2009: Year of Onscreen & Offscreen Infidelity?


A recent story in Variety connects the dots around various real-life and large- and small-screen stories and comes up with a disturbing picture: One way or another, 2009 was a high-profile year for adultery.

The headline reads “Infidelity scores Oscar noms,” but Variety writer Diane Garrett sees a larger pattern that includes the public scandals of Tiger Woods, Governor Mark Sanford, and John Edwards, revelations concerning small-screen personalities David Letterman and “John & Kate Plus 8” stars Jon and Kate Gosselin, and what Garrett suggests seemed like “nearly every other movie released in the past six months,” including the musical remake Nine and the Meryl Streep–Alec Baldwin comedy It’s Complicated.

The kernel of the story, though, is that extramarital liaisons of one kind or another are central to four of the ten Academy Award Best Picture nominees: An Education, A Serious Man, Up in the Air and Precious. Garrett writes:

The nommed pics vary greatly in mood and setting, but cheating is pivotal to all four. Tellingly, the heroes or heroines of the movies are each unwitting or unwilling parties to the infidelity. Each is betrayed, not betrayer.

There aren’t any easy fixes for the fictional characters—no hightailing it to a sex rehab clinic or laughing it off with latenight jokes. But there is plenty of drama—and dark comedy—in their predicaments.

Does this mean that the collective effect of these stories is not to glamorize adultery? Well, yes, in part, but like the movie title says, It’s Complicated.

Two of the films, Up in the Air and An Education, initially put a glossy face on illicit sex, but in both films the protagonist is unmarried and believes the partner to be unmarried, and revelations to the contrary come as an unwelcome surprise and a signpost that the protagonist is on the wrong road. Still, it’s possible to wonder whether these turning points completely counteract the romantic tone of the early chapters. (E.g., see John Podhoretz on An Education.)

A Serious Man never makes the protagonist’s cuckolded state less than excruciating and humiliating, though the Coens’ typically belittling portrayal of their schlemiel of a protagonist may cast doubt on whether his betrayal, or his marriage in the first place, is really all that significant in the grand scheme of things. As for Precious, the overriding issue there isn’t adultery, but incest and child abuse.

Were there no countervailing cinematic depictions of happily married couples?

A few. There was Julie & Julia, with its criss-crossing accounts of two loving couples based on the real-life marriages of Julia Child and blogger Julie Powell. But even that story was complicated by the real Julie Powell’s tell-all account of her own subsequent affair with an old boyfriend with whom she apparently reconnected after becoming famous.

A few bright spots could be found even among Best Picture nominees.

The Blind Side offers a happy (and explicitly Christian) depiction of real-life couple Leigh Anne and Sean Tuohy. Pixar’s Up celebrates the lifelong love of its widower protagonist Carl and his beloved Elie.

Even James Cameron’s über-blockbuster Avatar, with its hippy-dippy utopia of Noble Savages living in harmony with nature and one another, rejects the flower-child ideal of “free love” in favor of monogamous pairing for life (presumably faithfully, given the idealized integrity of Cameron’s aliens). Infidelity may be everywhere, seemingly, but our culture hasn’t entirely forgotten that fidelity is the ideal.