Making marriages 'work'

In Hollywood

Making marriages 'work'

Ben Affleck caught some flak earlier this year when, in the course of his Oscar-night thank-yous, in front of a billion of his closest friends, he referred to his marriage to Jennifer Garner as “work.” Matrimony, at least among the famous, is not supposed to be that way. It is either a magical storybook dream, breathlessly chronicled in supermarket magazines, or else, in those same pages a few years later, a train wreck of betrayal and heartbreak. Hollywood marriage, like so much else in modern celebrity culture, is both aspirational and cautionary.

Affleck was scolded for being ungallant, but he was guilty, at worst, of a humblebrag. His remarks seem to have been a hurried, earnest attempt to show that he and Garner are just like everybody else. The phrase “marriage is work” rolled easily off his tongue partly because it represents the conventional wisdom of the moment.

You hear it said so often that you may never stop to wonder what it means. To say that marriage is work is to insist, above all, that it is not static. Far from a condition of smiling serenity or unvarying habit, wedlock, in the modern imagination, is supposed to be dynamic, active and interesting. In old movies and TV shows, marriage, when it was not upheld as a romantic ideal, was usually portrayed either as a state of dull stability or endless drudgery. But in film and television, work and wedded bliss are now synonymous: the harder the marriage is, the more romantic it seems.

“We’re just like Ricky and Lucy,” Michael Douglas’s Liberace says to Matt Damon’s Scott Thorson in Behind the Candelabra, Steven Soderbergh’s recent HBO film about their long love affair. Lee (as Liberace is known to his friends) is making fun of an argument the two lovers are having about sex, which Scott immediately understands to be about power. “How come I’m the Lucy?” he wants to know, and the answer is succinct and irrefutable. Liberace is the “bandleader,” the breadwinner, the man of the house — the husband, and therefore “the Ricky.”

In effect, Lee is saying to Scott, his much younger lover, that the two of them are just like a married couple. Behind the Candelabra shows that while the legal recognition and social acceptance of gay marriage may be a new phenomenon, the thing itself, in all but name, has been around for a long time. And the film makes an understated but nonetheless urgent political case that the invisibility of its central relationship — in particular Lee’s refusal or inability to step out of what looks in retrospect like the most transparent closet in history — shaped its dysfunctional course and unhappy end. A ring and a licence might not have curbed Lee’s domineering tendencies, but at least once it all fell apart, Scott would have been entitled to sympathy and a share of community property.

Their invocation of a famous sitcom couple, in a movie that cunningly blends earnest domestic drama with more than one variety of camp, is freighted with meanings that ripple across more than half a century of American cultural life. To the television audience of the 1950s Ricky and Lucy Ricardo, the celebrated bandleader and his scatterbrained hausfrau, personified an ideal, and also a caricature, of heterosexual domesticity.

Along with the Cleavers, the Nelsons and the Kramdens, the Ricardos developed a genre — the household sitcom — that has proved astonishingly durable and adaptable despite decades of social upheaval and demographic change. Even Modern Family, which more than any other network series has embraced the pluralism of contemporary domesticity, is basically Ricky and Lucy in triplicate. In each of the three households in the Dunphy-Pritchett constellation, there is a sole breadwinner and a stay-at-home spouse. Occasional attempts to break out of this mould, or expressions of discomfort with the arrangement, provide fuel for some of the show’s funniest jokes, like Cameron’s mixed feelings about his status as the designated “mom.”

Though there is friction and exasperation in these marriages, it would not quite be accurate to describe them as “work,” and this is partly because the question of work — who does what, for what reason and with what reward — has been settled in advance. But elsewhere, the question of work is often the cause of dramatic complication. Two-career couples fuel the action on a show like Friday Night Lights, a series that, for its most devoted fans, will never end because Eric and Tami Taylor will never part.

Tami and Eric were never complacent, never predictable, and for those reasons, real in a way that very few small-screen couples have been. Jim Halpert and Pam Beesly seemed that way before their marriage: their long, bumpy courtship was one of the things that gave the first seasons of the American version of The Office a sweetness that its British model pointedly lacked, and their wedding during Season 6 was the emotional and comic apex of the show.

But in its final run of episodes, the show was saved by the possibility that their bliss would be destroyed by Jim’s second job with a startup company in Philadelphia. The possibility that their happiness could be shattered by diverging desires — his restless desire to achieve something beyond the walls of Dunder Mifflin, her need for help and support at home — made them real and sympathetic again. And if the solution was a bit too neat, it nonetheless felt right, and romantic. In other words, it worked.

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