he later becomes involved with are non-Jews.
Given his fraught bond with his mother, the adult Alex’s relationships with women are doomed to failure. But in the film’s second half he becomes involved with the ditzy, insecure, sexy, suggestively dressed Mary Jane (a convincing Karen Black) nicknamed The Monkey, because of the sexual positions she is willing to try. For Alex, Mary Jane, who is a model, is perfect; she satisfies all his sexual fantasies and he is convinced she won’t demand anything more from him. Conversely, the poorly educated, suicidal Mary Jane sees Alex as her breakthrough to a new and better life.
They seem happy, until they spend an idyllic Vermont weekend together, the glories of which Lehman strains too hard to convey. Their connection in New England leads Mary Jane to suggest marriage and children to Alex. His inability to deal with her entreaties causes the relationship to begin to crumble. With Mary Jane raging against him after a misbegotten three-way in Rome (that made her feel like a whore, and caused swinger Alex to vomit in its aftermath), and threatening suicide if he won’t marry her, a callous, though guilty, Alex takes off for Israel.
In Israel, he picks up a tough, smart, sanctimonious socialist kibbutznik, Naomi (a young Jill Clayburgh), who fights him off when he sexually attacks her. It’s the apotheosis of Alex’s impotent, botched relationships with women, made more resonant because the ultimate failure occurs in Israel with a Jewish woman—his parents’ ideal mate for him.
In the hands of a more gifted director, Alexander Portnoy’s painfully humorous saga could have come alive. His fantasies—Mary Jane leaping to her death from a balcony, Alex giving a Bar Mitzvah speech rebelling against the whole narrow-minded Jewish milieu—would have been less literal, and more imaginatively rendered. The film is heavy-handed and lackluster, and much of what is funny and satiric in the novel is lost.
It’s possible that no other director could have done better with Portnoy’s Complaint. It may be an unfilmable novel, but I do know that Lehman’s version fails to do it justice.
Leonard Quart is the author or coauthor of several books, including the fourth edition of American Film and Society since 1945 (Praeger).