|Ed Wood asks one of the crucial questions of the 1970s with Drop Out Wife.|
My husband gives me an A
for last night's supper,
an incomplete for my ironing,
a B plus in bed.
My son says I am average,
an average mother, but if
I put my mind to it
I could improve.
My daughter believes
in Pass/Fail and tells me
I pass. Wait 'til they learn
I'm dropping out.
-Linda Pastan, "Marks" (1978)
|James Lileks debunks the Me Decade|
Well, part of the answer is that many didn't. Eddie fell about ten percent short of the goal, expiring 386 days before New Year's Day 1980. Steve outlasted the 1970s, but his movie career didn't. He was a husk of a man after that and spent his declining years in exile from the entertainment industry he once loved. (And that had once loved him back!)
I personally witnessed about 42% of the decade, but I did so as a baby and a toddler and thus lacked the proper perspective that comes with age and experience. As I said earlier in this series, all movies are documentaries to an extent, and Steve and Ed's films certainly capture the era in which they were made. Wood and Apostolof did not set out to create 35mm time capsules, but that's what their work wound up being. From an anthropological standpoint, I am fascinated. From an aesthetic standpoint, I am repelled.
"Kids today think the '70s were fun," columnist and blogger James Lileks once wrote in response to a wave of nostalgia for the Me Decade. "They think the '70s were cool. They think that '70s stuff looks hip. Let me put this as delicately as possible: Kids today are idiots." Watching the Apostlof/Wood films from the early part of the decade, I can see what Lileks meant. It's an oppressively ugly world, filled with the horrendous furnishings, artwork, and clothing that Lileks has adroitly mocked, both through his website and books like Interior Desecrations: Hideous Homes from the Horrible '70s (Crown, 2004).
The people in these softcore sex flicks match their dreary surroundings. Not that they're physically ugly, mind you. Some are quite attractive. But their inner ugliness is somehow visible; it radiates out from them. There's something profoundly seedy and unwholesome about the universe they inhabit, and they've absorbed the sleaziness into their bodies. It's become part of them, like their skin or their hair. It doesn't come off in the shower either, no matter how hard they scrub.
|Skulls: A classic Wood motif!|
But a lot went down between Ed and Steve's first collaboration and their professional reunion seven years later. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy were gunned down. The number of divorces in the US nearly doubled in five years. More headlines: the Chicago riots, the My Lai Massacre, the Tate-La Bianca killings, tragedy at the Altamont festival. Hendrix dead. Joplin dead. Morrison dead. When the Sixties died, they died hard. The top-rated television show of 1965 was the "family Western" Bonanza, a program I'm sure Ed Wood watched and enjoyed. Six years later, Bonanza had been dethroned by All in the Family.
In Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (Random House, 1971), Hunter S. Thompson identified 1971 as "this Foul Year of Our Lord." He probably didn't like the next year much better, as he spent it covering a dismal Presidential campaign. Thompson turned his reports into the pessimistic Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72 (Straight Arrow Books, 1973), whose first edition featured on its cover a skull -- that time-honored Ed Wood motif -- painted red, white, and blue with swastika-shaped pupils. The reelection of President Richard M. Nixon that year "drove a stake through the heart of the counterculture," according to film critic J. Hoberman in Midnight Movies (Da Capo Press, 1991), the seminal survey of cult cinema he coauthored with Jonathan Rosenbaum. The fact that Nixon eventually had to resign his post was, one might guess, cold comfort to the disillusioned ex-idealists who had attended Woodstock (or at least listened to the triple live album) and voted for McGovern.
Our great nation basically gave up on itself in the 1970s and simply surrendered to its demons for a while. "We can't fix the world," said young Americans, "so let's just have a good time having meaningless sex and polluting our bodies with every consciousness-altering substance known to man!" Naturally, middle-aged Americans wanted in on some of the action, too. If they couldn't participate, well, at least they could look!
And it was for these voyeurs, all but exclusively white, middle-class and male, that Ed Wood and Steve Apostolof created an especially toxic little bon bon of a movie about the so-called "swinging" scene and the ruinous effect it was having on American Womanhood.
