Directed by Stephanie Rothman
Written by Charles S. Swartz, Stephanie Rothman, Richard Walter, Paul Rapp.
If Claudia had appeared in the beginning of this film instead of halfway through, it might have been her greatest role. It certainly was one of her best performances, leaving me to wonder what critics could have found so awful to savage her acting. She does a beautifully measured job here—and remember, Claudia was only 24 when it was filmed. Despite being one of the youngest members of the cast, she seems far more mature than the rest of the actors, although some of the characters were obviously meant to be idiots.
Directed and co-written by Roger Corman protégé Stephanie Rothman, Group Marriage is a remarkable bit of cinema. Ahead of its time in exploiting true feminism, it also championed gay marriage, had a male character that was the equivalent of a dumb blond, showed a whole pumpkin truck of nude male ass, and featured a non-stereotypical Asian and an African-American in its cast.
The film is also hysterically funny, with the screenplay showing influences from S.J. Perelman and the screwball comedies of the 1930s and 1940s. It is a beautiful movie to watch, especially the beach scenes, which can be breathtaking. In general, the outdoor scenes seem like they are from another movie, whereas the cheap-looking mise-en-scène set indoors are limp, lifeless and turn the film from an A to a B.
The music is used in an odd way, with each character and scene having its own theme song. John Sebastian of The Lovin’ Spoonful wrote and performed the title song, a jivey little folk-rock number. Then, at times, some lovely harpsichord music plays, supplanted by a jazz flute trio, then a thoughtful piano solo, and back again to the harpsichord…well, you get it.
Former Playmate of the Year Victoria Vetri, who posed for Playboy under the name of Angela Dorian, plays Jan, and is the star along with Solomon Sturges as Sander. Vetri had a promising career, appearing in dozens of movies and television programs. She was a serious actress and barely missed out on roles in Lolita and West Side Story. In a tragic and bizarre twist of fate, she was later sentenced to prison for the attempted murder of her husband.
As the story opens, Chris (Aimeé Eccles) is a lovely young Asian-American lady who is a decent mechanic and works at a car rental agency with her friend Judy (Jayne Kennedy). After a beautifully written “question game” routine with a frazzled customer (manual or automatic?/economy or full-size?/etc.), Judy and Chris talk about Sander, Chris’s useless boyfriend, who owns a bumper sticker company. One of his more mainstream stickers reads “Santa Claus is a Faggot.” I must give warning here that although the film gets props for being progressive, there are a fair amount of anti-gay slurs and misogynistic colloquialisms as well.
Well, it turns out Sander’s car won’t start, so Chris has to pick him up. It just so happens there’s a handsome parole officer, Dennis—also without a vehicle—thumbing a hitch. Chris picks him up and drives over to Sander’s, who ain’t happy his beautiful girlfriend has picked up a stranger and is looking him over like he’s a big, Seventies-moustache-wearing hot dog. Dennis accidently gets one in the yarbles, and Chris, feeling badly, invites him to dinner, much to Sander’s disgust.
As Dennis lies on the couch, the full measure of Sander’s contempt starts to dribble out at Chris. At one point Sander asks Dennis if he likes spaghetti, after Chris offers to make dinner. “Good. You can have the whole can,” he snorts.
The dialogue is very tongue in cheek, and could easily have ventured into Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? territory if the humor wasn’t kept in the forefront. So before you know it, after Sander falls asleep, Chris hops up like a bunny, hightails it to Dennis’ room, and they make beautiful music together.
The next morning, Sander doesn’t take it well, as Chris asks him “Why does everyone think you only have to like one person?” However, Dennis offers to take Sander and Chris out and meet his woman, Jan, to cheer him up. Sander whines she’s probably ugly and pisses and moans all day.
That night Sander meets Jan, and wowie-wow-wow-wow. Just your average Playmate of the Year dressed up for an Oscar ceremony. It’s obvious from the moment they meet, Sander has but one thing on his mind.
However, when they get back home from dinner, they all crawl into bed and Chris starts having pangs of jealousy. She sabotages the partner swap by staying up and watching television until the test pattern comes on. During the late night broadcast, there is a reference made to the film Attack of the 50-Foot Woman, by the way. At one point Sander begs her to turn off the TV, saying “Dennis is asleep and if I try to make love to Jan, it will be necrophilia.”
Eventually, the two couples stake out two separate but equal bedrooms, and the house is filled with the sound of sex and Seventies music. Noticing that her new home is a dump, Jan goes out shopping to spruce things up. The couple next door, a very awkwardly portrayed gay couple, makes silly comments about the shenanigans. There is one scene where they try to make dinner for everyone that is so ill-conceived and poorly executed that one wonders what Rothman was thinking.
