- Revolutionary Road
- Author: Richard Yates (1926-1992)
- Rank: #96
- Published: 1961
- Publisher: Little, Brown & Co.
- Pages: 336 (Vintage Contemporary paperback)
- First Line: “The final dying sounds of their dress rehearsal left the Laurel Players with nothing to do but stand there, silent and helpless, blinking out over the footlights of an empty auditorium.”
- Last Lines: “But from there on Howard Givings heard only a welcome, thunderous sea of silence. He had turned off his hearing aid.”
- ML Edition: none
- Film: 2008 – **** #4 of the year (dir. Sam Mendes)
- Acclaim: National Book Award Finalist, ALL-TIME list
- Read: November, 2008
The Novel: Many great novels come back to the place where they start from (none moreso than Finnegan’s Wake which literally does) and Revolutionary Road is on that list, though different than many on the list. For the first chapter of the quintessential novel of The Age of Anxiety begins by talking about the actors in the local play and in the end draws in upon the Givings and their household. This tragic, haunting story of the Wheeler family, of Frank and April and the family that both brings them together and tears them apart begins a step away from them and ends in much the same manner.
Before the Wheelers are even mentioned, we have a glimpse of what their life has becomes with a description of the audience in which Frank sits and the Players that April is the star of: “Like the Players, they were mostly on the young side of middle age, and they were attractively dressed in what the New York clothing stores describe as Country Casuals. Anyone could see they were a better than average crowd, in terms of education and employment and good health, and it was clear too that they considered this a significant evening.” So now we know where we are, what part of society we are getting a glimpse of. It is in the second chapter that we begin to focus in on poor Frank and April, as we see them together in the car after the debacle of the play is over and as we transition back and forth from their first meeting to the fight that breaks out between them, we end up with a clear portrait of their marriage and what kind of things lay hidden on Revolutionary Road, the things that would lead Frank to think “What the hell kind of a life was this? What in God’s name was the point or the meaning or the purpose of a life like this?”
We slowly learn about their lives, about the way that April feels trapped in the suburbs while each day Frank goes off to his joke of a job; making a life in the office where his father toiled certainly begins as a joke, but the joke is in fact on the Wheelers themselves. “By the end of the first year the joke had worn thin, and the inability of others to see the humor of it had become depressing.” In fact, the joke seems to be that Frank is becoming quite good at his job. There is a kind of Social Darwinism at work here as Frank starts to move up and in small ways, even to enjoy what he does while April tortures herself over the trap that has fallen over her; when the idea of a saving grace of going away to Europe comes up, she holds to it to keep from drowning, never aware that it is nothing more than a barrel that will roll away from her even as she attempts to hold tighter, for two more people will intersect their lives in ways they don’t imagine.
First there is Maureen. She is the young secretary that Frank has an affair with. Here, Yates, with the kind of stark prose that would seem to presage Raymond Carver, narrows in on their coupling without attempting to give it any weight beyond the physicality of need: “With a moist little whimpering groan she turned and pressed herself into his arms, offering up her mouth. Then they were on the couch and the only problem in the world was the bondage of their clothing.” Frank later confesses this affair to April who admonishes him, not for having it, but for telling her about it in the first place. But by then John Givings has entered their lives and blown their illusions out of the water. Nothing that has come before can prepare us for John, the mentally damaged son of their real estate agent. His blunt pronouncements is like a sledgehammer against the safe suburban life that April and Frank have cushioned themselves with. At first he is the only one who can relate to their plan to flee to Europe, but after April finds herself pregnant again and the plans are altered, it is John whose assessment, untempered by anything resembling social mores, is all the more brutal for pointing out the hopeless emptiness of their lives and their plan.
So we move towards the finality of their decisions, about their lives, their children, their marriage. You can choose to read the book or see the film, for both provide incredible detail into the minutia of their tragedy, the kind of thing that the suburbs in the fifties were not prepared to handle: “The Revolutionary Hill Estates had not been designed to accommodate a tragedy. Even at night, as if on purpose, the development held no looming shadows and no gaunt silhouettes.” This is the shadow of fifties suburbia, the very place that Raymond Chandler’s characters would never be able to approach and where Yates’ characters could never hope to thrive, for the emptiness is within for Frank and, especially, April.
The Film: Sometimes the Golden Globes actually have a better measure of films than the Academy Awards do. Certainly in 2008, when the Golden Globes nominated Revolutionary Road for Best Picture, Actor and Director and gave it the award for Best Actress, while the Academy could not bother to recognize the film for any of these, the Globes had the better appreciation for a true, haunting film. (This is not the only example of a deserving film to be nominated for Picture and Director at the Globes but to get neither from the Academy: see also The Fisher King, The Age of Innocence, The End of the Affair). And yes, that says true, not truly. For while the Academy felt the need to lavish nominations on The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, otherwise known as Forrest Gump II, for the way it casually intersects various historical points without any need for perspective, this film has the true measure of the shadows in suburbia, the things that American Beauty would say about contemporary society, except, using it in a way to burst the illusion of the tranquil prosperity of the Eisenhower Era. It is only appropriate that they are directed by the same man and that the man, Sam Mendes, is not American, but British.
The first part of getting the film right was to get the script right. And it does get the script right, following the book very closely, keeping the dialogue, bouncing back and forth between scenes of romantic seduction and marital difficulties, the joy and the emptiness. It does not skimp out on the other characters, making them come alive properly, giving just the right amount of time to their neighbors and keeping intact the brutal scenes of John, the real estate agent’s son who steps into their lives and rips their fragile illusions away by forgetting to have the social amenities to not say what he is thinking.
Then there are the technical aspects and this film is full of brilliant ones. There is the look of the film, and by that, I mean not only the pitch perfect art direction and costumes, the look that automatically defines what era it belongs in, but also makes it come to life; I also mean the cinematography, the shots along the highway, the perfect look at Frank running along the road and that harsh, amazing shot that sums up the entire movie as you are just able to watch those first few drops of blood fall to the floor.
Then there are the performances. The supporting players deserve a mention first because they shouldn’t be forgotten. There is a nice ironic touch of casting Zoe Kazan, the granddaughter of the great director, as the young Maureen and she both looks and feels the part. There is Kathy Bates, who can so often be intrusive and annoying, but this time fills that role better than anyone else possibly could. There is Michael Shannon, who actually did manage an Oscar nomination and again, there could be nobody better. For he always feels out of place, seems just out of joint for whatever spot he is standing in and is all the more believable as the brutally frank, John.
And the leads. Oh, the leads. They are the two leads of Titanic, of course, until this week the most successful film ever made. And they came to this twelve years later, with a long friendship now between them and her husband as the director. And they had grown, not only in their craft, but also in their relationship and now were perfect for the roles of Frank and April. There are those who still think of Leo as too young, but he’s in his mid thirties now, and Frank is a character that feels younger than he actually is, part of the problem he has with fitting in to the life he has made. And no one would deny that Kate Winslet’s performance as April is a masterful, poignant job of acting. She won the Oscar for The Reader, but missed out on the nomination only due to Academy roles. This is the performance she should have won for, perhaps the finest job of acting she has done in an amazing career that has already included 6 Oscar nominations in less than 15 years.