Overlooked Gems: The Group (1966)
One of the most frequent complaints of the once dubbed “decade under the influence” is the fact that in a time when great film roles were available to so many of the male actors, equally great actresses found they were frequently left out; relegated once again to roles of just girlfriends, wives, and sisters (Karen Black’s unappreciated career seemed to be a lesson in this sexism). The revolutionary book by Mary McCarthy The Group, and its subsequent film, made a concerted effort to show something very different with a coming of age story about seven sorority sisters and the years between their Depression area graduations from an all-girls college until the break out of World War II. Balancing seven main characters and an epic scope, the film is one of the unappreciated films of master filmmaker Sidney Lumet, a decade before he created feminist icons such as Faye Dunaway’s character in Network.
The wonderful and unfairly overlooked Joan Hackett is the first focus in the film, an independent, liberal social workers who falls in love with the best man at the wedding of Kay (Joanna Pettet) and Harold (Larry Hagman). Insisting that she wants to be independent, with Dick Brown (Richard Mulligan) who has no desire to settle down, she purchases a sexual device, only to discover she’s been deceived and made to feel like a whore for her liberal sex life. In the times after we see her, she comes to be almost unrecognizable as a kept woman with two children and no career. The same happens to Chris (Elizabeth Hartman), a women’s lib advocate who marries a conservative doctor and suddenly realizes she has no hope in being a powerful woman in this marriage. Divorcees, spinsters, and lesbians experience the same evolution of their characters, although those who remain single in the film have far more independence, although as Polly (Shirley Knight) shows, very little security. While they have various roles, all the actresses are excellent (Candice Bergen, Mary Robin Redd, Jessica Walter, Kathleen Widdoes), as are their men which also include Hal Holbrook and the wonderful James Broderick, who really stands out in an important role towards the end.
The aspect of The Group which is so impressive is the line it draws to connect the emerging women’s movement rising in the early 60s with the lives of women of the 30s and 40s. The women in this film would go on to become the mothers, aunts, and mentors of the girls watching, and offers an insight into the lives they would have had at their age. And while we are given backstory and insight into these lives, Lumet does not allow the girls to play the roles of victims. They are not women as innocents, angels, or victims; simply complicated, developed characters. And it is no coincidence that Lumet makes it clear that these women are far more independent and extroverted in college. In school, they are protected and have a support unite, particularly within their sorority, which does not exist in the real world. And even in a tight group like this, friendship is far more difficult to maintain in the real world.
The Group is available on DVD.