By Jason McBride (Seattle, Washington, US)
Most of us, including critics and aficionados, expect movies to perform like dish detergent. We want endings that feel like a rack of sparkling crockery overlooking a defeated spiral of grime as it gurgles into the void. Films that don’t deliver clear results risk oblivion.
Such is the fate of The Pumpkin Eater, Jack Clayton’s 1964 sort-of-feminist drama about the soured marriage between philandering screenwriter Jake Armitage (Peter “I’m mad as hell” Finch) and the very fecund Jo (Anne Bancroft, of The Graduate fame). All the boxes are checked—a thoroughbred cast; creamy, post-Golden Age black and white hues; conscientiously blocked scenes pulsing with Harold Pinter’s withering dialogue; and bit part players giving 120 percent. But The Pumpkin Eater commits the gravest of errors: it ends realistically.
That it is to say, ambiguously. In fact, the whole film throws curve balls, challenging us with characters that continuously veer off course. To start, bachelor Jake is smitten with Jo, a married woman happily saddled with eight children. The seemingly domesticated Jo abandons her husband and their idyllic barn-house, marries Jake and transplants the brood to a London home purchased by her father (a gruff Cedric Hardwicke), who is more protective of his new son-in-law than his daughter or grandchildren. He insists that Jo send her two eldest boys to boarding school. “You’re not going to be allowed to crush this poor boy before he starts. He’s going to have to work like a galley slave as it is,” he decrees.
From here, we hit familiar grooves. Jake loses patience with Jo’s motherly devotion cutting into their sex life. He screws around with their boarder (a young, dizzy Maggie Smith), and when Jo breaks down in a department store, she ends up in a psychiatrist’s office while Jake flies off to a location shoot in Morocco, complete with all the industry perks i.e. leading actresses that ride camels, among other things.
Jo makes her gutsiest stand in the whole film when she quits her patronizing shrink. But instead of harnessing this momentum, Jo slides back into people pleasing, aborting a child at Jake’s—and oddly, her mother’s—insistence. Not only does she terminate the pregnancy, but in a quasi-legal decision (remember, this is 1964), her doctors insist that she undergo permanent sterilization. Jo agrees, and oddly, this woman who has made childbearing the bulk of her identity wakes up from the surgery ecstatic with her new “freedom.” Jo’s liberation is short-lived, however, when Bob Conway (a perversely moralistic James Mason) reads her a love letter to Jake from his actress wife, Beth. Conway reveals that Beth threatened to leave Jake if Jo had the baby; in other words, Jake sacrificed the child to keep his mistress.
Upon learning the true reason she voluntarily sterilized herself, Jo reacts with appropriate fury and ends up in bed with her previous husband, but her wifely instincts call her back and we are left with tender, conciliatory close-ups between Bancroft and Finch. It’s one of those endings that will leave many shouting at the screen: “Leave him, for god’s sake! You’re great and he’s a jerk! You can do so much better!”
But people choose poorly, so why shouldn’t movie characters do the same? Because when the thread isn’t consistent, the film doesn’t resonate. If Jo had suffered through the weird sixties psychiatry and gotten straitjacketed and injected and involuntarily gutted on the operating table, we could shake our heads, tsk-tsk and enjoy some indignant tears over the poor, mistreated lamb.
Instead we get a woman who wants a lot of kids and gets to have a lot of kids. The same woman also wants a happy marriage but gets an adulterous husband—backed up by Jo’s parents and the medical establishment—who dupes her out of her reproductive autonomy. Additionally, her father’s “offer” to pay for boarding school leaves Jo with a stilted, distant relationship with her boys.
If the only qualification is terrible male behavior, The Pumpkin Eater is a feminist film. But Jo’s lack of vision or willingness to stand for anything doesn’t make for an inspiring role model, much less a martyr. Even the camera treats her like a victim, fetishizing her ingenuous fragility with one wistful close-up after another. Or maybe, in 1964’s eyes, Jo’s misery is the moral consequence of divorcing the children’s father for Jake in the first place. Throw in the possibility of a reconciliation at the end, and it’s hard to know how to take all of this.
There’s a reason Simon & Garfunkel wrote “Mrs. Robinson,” not “Mrs. Armitage.”
The Pumpkin Eater just isn’t good dish detergent.