Coming as something of an unofficial follow-up to the revival of Joan Micklin Silver’s Between the Lines (1977) at the Brattle Theatre earlier this year, the Harvard Film Archive is now hosting a new 35mm print of Joan Tewkesbury’s Old Boyfriends (1979), yet another early-career independent film by a Woman of the New Hollywood—and please indulge that phrase, for the grouping, in this case, is significant. That’s because it was specific works of film scholarship and programming involving both films that provided the impetus for the creation of this new Old Boyfriends print in the first place: The release of an essential new book by Maya Montañez Smukler, Liberating Hollywood: Women Directors & the Feminist Reform of 1970s American Cinema (2018) and the programming of a concurrent repertory program at the UCLA-operated Billy Wilder Theater eventually led to the troubling discovery that all three remaining exhibition prints of Tewkesbury’s debut feature had to varying extents deteriorated. “The print of Old Boyfriends [selected for the UCLA screening] was so red and faded, something we had known before and warned the audience and Joan of,” Smukler explained in a conversation published by the university’s archive blog. “In a way it felt like a bonding experience to watch the movie with that crowd. … It sounds dramatic, but together we witnessed the deterioration of a film and in the context of the series, the vulnerability of these women filmmakers’ legacies.” A positive development was reached at the end of this search, even though it wasn’t in time for the UCLA program—the film’s current rights holders, as a result of the inquiry, discovered an intact negative, allowing for a new print to be struck, the same one playing now at the HFA.
Much like Between the Lines before it, Tewkesbury’s Old Boyfriends was made independently at least in part because the filmmaker, whose prior credits were considerable (she was the screenwriter for Robert Altman’s films Thieves Like Us and Nashville, 1973 and 1975), had struggled for years to get other films produced within the “New Hollywood” itself. Her own projects and scripts, which she tried to finance throughout the second half of the 1970s—such as one titled After Ever After, written in reflection on the end of her own marriage—never got off the ground. It was, quite tellingly, only the rising star of the very male Paul Schrader, director of Blue Collar (1978) and screenwriter of Taxi Driver (1976), that, in Tewkesbury’s own telling, created the possibility for her to direct her debut theatrical feature. The Schrader project was an older screenplay that Paul had co-written with his brother Leonard, originally titled Old Girlfriends, but now with the gender of the protagonist flipped because, as Tewkesbury once noted sarcastically, “suddenly ‘women’s movies’ were hot… and so [Schrader] changed it to a girl going back on this journey”. Although with that said (or rather quoted), it should be noted that before shooting, the screenplay got an uncredited rewrite from Tewkesbury herself, who also got her preferred leading actress, Talia Shire, for the role of the woman traveling to visit her old acquaintances. So by no means was this a work-for-hire directing job, at least not in the traditional sense.
Tewkesbury’s directorial touch is felt most strongly during the first couple of reels of the film. Take for instance its wildly dissociative introduction: The opening credits play over a scene of a car accident where the driver is framed to be indiscernible, then afterwards the film cuts to a woman doing a few tasks in her bedroom (making a phone call, rearranging some family photos), all viewed from behind her shoulders, the focus mostly on her hands, with her face also unseen, in what seems a nod to a similarly dissociative opening composition in Max Ophul’s 1953 film Madame de… (a movie that, like this one, is about a woman who seems unknowable to the cycle of more obvious men who surround her). It’s only after yet another cut that we’re finally shown the face of Dianne Cruise (Shire), who then begins her aforementioned “journey”, with old diary entries read aloud on the soundtrack providing her motivation in more ways than one.
