"It's not supposed to happen. But it does, more often than you think. And when it does..."
With Peter Strauss on my mind since last week's post, I decided to look up and watch the 1993 television movie Men Don't Tell, starring him and Judith Light. If you've never seen this film, I highly recommend checking it out on YouTube and approaching it with an open mind. Somehow I missed it the first and only time is aired on network television, despite its tense subject matter, which received a lot of buzz. You see, this is a movie about domestic violence--with a twist: the wife is the aggressor/abuser, and it was based on a true story.
When it aired on CBS in 1993, it infuriated a lot of feminist groups. After all, women are incapable of being the abusers in a relationship, right? Wrong. According to recent statistics, up to 40% of domestic abuse victims (at least in the UK) are male (this doesn't clarify how many are gay men being abused by gay partners.) Despite the movie's rating success (coming in third behind Home Improvement and 60 Minutes and being seen by over 18 million American households) it has never been re-aired on network television, but it did receive some play on Lifetime. It has also never been released to DVD and to the best of my knowledge, no other film has covered the same subject matter since.
Another myth that the movie aims to dispel about male domestic violence victims is that they must be weak, wimpy excuses for men. Director Harry Winer purposely wanted a masculine actor for the role, but as he soon found out, even men were ignorant about the topic of the film. According to Winer, "Our first choice was an actor who said he was very offended that we sent him the script. He was angry at his agent for soliciting the script and forwarding it to him for him to read. Peter Strauss, a very bright man, accepted and did a very good job."
Indeed, Strauss looks very macho in the movie, sporting a mustache, biceps and (quite ironically) those underwear shirts known as "wife beaters." His character, Ed MacAffrey, works as a construction site manager and drives a pickup truck. Judith Light plays his wife, Laura.
The movie opens with a police scene at the home of the MacAffreys. Laura is unconscious and taken away in an ambulance while Ed is detained by the police, who assume that he is responsible for his wife's injuries. In a series of flashbacks while being questioned, Ed reveals the incidents of emotional and physical abuse he suffered in the marriage with each event getting progressively worse as the storyline progresses. Fans of Who's the Boss? will admire Light's performance, but certainly not her character. Laura is controlling, neurotic, jealous, and quite possibly suffering from mental illness. An early clue of her behavior is seen at the beginning of the film when she dumps Ed's leftover birthday cake (with only a quarter of it eaten) into the sink. She's prone to emotional outbursts and jumps to conclusions easily, eventually believing that Ed is having an affair with a woman from the construction company. What starts out as a punch to his lip escalates into a rage-filled pummeling that results in a shiner. At one point she even cries, "Look what you made me do!"--a common excuse of many abusers. She also rams her car into his truck several times and tries to win him back with sex.
As wrong as it sounds, I will admit that at many times throughout the abuse scenes, I really wanted to see Ed fight back. He certainly is capable of doing so; in one early scene he is nearly mugged in front of his daughter but fights the thug off, then tells the girl that what he did was stupid and wrong. Ed is not only concerned about the welfare of his daughter, who has been witnessing most of her mother's outbursts (there's also a young son but for some reason he isn't present throughout most of the movie) but knows that punching Laura back would be wrong. He also still loves her, although each fight really chips away at their relationship. Towards the end of the film, Ed finally does defend himself and the couple's daughter when Laura hits her during one particularly nasty fight.
Another important light the movie shines on domestic violence is the lack of support and resources available to male victims. One of the most humiliating scenes is when Ed calls a women's shelter to make an appointment to talk to someone, and is immediately scorned as someone who is playing a prank, and hung up on. When Ed tells family members and friends that Laura punched him, they laugh it off in disbelief. His father, a retired police officer, even instructs him after one incident to tell the police that he was responsible for what happened but was also drunk.
It isn't until the near end of the movie that the MacAffrey's daughter reveals to the grandfather and police what has really been going on ("Mommy hits Daddy") and Ed is finally vindicated.
Reviews about the movie when it aired were very positive. Television critic Ray Loynd of the Los Angeles Times wrote, "The most sobering point about 'Men Don't Tell' is that we go into the story conditioned to make jokes about wives hurling rolling pins at their husbands and then starkly witness how unfunny and terrifying it really is. Light's vicious, insecure wife is a harrowing portrait, although ultimately, to the actress's credit, touched with sympathy. Her bleak image in the movie's last scene is shattering under the fine direction of Harry Winer. And Strauss' pummeled husband --whose wife flails him with sudden, sharp fists that are so realistic they make you flinch--is a study of a warmly masculine man who is no wimp, AND NO WIFE HITTER, either."
Something I noticed at the end of the film, unlike other made for television movies of its time that touched upon controversial subjects, was the lack of a hotline number that male domestic abuse victims could call to receive support. Perhaps it's because the notion was still so unknown at the time, that very few organizations that included or were aimed at men existed. Fortunately, that has changed--although many stigmas against battered men are still around. A few male domestic violence support groups tried unsuccessfully to get CBS to re-air Men Don't Tell 20 years after its release; hopefully this blog post will bring a bit more attention to the forgotten film.
You can view the full movie on YouTube here or here.