DROP OUT WIFE (1972)Alternate titles: Drop-Out Wife; A.C. Stephen's Drop-Out Wife; The Sensuous Wife [working title]; Pleasure Unlimited [Private Screenings video title]; Sexpraxis '74 [West German release title].
|Absentee homemaker Angela Carnon explores the swinging scene in Drop Out Wife (1972).|
Availability: The easiest way to get Drop Out Wife is as part of the DVD sets Big Box of Wood (S'more Entertainment, 2011) or The Lascivious World of A.C. Stevens & Ed D. Wood, Jr. (S'more, 2008). The Big Box of Wood version features an explanatory introduction by filmmaker Ted Newsom. Private Screenings and Something Weird Video both issued VHS editions of the film, but these have become rare and expensive collectibles.
|"Dropout wife" Wanda Adams with her 1972 Life cover.|
This wasn't a unique story. Wanda was just one of many women who, emboldened by the burgeoning feminist movement, decided to reject "traditional" female roles and question the institution of marriage during those turbulent years. No one knew the exact number, but venerable CBS News estimated that there could be between 30,000 to 100,000 such cases in the United States.
What set Wanda apart from the others was her initial willingness to talk to the press about her unorthodox living arrangements. She thus became the de facto face of the phenomenon or, more specifically, its cover girl. On March 17, 1972, Wanda Adams appeared on the front cover of Life, then a very popular publication, which sensationally dubbed her "Dropout Wife" and dubbed her story "A Striking Current Phenomenon," both in bold red letters, perhaps subtly reminding us of Hester Prynne. Life most likely got the "dropout" tag from counterculture guru Timothy Leary's resounding 1967 edict: "Turn on, tune in, and drop out." Wanda, however, did her best to present herself not as an irresponsible libertine but as a sensible, intelligent woman who was simply not satisfied by her marriage and her circumscribed role as a wife and mother. The public, however, saw red and sent her Bible quotes and death threats.
Things got worse after a 1973 profile on CBS' 60 Minutes, also entitled "Dropout Wife," in which a grim, unsympathetic Mike Wallace questioned Wanda with barely-concealed hostility. The segment also featured Wanda's remarkably agreeable ex-husband, Don, and portrayed him as a wholesome, hard-working, all-American father who showed no bitterness at all toward his former spouse. Having refused alimony or child support, Wanda was then on welfare after losing her job at North Seattle Community College due to public outrage over her immorality. Further shades of The Scarlet Letter. One can almost hear the arguments that must have broken out in living rooms across America in the wake of that inflammatory 60 Minutes episode.
After that, Wanda disappeared from the public eye and resumed the life of a private citizen. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer caught up with Wanda Adams in 2002 and found a happily retired, remarried grandmother who volunteered in a local kindergarten class. Neither she, her first husband, nor her children seemed to have been traumatized by the famous familial shakeup of thirty years ago, and Wanda's only regret was having been so obliging to the media.
Stephen C. Apostolof took notice of the "dropout wife" phenomenon, apparently heard the sound of cash registers going off in his head, and called his old buddy Ed Wood to help him work on the project. The two men were apparently eager to capitalize on the runaway housewife fad, exploiting it while simultaneously passing judgment upon it in the grand tradition of hypocritical exploitation.
From what I can glean of their working relationship, Steve would have the basic idea for the kind of movie he wanted to make along with perhaps a general plot outline, and it was Eddie's task to turn that concept into a screenplay. For a few hundred bucks, Ed would sit down at his trusty Underwood and bang out one of his typical quickie scripts for Steve to film.
In the case of Drop Out Wife, the two men took a serious, socially-relevant topic and distorted it to the point that it was nearly science fiction by the time they were through. If you believe this movie, women were abandoning their hearths, homes, and husbands in droves so that they could booze it up, attend orgies, and go on wild blind dates with libidinous strangers. (How era-appropriate that Jimmy Buffet would ask the immortal musical question, "Honey, why don't we get drunk and screw?" in 1973.)
