SHEILA LEVINE IS DEAD AND LIVING IN NEW YORK (1972) by Gail Parent

Levine-reprintA slight change of pace here at Fedora, revisiting a comic novel from the 1970s. Sheila is a young Jewish woman from Pennsylvania who in the early 60s heads to the Big Apple in search of domestic bliss. After a decade of setbacks though, she decides to kill herself. But before taking this final step, she decides to set down just what took her to this point. Hugely popular in its day, this funny and painful novel was filmed in 1975 (and was the basis for an unmade TV pilot too). We begin, at the end …

I submit this film/book review for Bev’s Vintage Mystery Challenge and Tuesday’s Overlooked Film meme over at Todd Mason’s fab Sweet Freedom blog.

“I’m entitled to have an orgasm. It’s my right. The first guy who’s going to give me one, I’m going to marry”

On the first page Sheila, now 30 years old, tells us she has had enough and is going to kill herself. But first she goes over the last decade of her life to explain her actions to her few friends and her overbearing Mum and passive Dad (though she’s not too worried about her young sister Melissa, who had the unmitigated gall of getting married before her). Sexually outspoken and with some very salty language, this sometimes plays like the distaff side of Portnoy’s Complaint (Sheila even says so early on), with its confessional mode, episodic structure, and relentless sense of a child who is not able to break free of the shackles imposed by a possessive if loving mother (which pays off in a massive way in the finale by the way).

“(Gynecologists are in the protection racket. Spread it around.)”

Parent_Levine_pbStruggling under the burden of unrealistic expectations centered entirely on happiness through the conventions of marriage and becoming a parent, Sheila never seems to find her niche. She is overweight and somewhat ungainly and feels that she is not obviously attractive – she has plenty of sex, making herself easily available, but as a result devalues herself on the market. While she constantly jokes that her experiences just don’t match what she learned in movies starring Doris Day (who was born Doris Mary Ann Kappelhoff), the constant sense of disappointment is forever present, though tempered by plenty of humour. The book is filled with hilarious asides (usually delivered either in clock capitals or in parentheses) as she goes from one disaster to another, endlessly looking for the right man to marry but ultimately just having to make do with a lot of unfulfilling sex instead. Saddled for years with the world’s dullest boyfriend (but her Mum loves boring Norman, needless to say), she fulminates against flat-chested girls with straight her, cute-looking guys who turns out to be gay and a world just doesn’t seem ready to give her what she needs. The only person who really falls for her turns out to be Agatha, a woman she meets of Fire Island, which is unfortunate because Sheila just doesn’t “dig that sort of thing”). Even when she goes looking for spiritual renewal and heads for a holiday in Europe with Linda, her roommate and best friend (who is forever breaking up with guys for the daftest reasons), she can’t break the pattern – she gets dumped by her friend for most of the time (Linda finds a suitor right away, on the plane out) and when they come back, their place has been robbed – the cops are not especially sympathetic:

“You haven’t got a chance in hell that you’ll ever see your stuff again.”
“Can’t you check the pawnshops? They did that once on Dragnet.
“It ain’t going to show up. You’ve got to be crazy, lady, if you think it’s going to show up.”
“Thanks anyway.”
“You’re lucky to be alive, lady.”

Parent_Levine_pb2So the time comes when she sets her plans in motion and starts planning her suicide. She of course has high expectations here too, spending a huge amount of time getting even the right kind of underwear in which to be buried. She decides on a day (July 3rd so she’ll be buried on Independence Day) and starts to actually enjoy herself much more when she stops worrying about money, her weight and so on. There are some hilarious problems along the way (she can’t get a single plot in the graveyard of her choice so has to buy two adjoining ones – the universe just doesn’t want to stop reminding her she in unmarried it seems). So, will Sheila finally find a way to keep on going or will she take the pills and die? Parent comes up with a smart ending that is consistent with what has gone before and which keeps the mixture of laughter and tears at just the right level. Yvette Banek, the charming hostess of In So Many Words … reminded me of this book the other day, and the movie adaptation, and sent me scurrying to the loft, where I found my copy from long, long ago. Thanks Yvette – the book was great – the movie though …

“Sheila Levine is every single girl who ever had to attend her younger sister’s wedding” – from the original film poster

The screenplay for the film was by Parent and her longtime writing partner (and former New York University classmate) Kenny Solms and she also has a small cameo, so one assumes she was fairly heavily involved in the production. However … Jeannie Berlin (daughter of Elaine May by the way) plays a much more gauche and weak version of the character in the novel. Also, physically she is far from perfect casting as Sheila because she is rather slim and it is such a major part of the book that the character is forever obsessing about being overweight and envious of the stick thin creatures who end up with the available men. Speaking of which, Roy Scheider plays a new character, Sam, and much of the story now is based around her relationship with him while he ends up with her roommate instead. In a sense, it’s the movie version that Sheila might have liked as it irons out most of the rough edges, streamlining the story into a more conventional Hollywood romantic comedy mould – but it’s become, in part at least, precisely what the book was making fun of. Weird thing to happen and a real shame frankly …

DVD Availability: This title is not currently available commercially on DVD but can be streamed via iTunes and other online services.

