Married to the Mob

A love story that is refreshingly unromantic

Magazine Issue
January/February 1994
Married to the Mob

MACHISMO DIRECTOR MARTIN SCORSESE AND IRONIC society novelist Edith Wharton might, at first glance, appear to have come not just from different centuries, but from different universes. These two anti-sentimentalists have been among the keenest observers of the mean and inescapable realities of American society. Now, their visions come together in Scorsese’s masterful filming of Wharton’s The Age of Innocence.

Scorsese has gotten most of his critical acclaim for unflinching films about violence, usually urban and most memorably embodied by actor Robert De Niro: Mean Streets, Raging Bull, Taxi Driver, Goodfellas, Cape Fear. These are violent films, but not films that glorify violence as triumphant or glamorous as in the pulp action movies of Stallone or Schwarzenegger. These are serious films about the tortured development of character amidst the ruins of a moral order.

Scorsese’s films have won Oscars for De Niro, Paul Newman, Ellen Burstyn and Joe Pesci. Scorsese himself has even received a few nominations, but he’s never had a huge box-office success. His view of our world is too disturbing. Even in his musicals {New York, New York), comedies {The King of Comedy) and feminist road trips (Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore), even when his subject is religion (The Last Temptation of Christ) or sports {The Color of Money), his moral outrage shines through. He keeps us appalled at the effect of this mean world on the people trapped in it.

Scorsese is clearly a tortured moralist. He is obsessed with sin and redemption, he can’t turn away, and he won’t let us do so either. He makes us identify with horrifying people, like paranoid cabbie Travis Bickell in Taxi Driver, who was so appalled over a 12-year-old prostitute (Jody Foster) that he wanted to assassinate somebody anybody to make it better. But who do you start wiping out and where do you stop? In sadistic bloodbaths like Goodfellas and Cape Fear, Scorsese, like Travis, didn’t know where to draw the line. It seemed he had gone out of control and was assaulting his audience.

Now, in a dizzying shift in style and tone, Scorsese has chosen to direct Wharton’s elegant and ever-so-civilized story of frustrated love among the privileged classes.

Edith Wharton, no hothouse flower herself, was born (in 1862) and raised as one, in one of the richest and most socially prominent families in New York City. She married correctly if not well and began writing. She was a friend and admirer of Henry James, the American master of social and psychological realism. Like James, she wrote with a sharp eye and sharp tongue about the manners and customs of emerging American society, and like his brother, psychologist William James, she focused on the moral choices people make. Wharton’s fiction, like James’s, concerns the relationship between free will and societal restraint, and the pacts individuals make with the world around them, Wharton, more than any writer of her generation short of Sigmund Freud, understood the passion being choked and engirdled beneath the calm surface of social propriety.

In 1907, Wharton left her society and her mentally unstable husband, and moved to France for a literary life. Divorce at that time just wasn’t done. In 1911, she published Ethan Frome, her most famous work, about a miserable but inescapable marriage. In 1913, she finally divorced. In 1920, she published The Age of Innocence, about a hopeless love affair between two married people unwilling to make the social sacrifice of divorce. For it, she became the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for literature. By the time Wharton died in 1937, however, her work seemed dated, tightly bound in time and place. Now, over half a century later, her two most famous novels have both hit the screen, one with the thud of a sled hitting a tree and the other with the magical unfolding of a rosebud bursting into bloom.

ETHAN FROME IS A MORAL HORROR story, routinely inflicted on junior high school students. Last year, a film faithfully, humorously and grimly retold the familiar story of literature’s most hapless romantic. Ethan is a hardscrabble New England rock farmer who tries to escape perpetual winter on the barren family farm and his sickly, barren, wintry wife, Zeena, by sledding away with the incompetent and suicidal servant girl Mattie. But Ethan can’t quite bring himself to defy so brazenly his values and the sensibilities of his neighbors. Instead, he steers the two eloping lovers into a tree, which leaves him withered, bent and crippled and Mattie paralyzed and brain damaged. For the rest of their miserable lives, the three are bound together. Ethan looks on helplessly as Zeena, with triumphant embitterment, nurses what’s left of Mattie. When faced with such unrelieved misery, it is probably polite to avert the eyes, as audiences have mercifully done.

