I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

Eleanor Perry: A “Mad Housewife” who Took on Federico Fellini

by A Wolfe
June 2, 2014

I finally saw The Swimmer (1968) all the way through for the first time the other weekend, despite the fact that my boyfriend owns the DVD. But this time, it was playing in the theater at New Beverly to celebrate Grindhouse Releasing‘s remastered blu-ray version.

I laughed out loud at certain parts that felt like they were written as inside jokes for women, little dry love letters from the great screenwriter Eleanor Perry.

The story follows an upper-middle-class man as he attempts to “swim home” across the wealthy Connecticut county (based on a John Cheever story, so…) by jumping into everyone’s swimming pools and thereby forming a swimming-pool river route to his house. At first, he’s charming. Everyone loves him. (SPOILER ALERT) But as the story draws on, you realize things are not quite as sunshine-y as they seem, particularly when he reaches The Babysitter.

The Babysitter is played by Janet Landgard (once a regular TV actress and now a wolf advocate, so I love her), and her sly comedic timing is wonderful. You might not even see it coming. You might think it’s just naivety. It’s not. And it’s because the writer, Eleanor Perry, so understood the way men talk to young women and the strange and subtle things young women need to say to get out of scary situations (“I have a boyfriend. He’s the jealous type. He has lots of problems.”)

Eleanor Perry also penned an amazing dark dramedy called Diary of a Mad Housewife, which has never been released on DVD. Luckily, a great man pulled VHS copies together to post the full theatrical version online if you want to see it (link is below). The film is based on the novel by Sue Kaufman, another female writer who should be studied more often. DofaMHW perfectly exemplifies the kind of strong, strange, sometimes-absurd, and funny writing that earned Perry an Academy Award nomination (Lisa and David). Yet despite her accomplishments, she might be best known for being a feminist in Hollywood.

Eleanor Perry with her then-husband and directing partner Frank Perry

From her NYTs obituary:

Known as one of the movie industry’s strongest feminist voices, Mrs. Perry often spoke out about the lack of power of women in the business. She also criticized the industry for the ”terrible portrayal” of women as victims and sex objects, attributing this to the men who write, produce and direct most of them. Mrs. Perry once said, ”It seems women are always getting killed or raped, and those are men’s fantasies we’re seeing, right?”

And if she were alive today, she would still be saying the same things. One of the absolute best stories I heard about Perry was when she went to Cannes, climbed up a ladder in her formalwear, and spray-painted over Federico Fellini’s posters for Roma, a lovely civil protest against widely accepted sexism-in-the-name-of-art. A brilliant director Fellini was, but it was often at the expense of his women. If only Perry were around today with a can of spray paint to deface the vast majority of our movie posters.

Watch The Swimmer. Watch Diary of a Mad Housewife (below). Watch her collaborative work with Truman Capote, and remember her name: ELEANOR PERRY.

(Disclaimer: To get ready for The Swimmer, we slammed a few beers in our parked car, while we played the game Hide Your Alcohol From the Nice Orthodox Jewish Families Constantly Walking By Your Window On Saturday Night. It’s like an advanced Frogger level. Even if I weren’t buzzed before we saw this film, I would still love it.)

A Wolfe is a writer and director in Los Angeles. awolfeswolfworld.wordpress.com