***This post, though a bit late, is part of The Joseph Cotten Blogathon, hosted by the In The Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood and the Maddy Loves Her Classic Films blogs. Thank you for letting me post late and still participate :-).***
“I find that joy and sorrow work their wonders on me.” – Katharine Hepburn, A Delicate Balance (1973)
Alongside Orson Welles, Cotten is one of my crushes (they don’t make leading men like they used to…) I always loved his down-to-earth casual nature that can also hide something darker and more serious and his deep nasal voice, perhaps not as magnetic as Welles’ but still appealing. I appreciate Cotten’s versatility, playing men with a conscience such as in Citizen Kane (1944) as well as men without a conscience, as in Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt (1943) and Under Capricorn (1949). As people who read my blog know, I tend to favor roles from film actors later in their careers because it seems to me that many are more complex and enigmatic in films of the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s, possibly because the burden of the studio system was no longer upon them so they could really expand and explore.
I feel the film A Delicate Balance (1973) was one of these as far as Cotten’s career is concerned. Though his role as Harry is a supporting one and his character almost passive and phlegmatic, there is a lot going on under the surface with him and with his wife, Edna, (Betsy Blair – probably best remembered as Ernest Borgnine’s love interest in 1955’s Marty). At one point in the film, the daughter of the family that is the focus of the film (we don’t get their last name), Julia (played by Lee Remick) insists they are intruders. There is no better word for them, for Harry and Edna are not only physical intruders but also psychological ones.
The film is based on the 1966 play by Edward Albee who also wrote the screenplay. Since Albee was part of the theater of the absurd movement, there isn’t much plot going on here and some of it seems very much left-field. A middle-aged well-to-do Connecticut suburban couple, Agnes (Katharine Hepburn) and Tobias (Paul Scofield) living with Agnes’ sister, Claire (Kate Reid) have their lives interrupted first by the call from their grown daughter Julia to announce she is leaving her fourth husband and coming home —again, and then by their “best friends”, Harry and Edna, showing up at their door insisting on staying as uninvited guests because of some esoteric fear that has suddenly entered their lives. The drama here is a psychological drama, slowly unfolding with the psychological reality of the characters revealed more in their words than in their actions.
The title of the film suggests the very nature of the family’s relationship. Julia calls her mother “the great balancing act” because Agnes sees her purpose in life as keeping up appearances. The family has a lot going on under the polished upper middle-class perfectionism that surrounds itself with nice things, a huge greenhouse, and champagne cocktails. But maintaining this appearance requires consistency and psychological denial and avoiding upset. While the first upset the family experiences (Julia calling to say she’s coming home after leaving her husband) throws them off, it’s only slightly, since it’s in the family and, with four marriages, this is nothing new for any of them. But when Harry and Edna show up and announce they are staying because they are afraid, of what, they can’t say, this completely upsets the delicate balance of the family.
Photo Credit: Portrait of Joseph Cotten and wife, actress Patricia Medina, in their Los Angeles apartment, taken the year he made A Delicate Balance, 1973, taken by Allan Warren: Allan warren/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY SA 3.0
If the physical intrusion isn’t enough, there is a much more insidious psychological one. It’s not that Harry and Edna ask to stay – they demand it. And not only do they demand it, they begin to take over. They become like children, expecting the parents (in this case Agnes and Tobias) to take care of them and sooth their fear. This has a huge effect on Julia whose emotional immaturity can’t handle these people muscling in on her territory. From the moment she gets home (Harry and Edna are already there), she is resistant and vicious, demanding to know over and over again what they are doing there and how long they will stay, questions neither her mother nor father can answer or don’t care to. The more the play progresses and Harry and Edna start to take over, the more upset Julia becomes. They are placed in her room which, like many adult children who come home for a visit, puts her out of sorts because she can’t have her familiar surroundings in her time of crisis. They try to dictate how things will be run in the house and how things will look. In one scene, Claire, trying to smooth out the bickering that has occurred between Julia and Edna, suggests that Julia fix Edna a drink. Harry comes downstairs and, in his cheerful, laid-back way, insists on fixing a drink for everyone. But Julia won’t let him near the bar because “he has no right”. The scene ends with Julia getting into a hysterical fit, calling for her mother and father like a child (and even goes beyond that).
The film is, essentially, about a dysfunctional family. In her review of the film upon its release for The New York Times, Nora Sayre laments, “[w]e never learn why these people loathe each other so deeply…” (par. 5). In 1973, this would have been true, as the idea of the dysfunctional family came into its own in the later part of the 1970’s. So there was no term and no definition of what this Connecticut family really is at that time. We’re now better equipped to recognize such family dynamics as dysfunctional in this film so it’s much clearer to us that there are, in fact, reasons why these people loath one another.
One characteristic of a dysfunctional family is that everything is kept in check, all the conflicts and the hates and demons are kept under wraps. This is the delicate balance the film’s title suggests and it’s this balance the intruders disturb, mainly because they force the family to expose those demons and conflicts in front of strangers rather than keeping it in the safe container of the family. Julia’s disturbing emotional immaturity is one of these. Another is Claire’s alcoholism. Another is Agnes’ obsession with keeping up appearances. And Tobias, who is a passive, castrated husband, is forced to act toward the end of the film. The question of whether to throw Harry and Edna out hangs on Tobias’ shoulders because, as dominating as Agnes is, she insists that she only follows where her husband leads. He announces to the family he intends to throw them out. In a confrontation with Harry, it’s Harry that tells Tobias he and Edna intend to leave (for no other reason than he admits they wouldn’t take Agnes and Tobias in if the situation were reversed). This changes Tobias’ decision where he not only wants them to stay but he insists upon it.
The ending of the film is, in the light of what we know about dysfunctional families, predictable. The moment of revelations and changes are only temporary. Harry and Edna leave and the family goes back to what it was. In Sayre’s words, “‘Balance’ hangs on a crisis that’s never defined” (par. 4), referring here to Harry and Edna’s phantom fear. But I see things differently. The unnamed fear is, in fact, the fear of the dysfunctional family — something will jar them out of their illusion of being a “normal” family, even a happy one, the terror that they will have to face the negative emotions that have kept everyone in check and the delicate balance of the family intact. In this film, Harry and Edna serve as that fear so, essentially, it’s not their fear but the family’s. They are only the instigators of that fear or, more aptly, the intruders.
Sayre, Nora. “Screen: Albee’s ‘A Delicate Balance’”. The New York Times. New York Times Company, 2018. 11 December 1973. Web. 6 September 2018.