Forgotten Films: John and Mary (1969)
As a dedicated cultural archivist, I’m always fascinated by major studio films that slip from the reels of time without a trace on video or the collective consciousness. I can’t think of a more sterling example than JOHN AND MARY, a 20th Century Fox production directed by Peter Yates, hot off BULLITT (1968), and starring Dustin Hoffman in his first role since his star-making performance in THE GRADUATE along with Mia Farrow, fresh her own huge success in ROSEMARY’S BABY (1968). Pretty heady pedigree for an intimate portrait of a day in the life of a one-night stand, based on the novel by Mervyn Jones, with adapted screenplay by Sir John Mortimer.
That the film’s plot about two young people hooking up for a night of casual sex was considered “controversial” and garnered the film an “R” rating (also due to nudity) shows the different tenor of the era. JOHN AND MARY is very much a product of its year, the tail end of the groundbreaking 60’s, and its mod, “now” style replete with nouvelle vague flashbacks and fantasies. The film presses these cine-references to act as instant connector to youth, though as Roger Ebert noted, they don’t define, they over-simplify. But you have to love a Hollywood film that opens with characters debating Jean Luc Godard’s WEEKEND (1967) in a Greenwich Village bar. The movie is almost the equivalent mash-up of LOOK or LIFE magazine, with a focus on contemporary morals. The movie’s chic production of pads and happenings reflects this stylistic ambition, the cool European minimalism of Hoffman’s designer loft with wide windows, perfect for framing alienated people like the stars. Peter Yates might have been attracted to the story solely because it was the opposite of San Francisco police action. Forced to confined spaces, Yates perhaps over-directs the compositions, but in a way I always find appealing; I’m a sucker for Antonioni white space.
With such stage-bound material, the success of the film would have to rest on Dustin Hoffman and Mia Farrow, at the arch of their celebrity. Hoffman is always a magnetic, fascinating actor, and his character, a mod furniture maker, could almost be Benjamin Braddock a few years wiser with less neuroses. What’s his hang-up you ask? Thanks to a leftist organizer mom (Olympia Dukakis in a funny bit) who fought for Biafra but left the ice-box empty, John is an anal-obssessive control freak afeared of women who care too much about others. His flashbacks reveal a pop-art model who moved in and shattered his Zen pad with pink slacks, teddy bears and barking dogs. We get to see John among the New York “underground” represented by a party replete with Keystone Kop films projected on a nude woman’s body and backed by the sounds of Quincy Jones subtle score. Hoffman’s next ’69 film, MIDNIGHT COWBOY, would feature a more gritty and verite Warhol plastic happening. Hoffman is good though limited by the script, and while some critics don’t like the external monologues between the characters, I think them an effective way of showing the difference between behavior and thought.
Mia Farrow is keyed naturalistic here, with a slight habit of repeating words, a method tic that would serve her well in her career in Woody Allen films. Her flashbacks to an affair with a liberal Senator are interesting inasmuch as the cuckold husband is presented as a decent man who Mary won’t let leave his wife. Tyne Daly and Cleavon Little pop up briefly as her wacky roomie and neighbor to show her carefree spirit life as gallery manager. Mary is a more obtuse character, but she’s good when she lets John know she’s not a pushover and it’s ironic that she finds his taste in organic foods weird. They have a good bantering chemistry, but some of the issues raised seem silly, like Hoffman getting upset that Farrow calls her roommate before they make love. The pairing does seem like Hollywood’s attempt at the slick romantic espirit de corps of A MAN AND A WOMAN (1966), but Yates holds off on the archetypal 60’s musical montage. The long silent opening scene is quite masterful, with Hoffman and Farrow feeling out the awkward intimacy of their morning after. This moment is probably the most true thing in the film. And as such makes it worthy of your viewing time.
Although heavily publicized, JOHN AND MARY didn’t set any box-office records and might have been too slight and elliptical for even 1969. Hoffman was savvy enough to resist being cast as the next symbol of confused youth by taking on Ratzo Rizzo. Farrow never regained her movie footing until Woody Allen began writing specifically for her against type. And Peter Yates never found his niche, likely due to a desire to not repeat himself, but there was still BREAKING AWAY (1976) in his future. I’ve been wanting to see this film for years, but its unavailability prevented that. Fortunately, Fox snuck the DVD out last year, utilizing the nifty original poster art on the cover and though there are no extras outside the trailer and gallery, the print looks gorgeous in 2.35:1 Panavision, with crisp wide shots you could frame. It’s great the studios are finally releasing these vital, overlooked movies that can be seen as evolutionary steps or misfires. Like other forgotten films of the era, JOHN AND MARY is required viewing for anybody interested in the secret history of the Golden Age of New Cinema.