Warning: the following article contains spoilers, and makes gratuitous use of the term ‘boffing’ as a euphemism for sexual intercourse.
One of the many pleasures to be found in Mad Men, the slow-burning, smoke-filled US television drama currently airing on BBC4, surely lies in spotting the countless cinematic references with which almost every episode is filled. Indeed, as the third series of the Sixties-set show continues to unfold on British screens, it’s becoming increasingly apparent just how much of a role movies from the period have in shaping creator Matthew Weiner’s vision.
For a start there’s the way that Mad Men looks. Like many films from the Fifties and early Sixties the show is, by and large, studio-bound. Don Draper, Peggy Olsen et al spend most of their time in the kinds of New York offices, apartments and bars that, with a few subtle modifications, are familiar to us already from films like The Apartment, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and The Girl Can’t Help It. And then there’s the way that Mad Men is shot: no hand-held malarkey here, just the kind of smooth, conventional compositions and strong, vibrant colours that one would find in any mainstream Hollywood movie from the period.
The real testament to the show’s cinephilia though is the way in which, from time-to-time, a particular film or directorial style is allowed to take over part of an episode, if not the whole 50 minutes. So, when Peter drunkenly boffs the German au pair next door one hot August evening, we’re put in mind of a more realistic, regretful version of The Seven Year Itch. And when Don dives off into another life in Los Angeles, or pursues a woman out of sheer world-weariness, or does pretty much anything in fact, we’re reminded of the Sixties heyday of director Michelangelo Antonioni.
Don Draper is, in many ways, a classic Antonioni character: rich, handsome, alienated. By Series Three we know that, like Jack Nicholson in The Passenger, a young Draper once took advantage of a chance encounter with a dead man to abandon one life in favour of another. But it’s La Notte, Antonioni’s 1961 story of a night in the life of a distant, married couple, that seems to resonate with him the most. In Series Two, we see Don watching the film in a cinema, smoking a cigarette, completely absorbed. He later tells Bobbie Barrett, the married woman he’s become involved with, that he likes foreign films a lot, and La Notte in particular. Soon enough, he and Bobbie are embarking on exactly the kind of nighttime adventure that Marcello Mastrioanni and Jeanne Moreau have in the Italian film, an experience that’s cut short only by a drunken car crash on a country road.
Don soon repents, of course, and, packing his inner-Antonioni away, runs back to his wife with his tail between his legs. But the question always remains; how much of this mysterious man can Betty – and by extension we – ever really know?
Betty’s world, by contrast, is a little more Douglas Sirk than Michelangelo Antonioni. Her riding school, the shops and cafés that she frequents, and the interior of her suburban home are all shot though with the kind of bright, airy colours favoured by the émigré director in his best-known work (Imitation of Life, All That Heaven Allows, Written on the Wind). Sirkian themes abound in her private life too. The impossible, platonic affairs that Betty has, first with a preppy young rider then with a greying politician, are full of the tension and the frustration inherent in the best of the director’s politically-charged melodramas.
There’s a touch of Sirk too in the way that black characters are treated in Mad Men. This being the early Sixties, we see them only on the periphery of the white world, as maids, barmen and elevator ‘boys’. The family’s cook and cleaner Carla has much in common with the overlooked, quietly-dignified nanny in Imitation of Life, who is allowed into white society but only on its own terms. When the liberal(ish) Betty expresses doubts as to whether the civil rights movement has “come too soon”, Carla can only bite her tongue and carry on with her work.
In Stirling Cooper’s lift operator, by contrast, we see something quite different. An exchange with the naïve Peter reveals (after much “I-really-couldn’t-say-sir”-type evasion) something that looks suspiciously like the kind of frustrated, politicised black consciousness that would come into its own later in the decade, and would burst onto cinema screens in the early Seventies.
Joan, of course, is Marilyn. Or, as someone jokes at one point, “Marilyn’s a Joan.” But Marilyn is soon dead, in 1962, and Joan is left alone to pick her way through the rest of the decade as best she can. Frustrated in her career, unthinkingly belittled and (on one occasion) raped by her fiancé, we see in Joan what a mid- and late-Sixties Marilyn might have become. The femininity that she’s always clung to increasingly seems like a trap. Her options, like Betty’s, are narrowing by the day. What would Marilyn do? And what does Joan do? That is… a question.
There are hints of moments from other movies too. Is it stretching things too far to see a little All About Eve in Peggy Olsen or a little Rock Hudson in Sal? Visually Mad Men is nothing like Alexander Mackendrick’s Sweet Smell of Success, but there’s more than a whiff of Burt Lancaster’s JJ Hunsecker about quite a few of its characters, at least in their more ruthless moments. And in Peter’s rise to the top of the greasy ad agency pole, there are surely parallels with Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis), the obsequious and driven publicist who first sucks up to Hunsecker, then all but destroys him. On the surface, Peter seems less troubled by the morality of the shark-tank in which he swims, but still, there are moments when signs of a conscience start to appear (for example, during the tearful reunion with his wife after the au pair boffing incident).
And if we’re conscious of the role of the movies in shaping what we’re seeing, then so are the Mad Men themselves. As creative people who work in advertising, the characters absorb, episode-by-episode the influences around them. So, one week they’re borrowing a sequence from the musical Bye Bye Birdie for a Pepsi commercial, and the next Don Draper’s sitting in the dark, drinking in the latest Antonioni. The first time we see Draper at the movies, we assume that he’s playing hooky. Several episodes later, someone asks him if he’s seen Bridge on the River Kwai. “I’ve seen everything,” he replies, “and I have the ticket stubs to prove it.”
Indeed could Mad Men exist at all without reference to the movies? The answer is probably not. After all, perhaps more than any other, the Sixties was a decade shaped by visual change, by innovation in design, fashion, photography and film (as well as in music of course). Advertising then did exactly as it does now: it co-opted, re-used and ripped-off cinematic culture, both high and low. As both Don Draper and Matthew Weiner know only too well, the Mad Men of Madison Avenue ignore the movies at their peril.