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On the Topic of Adultery, Nichols's Affairs Are in Order

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 28, 2004; Page N01

Hurts so bad.

You know: When your Other decides to play around, with a younger body, or a more appropriate wit, or a professional pleasure franchisee or any of the other categories of mischief. And whether they confess or you find out on your own, it's the same at the end -- the world turns all to broken glass and spider webs. Maybe you two kids come back from it, maybe you don't. But one thing is absolutely certain: Things will never be the same.

An expert on this explosive situation is the American director Mike Nichols. This week, the Oscar winner checks into theaters with "Closer," an examination on the real crying game, full-contact adultery, leaving plenty of bruises, aches, broken egos and raw feelings. And it's a favorite of Nichols's.


Nearly half the films of director Mike Nichols focus on infidelity. (Fred Prouser)

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"Closer" is, by my count, the eighth of his 17 features to turn on, or at least detail, adultery. He started out with where a blowzy, hurtful Elizabeth Taylor used it to humiliate Richard Burton. In "The Graduate," for which he won his Best Director Oscar, Mrs. Robinson had tired of poor old Mr. Robinson, and Dustin Hoffman's Ben Braddock was the beneficiary. "Carnal Knowledge," in many ways the direct antecedent (or even first draft) of "Closer," watched four adults shift partners and allegiances over the years, just as in Nichols's latest film. "Heartburn" and "Regarding Henry" examined adultery (briefly) as a signifier of character weakness in the behavior of two philanderers played by Jack Nicholson and Harrison Ford. "Primary Colors" looked at a famous married politician of notorious sexual appetite and found the tendency a symptom of his insecurity; and finally "What Planet Are You From" played it for laughs as alien Garry Shandling tried to figure out this human thing called love and why it never seemed to work.

So after all this graduate study -- pun from the unconscious -- what has Nichols concluded? Is he hot for The New Infidelity, as Newsweek called it recently, believing that as women leave the home and achieve power and freedom in the workplace, their imperial hubris, like that of their lesser halves, will breed a need for sexual triumphalism in the form of trophy conquests with golden lads lacking varicose veins, stomachs and an awareness of who, exactly, won World War II? Hmm, not really.

For Nichols, we still cheat the same old way. Adultery is still a function of romantic yearning, sexual electricity, opportunity and last and least of all workplace power. In his new quartet, workplace liberation doesn't begin to come into play: Two of the four are essentially strugglers, yet to achieve anything. One, Alice, played by Natalie Portman, calls herself a waif and drifts from man to man, stripping for bucks when she's between guys. Another, Dan, played by Jude Law, has a brief fling with stardom when his novel is published, but when it fails he regresses to that most unloved of journalistic ordeals, the obit desk.

And the other two are hardly dynamos -- Clive Owen plays Larry, a doctor who eventually builds a nice practice but is first seen as a hopeless loser trolling the Net for anonymous sex partners. Julia Roberts, as Anna, is initially the most successful, some kind of artsy expat photographer with her own artsy London studio fashionably accoutered by Pottery Barn; but however nominally successful she is, Nichols still portrays her as an isolated woman, unconnected to a larger society and not a part of a family or an emotionally nourishing social set. She's not as desperate as the poor schlub talking dirty in cyberspace to anybody who'll listen, but the difference between them is hair-thin.

Nichols is still a romantic, even if by virtue of dialogue both raw and pornographic it's one of the most brutally naked films ever made. Still, each of the four relationships -- Alice with Dan, Alice with Larry, Anna with Dan, Anna with Larry -- begins with that most hallowed of "Love Boat"-styled happenings, the first look. This is another thing you know all about: You see the person and in an instant -- are your synapses firing or your brain cells fizzing or your hormones thinning your blood? -- you see a life, a possibility, a smile that you could live with for eons, a body you could stroke just as long, while an ineffable happiness fills your being. Maybe it's just a pheromone thing; you like her stink and she likes yours.

Whatever the answer, this portrayal seems to mean that Nichols still believes in this thing called love, or a subspecies of it called immediate love. He's not interested in sex as power, sex as triumph, sex as perk, sex as freedom, only in sex as emotion. He believes that people can have a connection so intense that it must be expressed physically very quickly. Lust -- the business of bodies and positions and you-go-here-and-I'll-go-there -- is merely the outer raiment of souls longing to connect. This is very much what might be called the Old Infidelity.

And the Old Infidelity has been around a long, long time. In the early days, it was nearly always punished, unless a wry cosmopolitan Euro was behind the camera, an Ernst Lubitsch or a Billy Wilder. American-born directors, reflecting the Scarlet A in their Puritan past, were harsh, even when the event might be justified. I think of Deborah Kerr as Karen Holmes in the most famous adulterous grasp in movie history, on the beach, in the surf, with Burt Lancaster. (By the way, never try to kiss anyone on the beach as a wave rolls over you; it's not that much fun.) Anyhow, "From Here to Eternity," from James Jones's novel, documents the worthlessness of her husband (Lancaster's commanding officer) and his inability to satisfy Karen emotionally or socially. So she turns to the leonine Burt, the company's reigning alpha male, and loses herself in his arms. But it doesn't turn out; the war happens and our last view of her is on the ship back to the mainland, facing the reality that there'd be no happily-ever-after for her.

Adultery was justified when accidental, as in Ilsa's love affair with Rick in "Casablanca," technically adultery but entirely without meaning because she thinks her husband, the famous Victor Laszlo, is dead. And when she learns he isn't, she breaks off immediately with Rick, leaving him to curse his fate and deliver a famous soliloquy on gin joints. Later, as the melodramatic plot works out, she offers herself to him, to get the papers that will rescue Laszlo. But Rick's too noble for that and he sends her on her way then, and later, after she's agreed to go with him (she really does love him, not Laszlo).

More frequently, adultery was associated with crime. The great writer James M. Cain, another specialist in illicit affairs, wrote two masterpieces on the topic: "The Postman Always Rings Twice" and "Double Indemnity," where the sexually unsatisfied wife turns to an outsider not merely for physical and emotional sustenance, but ultimately for help in committing murder. The film versions, one directed by Tay Garnett in 1946, the other by Billy Wilder in 1944, were masterpieces as well. The black widow -- the predatory woman whose infidelity was only a symptom of her larger capacity of evil -- was a staple of the film noir cycle of the late 1940s and '50s, and showed up as recently as "Black Widow," with Debra Winger and Theresa Russell, in 1987.

The '60s changed all this, at least for a little while. "Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice" (1969) looked at the brief phenomenon, of course, of permissible, "healthy" adultery and concluded with everyone just sitting there, feeling stupid, too embarrassed to do anything. It was hot, then it was not, then it went away.

As mores loosened, infidelity became less of a hot-button issue. That's so much so that the emotionally brittle "We Don't Live Here Anymore" of this year (though based on '70s stories by Andre Dubus) caused very little hubbub. It hardly recorded on the gestalt radar screen. And no wonder with half of America's marriages ending up on the rocks, which has to mean that a lot more people are committing adultery than ever before. Hands, please? Well, I thought not. Perhaps that's why "Closer," in the end, feels a little old-fashioned. It also means the great New Infidelity movie has yet to be made. Thank God for small miracles.


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