Making marriage glamorous

Posted: Mar 29, 2001 12:00 AM
Russell Crowe is a bit of a rogue. Everybody knows that. He stole Meg Ryan from her husband and then dumped her, and got the reputation of a bad boy. Roguishness never kept any good (or not-so-good) actor from getting an Academy Award, and in Hollywood it might even help. Steve Martin, in tweaking Russell Crowe about his womanizing, tried to give marriage equal time. From his comedy pulpit at the 73rd Annual Academy Awards, he noted that Tom Hanks, twice best actor, had one of the best and longest marriages in Tinseltown. If that's not equal time, at least it's time. But marriage doesn't have much voice in movies these days. In "Erin Brockovich," Julia Roberts plays a single mother. Marcia Gay Harden, who won the Oscar for supporting actress, plays a woman in "Pollock" whose husband abuses her. The "Gladiator" pays homage to a love marriage as a moral reference point, but husband and wife rarely see each other. Action is more important than romance. Epic plays bigger than intimacy. Marriage doesn't sell and cynicism abounds on and off the screen. "Rules III: Time-tested secrets for making your marriage work" is just out, following two best-selling books of advice to women about how to get and keep a man. The latest volume, unfortunately, coincides with the announcement that one of its two authors is getting a divorce. Ellen Fein joins the celebrated pontificators who must insist: "Do as I say, not as I do." No longer can we believe "A Rules Marriage Is Forever." The Rules books were to women of the '90s what "The Feminine Mystique" was to women of the '60s. If Betty Friedan wrote a radical treatise for liberating women for work, Ellen Fein and Sherri Schneider, the authors of "Rules I" and "Rules II," provided a reactionary blueprint for liberating a woman from spinsterhood. Women should be all that men fantasize them to be, which requires them to act aggressively passive and to fake subservience. With several ironic twists, the character of Lee Krasner in "Pollock" was like that of a Rules girl. She always put the needs of her husband first. She nurtured genius, not marriage. What's clear in 2001 is that there is no map, movie or advice book to tell women how they should act to guarantee a happy marriage. The stresses on marriage, for better and for worse, come from many directions. The sexual revolution has made monogamy more difficult for both men and women, and the two-paycheck family brings in more money but offers less time for nourishing family life. Even the tax structure is harder on the 25 million married couples who pay higher taxes as a couple than if each were single. President Bush and Congress are talking about ways to eliminate this marriage penalty, but it hasn't happened yet. At the same time, married mothers who don't work are the Rodney Dangerfields of society: They don't get no respect. Adam Phillips, a psychotherapist who writes provocative books about the arts of the flirt and the kiss, also wrote a book on monogamy in which he suggests that monogamy must be made more glamorous. But how do we do that? Catherine Zeta-Jones got a prenuptial agreement from her new husband Michael Douglas, a notorious adulterer in his first marriage, to pay $5 million each time he's unfaithful to her. That's quite an insurance policy for monogamy, but brides probably have to look like the new Mrs. Douglas to get that kind of payoff. (And what would the adulteress have to look like to be worth $5 million?) Frank Keating, the governor of Oklahoma, suggests a more mundane prenuptial approach. He's proposed a $10 million "marriage initiative" program in which a "scholar-in-residence" would conduct "marriage research" for prenuptial training classes. Several other states are looking for ways to teach "marriage skills," but if these classes are taught anything like academic skills in public schools, it doesn't sound promising. Still, it's no longer trendy among the "experts," feminist and otherwise, to say that women are better off when they're not married. On significant measurements of health, wealth and well being, married women and men score higher than their single counterparts. If that's not glamorous, it's not bad. You could ask Tom Hanks and the missus.