The opening credits of Robert Wise's 1962 Two for the Seesaw are among the most evocative I've ever seen. The film fades from black to a shot looking south down FDR Drive from the Manhattan Bridge; the next shot introduces us to Robert Mitchum, standing on the adjacent Brooklyn Bridge looking at the East River, with the New York City skyline behind him. Beneath the credits and André Previn's score, we're taken on a black and white tour of Manhattan in the early '60s, the city looking well-worn but not unkempt.
Mitchum wanders the city alone, occasionally visiting an uptown museum, but sticking mostly to the neighbourhood by the foot of the Brooklyn Bridge – a forlorn area of sweatshops, warehouses and tenements documented by photographer Danny Lyon in his book The Destruction of Lower Manhattan when it was being demolished just a few years later. This urban renewal did nothing to halt the rapid decay of the city that would look terminal when New York went bankrupt in the late '70s; besides setting the mood for the movie, the credit sequence is a document of a Manhattan that no longer exists.
Mitchum is Jerry, a middle-aged lawyer from Nebraska who's run away from home while waiting for his divorce to come through. We're given a very precise account of his resources; he'd made $30,000 the previous year, but he's in New York paying $31 a month for a dingy tenement apartment with a bathtub in the kitchen and trying to live on $3.50 a day. Even if we didn't know this, his loneliness and isolation are acutely conveyed in the opening credits. Wise carries this sense of straightened circumstances through the rest of the film – despite being shot on Hollywood's Goldwyn soundstages, the interiors maintain the scale and grime of real New York spaces, right down to the milky skylights and ragged, cave-like hallways.
This is probably why he grasps at the first straw that presents itself to him, in the form of Gittel Mosca (Shirley MacLaine). She's at a beatnik party in the Village, thrown by an old friend of Jerry's from Nebraska who escaped the presumed Babbitry of the Midwest to find inspiration as a painter. Gittel (born Moscowitz) is just shy of thirty and a free spirit, which means to say she's a neurotic – a dancer sidelined by a duodenal ulcer caused by either a bad diet, lousy doctors or poor life choices (or all three).
Big cities attract neurotics. If Gittel had managed the transcontinental migration to Los Angeles, she'd put a bit more effort into addressing her neuroses, or at least shopping for the appropriate therapeutic accessory to make them stand out less under the bright sun and pale colours. In New York City, however, there's only therapy – designed mostly for the educated, and expensive. Gittel lives hand to mouth and thinks Nebraska is in California, so she does what every other neurotic does in New York and puts her anxiety on display, part of the street theatre that happens when a population packed in tight lives life out in the open.
She is, however, abundantly full of the energy and optimism that Jerry feels he's missing in the waiting room exile where he's consigned himself. They are, no doubt, an awkward pair, and much of their mating ritual – and most of it afterward – is verbal, but there's no denying the attraction they feel for each other. Indeed, Mitchum and MacLaine began an affair during filming that lasted (thanks to her "open marriage" and whatever agreement he had with his wife) till Mitchum's death in 1997.
The abundant two-character dialogue scenes and limited number of sets gives away the theatrical origin of the movie. Two for the Seesaw opened on Broadway in January of 1958, written by William Gibson and directed by Arthur Penn, who had yet to begin the film career which would lead to Bonnie and Clyde. The pair would work together again a year later on The Miracle Worker, which became Penn's second film. (I explored Penn's career in more depth earlier this summer in a review of The Chase.)
The star of Two for the Seesaw was Henry Fonda, who was also one of the play's backers, but the breakout performance was Anne Bancroft as Gittel – a role that would land her the part of Annie Sullivan in The Miracle Worker onstage and onscreen, and the start of her path to Mrs. Robinson in The Graduate.
It must have been a very different show with Fonda and Bancroft – one imagines Jerry as gentler and less brooding, Gittel less of a kook. Further variations are suggested by Fonda's replacement by Dana Andrews later in the Broadway run, and Lee Grant replacing Bancroft. The film version would have taken a radical departure with its original casting of Paul Newman and Elizabeth Taylor, but thankfully Cleopatra kept Taylor away from Gittel, and her exit freed up Newman to star in The Hustler.
On film, director Robert Wise – a year after West Side Story, a year before The Haunting and three years before The Sound of Music – tries to open up the stagebound story with scenes that venture out onto the streets. But the movie still boils down to Jerry and Gittel in one room or another, drawing together and pulling apart and trying to either express what's wrong with them or get the other one to explain themselves.
