Scenes from an Alan Alda Marriage with THE SEDUCTION OF JOE TYNAN and THE FOUR SEASONS

A look at the legendary artist’s takes on the bumpiness of matrimony.

When I think of Alan Alda, it’s his persona that quickly comes to mind. Not only has his affability and wit made him an entertaining late night guest, but his everyman, down-to-earth nature instantly turned him into one of the most endearing figures in show business. The actor has enjoyed monumental success over a career that’s spanned decades and is still going despite his recent heath setbacks. As an actor, it’s hard not to think of Alda as one of the greatest sitcom stars of all time in perhaps the most revolutionary series ever created. As Hawkeye on M*A*S*H, he helped shape the show’s unique blend of pathos and slapstick that made him a national treasure.

Those same acting chops could easily be found whenever Alda ventured onto the silver screen, where his talents found new layers. His breakdown scene in Same Time, Next Year was one of his best moments, while his work opposite Jane Fonda in Neil Simon’s California Suite showed a deep soulfulness in the midst of that film’s hilarity.

But it was his behind-the-scenes work where Alda really surprised. As a screenwriter, he not only gifted himself with some fantastic roles, but he tackled a variety of universal issues, specifically marriage, wasting no time in elevating him as a creative.

In 1979, Alda wrote, produced, and starred in The Seduction of Joe Tynan, a drama about a democratic senator from New York whose marriage to supportive wife Ellie (Barbara Harris) and alliance to an aging senator (Melvyn Douglas) are thrown into jeopardy by the promise of becoming a rising star within his own party. Further complicating matters is his affair with a beguiling lawyer named Karen (Meryl Streep).

Meanwhile, in The Four Seasons, Alda and Carol Burnett play Jack and Kate, a happily married couple who share their lives and vacations with their four best friends, Nick (Len Cariou), Anne (Sandy Dennis), Claudia (Rita Moreno), and Danny (Jack Weston). When Nick drops a bombshell by announcing he’s divorcing Anne, it throws the entire group’s friendship into question.

Both The Seduction of Joe Tynan and The Four Seasons aren’t grand films but are compulsively watchable thanks to their expert performances and scripts. Plot wise, the two titles couldn’t be more different. The former is about how the world of politics can intrigue and change a man from the most idealistic champion for good to someone intoxicated by fame and power. Meanwhile, the latter examines how even if friendships last, friends themselves change as everyone goes through the different phases of life. In both films, Alda’s characters make claims, assumptions, and judgments about one another, yet the films themselves do not. Instead, Alda’s scripts remain purely observational, allowing the audience the chance to actually see the men and women as not just characters, but actual people.

Yet it’s Alda’s portrayal of marriage in the two films which really succeeds in making them not only winning pieces of entertainment, but also thoughtful, universal comments on relationships.

The Seduction of Joe Tynan opens with a main character portrayed as the all-American family man who happens to be a sort of Mr. Smith figure when he goes to Washington. There’s no doubt his first priority remains his family and especially his love for his wife. On the surface, the marriage between Joe and Ellie is ideal: They’ve worked out an arrangement between his time in the Senate and their life in upstate New York. They’re both equally fulfilled professionally, Joe with hius political career and Ellie with her psychology studies at the university, which will eventually lead to a career of her own. To the credit of Alda and director Jerry Schatzberg, the setup works, but isn’t without its realistic drawbacks that find their way into the couple’s home life and are instantly squashed by their unwavering commitment to one another.

When the titular seduction takes place, thrusting Joe into the role of his party’s star and the perfect presidential candidate, the dynamics shift. The life he and Ellie shared that allowed for a reasonable amount of compromise now becomes dominated by politics. As Joe finds himself in the grips of the political star-making machine, Ellie is losing her grip on the life she worked so hard to make for her family and, most importantly, for herself. The film does right by not turning either character into a cliché. Joe is never seen as a bad guy, but rather flawed and human, and even if he experiences a lapse in judgment, his political ideals are never for sale. Meanwhile, Ellie is never once treated as the helpless wife in the dark, but as a woman who continuously fights for her family and always knows the score. When things come to a head between the two, the exhausted couple look at each other for the first time in a while and see people they love, but aren’t too quick to recognize.

Like the previous film, the marriage in The Four Seasons is one which may not be perfect, but definitely works. Jack, a successful attorney, and Kate, a magazine editor, seem to have figured it out. The two share great banter and feel like they know each other inside and out. Neither one is threatened by the other and each is pleased with the bond they’ve spent years building. If there’s anything unspoken between the two, it’s their need to spend each vacation with their best friends. Jack tries not to acknowledge this, but Kate isn’t shy about pointing it out, all but suggesting that the only way their marriage can remain interesting and alive is if they invite other couples into it. The fact that Danny, Claudia, Nick, and Anne are great people who share the same kinds of experiences as Jack and Kate makes this co-dependent friendship work—until it doesn’t.

Not long after Nick and Anne separate, Nick meets Ginny (Bess Armstrong), a 20-something stewardess who is a genuinely good person and head over heels for him. While the two older couples struggle to pretend that things haven’t changed all that much, Ginny’s presence brings to the surface unspoken tensions between Jack and Kate. For Jack, Nick’s newfound zest for life has caused him to reevaluate himself and engage in a battle against his own mortality, illustrated by trying to impress Ginny through a game of soccer. Kate notices this and is infuriated because she sees it as an extension of her husband’s inability to accept the reality of who he is. She accuses him of not being able to accept who they’ve become, while he thinks she’s neurotic. In the film’s best scene, these issues boil over as Alda gives both characters plenty of moments to show who they haven’t been in front of each other for a long time. Although their marriage isn’t on the brink of collapse, the couple ends up facing the truth of the life they made together with Kate firmly declaring that their reality needs to be good enough for Jack.

Even though both films deal with relationships between men and women, Alda once admitted that every character he writes contains elements of himself (as well as those around him), whether they’re male or female. While this may seem like nothing new since most artists write themselves into their work, it’s refreshing to see Alda’s investigation into the various traits, hang-ups, and neuroses that men and women share. Despite his talent, Alda was never able to replicate the success he enjoyed with The Four Seasons. His follow-ups, including the “Hollywood comes to a small town” comedy Sweet Liberty, the romantic comedy A New Life, and the family wedding comedy Betsy’s Wedding couldn’t come close to the success his first two behind-the-scenes ventures offered him.

The Seduction of Joe Tynan and The Four Seasons are each telling and truthful portraits of love, marriage, and life’s effect on both. The two films lay out things as they are for their characters with various questions posited by Alda as to why they are the way that they are. However, the biggest question Alda asks at the end of each movie remains: “What happens now?” Where do the men and women of his films go after experiencing the kind of romance, heartache, betrayal, compromise, laughter, and fear he’s written for them? To Alda’s credit, he doesn’t attempt to answer by the end of either film. Instead, he remains true to his characters by giving them the kind of open ending that life itself offers to all of us.

The Seduction of Joe Tynan and The Four Seasons are both available on Blu-ray and DVD from Kino Lorber.

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