(Click here for information on the 2018 edition of Molly’s Imaginary Summer Book Club Featuring Classics of Women’s Literature. As all of the four selected titles have filmed adaptations, we will be looking at the movie versions as we go along. This week, the June selection, Gail Parent’s Sheila Levine is Dead and Living in New York.)
Gail Parent’s in-every-way-a-Lost-Classic opens with an anecdote about a man who made his fortune selling diet milkshakes to New York City’s anxious single women- when the dieters start worrying that it’s too good to be true and City Hall investigates, it is revealed that the miracle shakes contain four times the calories advertised, Sheila asks the question
DO YOU WANT TO LIVE IN A WORLD WHERE A MAN LIES ABOUT CALORIES?
What follows is a 200-page suicide note, tabulating the accumulated injustices against being a 30-year-old single woman in a man’s, man’s, man’s world. Sheila tells all and spares no one.
Smart, funny, cute (but not beautiful like her younger sister), Sheila starts by putting her doting parents squarely in the crosshairs, charging that her cossetted upper middle class Jewish American Princess upbringing has left her woefully unprepared for anything but life as a doting wife and mother:
Married? Married, you say? Mother, this is your daughter, Sheila, you were talking to. I wasn’t programmed for marriage. In your day, things were different. In your day there was such a thing as an ugly bride.
While Sheila Levine argues that the much-celebrated Sexual Revolution was mostly beneficial to men (and especially to mediocre men), it is always a furious, hilarious, right-on shouting romp. Sheila’s suicide is the ultimate opt-out: she’s done, she done with the whole consumer-industrial complex, and she’s flipping everyone the bird on the way out.
Sheila details her romantic disappointments in full, most especially her 7 + year relationship with Norman, the boy her parents love (and Sheila snarkily notes that her mother’s in love with), but she can’t stand (he wears jackets with flecks on them!). Half-heartedly following her mother’s advice of “don’t throw out the dirty water until you have the clean”, Sheila is never faithful to Norman, but hangs on to him hoping for the day she can turn his marriage proposal down.
Sheila is always loveable, but not always likeable. She is picked up by (and sleeps with) an obnoxious Black business man to appease her social conscience, admitting that if he was white she’d kick him out of her apartment. When a female acquaintance develops a crush on her she handles it less than gracefully, yet somehow ends up with a gift of a gold bracelet from the woman. Her interest in the political issues of the day extend only so far as they can improve her life:
Wanna know what I really felt badly about? New York is so abortion-minded, it’s part of the culture, and yet they passed that abortion bill too late for the hundreds of girls who needed abortions when I did. Couldn’t they have made it retroactive and written us all an apology?
Once she decides on a course of action, Sheila’s outlook on life improves quite a bit:
Yes, sir, the first thing I did when I made the decision to kill myself was to stop dieting. Let them dig a wider hole.
My whole attitude was different. I started wearing plaid pleated skirts. I wore diagonal stripes and unslenderizing colors. I took cabs everywhere and didn’t worry about the meter. I went to Broadway shows and sat in the orchestra. It’s hard to believe that Jackie Onassis did those things without thinking twice.
Impending suicide improved my personality. Really, I became more honest, more direct and perhaps a little bit devil-may-care.
Sheila also starts a sexual relationship with Harold, who seems to have some kind of death fetish and is endlessly fascinated by her plans for her own demise (including procuring Greenwich Village’s hippest rabbi to read her eulogy, which will include a diatribe against “vaginal sprays” and the other consumer products Madison Avenue deems de rigueur for single girls).
The book ends with Sheila taking an overdose of sleeping pills and complaining that they don’t seem to be working fast enough.
The book concludes with an epilogue, which opens with Sheila noting that she realizes it’s unusual for a suicide note to have an epilogue. Of all the people to have a clairvoyant urge, it was her mother who had a bad feeling when she didn’t answer the phone and summoned the paramedics to her apartment:
My psychic-witch mother interfered with my life and my death.
Sheila relates that she had to have her stomach pumped, and observes that none of Doris Day’s single girl-heroines had to have their stomachs pumped.