Diane’s relatively-unelucidated project first takes her to Jeff Turrin (Richard Jordan), who in college was the “Bob Dylan [to her] Joan Baez.” In this segment of the film—as well as in the next one, when Diane visits a villainous hound dog lounge singer played by John Belushi—Tewkesbury’s eye is simply extraordinary. Her compositions regularly employ mirrors, hallways, and other elements to create frames within frames, and multiple points of focus within single images. And in proper concert with that hall-of-mirrors approach is the playful sense of artificiality which defines the other elements of the movie, specifically character and dialogue. That mood and mode seems in many ways inherited from some French New Wave films of the 1960s, an influence that is of course shared by much of that decade’s American cinema—another way in which Tewkesbury was very much “of her time”, even as the industry pushed her out of it. For an example of this quality one might point towards the way that Dianne crafts intricately staged false pretenses—scenes, basically—for the sake of re-meeting with each man on her list. It’s a dramatic conceit I have to imagine was inspired by Francois Truffaut’s 1965 revenge film The Bride Wore Black, which shares with Tewkesbury’s movie not only that specific narrative concept but also many aesthetic characteristics, such as a sweeping use of warm and pastel colors. And further suggesting that influence, Tewkesbury is quoted multiple times in Liberating Women saying that Paul Schrader hoped for more of a “revenge movie”, whereas she, Shire, and other collaborators worked to push the film more into the realm of psychological character portraiture—and so it lands somewhere in the middle, treating Diane as an unknowable abstraction in some passages and as an ostensibly sympathetic protagonist in others.
Unfortunately the latter half of the film, filled by a visit paid to the relative of yet another man on the list (Keith Carradine), is directed less ecstatically than the first, with many climactic scenes playing out mostly in simply composed master shots (thinking back, there is a wildly goofy shot choice in the first segment with Jeff, where he and Diane exchange dialogue in the background while four oblivious film-industry suits read newspapers in the foreground—but then nothing else like it during the rest of the running time, Tewkesbury’s shot choices getting more and more traditional as the story trudges along). Even before that point there are scenes that play out far too long given their preordained destinations, but despite all these demerits (and whatever others a viewer might levy against it), Old Boyfriends is at least evidence that Tewkesbury was a natural talent as a composer of images, capable of tying complex themes and characterizations into framing, set design, and camera movement. For instance, her use of mirrors as a motif in this movie is no showy film-student affectation, but just one among many visual choices that quickly proves rich in associative detail and suggested implications. In fact this play with “reflections” is described further in the HFA’s own notes for the screening, written by Brittany Gravely—“The ‘little game of transference’ she is eventually accused of playing,” Gravely writes, on the subject of Diane’s quest, “exposes the emptiness in the men’s lives, her own existence as a broken reflection, and ultimately, cinema’s tendency to cast women in identity-less roles only meant to support their male co-stars—leaving everyone with a void to fill.”
Going from there, the reference to identity-less roles for women feels to me on some level connected to a particularly off-putting shot in the film where Jeff looks down from a private investigator’s office onto Grauman’s Chinese Theater, which is seen quite prominently advertising Star Wars (1977), a harbinger of endless classical-male-hero blockbusters to come (it should be noted that this scene, in the PI’s office, is one of the movie’s best, funny and full of inexplicable detail, surprising behaviors, and memorable line readings, that strange look down on the street only just the start). “I did that deliberately,” Tewkesbury noted in an interview published by the Metrograph theater, who hosted the premiere of the new 35mm print. “We all knew the business was changing the minute that Star Wars hit the street. In your heart of hearts, you knew that this lovely era, with all those films that were shot in the 70s, these kind of personal, dark, weird, funny stories… It was going to be harder to get those things financed if you didn’t have Star Wars under your belt.”
Getting back to where we started… Another point unfortunately shared between Tewkesbury and Micklin Silver is that both, following the 1970s, did the majority of their work for television rather than for theaters, and not exactly by choice. Micklin Silver did get to make quite a few other movies, including her masterpiece Crossing Delancey (1988), but Tewkesbury was not even afforded infrequent opportunities to develop as a director of features, and so to date Old Boyfriends remains her only theatrically-exhibited film. After its production she directed almost exclusively for television, and intriguingly, even wrote the screenplays for some of those made-for-TV projects, such as on the 1989 work Cold Sassy Tree, starring Faye Dunaway. During the post-screening Q&A of the UCLA screening that got this whole ball rolling in the first place, Tewkesbury spoke highly of her rarely-discussed work for television: “I treated every television film like a feature,” she said, “a movie is a movie is a movie.” Finally those later TV movies can be considered a subject for further study—now that Old Boyfriends is back in circulation, providing a place to start.
OLD BOYFRIENDS. RATED R. HARVARD FILM ARCHIVE. 24 QUINCY ST., CAMBRIDGE. SCREENS ON 8.23 AND 8.24 @ 7PM, 8.25 @ 4:30 AND 7PM. 35MM. $9.