Monday, August 20, 2018
This is my entry in the Lee Grant Blogathon hosted by Angelman' Place and Realweegiemidget Reviews
Ernest Lehman, the multi- Academy Award nominee as a screenwriter directed only one movie in his entire life. Portnoy's Complaint, the novel by Philip Roth about a sex-obsessed middle-aged man was probably the least likely title to make into a movie. After all, the novel itself was just a one-joke monologue about a boy (and young man) and his obsession with jerking off.
The book itself had many problems when it was published in 1969. Two things that got people in an uproar was the candid treatment of the subject of masturbation, and the somewhat offensive treatment of Jewish identity. (it should be noted that Roth himself was from a Jewish background, so his irreverence comes from direct experience and is not entirely a derogatory racist view.) The book was banned in Australia (there's a new one on me...)
The film did not fare very well both at the box office and with the critics. Roger Ebert's review was pretty much indicative of the general critical revie in that he called it "a true fiasco". His main vitriol was aimed at the casting of Lee Grant as Sophie Portnoy, Alexander's mother. He seems to think a better casting would have been Shelley Winters. Myself, I don't know. I've only seen the Jewish mother character (or maybe "caricature") maybe ½ a dozen times in movies (and most of them were in movies by Mel Brooks.) I don't know if she's got the accent right, but the character of the Jewish mother seems to be OK. Jack Somack as Jack, Alexander's father is better, but I think Grant does a decent job of it.
Portnoy's Complaint (1972):
Alexander Portnoy (Richard Benjamin) is a man obsessed with sex. We get this from the very start of the movie. A middle-aged man who hasn't progressed much further from his adolescent immaturity when it comes to women. Witness the fact that he gets his female client (he's a lawyer) to movie to a different chair just so he can fantasize about her being naked.
At a session with his psychiatrist (D. P. Barnes, who has no lines but just sits there with a pensive look on his face as Portnoy goes off on his fantasies), Portnoy delves into his past and his many attempts to find ways to get off. This movie is not as graphic as American Pie, but it sure as hell isn't much less raunchier in terms of what is described.
Much of the first part of the movie deals with Alexander's attempts to pleasure himself while his mother frets over what he's doing in the bathroom. She's convinced he's been eating (gak) hot dogs down at the local teenage hangout. (The fact that he tells her his problem is recurring diarrhea may have something to do with that.)
The main part of the movie takes place in Alexander's most recent past, when he hooks up with a non-Jewish girl, Mary Jane, whom he calls "Monkey" (Karen Black). Monkey is a nightmare to someone like me. Sure she is just as obsessed with sex as is Alexander, but she has a neurotic side to her.
Not that Alexander Portnoy is an innocent bystander in his own downfall. Portnoy is just as annoying in his obsession as is Mary Jane. One can't help but waffle between the idea that the two should part ways and that the two deserve each other.
I'm not going to sit here and tell you this is a classic and a great movie. It's not. But I'm also not going to tell you you should head for the nearest exit posthaste. It has it's moments, especially if you like Richard Benjamin's typical innocence. And Lee Grant is worth a view as the mother. But it's not worth writing home about. I recommend the novel if you just must know the story. You could probably do a better movie in your head.