Just so the the movie didn't completely give itself over to misogyny, Wood and Apostolof made the film's discarded husband a clueless, selfish, sometimes abusive jerk. The wife in the film has a good reason for ditching him, therefore, but she doesn't get a free pass because she's banging drunken strangers while neglecting her kids. In a way, Steve and Eddie were hedging their bets by making everyone in the movie pretty awful.
|The pros: Angela Carnon and Jaime Mendoza-Nava.|
Instead, the star of Drop Out Wife was Angela Carnon (aka Priscilla Lee, Gloria Jane Medford, and Angela Field), a model and actress whose film career was pretty much what you'd expect: a lot of softcore flicks from the late 1960s to the early 1980s. Chronologically, her career neatly overlaps that of Rene Bond. And just like Bond, Angela Carnon did land a couple of legit films, such as 1980's The Last Married Couple in America with Natalie Wood and George Segal, and married a fellow adult performer, in her case actor Norman Fields, with whom she appeared in several films, including Wheeler, Poor Cecily, Video Vixens and, yes, Drop Out Wife. (Angela and Norman don't have any scenes together, though.) The union didn't last, unsurprisingly, but neither did Norman's four other marriages.
Besides Carnon, the cast of Drop Out Wife did include several Apostolof stock players, like good ol' Harvey Shane (who also served as Steve's AD on this one), gap-toothed starlet Terri Johnson, and golden-haired semi-stud Chris Geoffries. Among the unbilled performers grinding against each other in the orgy scenes were Ric Lutze (aka Mr. Rene Bond) and the legendary Candy Samples.
Attentive audience members may think the film's part-rock, part-Latin, part-Muzak score is vaguely familiar-sounding, too. That's because its composer was another Orgy of the Dead veteran, Bolivian-born Jaime Mendoza-Nava working as "J. Mendozoff," a pseudonym that sounds like an over-the-counter sleep aid. Mendoza-Nava would use the same alias when he did the music for another Wood/Apostolof joint, 1973's The Cocktail Hostesses.
|Pornography's target audience: "Socially retarded men."|
Think about that for a moment. Before the home video revolution and well before the existence of the Internet, those who wanted to see a pornographic feature film had to do so in public. At least if you were watching a loop, you could do so in a private booth. But full-length movies were shown in theaters where you would be seated along with everyone else. If you were going to use a movie like Drop Out Wife as an aid to masturbation, you would have to do so in an environment where others could see you. And even if that weren't enough of a deterrent, there were still indecent exposure laws to consider. Hence the popularity of trench coats and raincoats among such viewers, which give rise to the colloquialism "raincoat brigade" to define so-called dirty old men.
I've not yet had the opportunity to visit a real live porno theater, if such establishments still even exist, so my vision of these places is mostly derived from Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver (1976), in which disaffected loner Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) joined other sad, single men who listlessly watched X-rated movies in a scummy Times Square grindhouse.
One can only imagine what the "raincoat brigade" thought of Drop Out Wife. On the one hand, the film is replete with female nudity and simulated sex. On the other, however, its male characters are all portrayed quite negatively, while many minutes of screen time are devoted to women earnestly discussing their problems, and there is a truly traumatic flashback sequence in which dissatisfied husband Jim (Chris Geoffries) cruelly slaps his very pregnant wife, Peggy (Angela Carnon), causing her to miscarry.
I'm not sure what Apostolof expected his male ticket-buyers to do during the film's many downbeat and anti-erotic sequences. I'd like to think that Ed Wood, sympathetic to the plight of women, was slyly sabotaging Drop Out Wife from "the inside," so to speak. And Steve either didn't notice or didn't care. (If I were a porno director, though, I'd have to wonder why I was shooting so many scenes of people crying and arguing.)
Since this is a late-period Wood script, you already know that the characters in this film do a lot of drinking, but the ugly specter of alcoholism is really never made an issue. (It was in The Class Reunion, in which promiscuous Fluff mentioned that her husband, whom she sarcastically called "Angel Baby," couldn't attend the reunion because of his tendency to overdrink at such occasions.)
|Kitchen confessions: Glen spills the beans to Johnny.|
It tells the story of Peggy, a miserable housewife with two young children. (The kids are seen only briefly via photos). In desperation, Peggy leaves her stressed-out businessman husband Jim because the couple have no sexual chemistry and spend all their time arguing. She goes to stay with her "best friend" Janet (Terri Johnson), a swinging single who lives in a high-rise apartment and is balling one of her many short-term boyfriends (Norman Fields, who with his gaunt face and moptop hairdo looks like an aging British rocker; he could be a lost Beatle, a forgotten Rolling Stone, or a discarded Kink) as the movie begins.
