Twice in a Lifetime
Consuming families

by Elayne Rapping

from Jump Cut, no. 31, March 1986, p. 3-4
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1986, 2006

Since the early 1970s Hollywood has given us a "continuing saga" of the traditional family's breakdown and its implications for men, women and children. First, the movie industry got the message that sex roles and concomitant gender-defined patterns of daily life were in a state of irrevocable upheaval, largely due to the influence of the women's movement and the changing economy. Then Hollywood and television set out to create a kind of "official version" of what it all meant. Movies and TV shows explained and rationalized this upheaval for us in ways which would at once acknowledge the changes and establish "correct" ways of understanding and coping with them.

This is of course what commercial Hollywood film and television fiction does. It serves to frame, limit and interpret major social changes in ways that preserve and reinforce the most basic personal and political values of capitalism. At the same time, these fictions seem ever so hip and progressive about developments, which, in fact, reflect the obsolescence and unworkability of many of those values. Hollywood-style fiction gives us an ideological life raft to cling to in the midst of social collapse, and so it assures us that everything is going to be just fine.

One way Hollywood traditionally has done this is to eliminate almost any social or political context while delineating personal life. And Hollywood films usually imply that we have only a few, limited options for adjusting to change. The film's characters and by implication, the audience, cannot alter social institutions since these institutions are not seen. And neither the characters nor we can choose lifestyles outside the range of possibilities presented.

To understand a film like TWICE IN A LIFETIME we need to look briefly at the 15-year history of its genre — the "women's lib/breakdown of the family" film — in the terms I just presented. Interestingly, one of the earliest of these films starred Ellen Burstyn, who also stars in this new film. And, unlike in most of the later films, both films deal with the working class. ALICE DOESN'T LIVE HERE ANYMORE told the story of an unfulfilled and oppressed housewife who once had hoped to be a singer. When her husband dies she takes her son to a new city where she gets a job singing in a bar. While ALICE has fine moments of feminist insight, its happy ending is achieved by her marriage to a new, better man, not her success at work.

Since then, in films like AN UNMARRIED WOMAN, KRAMER VS. KRAMER, ORDINARY PEOPLE and TABLE FOR FIVE, the "women's lib/breakdown of the family" film has centered on the wealthy. AN UNMARRIED WOMAN is the only one in which the woman chooses independence over remarriage or reconciliation. And the heroine can do this because she is beautiful, rich, and lucky enough to find exciting work and men. The rest, sad to say, have portrayed the men as "heroines," coping with single fatherhood and learning to be nurturing, responsible, and home-loving rather than work- or play-oriented. But again, and uncommented upon in the films, the male characters have all had the money to hire and buy whatever help they needed.

In the 1980's, with TERMS OF ENDEARMENT, Hollywood went back to "common folks." It also took a more balanced view of gender-defined characteristics. Male and female characters were both flawed and virtuous, at fault and capable of change and growth. The films have used as themes forgiveness, reconciliation, and the survival of family life in spite of tragedy and pain.

TWICE IN A LIFETIME continues this tradition with all its sentimentality and ideological subterfuge about the realities of contemporary sexual and social life. Again, the characters are working-class, small town folks. Again, the plot handles the traumas that go with the breakdown of the traditional family in a way which seems honest and fair but which, on further analysis, turns out to be manipulatively dishonest and reactionary, both socially and sexually.

First the setting. As a background to the credits, we see the inside of a steel mill. The images present the danger, hard work and environmental unpleasantness in a way that resembles Martin Ritt's scenes of textile mill work in NORMA RAE. But this is not NORMA RAE. TWICE IN A LIFETIME's hero, Harry McKenzie (Gene Hackman), a 50-year-old millhand, leaves work as the credits end, and that's the last we see of the mill. The rest of the film centers exclusively on home and leisure settings, kitchens, living rooms, bars, restaurants, stores, and beauty salons.

In all these places, both the film's images and the narrative as a whole represent the quality of working class life not in terms of substantive issues but merely through props: white bread, bottled salad dressing and catsup on the table, and LET'S MAKE A DEAL on the tube. Even while Harry's laid-off son-in-law is financially strapped, he expresses most concern about family "happiness."

The film has a simple plot. Harry and his wife Kate (Burstyn)'s old-fashioned life is now painfully stale. She lives for the kids and house and gets her kicks from TV and from the gossip and laughs at her job doing shampoos at a local beauty shop. He hangs out with the guys at the bar. There he unexpectedly falls for a waitress named Audrey (Ann-Margaret) who is sexy, fun-loving and the widow of a man who had "put her on a pedestal." After much groaning and gnashing of teeth, Harry goes to live with Audrey. Kate gets her hair colored, starts getting out on her own — bingo, adult education and a trip to a male strip show. The kids adjust, although the youngest daughter leaves college to marry and live with Mom and the older daughter's husband never does find adequate work.

