The Pumpkin Eater
The Pumpkin Eater is a 1964 British drama film starring Anne Bancroft as an unusually fertile woman and Peter Finch as her philandering husband. The film was adapted by Harold Pinter from the 1962 novel of the same name by Penelope Mortimer, and was directed by Jack Clayton. The title is a reference to the nursery rhyme Peter Peter Pumpkin Eater.
The story revolves around Jo Armitage (Bancroft), a woman with an ambiguous number of children from three marriages, who becomes negative and withdrawn after discovering that her third (and current) husband, Jake (Finch), has been unfaithful to her. After a series of loosely related events in which Jake's infidelity is balanced by his reliability as a breadwinner and a father, Jo and Jake take a first tentative step toward reconciliation.
Most of the story is based on two issues: Jo's predilection for childbearing and Jake's extramarital affairs. The question of Jo's fertility is first broached by her psychiatrist. He suggests that she may feel uncomfortable with the messiness or vulgarity of sex, and that she may be using childbirth to justify it to herself. This does not prevent her from becoming pregnant again, but she follows suggestions by Jake and her doctor that she have an abortion and be sterilised, and she seems happy after the operation.
Meanwhile, signs accumulate that Jake has been having affairs while pursuing a successful career as a screenwriter. The first indication is about a woman who lived with the Armitage family for a while. Jake reacts irrationally and unconvincingly to Jo's questioning after the children tell her the woman fainted into Jake's arms. The second sign comes from Bob Conway (Mason), an acquaintance who alleges an affair between his wife and Jake during production of a film in Morocco. Finally, Jake admits some of his infidelities under heated interrogation by Jo. After venting her frustration by furiously assaulting him, she retaliates by having an affair with her second husband. This elicits a similar coldness from Jake.
In the film's finale, Jo spends a night alone in the windmill (near the converted barn she had lived in with her second husband and children) that the couple have been renovating. The following morning, Jake and their children arrive at the windmill with food. Seeing how happy her children are with Jake, Jo indicates her acceptance of him by sadly but graciously accepting a can of beer from him, a gesture which echoes another scene in the windmill from a happier time in their marriage.
According to the BFI's Monthly Film Bulletin, "there is something phantasmally absurd about this well-meaning, ambitious film....It could well be that Pinter's brilliance is altogether the wrong kind of brilliance to let loose on the scripting of this already nerve-raw, nightmarish subject. Jo...makes an eminently worthwhile, but virtually intractable, subject for a film: worthwhile because neurotics rarely get a square, sympathetic, penetrating deal in the cinema; intractable because, like many neurotics, she is a fixated and evidently crashing bore, and one of the most difficult things to do is to present a bore fairly without at the same time boring your audience too. Part of their tragedy is that bores, willy-nilly, seem often ridiculous. So the last thing a seriously-intentioned writer can afford to do is heap further grotesqueries upon them. But this is what has happened in Pinter's often genuinely amusing script. For every justified extravagance — in the characteristically ghastly party scene, for instance, or Maggie Smith's gushing fatuities as Philpott – there are a dozen which are not. The poor, crazy lady in the hair-dresser's is a schematic and surely rather portentous case in point; so is the Zoo, and Harrods, Jo's gloomy hats, and that windmill love nest, and the tiresome ambiguity of that psychiatrist off to Tenerife (is he perceptive, or unsympathetic, a good doctor or just a fashionable one?). Doubtless some kind of pseudo-Antonioni, pseudo-Fellini comment is being made on our society, but if this is indeed so then the glee and the ambivalence are significantly more telling, and certainly more apparent, than any clarity of focus."
According to Time magazine, "The Pumpkin Eater of the nursery rhyme put his wife in a pumpkin shell, and there he kept her very well. Giving a wry contemporary twist to Mother Goose, Penelope Mortimer's vivid first-person novel suggests that the poor creature then swiftly developed shell shock. In this slow, strong, incisive film version of the book, the ironing out of a well-kept wife's unkempt psyche is portrayed with harrowing perception by Anne Bancroft."Judith Crist of the New York Herald Tribune said Bancroft "seems a cowlike creature with no aspirations or intellect above her pelvis."Variety wrote "[Pinter's] script vividly brings to life the principal characters in this story of a shattered marriage, though Pinter's resort to flashback technique is confusing in the early stages. Jack Clayton's direction gets off to a slow, almost casual start, but the pace quickens as the drama becomes more intense."
The film continues to provoke comments decades later. In a 1999 obituary for Penelope Mortimer, The Guardian characterised Harold Pinter as someone who values what is "written between the lines", making him "her ideal translator and interpreter" for the film adaptation of Mortimer's novel. In 2006, David Hare wrote that "Pinter regularly offers actors what will become the opportunities of a lifetime: to Meryl Streep, obviously, in The French Lieutenant's Woman; to Peter Finch and Anne Bancroft in one of the most overlooked of all British films, The Pumpkin Eater; and, unforgettably, to Dirk Bogarde, both in Accident and The Servant.
Anne Bancroft won the award for Best Actress at the 1964 Cannes Film Festival and the BAFTA Award for Best Foreign Actress. She was also nominated for the Best Actress at the 37th Academy Awards, losing that award to Julie Andrews (who won for her role in Mary Poppins). Harold Pinter won the 1964 BAFTA Award for Best British Screenplay.
Turner Classic Movies showing
Turner Classic Movies presented The Pumpkin Eater on September 17, 2015 in commemoration of what would have been Anne Bancroft's 84th birthday. Shown before The Pumpkin Eater had been 1957's The Girl in Black Stockings and Nightfall. The remaining films were 1966's 7 Women, 1975's The Prisoner of Second Avenue and 1984's Garbo Talks.
- The Pumpkin Eater at the Internet Movie Database