Janet is more than pleased to have Peggy stay with her, and the two women spend a lot of time hashing out Peggy's problems while sitting at the dinner table. These scenes very strongly reminded me of the kitchen sequence from Glen or Glenda? in which Glen (Ed Wood) confesses his troubles to his pal Johnny (Charles Crafts).
And just like Glenda, Drop Out Wife is heavy on flashbacks. We get to see some of the significant moments from Peggy and Jim's marriage, most of which unsurprisingly revolve around sex. Since the couple's marital woes largely stem from their lack of sexual chemistry, most of their attempts at intercourse are unsuccessful and frustrating. Was it satisfying for Apostolof's audience to watch a man and his wife try and fail to get it on? I hope so, because that's what they got.
To balance it out, there are several scenes in which Janet sets Peggy up on blind dates, and we watch the "dropout wife" screw some jerky strangers, including a loudmouth pilot who refers to himself in the third person as "Captain Rogers" and makes silly jet-plane-type motions in bed. Some of these scenes end with Peggy finding out that her "date" is either married or engaged, which is a downer for her and for us, but at least our title character seems to be having fun before getting the bad news.
In terms of eroticism, the movie's main event should be the flashback scene in which Jim takes a very skeptical Peggy to a so-called "wife swapping" club that he heard about from one of his coworkers. What we see is another sluggish Apostolof orgy scene with a lot of naked white people fake-humping in an ugly hotel room. The big news is that Peggy, much to Jim's dismay, gets more enjoyment out of the club than her husband does and experiments for the first time with lesbianism. "What's a marriage?" she exclaims in one carefree moment of carnal ecstasy. Whoops!
By the way, I should mention that the most common sexual position seen in Drop Out Wife is missionary. Nothing wrong with that, per se, except that it means we see a lot of men's bare backsides rather than the women's nude bodies, which is probably what the guys in the audience really want to see. I guess it would be awhile before pornographers discovered that reverse cowgirl is the most photogenic of the heterosexual lovemaking positions.
Peggy's flashback to her traumatic miscarriage is a foray into dark surrealism reminiscent of the Glen or Glenda? nightmare sequence. It is easily the movie's most notable scene, and it's one of the standout passages from Edward D. Wood, Jr.'s entire filmography. What makes it so especially noteworthy is that it appears in a film that was ostensibly created as an aid to male masturbation. Any man who can maintain an erection after watching something like this would have to be profoundly disturbed, perhaps sociopathic.
Let me try to describe the mise en scene. At this point in the film, we have just witnessed the almost-Biblical conception of Peggy and Jim's third child. Already burdened with two daughters and unable to have sex in their own bedroom, they make love outdoors on the lawn during one of Ed Wood's archetypal thunderstorms. At the climax, Peggy moans, "Oh my god! Number three!" Cut to the three of spades being laid down on a kitchen table. We are in Janet's kitchen now. She and Peggy are playing cards while noir-ish lighting comes in through the blinds. They converse:
Janet: (contemptuously) Men! They can be the most disgusting, mixed-up creatures the Creator ever put on this crazy, mixed-up planet!
Peggy: Do you hate men?
Janet: Not really. I suppose they're a necessary evil. I guess we need 'em to live. I guess we need 'em for sex. Well, most of us anyway. So you really can't put men down altogether. Most of us really do need 'em for our own satisfaction. After all, someone has to go out and pay the bills while we stay home and take care of the house and the brats.Two points to make about this dialogue: 1. Janet refers to God as "the Creator," something Ed Wood did in his script for Glen or Glenda? 2. Janet's suggestion that women use men for sex is an exact reversal of Rene Bond's diatribe from The Class Reunion.
|Owls dominated popular culture in the early 1970s.|
In any event, Wood and Apostolof now give us an almost absurdly stereotypical image of a housewife in her domicile. Peggy putters unproductively around her kitchen while wearing a plaid housecoat, fuzzy slippers, and giant pink hair curlers. She is obviously in her third trimester.
There is an owl-shaped cookie jar on the counter, reminding us of the owl painting from Necromania (1971). Come to think of it, both Woodsy Owl and the Tootsie Pop owl debuted in 1970. And, believe it or not, I have some plastic drinking tumblers from the 1970s with pictures of owls on them, too!