This film goes to an extreme in avoiding economic realities. In one sequence, meant to show how each partner is managing, the film intercuts images both of Harry and Audrey, and then of Kate and her daughters, on supposedly jolly shopping sprees. Here Kate finds a pair of $15.95 earrings extravagant and daring — she's never done a thing for herself, you see — while Harry and Audrey price watches in the four-figure range. In fact, the film depicts the substance of Harry's new life and that of Kate as anything but "meaningful." The film never gets beyond consumerism and sex as life goals.

In fact, sex, fun and pretty things are certainly important. I am not one of those leftists who scorns the appeal of consumerism but have great empathy, not contempt, for those for whom it is a major life value. I find this theme particularly significant in TWICE IN A LIFETIME because the film clearly conveys the message that the old way of family life has changed. That way was one of sacrificing for the children, saving and scrimping economically, and losing touch with each other sexually and emotionally because of the sexual division of labor that these values required. And here is the biggest contradiction in the film. For it isn't the changing roles and demands of women or the economic crisis that are seen to have destroyed the LEAVE IT TO BEAVER life style. It is the new media-created image of the good life as eternal youthfulness, consumption and self-gratification.

This movie's plot shows Harry, Kate and Audrey as all ending up better off because each has chosen or been forced to stop living for others and start having fun. When Harry comes to see his younger daughter on the eve of her wedding, she allays his fears that she is acting hastily and is in danger of repeating her parents' mistakes. She says she and her fiancé "already know what it took you and Mom 30 years to learn." Yet this scene, and the whole narrative, avoids the question of how the newlyweds will keep the fun and games going while living with Kate and working at dead end jobs. In fact, they have little hope of improving their situation, especially given the economic crisis. Similarly, Harry's son, the only child to whole-heartedly support his dad's decision, lives in southern California and obviously is not a steelworker — although we never learn what he does.

Because this film avoids the realities of economic and sexual change, it also presents its men and women in decidedly sexist ways. For one thing, the story comes from Harry's point of view. While the film presents all the characters sympathetically and director Bud Yorkin attempts to create a rounded picture of family life in which men and women, younger and older family members, all have their individual positions and problems, the fact is that it is from the man's eyes. Certainly both men and women are victims of sexual and social change and are emotionally complex and needy. And no one should stay in a loveless marriage or lead a boring life. And divorce was, in fact, the best thing for this couple. But the film shows Harry as having only shallow needs. He falls for Audrey because she is sexy and fun-loving. He says she has given him "the first day in 20 years when I didn't know what would happen." The film delineates a relationship based on very little, for this couple never talks about anything but their personal situation and how sexy they find each other.

The film shows all its women characters, including Audrey, as far from "liberated." Like Harry, Audrey is shallow. She was babied as a wife, had no children and does the kind of low-paid service work that most women have to do to survive. When she tells him that she wants a relationship in which she is an equal, not a princess, her declaration means little since the film shows them as childish.

The film also presents Kate as boring, shallow and a stereotypical woman. While she exhibits real strength in adjusting to abandonment, she doesn't grow in any ways that feminists would recognize as meaningful. She is still primarily a mother, a beauty shop shampooist, and a dabbler in time-killing activities. And both daughters are also traditional female characters — the shrew and the good wife. Sunny (Amy Madigan) is a bossy, abrasive fulltime wife and mother who chews up more scenery than a wild coyote in her obsessive preoccupation with her parents' lives. And Helen too lives for personal married life and has no thought of anything more interesting or fulfilling.

I can hear certain responses to what I've just said. These, after all, are small-town, working-class folks. And they have simple pleasures — TV, weddings, jewelry — which are valid. I agree. But the film offers a patronizing and condescending picture of working-class life. Most obvious, it fails to treat the problems of work and money among our fast-disappearing industrial working class. And the film in fact adds to the ideological confusion promoted by mass market advertising. How can this class, facing such economic hardship, strive to indulge in "yuppie-style" consumption and leisure activities?

But there's more to it. What Yorkin really does in this film is what all the movies mentioned earlier have done. He raises and resolves real modern problems in false ways. Surely the family is changing and divorce and remarriage — at any age — are common. However, the repercussions of these things are not generally this jolly. Working-class people have more on their mind than sex, family life, football and TV. Women, especially among the white working class in the United States, have been forced to take on enormous economic responsibilities lately. (Black women have had this responsibility since Reconstruction). And dealing with those realities, working-class wives and mothers have become far more grown up, assertive, angry and politically visible than this movie even vaguely suggests.

In fact this movie offers only an anachronistic perspective as far as women, workers and U.S. society are concerned. In its narrative structure, it attempts to superimpose the values and lifestyles of the new class of urban professionals on a set of people whose real lives have been destroyed by the very social upheaval of which this class is a symbol and an affront. Like TERMS OF ENDEARMENT, TWICE IN A LIFETIME is set in some never-never-land that represents Hollywood's version of contemporary "middle America." The film depends on nostalgia for the good old days." It fantasizes a wish-fulfillment dream that somehow Norman Rockwell values and settings can survive (if they ever existed) in spite of enormous economic and social upheaval. In fact, the film offers a view of women, the working class and "middle America" that only a Hollywood hypester, driving an XKE in Beverly Hills, could have dreamed up.