"The Group" (1966) features stellar female cast

Sidney Lumet’s The Group from 1966 features a stellar female cast of eight women attending Vassar back east in the 1930’s. Only three of the actresses are still living today – Candace Bergen as the mysterious Lakey, Mary Robin Redd as Pokey who everyone is surprised when she later gives birth to twins and Kathleen Widdoes as class valedictorian Helena.

The film is based on Mary McCarthy’s best-selling novel from the same year. It would be a great film to do a remake of though the main theme is less glaring of interest today regarding the sexual repression of the women and pressure to fit an ideal - the marrying and housewife type. Actually, one film does come to mind that is relatively recent starring Julia Roberts as a teacher at Wellesley women’s college in the 1950s Mona Lisa Smile (2003) with the same pressure on female students.

Joanna Pettet as Kay is the exception to the blue-blooded requirement of "The Group" but is the catalyst of the narrative with her problematic alcoholic husband Harold an unsuccessful playwright played by Larry Hagman. Then there is the cool and beautiful and Lakey, (Candice Bergen) who took a liking to Kay and invited her to the group and cries at her wedding. Then off she goes to Europe and returns with a woman in strict tailored suits, the Baroness (Lidia Prochnicka) who takes charge of her life.

One can’t help feel sympathy for Priss played by Mary Hartman whose pediatrician husband subjects her to experiments in child rearing, or equally to Shirley Knight as Polly who lives with her manic depressive father and gives blood to make the rent after a failed relationship with Hal Halbrook as Gus. Nearly every woman is flawed, and none seem to excel in emotional intelligence except Lakey who is stigmatized because she is a lesbian. Despite education and cultivation, the women are groomed for marriage and finding the perfect mate, which is why Lakey is such a refreshing anomaly in the film.

The narrative begins with the graduating class of 1933 where Helena as valedictorian gives a rousing speech about going forward in life and leaving a mark. It is a time when German National Socialism is on the rise in Europe and later Kay does her patriotic duty in looking with binoculars for enemy aircraft outside of her high-rise apartment. She has a well-paid job at Macy's that allows her to get furnishings for the apartment where she and Harold live, but the empty white interiors before everything is moved in stands in elegant contrast, to the crudely decorated apartment in dull browns with unattractive art objects. When "The Group" meets it is during vacations and holidays and they seem close knit and somehow put up with the vacuous Libby who is a gossip columnist, played by Jessica Walter who died early last spring. But the bonds they form remain throughout the years with failed relationships, disappointments, divorces and infidelity. The strength of the film is the ensemble cast including Joan Hackett who falls for a chisel faced womanizer Dick Brown played by Richard Mulligan and has an abortion out west.

The Group’s charm continues over a half century later.

© 2022 - Moira Sullivan - Air Date: 01/05/22
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