“Revolutionary Road” – A Film Reflection

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I loved Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio in James Cameron’s blockbuster, “Titanic,” and I knew their inherent electricity together would charge their latest collaboration in “Revolutionary Road,” directed by Kate’s husband, Sam Mendes.

The film is set in the mid 50’s when people still smoked cigarettes in their business offices, and is based on a novel (published in 1961) by Richard Yates. We follow two characters, Frank Wheeler and his wife, April, as their life together takes unexpected turns.

Kate could be the emotional doppelganger of poet and novelist, Sylvia Plath, who was so distraught by having children and being forced into the mold of “mother and housewife,” her last act of defiance was to place her head in an oven with the gas turned on. Kate and Frank have two children together but there are hints throughout the movie that April would rather have committed her talents to acting. Clearly there is little to no support of that. Still, the 50’s family structure – of working father, two boisterous kids and the role of model homemaker – do not fit into April’s scheme of things. So when Frank agrees to her carefully-considered plan to move the family to Paris, where she will take on a position as secretary while Frank discovers his true talents, April is ecstatic. There is a bright, new feeling to their relationship as they inform neighbors and coworkers of their plan to move to Paris. The “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” portion of their life appears to be far behind them. Now, like a pair of giggling teens, they are delighted to be moving forward in the same direction.

But the Frank who is willing to drop out of the company where his father before him worked for decades (and whom nobody at the firm seems to remember) is now irresistible as an asset to his bosses who make him an offer he cannot refuse, to stay put. Of course April, who is the voice of reason through all this, cannot comprehend that the bottom has just fallen out of her big plan – even after she’s purchased their airline tickets and started packing. On top of all that, she is pregnant with no desire to carry a third child to term, in the Revolutionay Road home to which she has already said goodbye.

In an interview published in Ploughshares in 1972, author Richard Yates said, “During the Fifties there was a general lust for conformity all over this country, by no means only in the suburbs – a kind of blind, desperate clinging to safety and security at any price, as exemplified politically in the Eisenhower administration and the Joe McCarthy witchhunts. Anyway, a great many Americans were deeply disturbed by all that – felt it to be an outright betrayal of our best and bravest revolutionary spirit – and that was the spirit I tried to embody in the character of April Wheeler. I meant the title to suggest that the revolutionary road of 1776 had come to something very much like a dead end in the Fifties.”

Many of us tend to think of the 50’s as the good old days, but not in terms of a woman’s right to choose whether or not to have a family. And yet, how is the 21st century now any different? People still feel they must cling to what they have and not take any chances to change their circumstances. Most pregnant women as depicted in current media choose to have the baby. Juno, in a “break-away” film chooses to have the baby and give it away. Back in the “real world,” a humanitarian doctor by the name of George Tiller is murdered by a so-called “right-to-lifer” (if that isn’t an irony, then what is?)

When asked about the theme of his book, Yates told the interviewer, “If my work has a theme, I suspect it is a simple one: that most human beings are inescapably alone, and therein lies their tragedy.” If we humans could only walk a mile in our neighbor’s shoes (as my dad was once fond of saying), we might surprise ourselves at how similar we really are in wanting our lives to be comfortable yet remarkable.

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