On the other hand, there are scenes that are shot with such incredible finesse and style that they astound you. The scene where Jan goes shopping is as fine a piece of moviemaking you will ever see. You are transported from a sloppy house in California to a market in Paris. There are a few frames where Jan reacts to a clerk that are so honest and compelling that her face becomes a work of art for a moment.
Later on, the group heads to the beach. In another exquisitely shot scene, the beach, water, sunset, and rocks all become one. You will not find a better-photographed sequence in a B-movie. The shot gets better as Jan walks along the beach and rocks, deep in thought, when she sees a man on the beach off in the distance. They have a chat and it’s not really “small talk”, since we slowly realize the man, an off-duty life guard, is in the buff.
Well, his car won’t start either, so Chris hoists herself on top of his engine with her long hair dangling down (not a good idea for all you automobile self-repair enthusiasts out there—belts, fans and fan blades). She asks him about his distributor cap and he tells her he doesn’t know what that is. Okay, so he’s good looking, but not a rocket scientist—cue the feminist irony here.
As the gay couple watches the group come back from the beach, their number now five, one of them asks the other, “What do you call two women and three men?”
“A full house?”
Phil tells the group he has nowhere to go, since his wife is divorcing him. The group invites him to stay until he can find a place to live, but the guys have a better idea. They’ll find Phil his own companion. The next day, Sander, Phil, and Dennis are jogging when Elaine (Claudia) comes bouncing by. Entranced by her beauty and flaming red hair, they ask her to join the group. We get some nice shots of Claudia jogging from the foreground and background, as Phil runs alongside her trying to convince a stranger to move in with five other people. Could happen.
Elaine comes by to check out the scene and tells them she’s interested. She also tells Phil she wants to see him in her office the following morning. Just then, the doorbell rings and a procession of perverts arrive to audition for the sixth addition. It seems Phil forgot he put an advertisement in the local underground newspaper for another female—only the newspaper put “male” by mistake. What could have been an opportunity for some perverse fun unfortunately fizzles.
The next morning, Phil goes to see Elaine in her gleaming law office. She hands him a subpoena, and he realizes that Elaine is his wife’s lawyer. Oh, snap! The two then get into an unfriendly discussion, where Phil’s chauvinistic side brings out Elaine’s, and, well, here’s some of the dialogue:
Phil: “At least she wasn’t a mouth. She knew when to shut up and put out!”
Elaine: “Then she sounds like your ideal woman: A dumb cunt!”
There is not a lick of humor in this exchange, as Claudia does a wonderful job looking, and acting pissed off. I think it’s one of her prouder moments, as she’s at first apologetic, then sympathetic and finally at her angry best. This was another scene where Claudia was not a mannequin. When she stands up from her desk to strike back at the Neanderthal (albeit a cute one), she is hitting her marks and camera cues perfectly.
After the fireworks and unexpected vulgarity, we see poor Phil wandering the city to some pathetic music, wondering what to do with his pathetic life. As the five friends sit around that evening, the doorbell rings, and Elaine shows up with the hots for Phil; we’re treated to a ringside view of their “honeymoon night.” Of all the relationships in the film, Phil and Elaine make the least sense. Dennis and Sander show some wit and some intelligence, whereas Phil needs to think seriously about involuntary actions like breathing. I guess opposites attract.
It doesn’t take long for reality to sink in for our happy couples. A TV news station picked up on the story from the underground newspaper, and they soon make sure every redneck bigot and Nixon supporter is out to get them. In short order, Dennis gets fired; the gang starts getting obscene phone calls constantly; Sander forgets to pay the power bill on a morning where everyone’s nerves are at a breaking point; the house is vandalized and firebombed, including their vehicle, sort of bringing the film into Easy Rider territory, and then Chris really shits the bed by announcing she’s pregnant, which sends Jan into a tizzy since “she don’t know nothin’ about taking care of no babies.” The guys are useless, since none of them are sure who the father is.
Well, my friends, what a frigging mess we have here. But it gets worse, sort of! As Phil reports to work, he finds Jan has been shagging one of his fellow lifeguards. Sander is crestfallen, but as Jan honestly explains, their whole arrangement was based on freedom, and she doesn’t feel that anymore. Here’s where the hypocrisy of the group’s arrangement lies. Even though there are six (well, now five, since Jan splits), they live just like married couples, sharing space and a common kitchen but not bed partners or even experimenting with some interesting combinations. They might as well be a bunch of freshmen in an upscale dorm.
They all decide to get married anyway—despite the fact, as Elaine assures them, they will be arrested, since marriage is legally defined as between one man and one woman. But Elaine vows to take the battle to the Supreme Court if necessary. In this way, the film predicts the controversy surrounding gay marriage which continues to the present day.
