Husbands and Wives

'Husbans and Wives' and Woody and Mia

John Hartl

For nearly three decades, Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn carried on an affair so discreet that it apparently escaped the notice of Tracy's wife. Yet when Ingrid Bergman acknowledged her extramarital relationship with an Italian filmmaker and divorced her husband, she was vilified by the American press, the studios and several politicians.

If Woody Allen and Mia Farrow had taken the Tracy-Hepburn approach to their off-screen relationship, Husbands and Wives would not be opening in hundreds of theaters today. Tri-Star Pictures is assuming that recent headlines have invalidated the traditional strategy of a limited, urban-oriented release for Allen's movies.

Still, the company is taking a big chance by handling the picture this way. Scandal wiped out Bergman's box-office allure, and it did nothing for the careers of Charles Chaplin, Roman Polanski and Fatty Arbuckle.

The preview trailers for Husbands and Wives have drawn a mostly hostile response. Standing in line at Bumbershoot earlier this month, I heard longtime Allen fans denouncing their one-time hero and claiming they wouldn't pay to see his latest. Instead of broadening their audience, Farrow and Allen may actually have narrowed it by going public with their problems.

It may take some time for Husbands and Wives to be seen for what it is, and that's a pity. Taken on its own terms, and not as part of the headlines, this is one of the most compelling and accessible movies Allen and Farrow have made together - and a most heartening return to form after the critical/commercial debacle of their last picture, Shadows and Fog.

As the world knows by now, Husbands and Wives stars Allen and Farrow as a couple whose marriage is threatened by his infatuation with one of his students (Juliette Lewis). He plays an English teacher who is initially impressed with her writing talent and eventually tempted by her playfully seductive manner, while Farrow's character finds herself drawn to an earnest co-worker (Liam Neeson).

For much of the movie's length, however, this situation is overshadowed by the break-up of their close friends, stunningly well-played by the excellent Australian actress, Judy Davis (who joined Woody's rep company in Alice two years ago), and Sydney Pollack (a sometime actor who turned up in an unbilled cameo role in Death Becomes Her and is better-known as the Oscar-winning director of Out of Africa).

Husbands and Wives draws most of its power - and laughs - from this relationship: a classic case of willful marital misunderstanding that, from the outside, can't help looking ridiculous. It is Allen's gift, and the gift of his actors, that they can get inside these characters as well, drawing us into their battles in a way that suggests why they can't keep from behaving like demented teen-agers.

Acting out their midlife crises by abandoning their marriage, they refuse to acknowledge their dependence on each other and end up chasing the wrong people for the wrong reasons. Pollack ends up with a New Age type (Lysette Anthony) who gets him addicted to dopy videos and humiliates him at parties, while Davis frets so much over her husband's apparent romantic luck that she makes a mess of her relationships with anyone who's interested in her.

All of this is resolved in a way that has nothing to do with the Woody-and-Mia case in the headlines. For all its superficial similarities to such previous films as Manhattan and Hannah And Her Sisters, Husbands and Wives doesn't look or feel quite like any other Woody Allen movie.

The handheld camerawork by Carlo Di Palma has a frantic, haphazard quality that will infuriate admirers of the elegant visual style of Allen's 1980s movies - and undoubtedly delight fans of Cassavetes and Godard. Technically it's the most daring thing Allen has done in years, and I'm not sure it pays off. The performances and the writing, not the jump cuts, are what distinguish this picture.

In the long run, of course, no one much cares about last year's scandal. Bergman and Chaplin were ultimately welcomed back to Hollywood with open arms and Oscars. Casablanca and The Gold Rush are not tarnished by the fact that they were instrumental in their creation.

And whether or not you think Allen's an irresponsible home-wrecker and/or Farrow's gone round the bend, Husbands and Wives towers above the recent batch of mediocre-to-awful summer movies that were created by people with less-dished private lives. For those of us who aren't directly involved, it's the work that matters.