Anyway, we see Jim pull up to the family's modest-looking suburban house in a modest-looking car. Clad in a gray suit, he enters the kitchen and sets his briefcase down on the counter. Peggy tries to kiss him, but he pushes her away. Their dialogue is melodramatic and strained with long, dramatic pauses -- very much like what you'd find on a soap opera. The score and the camera angles are very soapy, too. Only the sexually explicit dialogue lets us know that this isn't a daytime TV show.
The language throughout Drop Out Wife is harsher and more vulgar than any other film I've reviewed in this series. Even in the hardcore Necromania, nobody was saying, "Suck my cock!" or "Eat my pussy!" But they do in this movie.
Here, then, is Peggy and Jim's conversation after he has refused her kiss:
Peggy: What did you do that for?
Jim: Because it's just not there anymore.
Peggy: There was a time when I meant everything to you!
Jim: There was a time when you didn't look like this! There was a time when this house was spotless! And there was a time before all these goddamned... (he searches for the word) ... bills! And those brats are driving me up the walls!
Peggy: How can you say that? You've got two lovely kids and a third on the way!
Jim: (rolls his eyes) Yeah, and I should have my head examined! Now we got more bills! Now come the hospital bills! No matter how much overtime I put in, there's never enough!
Peggy: Well, it was your cock that got us into this situation! You had your fun! Expect to pay for it!
Jim: You little... BITCH!He slaps her, hard, across the face. She drops to the kitchen floor and writhes in agony. He storms out. She holds her stomach and screams in pain. Cut to a flashing red light. A siren wails on the soundtrack. There's some nighttime footage (stock, perhaps?) showing an ambulance driving through what seems to be a very busy commercial district with lots of neon signs. This is another detail highly reminiscent of Glen or Glenda?, which also used sirens and ambulances during the suicide of Patrick/Patricia.
Peggy is now either on a gurney or a hospital bed. Her bandaged head rests on a white pillow as she wriggles and squirms under the covers. The scene is lit by a flashing red light, which intermittently illuminates Peggy's horrified face. The corners of the screen are dark. In the red light, we see the silhouette of a lifeless infant being held upside down. A shadowy hand slaps the child three times without results as Peggy looks on in panic. We hear stern, authoritative male voices discussing the case with grim finality:
Doctor #1: We lost the baby.
Doctor #2: Let's concentrate on saving the mother.The camera zooms in on Peggy as she lolls her head to the side and drifts into unconsciousness. The image goes blurry (again) and we cut to another blur. The picture now comes back into focus, and we see that it is Janet, listening to Peggy's horrendous story and shaking her head in disgust.
Janet: That goddamn bastard! You should've walked out on him!
Peggy: Believe me, Janet, I wanted to. He felt so sorry for what he'd done, and he was under a lot of pressure from the office. And at home, I suppose. Things were never the same since then, though. We really tried. Boy did we try!And this leads us to another discouraging flashback of Jim and Peggy trying to have sex. This is shown in great, though not explicit, detail with Chris Geoffries planting kisses on Angela Carnon's naked body. But could men in the audience possibly become aroused after what they'd just seen and heard? If not, what were they paying for when they bought their tickets to see this film?
The miscarriage sequence fundamentally changes the tone of Drop Out Wife and casts a pall over everything that happens subsequently in the movie. It is not merely unsexy but anti-sexy. From here on out, we know that sex equals trouble. Peggy even spells it out when she says that it was Jim's cock that got them into this situation. The villain of the movie is the penis itself. That's probably not the message that horny middle-aged men were hoping to hear.
|My visual breakdown of the miscarriage scene from Drop Out Wife.|
|Peggy's kids: Are they all right?|
By this point in the story, the swinging lifestyle has taken its toll on Peggy who looks in the mirror behind Janet's well-stocked bar and assesses her own reflection harshly: "You look like hell!" and "You've aged ten years in a month!" Voicing her thoughts out loud, most likely for our benefit, she says that she misses her children and wonders how they are.
