LONELYHEARTS is distinguished by a gripping supporting performance from Maureen Stapleton, who drew a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for her first movie role in this otherwise unpalatable 1958 drama, about as sour a way to spend 100 minutes in the company of nonstop misery as you could get from something bile’d forth from author Nathanael West. He’d written the novel “Miss Lonelyhearts” in 1933, and it had been adapted (and changed up) for film as a comedy that same year, in Advice To The Lovelorn. Dropping any sense of humor (unless you’re maybe Zero Fun to be around) for this late 50s go, it did fit in with a slew of decidedly downbeat dramas that same year. *
Needing someone to spiff up the ‘advice column’ for his newspaper, cynical (as in Utterly, Vastly 99.7% Cynical) editor Robert Ryan gambles on sensitive newby Montgomery Clift, who finds himself initially amused, then inexorably drawn into and finally emotionally overwhelmed by the desperate people and tragic stories he has to relate to and dispense wisdom for. Ryan’s discontent wife (Myrna Loy) and Clift’s innocent girlfriend (Dolores Hart) lend what support they can. Everyone is abjectly unhappy.
Stage veteran Vincent J. Donehue directed (his first of only two films). The self-conscious writing (Dore Schary adapted West’s bleak screeds), the rawboned sets and stark cinematography add to the gloom, which is unrelenting. No-one outside of boot camp would credibly put up with the abuse to work for Ryan’s character, who is about as brutal as someone you’d find in the next bunk at Sing Sing. He has enough sarcasm for ten people. Few actors of the era were better than Ryan for dishing out taunts: were this better directed and if the West vitriol not so constant and attention-flaunting, Ryan’s acidic publisher could well have joined ranks with Burt Lancaster’s vicious columnist in Sweet Smell Of Success and Andy Griffith’s phony conman in A Face In The Crowd as a classic 50s bastard, but he’s undone by having it made to be overdone. Loy, taking gobs of abuse (not too flattered by the camera this time, either) is okay, and Hart does quite well, but there is some unfortunate over-acting from Jackie Coogan and especially from Mike Kellin (he’s really terrible here, it’s flat-out ridiculous).
Then there’s Mr. Clift. Loyal ‘Monty’ devotees worship his every quiver and tic, but I find him nearly unwatchable here. Following his 1956 car wreck, the assured Clift from his earlier work was gone, replaced by someone barely in his skin. Despite the cast doing their best to reassure him and get him through the job, it shows plainly: he looks and acts like he’s 30% present, and often seems like he can barely walk or stand up. His other performance that year in The Young Lions is similarly afflicted. Since it’s known that he was often nearly impossible in his on-set behavior (drugs, booze, self-torment, ego and general nastiness) I find it hard to cut him as much slack as his diehard idolaters. **
By far the saving grace of this overblown, over-written, overacted, overrated overkill is the sensationally good job from Maureen Stapleton, who wrings genuine believable pathos out of her character, and her sudden spiteful turnabout is equally memorable. She kicks the shins out from under everyone else in the movie.
With Onslow Stevens (unhappy character), Frank Maxwell (unhappy character) and Frank Overton (character who could be happier).
* Bummed? You’ll be downcast to know misery sought company and found it abundant in 1958 with Desire Under The Elms, Separate Tables, A Time To Love And A Time To Die, Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, The Defiant Ones, I Want To Live!, The Goddess, The Naked And The Dead, Man Of The West, The Tarnished Angels, Some Came Running, Too Much Too Soon, Touch Of Evil and The Young Lions.
The dour mood fitting, Stapleton’s Oscar nom went as a win to another great actress who also did relatively few movies and wasn’t the standard beauty-queen, Wendy Hiller in Separate Tables. The other nominees in that category were likewise playing dejected gals: Martha Hyer in Some Came Running, Cara Williams in The Defiant Ones and Peggy Cass, at least getting the smiles the others missed out in, as poor ‘Agnes Gooch’ in Auntie Mame.
If one stayed at home (too depressed to go anywhere dark like a theater), having found that the big quiz shows were rigged and if you ignored the six-gun solutions shot from the westerns that occupied 14 of the top 30 TV shows you might have found solace from the problems solved by Father Knows Best. It was ranked #13—-figures.
** Loy: “Monty was a great talent, whose acting I always admired. He had extraordinary instincts. His observations about the script were always astute and correct. He would have made a great director, which eventually he wanted to be. “Would you ever direct yourself?”, I once asked him. “Are you kidding”, he replied. “As a director, I simply wouldn’t put up with all that crap from me”. Monty was having problems then. He was full of all kinds of problems, many of them imaginary.”
I’ll grant him bravo for Red River, a rave for From Here To Eternity and salutes for Wild River and Judgment At Nuremberg (and much of Freud), but in the main I just never got the whole overblown mystique. To each their own. Catch this one for Maureen Stapleton.