I doubt whether even Martin Scorsese could have updated Ethan Frome to make it more relevant for our time. But Scorsese has made something modern, relevant and popular out of the more complex and subtle The Age of Innocence.

Wharton set her story in 1870, in the New York of her youth, a time that spawned heroines bursting the bounds of societal restraint and struggling to be free. The ultimate freedom for a heroine of that era was apparently the liebstod, or death for love. Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde dates from 1859. Flaubert’s Madame Bovary came out in 1857, Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina in 1875, Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler in 1890. Only Ibsen’s Nora, in A Doll’s House in 1879, gets out of her stifling marriage alive; the others would rather die than live without love. Wharton could look back on that time with relief that she had more freedom than her grandmother by 1920, wealthy women might be able to escape men and still survive. The Age of Innocence was set in the time of Anna Karenina and Emma Bovary, but Wharton’s heroine is far closer in spirit to the flapper-inspired, comparatively liberated heroine Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind, written only 16 years later.

The story tells of handsome New York society lawyer and dandy Newland Archer (smugly effete Daniel Day-Lewis). He is engaged to comparably rich and beautiful May Welland (elfinly beautiful, resolutely serene Winona Ryder ), who embodies the virtue and solidity of his properly ordered world. At a gala performance of the opera Faust, in which the hero sells his soul to the devil for the hope of a moment of passion, he meets May’s older cousin, Countess Ellen Olenska (quiveringly pained Michelle Pfeiffer, her big pink and blue eyes always looking as if she is holding back tears), who was raised in Europe, married a fabulously wealthy and degenerate Polish count and has now escaped to sanctuary with her family in New York.

Newland is assigned the job of explaining to Ellen that her family would not consider it seemly for her to put them through the scandal of a divorce. While the family watches with sharp eyes and still tongues, Ellen collapses on her cousin’s fiance, as well as a few other men. She charmingly oversteps various boundaries and moves a little too close, a little too boldly. Newland is afraid to touch her, even as he kneels down and kisses her shoes. Frightened of Ellen’s ability to disrupt his carefully ordered life, Newland speeds up his marriage to May.

Newland’s life with May is sublimely comfortable and safely predictable. Imperturbably proper, May reveals no hint of rebuke or distrust. But the family decides it is time for Ellen to return to her marriage, leaving an outraged New-land out of the decision. In the brief privacy of a carriage, he tells her he wants to rescue her and find a way for them to be together. Ellen, the cold-eyed realist, responds, “Is it your idea, then, that I should live with you as your mistress since I can’t be your wife?” The wounded Newland replies, “I want I want somehow to get away with you into a world where words like that categories like that won’t exist. Where we shall be simply two human beings who love each other, who are the whole of life to each other; and nothing else on earth will matter.” With a sigh and a laugh, Ellen points out his naive innocence: “Oh, my dear where is that country? Have you ever been there?”

Newland does not understand how the forces of social order conspire together as all of New York high society silently joins to keep him in line. The grossly rich, obese and powerful old grandmother of May and Ellen (Miriam Margolyes, somehow reminiscent of Marlon Brando in The Godfather) would be very disappointed if Newland left one granddaughter for the other. Proclaiming that “marriage is marriage, and money’s money both useful things in their way,” Grandmother gives Ellen enough money to return to Europe to live apart from her husband. At Ellen’s farewell party, the social elite whisk her away from Newland, and the ending of their affair is surgical and total no emotions, no words. As Wharton writes, “It was the old New York way of taking life ‘without effusion of blood”: the way of people who dreaded scandal more than disease, who placed decency above courage . . .”

Only when Ellen is safely out of his grasp does Newland realize that May has understood everything and had told Ellen that she is pregnant weeks before she now reveals it to him. Obviously, if a child is on the way, Newland cannot leave his marriage: a gentleman might leave his wife, but it would be unthinkable for him to leave his child. Instead he settles in: “It did not so much matter if marriage was a dull duty, as long as it kept the dignity of a duty.”

