The mid-20th century wife is such a vivid type in popular art that we think we’ve got her down cold; in our minds, she’s usually a June Cleaver cliché. But in real life the midcentury wife faced daunting expectations. She may have worked outside the home during wartime, but more often than not, the wife life changed all that. She was supposed to bear children and raise them to be cheerful, productive adults, all while keeping a spotless home and having dinner on the table by 6. Stressed out from all of that? Barbiturates, Benzos, and booze were the dysfunctional solution.
The midcentury wife couldn’t win, though we all know of women who kicked free of those expectations, sometimes at great cost to themselves or those around them. These women usually don’t get movies made about them. Yet somehow, often miraculously, the culture subconsciously corrects some of its problems. Whether by accident or by unconscious design, 2023 has been the year of the movie wife. In Bradley Cooper’s Maestro, Sofia Coppola’s Priscilla, even Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer and Michael Mann’s Ferrari—those last two made by male directors who aren’t exactly known for exploring the experiences of women—the movie wife has come barging in from the sidelines in all her glory. She may not be the main character, but she’s resolute about taking up space in the frame.
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We’ve been told for decades now, by the men who move money around in Hollywood, that movies about women don’t sell. (The success of Barbie may have shifted that thinking, but we’ll have to wait and see.) Maybe that’s why, in films that are mostly about men, it’s always gratifying to discover women who are adamantly and defiantly themselves. Think of Reese Witherspoon’s feisty yet fine-grained performance as June Carter Cash in James Mangold’s Walk the Line, or Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor’s magnificent no-nonsense turn as Oracene Price, the mother of Venus and Serena Williams, in Reinaldo Marcus Green’s King Richard.
All of these characters are adjacent to men; otherwise, their stories might not be told at all. But adjacency is often the thing that, for better or worse, puts a woman in the spotlight, testing her in ways she couldn’t have imagined. How a male filmmaker deals with that says a lot about him; it’s better for men and women when a movie treats both as complicated beings, interconnected in that risky experiment known as marriage. In The Right Stuff, Philip Kaufman’s 1983 film adapted from Tom Wolfe’s book about the early years of the U.S. space program, the wives of the Mercury 7 astronauts—played by actors including Pamela Reed, Veronica Cartwright, Mary Jo Deschanel, and Kathy Baker—are treated as individuals with distinctive character traits, even though they’re supporting players in the story. Kaufman seemed to be taking a stance against the idea of wives being lumped together as faceless helpmeets.
Sometimes the things a filmmaker chooses not to focus on tell us the most about his motives. In Maestro (in theaters Nov. 22 and on Netflix Dec. 20), Cooper directs himself in the role of Leonard Bernstein, but he includes very few scenes of Bernstein conducting or writing. Cooper wants to tell us things we don’t already know about Bernstein, as a lover (to both men and women), as an affectionate father, as a whirlwind force. More than a survey of a man, Maestro is a portrait of a complex, ardent marriage—which makes Bernstein’s wife, the Chilean-born actor Felicia Montealegre, played by Carey Mulligan, the key to the story. Mulligan captures Montealegre’s ladylike essence, her elegant manners, her obvious pride in being married to a genius, a man she loved fiercely. She fell in love with Bernstein knowing that he was, depending on how you want to frame issues of the human heart and libido, either gay or bisexual; later, his affairs tore at the fabric of their marriage. Yet she’d made a clear-eyed choice in the beginning, and Mulligan’s performance, fiery and opulent at once, gives life to a complicated idea: making the right choices in life doesn’t necessarily protect us from pain. You can’t really know what you’re signing up for in a marriage until you’re well into it. In Maestro, Montealegre puts a human face on that idea.
The idea of a woman quietly standing by her man through infidelity is so common in the movies that we tend to think of it as a plot device. But in reality, these experiences are as individual and distinct as the real-life people who get through them. In Oppenheimer, released this summer, Emily Blunt plays Kitty Oppenheimer, the wife of Cillian Murphy’s genius physicist and ladies’ man J. Robert Oppenheimer. And in Ferrari (in theaters Dec. 25),Penélope Cruz’s Laura Ferrari suffers not-so-silently as her husband, race-car mogul Enzo (Adam Driver), builds a semi-secret life with another woman, Shailene Woodley’s Lina Lardi, and their child.
Both Laura and Kitty have good reason to be miserable, and in some ways they reflect the reality that midcentury wives often stuck with crummy husbands for practical reasons. But marital loyalty can be complicated—that was as true in the 1940s and 1950s as it is today. Kitty Oppenheimer had lived a dramatic life before she even met Oppenheimer: She was on her third husband when the two met, and she’d joined the Communist Party in the 1930s, an affiliation that would haunt her. She was also a scientist in her own right, a biologist and botanist. Her union with Oppenheimer was stormy—she drank a little too much and, perhaps worse, spoke her mind freely. Nolan’s movie shows all the ways Kitty was unmanageable as a wife; manageability, after all, was a desirable quality in mid-century wives. But in a late scene, testifying during her husband’s kangaroo-court security hearing before the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, she defends her husband, and herself, with icy directness. This is where a wife’s unmanageability comes in handy; a woman who won’t be controlled or bullied is sometimes a man’s best ally.
You could say the same of Cruz’s Laura, who at first appears to want to sabotage her wayward husband’s life and business. But Cruz vests Laura with an intricate combination of qualities—a kind of practicality mingled with fealty for a man who admittedly hasn’t done right by her. Ultimately, she commits an act of generosity that saves her husband’s company, though you never see her as a pushover. By saving her husband, she’s also flexing her power, defying any expectation of how she should react or behave. A man who needs saving isn’t as strong as he thinks.
That’s true, also, of Elvis Presley, a great artist but something of a mess as a man. Priscilla Presley’s affectionate but clear-eyed 1985 memoir Elvis and Me was previously adapted into a 1988 TV movie that almost no one remembers. Stories in which the wife is the main character have always been a relative rarity, but Coppola shifts that current with Priscilla (now in theaters). Newcomer Cailee Spaeny is superb as the woman who fell hard for a king when she was still a schoolgirl (she was 14, he was 24), but who also knew when it was time to walk away from his twisted castle. The movie wraps us close in Priscilla’s dream of love, to the point that we’re as shattered by its inevitable end as she is.
As a performer, Elvis—played here by Jacob Elordi—was one of the great symbols of midcentury modernity. But his ideas of what a wife should be were restrictively old-fashioned, a tragedy for both parties. We’re in step with Spaeny’s Priscilla every moment, as she makes the transition from teenage daydreamer to cautious girlfriend to defiant wife. When she walks out that door, it’s Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You” playing on the soundtrack.
In real life, Elvis reportedly sang that song to Priscilla on the courthouse steps just after their divorce was finalized. And he’d always wanted to record it, but Parton, reluctantly, had to refuse him: Elvis’ devious manager, Colonel Tom Parker, had demanded half the publishing rights. And so a song that’s an open declaration of undying love is also wrapped up in the necessity of walking away, of saying no, of withholding something you wish in your heart you could give. Sometimes that’s the best thing a wife can do.