Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

December 13, 2008

Revolutionary Road

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 7:04 pm

No other movie better captures the malaise of middle-class American suburban society in the 1950s than “Revolutionary Road” which is scheduled for release this month. Based on the 1962 novel by Richard Yates, it hurdles forward like a diesel locomotive from the very first scene. While there have not been many good movies coming out of Hollywood this year, “Revolutionary Road” is an instant classic. Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet are Frank and April Wheeler, the husband and wife locked in a cycle of abuse reminiscent of George and Martha in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf”. Unlike Albee’s play, there is no final reconciliation in “Revolutionary Road”, just the ashes of a broken marriage.

While Yates was not identified with the beat generation, his characters stepped out of Allen Ginsburg’s “Howl”:

who were burned alive in their innocent flannel suits
on Madison Avenue amid blasts of leaden verse
& the tanked-up clatter of the iron regiments
of fashion & the nitroglycerine shrieks of the
fairies of advertising & the mustard gas of sinis-
ter intelligent editors, or were run down by the
drunken taxicabs of Absolute Reality

“Revolutionary Road” refers ironically to the street in a Connecticut suburb where Frank Wheeler, his wife, and two children live. Each day he trudges off to his middle management job at a business machine company (computers are just about to hit the market) where he tries to get through the day fortified by lunchtime martinis and the occasional tryst with a secretary. At home, April is just as miserable living the life described by Betty Friedan in “The Feminine Mystique”. After listening to Frank’s complaint about his meaningless existence one time too many, April makes a daring proposal. They will sell the house and move to Paris, a city that he fell in love with as an American soldier during WWII. With all proportions guarded, this would be the equivalent for them of going on the road in Jack Kerouac fashion.

Unlike the beat generation or even his adventurous wife-a failed actress, Frank Wheeler is too committed to his comfortable middle-class existence to go off to Paris. Staying on Revolutionary Road might have been materially beneficial but at a terrible psychic cost as we see in the corrosive climax of this most powerful movie.

There is only one person in this bedroom community who seems to understand how sick everybody is, especially Frank and April who are stuck in their comfortable hell, and that is John Givings, the son of the real estate agent who sold them their house. The Wheelers, who have taken pity on John who has just been released from a mental hospital, allow the Givings to pay them social visits, painful exercises on a par with the final scenes of Albee’s play. John Givings has Frank Wheeler figured out completely and tells him in no uncertain terms that he is a coward for refusing to leave Revolutionary Road. He also accuses him of knocking up his wife so he’d have an excuse to stick with a job he hates. As Frank races toward John with raised fists, John’s mother (Kathy Bates) intercedes, saying “Don’t hit him. He is not well.” We understand that it is John who is well in the R.D. Laing sense and that everybody else is sick.

It is fairly obvious that John Givings is a vehicle for Richard Yates’s own strangled discontent with American society. As a young writer, he knew this scene from the inside having worked for Remington-Rand business products.

Despite his lack of connections to his contemporaries in the beat generation, let alone the practically non-existent radical movement of the 1950s, there is no question about Yates understanding what he was about. In a 1972 interview with Ploughshares, a literary magazine, Yates, who worked once as a speechwriter for Bobby Kennedy, is asked whether the title of his novel suggested an attack on the System. He replied:

I think I meant it more as an indictment of American life in the nineteen-fifties. Because 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 witch-hunts. 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.

Of the three top mainstream movies I have seen this year, all three had British involvement to one degree or another. “Slumdog Millionaire” was directed by Danny Boyle, a Briton. “Frost-Nixon” had a screenplay written by Peter Morgan, also a Briton. And “Revolutionary Road” was directed by Sam Mendes, an English-Jewish film and stage director born in 1965. Mendes’s last movie was “American Beauty”, another indictment of suburban American society. What conclusions can one draw about this? I suppose it only demonstrates that Great Britain is not as badly steeped in the culture of television as the United States, where so many young directors and screenwriters seem overly influenced by “Saturday Night Live” if they are doing comedy, or “Boston Legal”, if they are doing serious drama.

The adaptation of Yates’s novel is by Justin Haythe, whose debut novel, “The Honeymoon”, was nominated for the prestigious Man Booker Prize in 2004. Not having read Yates’s novel, I can not vouch for the faithfulness of the adaptation but I have no problems describing the screenplay as brilliantly executed. As is the case with many such movies based on a novel, my immediate reaction is to go out and read the novel-a sign that in a certain sense the movie has succeeded.

