From The Apartment to Planet of the Apes, by way of Lane Pryce’s beloved The Bridge on the River Kwai: In advance of the Mad Men Season 7 premiere this Sunday, ORWAV takes a look at all things cinematic in Matthew Weiner’s 1960s-set drama. Full spoilers for the series – plus a few half-century-old movies – follow.
Now, if you’re reading this, you already know Mad Men. So I’ll dispense with the in-depth catch-ups (Don confessed! Pete’s mother was pushed off a ship! Bob Benson is just Don Draper with a smile!), and kick this thing off in 1960.
The most commented-upon of Season One’s movie allusions is arguably The Apartment. Weiner has stated on multiple occasions that Billy Wilder’s 1960 satire was a great influence on the show, and when Joan decides to drop it into conversation with Roger, it becomes (almost too) obvious to the viewer just how important it is. Episode 10, ‘Long Weekend’, continues the sub-plot of Office Manager Joan’s affair with Senior Partner Roger, as he pointedly lets her know his wife and daughter are away for the Labor Day weekend:
Joan: How about a movie? Have you seen The Apartment?
Roger: I went last week with Mona and Margaret.
Joan: I hear Shirley MacLaine is good.
Roger: Oh, please. A white elevator operator? And a girl at that? I wanna work at that place.
Joan: Oh, I bet you do. The way those men treated that poor girl, handing her around like a tray of canapés? She tried to commit suicide.
Roger: … So you saw it, huh?
I think we get the picture. Weiner makes sure to use the recent release of the influential film as (a) a basic frame of historical reference, (b) a means of exploring Joan’s and Roger’s characters, and (c) as a general metatextual commentary on the themes of the series. Well played, Weiner.
But it gets more specific than that. Aside from being one of the earliest indicators that Roger – like his rough analogue, Fred MacMurray’s philandering Apartment boss Mr. Sheldrake – is probably everything that’s wrong with the company rather than just a wisecracking silver fox, the conversation establishes the basic foundation of Joan’s entire character. It’s not just that she may be Sterling-Cooper’s answer to MacLaine’s Ms. Kubelik, it’s that she compares herself to the character at all. Later in the same episode she says to her flatmate, “I feel like I’m stuck somewhere between Doris Day in Pillow Talk and Midnight Lace, when what I need to be is Kim Novak in just about anything,” taking the stream of Hollywood comparisons to a level of dreamy yearning we wouldn’t have expected of her when introduced in the pilot.
Joan’s story, at least so far, is basically a parallel to Peggy’s. Both start as secretaries (Joan in the mid-’50s, Peggy in ’60) and slowly but surely work their way to the top of the company; but of course where Peggy’s ascent is created as an obvious reflection of the era, all brains and balls (but not quite bra-burning), Joan’s is somewhat subtler, and based around a sort of careful image maintenance. A very different kind of feminist hero indeed – one whose most pronounced moment of professional advancement is also one of the show’s most problematic and emotionally draining scenes. That is, when Joan takes pains to compare herself to MacLaine, Day, Novak and, in Season 2, Marilyn Monroe, she kicks off a strange story of liberation that reaches its complex conclusion years later when, in the most extreme version of the Apartment comparisons, she sleeps with auto dealer Herb Rennet in exchange for a raise and a partnership.
It’s quite horrible. And it is deliberately problematic – Joan certainly feels ambivalent about the act itself – but either way she decides, positively, to take this “Hollywood sex symbol” image of hers (Kinsey: “Marilyn’s more of a Joan”) and use it strategically. Not just to get noticed, but to professionally progress. She’s right: she can’t be a Doris Day, manipulated in Pillow Talk and stalked in Midnight Lace; so too is it worthless succumbing to the pressures of a Marilyn and committing suicide (well, obviously). Instead, Joan has to take her persona and run with it. Use her sexuality to get a foot in the door, then her sizeable brains to climb the stairs – and immediately after landing Jaguar and making partner… she secures SCDP’s second floor, leading the men in to gaze at the view.
There are, of course, other little references throughout the show that form micro-commentaries on the plot, characters and themes. When taken together, they seem to be pointing out that everything here is image. It’s all been enacted before in some way (which re-enactment of course the show is doing at its most basic level). Harry says he’ll be seeing Can-Can with his wife; before he gets to witness this on-screen love triangle, he sleeps with a secretary. Pete and his brother Bud joke about killing their mother à la Rope; years down the line, Mrs Dyckman-Campbell is clearly killed by manservant Manolo and the brothers decide publicly to treat it as an accident – the perfect murder. Lane alludes to The Bridge on the River Kwai apparently without remembering that for all the Great British stiff upper lips seen in the film, Colonel Nicholson’s morale-boosting project drives him quite mad.
