As with its subject, romantic relationships, Joan Tewkesbury’s Old Boyfriends can be considered in terms of what it is as well as what it could have been. Ultimately, under Tewkesbury’s tenderly intricate direction, what it is triumphs, resulting in an idiosyncratic debut feature heretofore largely unavailable for viewing and ripe for rediscovery among fans of American cinema from the 1970s. Tewkesbury is one of the women directors from this transformative era of filmmaking—others include Elaine May, Barbara Loden, and Joan Micklin Silver—who have been widely underrecognized and who are only just recently getting the attention they deserve. This Monday the Chicago Film Society will screen a newly struck 35-millimeter print of Old Boyfriends, giving Chicago audiences a chance to discover Tewkesbury’s skill as a director.
Best known for cowriting Robert Altman’s 1974 masterpiece Thieves Like Us and writing his 1975 piece de resistance Nashville, Tewkesbury transitioned to directing with Old Boyfriends, with a script by brothers Paul and Leonard Schrader. (Tewkesbury and Paul had the same agent, who facilitated the arrangement after Paul became unable to direct.) Before it was Old Boyfriends it was Old Girlfriends—one can only imagine what that would have been like given the Schraders’ predilection for self-destructive protagonists whose anger toward society has a decidedly masculine perspective. According to Maya Montañez Smukler’s book Liberating Hollywood: Women Directors & the Feminist Reform of 1970s American Cinema, it was Paul who decided to make it about a woman rather than a man, though Montañez Smukler notes that Tewkesbury reworked the script to “soften the darker elements.” It’s Tewkesbury’s refined sensibility that comes through and liberates her characters’ innate womanhood from the Schraders’ acerbic scripting.
Talia Shire stars as Dianne Cruise, a thirtysomething Los Angeles-based psychiatrist who takes a literal trip through her romantic past, driving cross-country to visit men she once dated. “I thought if I could find out who I was then, I might find out who I am now,” she says in voice-over narration toward the beginning. The first ex she visits is her college boyfriend, Jeff (Richard Jordan), now a creatively challenged documentary and commercial director with an estranged wife and a precocious preteen daughter. The second, from high school, is Eric (John Belushi, in between National Lampoon’s Animal House and The Blues Brothers; he’s phenomenal as a cocksure sleazebag), a formal-wear rental salesman who’s still jamming with his cover band. Finally comes Lewis, her middle-school boyfriend who, she discovers, died in Vietnam; with Lewis gone, she turns her attention to his younger brother, Wayne (Altman regular Keith Carradine, brilliant as always). They become tenuously involved, though his long-term emotional perturbation over his brother’s death complicates things, further calling into question Dianne’s emotional stability. Each experience yields its own charms and complications, though the encounters get progressively darker as Dianne goes further back into her romantic past. Meanwhile, Jeff pursues Dianne in LA (she had disappeared after their reunion) and discovers pieces of her more recent, more complicated past, including a nervous breakdown and a suicide attempt, the latter of which abstrusely opens the film.
Old Boyfriends frames these encounters with diary entries, read in voice-over by young actresses who sound like they’re around Dianne’s age at the time she wrote them. This motif is a hallmark of Paul Schrader’s (he used them in his scripts for Taxi Driver, Light Sleeper, and First Reformed), but Tewkesbury transforms it by grounding it in a female perspective. She also changed the script by stripping bare the original revenge angle (though that still factors into the scenes with Eric, who publicly humiliated Dianne after she refused to sleep with him in high school); this change ultimately softens the story, making it more introspective than rancorous. According to Tewkesbury, the shift upset Paul, who she said “would have been more comfortable if we had directed it like a horror film.” In his book Schrader on Schrader & Other Writings, he writes, “I would have pushed things more and made them more edgy, more spooky, more scary, with characters that are more mesmerizing and more obsessive.”
Captivating as Schrader’s films can be, I find Tewkesbury’s restraint more interesting, as it results in something hazily impenetrable and truer to the often ambiguous nature of people’s thoughts and motivations. Writing about the film for Variety, Dale Pollock remarked that “[w]hat’s missing, in both the Schraders’ script and Tewkesbury’s direction, is a strong sense of just why Shire is trying to recapture her past, other than idle curiosity.” This isn’t entirely true (Dianne states her motivation outright at the beginning), but Old Boyfriends does exude a sense of deep contemplation that might seem like idle curiosity to anyone but the person doing it, resulting in a dreamlike quality that may beguile more than it satisfies, though to intriguing effect.
Before going into film, Tewkesbury had been a dancer, choreographer, and theater director, and the influence of each of these disciplines can be felt in Old Boyfriends, especially in her focus on the performers. After a screening of the film at New York’s Metrograph in early August, Tewkesbury emphasized her relationship with the actors, saying that she pulled from them to inform their characters. Shire was going through a divorce at the time (her husband, David Shire, composed the film’s provocative score), and Belushi gave input into his character’s decidedly lowbrow musical aspirations. As Jeff, Jordan capitulates to Shire’s Dianne and thus to the film itself—though not in a bad way—and Carradine, as in all his performances, skillfully disappears into his role.
Sadly, it was Tewkesbury who disappeared from the big screen. Soon after Old Boyfriends, she started directing for television, including several TV movies and episodes of Northern Exposure, Felicity, and The Guardian. This is still a common fate for women directors (see: Jane Campion, Andrea Arnold, Ava DuVernay, et al.), as the medium offers up not only more creative freedom, but also the chance to work more overall; the struggle to make theatrical features is often overwhelming in the face of institutional sexism. Just as Dianne looks back on her old loves, reflecting on what is and what could have been, we can now look back at the era of Old Boyfriends for all it was as well as what it could have been had things been different for Tewkesbury—and other women directors. v