The great George Roy Hill was a hard man to pin down. Over the course of a long, distinguished career that also encompassed theater (he was nominated for a Tony for directing Look Homeward, Angel) and the golden age of television, Hill distinguished himself in such disparate fields as the smartass con-artist comedy (The Sting), the relentlessly clever buddy Western (Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid), literary adaptations both whimsical (The World According To Garp, The World Of Henry Orient) and trippy (Slaughterhouse-Five), the gleefully profane sports comedy (Slap Shot), and the sweetly innocent coming-of-age romance (A Little Romance). That doesn’t even include Hill’s forays into lumbering, big-budget historical dramas (his ill-fated James Michener adaptation Hawaii), musicals (Thoroughly Modern Millie), spy dramas (The Little Drummer Girl), or gentle slapstick comedy (Funny Farm). It’s tempting to posit a black-and-white adaptation of a Tennessee Williams comedy of marital dysfunction as atypical fare for the director, except that Hill moved around so much thematically that it’s difficult to ascertain what a typical film for him might even be, and since he’d directed Period Of Adjustment onstage, Hill was clearly comfortable with the material.
An impossibly young and beautiful Jane Fonda stars as a naïve, high-strung young nurse who falls in love with Korean War veteran Jim Hutton (the father of actor Timothy) while tending to him for a terrible case of nerves that leaves him a miserable, shaking mess most of the time. Hutton drives Fonda down to Florida for their honeymoon in a hearse (Hutton defiantly insists it’s a “black Cadillac,” in a typical act of laughably transparent self-delusion) that takes on unfortunate metaphorical resonance when it becomes apparent that the marriage between this squabbling, rancorous couple may have died an ugly death before it could even properly begin. In a fit of rage, Hutton drops Fonda off at the all-too-domestic home of a beloved war buddy (Tony Franciosa) whose own marriage of convenience seems to have imploded after Franciosa’s wife (Lois Nettleton) storms out after he drunkenly tells off his boss and her father (John McGiver).
Williams subtitled Period Of Adjustment “a serious comedy,” and while it has its share of laughs, they’re generally of the dark and uncomfortable variety. Period Of Adjustment may be more overtly comic than Williams’ better-known explorations of the depths of human misery, but it still deals frankly with sexual anxiety, abandoned dreams, matrimonial dysfunction, the complicated intersection of marriage and money, and the conflict between the aspirations of a romanticized past and the realities of a sometimes ugly and uncertain present. In a boldly cinematic opening sequence, Hill presents Fonda and Hutton’s manic and neurotic courtship in purely visual terms. They fall in love and get married without really knowing each other beyond their idealized roles as massage-dispensing angel of mercy and suffering, noble veteran in need of bottomless compassion. In the degraded parlance of The Real World, Period Of Adjustment chronicles with humor and understated compassion what happens when newlyweds stop being polite and start getting real. Yet for all its darkness and pessimism regarding human nature and the imperfect institution of marriage, Period Of Adjustment is ultimately hopeful and tender in its warts-and-all depiction of damaged, imperfect people finding a way to love and accept each other despite their raging imperfections. Even at the embryonic, overlooked beginning of a glorious career, Hill proved enormously skilled at making tricky material not only palatable but also funny and wonderfully, unmistakably human.
Key feature: Trailer.