The day of the wedding arrives and it looks like something out of A Clockwork Orange or Tommy—very bizarre to say the least, from the decorations to the garb of the guests. The third bride turns out to be Chris’ friend Judy (Jayne Kennedy), and the ladies look fabulous while the men look like they spent the prior evening raiding Barry Manilow’s and Maurice Gibb’s closets. Jan is there to support her friends, and the gay couple is there to get married along with everyone else.
As the happy couples finish the reception, they depart under a shower of flowers and rice into the waiting arms of California’s finest. Chris picks that moment to go into labor, but first fixes the stalled police car she’s riding in. Off everyone goes, as John Sebastian comes back on the soundtrack with love triumphing over all. We hope.
Stephanie Rothman was a gifted director, but quit the business because she was tired of all the bullshit she had to go through. She made some fine films before letting go, such as The Velvet Vampire and The Working Girls, but was frustrated by having to direct strictly exploitation efforts. Heavily influenced by French directors Georges Franju and Jean Cocteau, one can imagine the sort of work she could have composed if given the freedom, the budgets and the support she deserved.
Rothman does a fine job here by switching audience expectations regarding the traditional roles of men and women. The women are all competent, intelligent and do guy stuff better than guys, i.e., work on cars, etc… The guys are cute but really dumb and clueless. In my opinion, Jan is the only one who makes choices that are in her best interests, and stays true to her character.
Rothman enjoyed working with Claudia, but both were swimming against the same tide. The director wanted to move away from the exploitation genre, while Claudia would never get her chance. Group Marriage, overall, was a step up from her previous film, but not much. Claudia got to show a lot of skin in this uneven comedy that attempted to advocate a lot of worthwhile ideals, with the exception that it has a lot of anti-gay slurs and stereotypes. Of course, the ending helps compensate for the virulent homophobic language earlier in the movie. The film has the rare distinction of having cast two Playmates of the Year: Claudia and Victoria Vetri. Rothman made sure that the movie didn’t take itself too seriously. There are also three very beautiful women copulating with three attractive men in various combinations. Unfortunately for Claudia, doing this picture probably undid much of the good her appearance in Unholy Rollers had created.
Unsung Feminist Director and Pioneer for women in film
If Stephanie Rothman had been born in the 70s or 80s she would be mentioned in the same context as Kathryn Bigelow and other prominent female directors. Unfortunately she was far ahead of her time, when being a woman, let alone a director was a disadvantage in Hollywood.
She says she became interested in filmmaking after seeing The Seventh Seal (1957), "what is still my favorite film of all time... I didn't, at that point, know how to become a filmmaker. I didn't even think it was possible. When I saw it I thought to myself, 'This is what I would like to do. I would like to make a film like this.' Highly thoughtful, European-like, small films. I wanted to be a writer-director."
Stephanie, excelled at the film school of the University of Southern California, drawing the attention of Producer/Director Roger Corman. She worked on several productions including the cult classic Queen of Blood (1966) She recalled
"I did everything: write new scenes, scout locations, cast actors, direct new sequences and edit final cuts. It was a busy, exhilarating time. Roger did not teach me these skills, I learned them in film school. But he did share his greater experience with me, giving me useful criticism and, equally important, information on how to efficiently organize work on the set so that a film could be shot on schedule. The schedules he set were much shorter than those of the major studios. Since it was his own money he was using, Roger did not want a film to go either over schedule or over budget. He also taught me a valuable lesson in psychology: he encouraged me, often expressing his confidence in my abilities, and I therefore tried to do the best work for him that I could"
Rothman directed then directed one of the biggest hits for Corman's recently formed New World Pictures. The Student Nurses was an exploitation film that also tackled serious issues such as abortion, immigration and female identity (sad that 50 years later these are still concerns in our society).
Rothman declined to do a sequel and an offer to film The Big Doll House. She and her husband then left New World and began to work with Dimension Pictures. Her first effort was Group Marriage, another filmed where she tackled the issue of the inequities of the male/female relationship.
"I'm very tired of the whole tradition in western art in which women are always presented nude and men aren't. I'm not going to dress women and undress men – that would be a form of tortured vengeance. But I certainly am going to undress men, and the result is probably a more healthy environment, because one group of people presenting another in a vulnerable, weaker, more servile position is always distorted."
She would make two more films for Dimension Pictures before leaving and struggling to find projects to direct. She in essence retired, never making the movie of her dreams.
Looking back on her career she declared she felt
"Satisfaction and regret. Regret that I couldn't have made more films. Regret that I couldn't have made films that gave me a larger platform unto which to work in terms of finances, in terms of not having certain obligations to a certain kind of audience, to just to make a film that was dear to my heart in every respect. Not that the films I made don't have aspects that are very dear to my heart, I mean, they're not the complete films I would have liked to have made."
A gifted individual, brilliant and multi-talented Rothman faded from the movie scene and entered the world of commercial real estate. But she must gratified by the wave of feminine and feminist directors that followed in her wake.