I admit it: I have a “thing” for movies made in the late 1970s and very (very) early ’80s–movies that were made post-Serpico and pre-9 to 5. The films that I’m drawn to are not of the caliber of Casablanca or Gone with the Wind by a long shot, but I love them just the same. There are certain late ’70s films that reflect a culture where disco was dying, marriages were disposable and no one had ever heard of cell phones. I think I like them now because they were made when I was at the beginning of my own adulthood and when I watch them it’s like going back and looking through my high school yearbook or watching an oldie but goodie rerun on TV. These movies are my own personal DVD comfort food, and I find myself watching them over and over and over, never bored and always nostalgic.
One of my favorite movies from that time period is 1980’s The Last Married Couple in America. The film examines the relationship between Mari (Natalie Wood) and Jeff (George Segal) Thomson. The Thomson family lives an upscale life in California ,but not so upscale that the viewer feels alienated or envious (well, a little envious. I love their ’70s-style house with the dark woodwork, built-in bookshelves, gorgeous rugs and casual class). The movie begins with Mari and Jeff playing touch football with several other married couples. But very quickly the other couples fall apart, leaving Mari and Jeff standing alone and feeling like…the last married couple in America.
Mari and Jeff aren’t perfect. They’ve both cheated, they flirt a bit and there are a few leers at other people every so often. But in a touching scene, Jeff tells Mari what he likes about her and she tells him what she likes about him. That information, that married people can actually like each other, is so far removed from the Everybody Loves Raymond and Two and a Half Men world of today that it almost seems shocking. It’s also reassuring. Shouldn’t everyone like their spouse?
The Thomsons’ marriage faces a challenge when Barbara (Valerie Harper perfect as a brassy blonde who come across as trying a little too hard to make everyone know how happy she is as a divorcee) makes an incredibly aggressive play for Jeff. Jeff resists at first but eventually succumbs. After their one-night stand in a crummy motel, Barbara nonchalantly asks Jeff if he had a good time. Jeff tells her no and then explains that he only had sex with her to prove to himself that he wasn’t threatened by all the new sexuality going on around him. Jeff continues on to say that he doesn’t want to do that anymore, that he doesn’t have anything to prove to himself or anyone else and that he loves his wife. Needless to say, Barbara is not impressed.
Unfortunately, Barbara has given Jeff a social disease and he in turn gives it to Mari. Thus the Thomson marriage hits the skids like all their friends’ marriages did, and Mari kicks Jeff out, determined to be happy “as an act of open hostility” toward him.
Mari and Jeff date other people but by the end of the movie they find their way back to each other. “Don’t sleep with other women!” Mari tells Jeff. “Don’t sleep with other men!” Jeff tells Mari. Very good marital advice if ever I’ve heard it.
Natalie Wood is wonderful as Mari. Angry, wary, embarrassed—all of her emotions dance across her features, sometimes one right after another. She is totally believable as a California housewife who is trying to figure out what is going on in the world around her. George Segal is great as a sly, funny, slightly foul-mouthed man who loves his wife.
I doubt 1980 will be remembered as an outstanding year for feature films and I also doubt that The Last Married Couple in America will go down as one of the greats. But I enjoy it because, like macaroni and cheese, mashed potatoes with gravy, and potato chips, it filled me up as it comforted me.
Nell Musolf writes a “blog opera” at http://schuylersquaredailydrama.blogspot.com/
The Last Married Couple in America is currently unavailable on DVD and Blu-ray. What’s your favorite Natalie Wood film? Let us know in the comments!