Awakening in the psych ward at Bellevue, Sheila herself seems a little surprised that her new attitude has endured her suicide attempt, aided by the army of handsome Dr. Kildares that are attending her:
They were around me all the time, just checking things. Yeah, it was those men in the white coats that made me want to live. They’re all attractive, and they’re all concerned, or they seem to be. They smile at me. All I need is one out of the six.
You wanna know something? Mom, Dad, Rabbi, listen. I don’t want to die. I want to date!
I’m not sure if the ending is supposed to be taken at face value, and Sheila is ready to return to her apartment, turn her pre-purchased casket into a couch and continue flipping the bird at consumer culture… or if dating-and-mating hysteria has really driven her around the bend, making her literally crazy.
But either explanation has to be more satisfying than the truly terrible film version of the book that appeared in 1975.
In Backlash Susan Faludi noted that audiences of the day booed the ending, which radically departed from the book, but I was booing through the whole running time.
While Parent’s book was a vintage Joan Rivers routine on the verge of going nuclear, Sidney J. Furie’s adaption is as much reactionary, moralizing propaganda as Looking for Mr. Goodbar, but somehow even drearier.
Played by Jeannie Berlin, daughter of writer/director/actress Elaine May and best known for her role as Lila in May’s The Heartbreak Kid, Sheila is a sad sack wallowing in self-pity and Berlin is completely wasted.
Roy Scheider plays Dr. Sam Stoneman, the repulsive cad that she has a one-night stand with at the beginning of the movie (trust me, it takes some doing to make Roy Scheider repulsive), an anti-abortion abortion doctor who immediately takes up with her roommate, Kate.
Berlin is too good for the role, and film gets emotional payoffs that it doesn’t really earn, just by focusing on the devastation on her face every time things go wrong.
A substantial change from the book is having Sheila move to New York from Harrisburg, PA as the film opens- the book literally begins with Sheila detailing her pedigree as a native New Yorker, enumerating addresses from Washington Heights to Franklin Square, Long Island, to the East Village, Chelsea and the “Stew Zoo” of the Upper East Side. Making her a hick from the sticks defangs her frustration about being a self-conscious wiseguy about the ways of the big city.
Gone too is her long-time, long-suffering BFF, the perpetually dissatisfied, globetrotting, Mad Magazine-reading Linda Minsk, replaced by coworker Rochelle, whom Sheila tries to comfort after getting ditched after a quickie sexual encounter. While in the book Sheila rails against her mother attempting to make her “repressed”, the movie clearly thinks young ladies should settle down with the first guy who shows up with an unwanted gift of a strobe light.
Midway through the film, Sheila abruptly returns to Harrisburg for her younger sister’s wedding, and stays on to teach at the local grade school. In the book Sheila (rightfully) resents the advice to go into teaching, because what is a girl with a college degree to do if she can’t land a husband? Here she has a genuine rapport with her students, which naturally results in her getting fired.
Calling the hospital and conning her way into getting Sam’s home phone number, Sheila is shocked when his secretary gives her the number of her own New York apartment. Sam is shacking up with her old roommate, Kate.
How are we going to empower our heroine? By employing the biggest goddamn cliché of them all: THE MAKEOVER MONTAGE!
Showing up at her old apartment with newly plucked eyebrows and a chic new pantsuit, Sheila attempts to seduce Sam with a ridiculous dance (the movie is always laughing at, never with our main character). Sam responds by telling her Kate is pregnant and they’re going to be married.
Kate confesses to Sheila that the child is not Sam’s (and implies that she has secretly been working as a hooker) and as soon as they’re married she’s going to sneak off and secretly have an abortion (when she broached the subject with him he FREAKED OUT).
Sam gets to deliver a big monologue which I guess is supposed to make him sympathetic and vulnerable, but instead just reveals him to be a big baby sorehead whiner who literally can not handle rejection.
Improbably, this leads to Sam confessing his love for Sheila to Kate and Kate confessing that he’s not the father of her unborn child, paving the way for Sam and Sheila to be reunited.
And the saving grace of this whole movie may be the fact that it ends on an ambiguous note: the audience never learns if Sheila accepts his marriage proposal.