In essence, everyone has their little moments of filmic comparison. None of the characters can escape this basic problem: that they’re trapped in a society so saturated with images (most of which they, the ad people, create) that everything they do can be brought back to something that happened in some movie. Don has this hammered home professionally in the Season 6 premiere when his original idea for an ad campaign finds itself almost immediately compared to A Star is Born: the image of a man walking into the sea to be swept away is not quite as inviting, or even as clever, as Don thinks (and, incidentally, for an episode that also takes pains to include Vietnam War references, was later reused in 1978 anti-‘nam film Coming Home).
That someone finally says out loud what the show has only whispered should begin the penultimate 13-episode run is frankly wonderful. We’ve had brief references to films such as The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (“When the legend becomes fact, print the legend”), A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Psycho and other movies dealing with dualities and fake personalities for five seasons, and someone finally comes along and says “That’s been done before”? No wonder that by the end of this season, Don has finally confessed all to his partners and collapsed the split personality that’s haunted him for years. In short, this realisation of image-driven falsehood is one of the fundamental catalysts for the process that looks set to continue in the upcoming final season: the redemption of Dick Whitman.
This is the basic driving force behind Mad Men‘s film references: “the image” and its proliferation is complicit in a damaging kind of superficiality – much like the emptiness of advertising. Is it heavy-handed? Sometimes. But it also offers some compelling means of escape. In Season 2 Don, in a rare moment of honesty, says he enjoyed La Notte (in the same hour it turns out Pete’s seen Cape Fear four times); and two episodes previous, we saw him cool off at a matinee showing of Last Year at Marienbad. Are European art films a guilty pleasure for this man in the grey flannel suit? Later in the season, he disappears to California, the poetry of Frank O’Hara on his mind, and takes a free-wheeling trip through sun, sea and drugs with no apparent destination… much like one of his arthouse protagonists, in fact. He pops back in Season 4, of course, and autographs Anna’s house. As he returns to CA in Season 7, should we expect a now liberated Don, divested of his “grey flannel suit” persona, to embrace his freer, artsier side a little more?
Then there’s Planet of the Apes. In the world of Mad Men, we’ve seen great societal progressions between 1960 and ’68, and the upheavals have been subtly mirrored in the show’s attitudes towards the movies. In 1960-2 we have Joan and Roger viewing films as superficial vehicles for styles and images. One of the first-ever film allusions in the show is Exodus, which is mentioned purely in the context of a potential business boost. Don doesn’t even admit to his apparent love of Antonioni. By 1968, by way of Peggy jerking a guy off to Born Free and Chevalier-Blanc asking for a terribly square remake of A Hard Day’s Night (“When did music become so important?”), we see Don settle in with his son Bobby for a mind-blowing few hours in front of Charlton Heston’s finest moment. The movie eventually ends, the viewers appropriately stunned, and Don, at least partly seeing this brilliant entertainment through his son’s wide eyes, suggests they watch it again.
It’s a moment of pure comfort and enjoyment for the two, as highlighted by Bobby: “Everybody likes to go to the movies when they’re sad.” Which of course he says to a black attendant between screenings, sensitive to the fact that Martin Luther King was shot some fifteen hours earlier. It’s sweet, obviously; a slice of pure empathy in total opposition to the responses of the adults all around him (variously repressed, confused, smarmy, hateful… ). But it also highlights a newer, less superficial, means of experiencing the movies: Bobby simply makes links between the slavery motifs in the film and the victimisation of African Americans in real life. Or he just likes the movie, sees the attendant, and decides to cheer him up without making any such connection.
Either way, Bobby’s response to the film is appropriate for a kid growing up unselfconsciously, in a period vastly different to that which necessitated his father’s “studied” manner. For this Gen-Xer growing into the 1970s, movies – and the television shows he seems to be constantly absorbing, “Can we watch TV?” being a frequent refrain – are something to be appreciated for what they can teach. Cinema’s aspirations lie in the abstract realms of emotion, intelligence and creativity rather than the purely material; and this positive move from materialism and false image to more of a spiritual completeness is exactly what the show has been doing in its decade-long progression. We’ve only fourteen more episodes to go, split, as Weiner has recently stated, into exactly that: the material, then the immaterial.
So this is Mad Men‘s mission, summed up in its unique use of film references. As we go into this final season, it remains to be seen how far the characters can divest themselves of the images, embrace their true selves and find something approaching closure. Some are getting close: there’s Joan, of course, who has eventually moved away from the trappings of her basic persona to attain a more complete and, it seems, fairly satisfying lifestyle (note that the perpetually-unhappy Betty, an evolving amalgam of every kind of photogenic suburban housewife archetype, attempts to do something different in ‘The Doorway’ by dyeing her hair… only for Henry to call her “Liz Taylor”); there’s Don, discovering he can start being honest and enjoying life and culture rather than his previous habits of reading for work and watching films for distraction; and there’s much space for the other characters to wise up and start separating their lives from the films they see and images they consume, like the hippies surrounding them. Perhaps they could ask Bobby for some pointers… or just shed their skins and walk into the sea.