After a rocky start they seem to be good for each other. Jerry overcomes his stoic passivity and begins a new life, writing briefs for a blue chip law firm and studying for the New York bar exam. Gittel is persuaded to stop being a doormat for men, and Jerry pays the rent on a loft space for her dance studio. She even gives his dingy crash pad a veneer of domesticity, with curtains and a radio.
But it never seems to work, no matter how hard they try. The script puts it down to differences – in backgrounds, in worldviews, in friends and expectations and goals. But it's hard not to root for this odd couple, especially given the very real chemistry between Mitchum and MacLaine. It's easy to blame Jerry, who clearly keeps some very crucial part of himself in reserve. Men in the audience will doubtless root for him to get over it, as MacLaine fills Gittel with a vivacious vulnerability, all legs and arms and as winsome as a Virginia Baptist playing a Jewish girl from the Bronx can be – a grittier ancestor of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl.
Younger audiences won't understand their relationship at all; a lot has changed in how men and women interact with each other in six decades. I was born just two years after the film was released, and there were so many moments when it seemed to me like Jerry and Gittel were talking at cross purposes, or describe each other with a brutal candour (he calls her a "lovable crackpot waif") that isn't just stagey overstatement. Is it possible that men and women could once talk with such indelicacy and lack of diplomacy?
Jerry hits Gittel. It happens at a breaking point in their relationship, when they've suppressed their misgivings and withheld their trust for too long, and Jerry is certain that Gittel has cheated on him with an ex. It wasn't just added to the film to suit Mitchum's tough guy persona; Fonda hit Bancroft on Broadway, which must actually have been even more shocking given his image as the decent man at the moral centre of films like The Grapes of Wrath, The Ox-Bow Incident and 12 Angry Men. Afterwards he asks if he hurt her, but adds "You had it coming, didn't you?"
Later, Gittel hits Jerry, MacLaine's blows breaking against Mitchum like glass shattering on rock. She cries in frustration:
"All my life I've never been able to beat up one lousy man! It's not fair!"
It's hard to imagine anyone – not Bancroft, not Lee Grant, and especially not Liz Taylor – delivering this line like MacLaine.
In the end they can't make it work, and it's no surprise. "What I want to give you, you don't want," Gittel tells Jerry. He returns to his wife, and she returns to, well, whatever it was she was trying to do; it was never really clear. But it's a bittersweet ending notwithstanding, and Jerry is finally able to tell Gittel he loves her.
But it's hard to believe that his reunion with his wife will stick, especially after everything he's said about her, her rich father, and his subordinate role in that family dynamic. In hindsight Gittel will become the one that got away, and in all likelihood that's how she'll remember Jerry.
They both act like people running out of options, and even if the film's conclusion is tacitly pro-marriage, neither the script nor Wise's direction does a particularly good job selling it to us, but that might just have something to do with the zeitgeist. (Surprisingly, marriage rates in the US fell steadily starting in 1946, bottoming out in the early '60s. They would recover again later in that decade as the Baby Boom reached marriage age, but begin another sharp decline again in the '80s, probably due to simple demographics; it has to be remembered that films like Two for the Seesaw were essentially about the generations before the Baby Boomers.)
It's hard for me to watch Two for the Seesaw and not compare it to The Apartment, the classic Billy Wilder comedy that MacLaine made two years earlier. Even though Jack Lemmon was one of the small group of leading men MacLaine admitted she never fell for (the other one was Jack Nicholson), that film's pointedly noncommittal ending feels much more hopeful than the regretful exit Jerry and Gittel make from each other's lives.
Which is strange because Gittel has much more dignity as the movie ends than Fran Kubelik telling Lemmon's Bud Baxter to "Shut up and deal" at the end of Wilder's film. You want to play "what if" with Jerry and Gittel; in a few years it will be much more acceptable for a man his age to start the third act of his life with a younger woman very different from his first wife. And feminism will encourage a woman like Gittel to concern herself more with her own ambitions within a marriage, even if her husband is still bankrolling them. For a while, at least, they might have a chance.
But that doesn't make Two for the Seesaw any less of a downer – Love in the Afternoon remade via the aesthetic of British kitchen sink realism. Imagining other endings, however, just underlines how much I ended up investing in characters like Gittel and Jerry, and reminds me that I almost never do that with modern movies, where it's far easier to guess where nearly everyone will end up ten minutes after the opening credits have rolled. And no one will ever be able to make opening credits like Two for the Seesaw again.
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