A sad story of lost romance? Wharton’s attitude is revealed in a quiet, startling epilogue to the story, set 30 years later. Newland has led a satisfying, albeit unexciting, life with May and their three fine children. May dies in the arms of her faithful husband, and after a proper interval, Newland’s architect son takes him to Paris. There, the boy confesses that his mother, on her deathbed, revealed Newland’s love for Ellen. Ellen is still in Paris and the boy has arranged for Newland to meet with her. The news that May, and now his son as well, knew of his romantic sacrifice gives Newland comfort. Wharton tells us, “It seemed to take an iron band from his heart to know that, after all, someone had guessed and pitied him . . . And that it should have been his wife moved him indescribably.”

Newland reviews his life and realizes that it is complete and that his passion for Ellen is alive within him. But he does not go up to see her. Instead, he walks slowly and contentedly back to his hotel. He makes what he feels to be the honorable choice, renouncing his passion once again, knowing now that he has been and will be understood. He does not need Ellen anymore.

THE AGE OF INNOCENCE IS NOT JUST the sad tale of the aborted sex life of a cautious man. It is about a world and an age in which, even when passions are inflamed, the absolutes of character, form and manners keep them from translation into action. The screen overflows with all the fancy bric-a-brac of this sumptuous Victorian world. Music, food, flowers, fabrics, silver and gold of stupefying richness arouse the senses to the point of dizziness.

Michelle Pfeiffer is tired, bruised and luminously beautiful, though hardly mysterious as she lures her naive kinsman into her web. Finally realizing that her freedom cannot come from the love of an innocent young man, her wisdom seems bitter. As she abandons love and achieves independence from men through her grandmother’s money, she is coldly unromantic. Yet, she is sympathetic every step of this hard transformation.

Winona Ryder, inscrutable in her “hard, bright blindness,” is admirable but hard to know or like. Her quiet, frustrating performance becomes more interesting retrospectively with the revelation that she has understood it all. The sadness of the story and of the age lies in the fact that she never takes off her social mask for her husband or for us.

Daniel Day-Lewis, a daringly arrogant actor, is properly irritating as this dithering dandy who would love to rescue a woman from something, but doesn’t understand the risks well enough to carry it off. A cautious romantic, unwilling to abandon himself and his loved ones to his passion, is no hero except to his wife and children. We end up rather discouraged over the choices he makes. It frustrates the audience’s romanticism to accept the things he comes to accept. But, of course, that is the point of both Wharton’s book and Scorsese’s film.

The Age of Innocence was written as a sequel to her Ethan Frame, but Scorsese has filmed it as a sequel to his Goodfellas, in which the young mafioso savors the joys of his membership in the mob and then yells foul when he realizes he can’t betray the mob that feeds him and then just leave and go back home. Newland Archer’s choices are harder. Escape is possible if he breaks the rules of the society that rewards him so lavishly, but he won’t pay the price. Ellen Olenska learns to work the system, and May Welland trusts it and lets it work for her. Newland is the innocent here: for one giddy moment, he naively believes he can move freely in and out of his family and his life.

Edith Wharton was ambivalent about the costs in individual freedom of the social order, but she was not naive. Nor is Scorsese. These two trenchant social observers know that people acting out their fantasies make life tragic for themselves and messy for the rest of us.

Scorsese is faithful to Wharton, in spirit and in detail. And he reveals his own sentiments through a slight insertion near the end. After Ellen disappears from New York and Newland’s life, we see a series of vignettes, almost like snapshots, of life in the Archer family the christenings, birthdays, weddings and other family celebrations that have given meaning to Newland’s life with May and their children. So when the epilogue comes, we know Newland Archer has led a rich and happy family life, not a torment of unrequited love. We know Newland does not regret his choice.

A love story from two such clear-eyed realists is refreshingly unromantic. For them, and for Ellen and Newland, honor requires the freedom to make life choices. The ultimate and most liberating freedom is the choice not to die (or to kill) for love.

Frank Pittman

Frank Pittman, MD, was a longtime contributing editor to The Family Therapy Networker.