“What happens when you see them again?” reads the tagline for Old Boyfriends (1979), the directorial debut of screenwriter Joan Tewkesbury, a question which can just as easily be applied to re-experiencing this recuperation of a formidably dire psychological portrait. How the title did not generate a score of directing opportunities for Tewkesbury (who would steadily work as a director in television) marks this as one of many underrated masterstrokes directed by a woman whose box office failings resulted in stopping short her auteurdom.
Of course, Tewkesbury remains a name synonymous with the New American Cinema of the 1970s thanks to her collaborations with Robert Altman as screenwriter on Thieves Like Us (1974) and Nashville (1975), but what she accomplished with her first feature is the portrait of a woman in full tilt nervous breakdown scrabbling at finding a meaning she may have left behind in her past relationships (and yes, only to re-discover she carried her own purpose within her all along, although it’s a conclusion not so neatly determined as such a statement suggests).
Old Boyfriends was penned by Paul and Lawrence Schrader, the former who was just beginning to mold his own directorial career after writing Taxi Driver (1976). Although both Blue Collar (1978) and Hardcore (1979) would require audiences, both cult and otherwise, to appreciate these accomplished titles years later, the treatment for Boyfriends, unfortunately, arrived before the success of his American Gigolo (1980). But this is hardly just a Schrader film, and instead presents Talia Shire with one of her best lead performances during the decade which saw her twice nominated for Academy Awards (The Godfather: Part II, 1974 and Rocky, 1976).
David Shire’s jarring, unnerving score immediately announces the mood of what first appears to be a horror film, wherein a speeding car speeds down a Los Angeles freeway only to careen into an embankment. Immediately, we turn to the omniscient narration of Shire’s Dianne Cruise (a surname which ends up with its own set of complexities as relates to her predicament), a recently single clinical psychologist who has decided on a troubling trip down memory lane by visiting the old boyfriends of her youth as a way to examine where she’d been in order to move forward (recalling the Joyce Carol Oates title, “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?”).
At first, we don’t realize the extent of Dianne’s emotional turmoil thanks to an easygoing and somewhat awkward interaction with Richard Jordan, the most recent memory in her rolodex. A sweet vengeance occurs with John Belushi, a high school sweetheart who had never treated her well in the first place. And then there’s a whole heaping tub of trauma when she goes back to her hometown to find her first beau, only to discover he died in military service. Instead, she convinces his mentally unstable younger brother, played by Keith Carradine, to dress up in his older brother’s clothes and be intimate with her, which sends him off into a nervous breakdown.
Shot by William Fraker (who had lensed one of cinema’s most famous car chases a decade earlier in Bullitt, 1968), Old Boyfriends may seem jarring since it defies the expectations of its packaging and its collaborators, but by defying of expectations paints both an authenticity of one woman’s anguish (Jordan goes off to track her down and finds some useful exposition from her ex-husband Buck Henry and his new gal, P.J. Soles) and speaks to the maturity which once marked Hollywood as a place where adult content was possible (decades later, this kind of scenario gets recycled for something like What’s Your Number?, 2011). But Shire is as funny and charming as she is melancholy, and equal parts moving yet frustrating as Dianne Cruise, who is written as a woman who might second guess her worth but through this ordeal grasps the chance at following a different, potentially more fulfilling path.
Film Rating: ★★★★/☆☆☆☆☆
Disc Rating: ★★★/☆☆☆☆☆