A Family Weigh

The 1976 film Network may most commonly bring to mind overwhelmed, despairing Howard Beale bellowing “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it any more!” His performance is genius, and his newsroom messiah complex may seem to presage this generation’s personality-driven Fox News and CNBC, but something else stood out to me when I watched the movie for the first time not long ago. A much smaller moment. And it had nothing to with Howard Beale, at least not directly.

Over the course of the movie, Howard’s friend, colleague and defender Max Schumacher embarks on an extra-marital affair with Diana Christensen, a young woman who takes advantage of Howard’s ongoing mental breakdown to drive up ratings and advance her own career. Over lunch one afternoon, Max tries to clear his conscience by devastating his wife with the news that he can finally feel some emotion … for someone else.

Louise Schumacher places her teacup on the breakfast nook and calmly tells her husband where he can stick it, before storming out out of the kitchen to rip Max a new one. It’s an electrifying and unforgettable speech that sums up the feelings of centuries of downtrodden, browbeaten housewives.

“Get out. Go anywhere you want. Go to a hotel, go live with her, and don’t come back. Because, after 25 years of building a home and raising a family and all the senseless pain that we have inflicted on each other, I’m damned if I’m going to stand here and have you tell me you’re in love with somebody else.

Because this isn’t a convention weekend with your secretary, is it? Or … or some broad that you picked up after three belts of booze. This is your Great Winter Romance, isn’t it? Your last roar of passion before you settle into your emeritus years. Is that what’s left for me? Is that my share? She gets the winter passion, and I get the dotage?

What am I supposed to do? Am I supposed to sit at home knitting and purling while you slink back like some penitent drunk? I’m your wife, damn it. And, if you can’t work up a winter passion for me, the least I require is respect and allegiance. I hurt. Don’t you understand that? I hurt badly.”

She spent three days on the set and only five minutes of her work made it into the final cut, but that speech, delivered more elegantly and forcefully than I can demonstrate, won stage actress Beatrice Straight a best supporting actress Oscar.

Sitting in a dark theater more recently, watching The Kids Are All Right, I drew an accidental but illuminating parallel between Louise’s speech and a scene played by Julianne Moore.

Her character, Jules, has been caught having an affair with the man whose anonymous sperm donation years ago sired both her son and her wife’s daughter. Jules’ wife Nick, played by a slightly colder Annette Bening, confronts her and shuts her out. Jules spends days sulking around the house, unsure of how to talk to her kids, unable to get through to her wife, until she stands in front of the TV one night and clears the air.

“Your mom and I are in hell right now, and the bottom line is marriage is hard. It’s really fuckin’ hard. It’s just two people slogging through the shit, year after year, getting older, changing. Fucking marathon, OK?

So sometimes, you know, you’re together so long you stop seeing the other person. You just see weird projections of your own junk. Instead of talking to each other, you go off the rails and act grubby and make stupid choices — which is what I did. And I feel sick about it, because I love you guys. And your mom. And that’s the truth. And sometimes you hurt the ones you love the most. And I don’t know why. You know, if I read more Russian novels … Anyway … I just wanted to say how sorry I am for what I did. I hope you’ll forgive me eventually. Thank you.”

She is the opposite of Max Schumacher, but she totally gets Louise.

Sitting in that theater with my husband of 6 years, it drove home to me the central point of the movie: Marriage is hard — whether it’s man on man, woman on woman, or … well, some other variation. You’re going to screw it up. And you’d better not do it if you don’t want to get your hands dirty.

Who knows what compels us to do it to ourselves and each other, but I am convinced it’s the same force for every relationship — gay, straight or neither. The Kids Are All Right is not about lesbians. It’s not about an unconventional family. (What family is conventional?) It’s about a marriage. It’s about a family. It’s about you, and it’s about me, nothing more and nothing less.


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