Very tentatively, Peggy picks up the phone and calls Jim. To say the least, the call is a disaster. Jim is irate, calls Peggy an unfit mother, and informs her that he's suing her for divorce and custody of the children. Peggy, naturally, is distraught by this. She is comforted by Janet, who throughout the film has expressed her dubious philosophy that one should constantly live in the present and not worry about the past or the future.
Janet and Peggy decide to have some "fun," which means hanging out in a dank, musty piano bar and schmoozing with a bunch of sleazeball lounge lizards, including Duane Paulsen and Harvey (Forman) Shane. Harvey announces that the bar is closing and that it's now "motel time." He and Paulsen escort Janet and Peggy back to a truly heinous-looking room with two double beds, and what happens next feels like an extended version of that scene in Fargo (1996) in which Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare have sex with two prostitutes at the desolate Blue Ox Motel. Only in this movie, the foursome don't end up watching The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson afterward.
Instead, Paulsen and Shane switch partners and, when they get bored of that, suggest that Peggy and Janet "make it" with each other. Peggy is no stranger to lesbian sex, but she's reluctant to go to town on her best friend. Janet's game, though. "Maybe I've always wanted to make it with my best friend."
Here is where the narrative falls apart. Janet has been the only person who has treated Peggy decently in this entire movie. Frankly, these two should be a couple. After all, Peggy's marriage to Jim is fundamentally beyond repair. Janet's a little immature and flighty, sure, but Peggy could be a stabilizing influence in her life. There's no reason this shouldn't work. But Peggy balks. She gets out of bed in a huff, leaving Janet behind.
Peggy: Oh, Janet, no!
Shane: What are you getting so uptight about? It's just another little pushover!
Peggy: Pushover or no pushover, I don't make it with girls!
Janet glares at her.
Paulsen: Okay. Get lost. Tramps like you are a dime a dozen!
Peggy storms out.
Shane: (shrugs) Hmm! Some swinger, huh?
Paulsen: Some hypocrite!
Shane: Yeah, well, um... (clears throat) ...at least we're not hypocrites, right?
Shane and Paulsen climb into bed with Janet, and the three make love.
|The film's bleak "happy ending."|
And it's insulting beyond belief that Janet would instantly forget about Peggy after being her friend and confidant for the entire length of the movie. While not exactly Susan B. Anthony, Janet was something of a feminist throughout the rest of the movie, but the last we see of her, she's sucking some guy off while another mounts her from behind.
Worse yet is what happens after this scene. Peggy walks through a playground and sees the happy children there. We hear her echo-drenched inner monologue:
Peggy: (voice over) I wonder what my two little daughters are doing right now. I left them... and for what? To be free? To live? Truly live, I thought! What a joke! They're what's real! Maybe... maybe I can go back! They've got to take me back! We'll make it work this time! I just know we will!The final image is of Peggy walking, then running, across a field to get back home to her horrible, abusive, neglectful husband. Last week, I said the ending of The Class Reunion reminded me of The Wizard of Oz. Well, this narration reminded me of another famous film from 1939, namely Gone with the Wind, which ends with a weepy Scarlett O'Hara all alone and talking to herself after being dumped by Rhett Butler. Like Peggy, Scarlett reassesses her priorities and plans how to win back her man:
Scarlett: I can't let him go. I can't. There must be some way to bring him back. Oh I can't think about this now! I'll go crazy if I do! I'll think about it tomorrow.(She closes the door.) But I must think about it. I must think about it. What is there to do? (She falls forward onto the ascending stairs.) What is there that matters? Tara! Home! I'll go home, and I'll think of some way to get him back! After all, tomorrow is another day!So does Jim take Peggy back? Do they give this worthless marriage another shot, even though they absolutely shouldn't? Frankly, Ed Wood, I don't give a damn.
Next week: You know what we need, folks? Some fresh air and exercise! Something outdoorsy. What do you say? A ski trip sounds just perfect. As it turns out, Steve Apostolof and Ed Wood have one all set up for us, those considerate fellows!. And they've invited our old pal, Marsha Jordan, along for what the poster promises is "a Blizzard of Fun, an Avalanche of Action!" And who doesn't love blizzards and avalanches? I've been waiting for a movie in this series that would be even somewhat appropriate for the Christmas season, and now I have one. Break out your favorite reindeer sweater, pour some cocoa, and join me here next week as I review The Snow Bunnies (1972).