Director: Sidney J Furie
Producer: Harry Korshak
Screenplay: Gail Parent, Kenny Solms
Cinematography: Donald M. Morgan
Art Direction: Fernando Carrere
Music: Michel Legrand
Cast: Jeannie Berlin, Roy Scheider, Rebecca Diana Smith, Janet Brandt, Sid Melton, Charles Woolf, Leda Rogers, Talley Parker, Noble Willingham, Lyle Moraine

I enter this review as part of Bev’s 2015 Silver Age Vintage Mystery Challenge Bingo in the ‘woman in the title’ category:

019-Vintage-Silver-Parent

***** (3 fedora tips out of 5)

 

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24 Responses to SHEILA LEVINE IS DEAD AND LIVING IN NEW YORK (1972) by Gail Parent

  1. Oh, my goodness, Sergio, I remember reading this! I liked it, too, for its sardonic eye and human story. It’s a nice look at the times, too. I confess I’ve not seen the film; interesting how it ended it being both better in some ways, and in some ways the very target, if I can put it that way, of the original book.

    • Thanks Margot – the book is much better than the film (which admittedly I haven’t re-watched for this review – it’s been a while and I think I have only ever watched it in Italian 🙂 )

  2. le0pard13 says:

    Hard to not like a title such as this.

  3. Yvette says:

    ‘The charming hostess …’ thanks you, m’dear. 🙂 I talked about the movie on my blog a couple of weeks ago, I think I liked it better than you did although I didn’t love it. Jeanne Berlin has such an expressive face (perfect for close-ups) but she is too attractive and too thin to play Sheila, yes. I was first attracted to the movie by a memory of Roy Scheider – I remembered him in a white suit. Yeah, that’s the sort of thing that sticks in my mind. But he is so wrong for Sheila and you just know he will eventually break her heart no matter what the movie implies with their ‘happy’ ending.

    I did read the book eons ago but don’t remember any of it. Ha. It’s just as well because I probably wouldn’t connect with it now. The seventies were so fatiguing.

    The movie was available for viewing on youtube recently on youtube but who knows if that’s still going on. At any rate it’s available over at Amazon for rental.

    • Thakns Yvette. I really enjoyed reading the book, which is just wonderfully 1960s – in a way it really seems to be a capper for the whole decade, looking forward (sic) to the more acidic 70s … Funny what you say about the great, late Scheider in the white suit, because that made me think of Last Embrace, that great Hitchcockian thriller he made with Janet Margolin in which he plays a spy who has a nervous breakdown – remember that one? Very easy to find on YouTube …

  4. Colin says:

    Unfamiliar to me although something about the film stirs some vague recollection that’s picking away at the edges of my memory.

    • Not a hit in its day and not easy to find on video – I think I saw it vecause it co-starred Scheider and was directed by Furie, both of whom are in fact slightly miscast (sic) – but that was decades ago. The book is often very funny.

      • Colin says:

        Something tells me I may have seen at least part of it long ago, but I’m really not sure – I’ve seen so much now obscure 70s stuff that I can get them mixed up.

  5. kaggsysbookishramblings says:

    A new to me title, and sounds very much of its time but very much worth reading! I think I’d definitely stick to the book though – why do movies have to smooth things out so???

    • Thanks Karen. It is annoying about the way movies for broad audiences always seem to take the path of least resistamce, but then inevitably the rational is laways the same: because they cost too much 🙂

  6. Patti Abbott says:

    Yes, loved the book and remember being bitterly disappointed in the film. I think this may have been the end of her career.

  7. More book than movie for me, I think, Sergio. I’d love to read those sort of lines in a book, humour being one of my weaknesses.

  8. Most intriguing – the title& author sound familiar but reading your review didn’t ring any bells, and I definitely haven’t seen the film. Something of an early Bridget Jones? I feel I will have to read this one for sociological study purposes…

  9. tracybham says:

    This makes me very interested in the book, for sure. I do remember you and Yvette discussing the movie, and it is new to me.

  10. Todd Mason says:

    One has to wonder how much Parent was pressured, or simply rewritten, in the course of filming.

    • Well, who knows – but it’s not like she didn’t know her way around the process so probably just accepted that it’s a different animal. I just wish Woody Allen would do it as a period piece now (seriously).

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