Look for “Revolutionary Road” in local theaters this month. It is one of the best movies you will see in any year.

Also, the Socialist Unity blog has a posting on the novel that is very much worth reading.

And even more suprisingly, there is this article on Yates’s novel by Christopher Hitchens in the Atlantic Monthly.


  1. The novel is indeed great. Yates had a Dreiser-esque sense of reality and could take something that would be melodramatic in the hands of a lesser author and make it unbearably poignant.

    Comment by Steve — December 14, 2008 @ 12:28 am

  2. This movie looks amazing I can’t wait to see it.

    Comment by de.borea — December 14, 2008 @ 6:31 am

  3. I’ll have to see the movie and read the book. We seem to be in the midst of a little “early ’60s nostalgia boom” with Mad Men and now this. Lou, did you get that Mad Men boxed set like I advised you to?

    Comment by John B. — December 14, 2008 @ 11:44 pm

  4. “Mendes’s last movie was “American Beauty”, another indictment of suburban American society.”

    Mendes also directed Road to Perdition and Jarhead.

    Comment by Daniel — December 19, 2008 @ 1:49 am

  5. I haven’t seen the movie yet but consider the novel one of the great obscure “finds” of recent years. Yates wrote his best novel first though his later collections of short stories are excellent in a similar way. He was a drunk and sometimes vicious, truly a victim of the America he deplored. Can’t wait to see the film and perhaps reread the novel.

    Comment by Elliot Podwill — December 20, 2008 @ 6:16 pm

  6. […] Revolutionary Road […]

    Pingback by 2008 movies–a consumer’s guide « Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — December 31, 2008 @ 8:07 pm

  7. This movie is a brilliant depiction of Marx’s theory of alienation. I don’t know that I have ever seen a more important or more relevant film.

    Comment by John D — January 25, 2009 @ 8:11 pm

  8. […] The performances are well judged, and the scenes of arguments between Frank Wheeler (di Caprio) and Alice Wheeler (Winslett) are very believable, as there is genuine chemistry between them. It is worth reading Louis Proyect’s appreciation of the movie here. […]

    Pingback by SOCIALIST UNITY — February 19, 2009 @ 12:05 pm

  9. How come we get to see it in Britain before you? My first impressions were about the acting itself. I always though de Caprio especially was a bit of a lightweight – not any more!

    All those with strong anti-abortion views ought to be made to sit an watch this film. There is a particularly really moving part where Alice quietly stands in front of her front room window, with it graphically clear that the self-abortion she had just attempted was not going to end well for her.

    The oppressiveness of 1950s suburbia is portrayed very well but, for me, there is one big jarring note about the film – the Wheeler’s proposed year in Paris wasn’t hampered by any financial considerations. Money wasn’t a problem at all and Frank was going to take the whole year off ‘to work out what he wanted to do with his life’ Well, lucky old Frank! I wonder how much sympathy many working class Americans watching this will feel towards the Wheelers plight?

    Comment by Doug — February 19, 2009 @ 4:27 pm

  10. Sorry – just realised the date you started this thread – I came to it via todays Socialist Unity link!

    Comment by Doug — February 19, 2009 @ 4:48 pm

  11. It’s interesting what Doug said in comment number 9 as “anti-abortionists should be made to watch this movie”…..I happen to be a staunch anti-abortionist and I felt this was a very strong anti-abortion movie. The premise of the story is based on selfishness and self-gratification. The Utopia that they (she) wishes to obtain would not necessarily have ever been obtained by going to Paris. His affair and her affair were both another vehicle of escape from the mundane existence that they felt they had.
    I liked this dark movie because of the exposure of the selfishness of man. This is definitely not “Leave it to Beaver” or “Father Knows Best” but the reality is that there were and are some families that are “the Cleavers” and did have a life filled with love and selfless parents who sacrificed their dreams for the lives of their family. Obviously the Wheelers (or at least Mrs. Wheeler) did not fall into that category.

    Comment by Tom — May 23, 2010 @ 9:44 am

  12. I agree with you Tom. I arrived at this website after searching on ‘revolutionary road anti abortion movie’. Frank Wheeler’s condemnation of his wife for considering an abortion seemed so common-sensical and obvious that I was surprised to see it in a Hollywood production. Though I did wonder if the later scene with Alice in front of the window was the result of a pro-abortion mindset.

    Comment by Stirling — July 26, 2010 @ 3:02 am

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