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Adultery as an American Subject: Our Cheatin' Hearts

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There's much more at play in the recent spate of adulterous liasons made public than simply leering nosiness, and a seemy delight in watching the mighty and the accomplished dragged through the mud. America's fascination with the transgressions of Tiger Woods, Mark Sanford and David Letterman is really an old school theme in American cultural life. Adultery is a very American topic. We've been redefining the parameters of its acceptability and taboo with each new generation since the Scarlet Letter.

Adultery has become more visible recently due to the technological advances like texting which is now often involved in the discovery and proof of contemporary adulterous relationships. Then there's the Internet that lets people acquire and disseminate personal information about anyone anywhere in the world with the same effortlessness as standing around at the water-cooler when you're supposed to be working.

But the times themselves are also stressing marriages to the max, and - as we know from the great depression- this puts a strain on people's relationships. When divorces and separations spiralled during the thirties, Screwball Comedy was invented to describe, contain and discuss America's prolonged courtships and strained marriages. The catalogue of genuinely funny films that followed, It Happened One Night (1934) is still one of Hollywood's high water marks. If you haven't seen Bringing Up Baby, The Awful Truth, Philadelphia Story or Midnight you've got an inexpensive treat in store for those long afternoons with family during the coming holidays...

Well, times are tough again these days. People are still losing their jobs and houses. There are more homeless adults and children in America than ever before. More people are using food stamps and returning to live with their parents or parking in brother Bob's basement suite. There are divorces and separations and even postponements of weddings due to lack of cash, jobs, prospects.

Really important too, is the fact that after 9 long years of war, more and more military families are splitting apart under the pressures of anxiety, low military pay, and the prolonged absences of protracted service. In this environment of stress and hardship, its no wonder that websites that arrange assignations for cheating spouses -like Ashleymorgan.com- achieve greater popularity. America is lonely and stressed and needs, as my man Marvin once called it, 'Sexual Healing'.

Kudos to Tiger Woods for refusing Ashleymorgans offer of $5 million to endorse adultery and their website. If they are trying, as Hugh Hefner once did to change people's values they're facing a tough road. In conservative Toronto recently, the public reacted strongly against Ashleymorgan.com's bus ad "Life is short. Have an Affair." Even though in North America, 1/5 of all married women and about 2/3s of all men have an affair during their married lives, no one's happy about it. Sex is powerful stuff that shouldn't be handled casually. Guilt, shame and humiliation are the price of trivializing one of society's most powerful taboos. Just ask my ex-wife.

Anyway, my respects to Tiger now for trying to save his embattled marriage. But my respects to Jenny Sanford for 'walking away from trouble with her head held high'. Lastly, my respects to David Letterman for facing the music squarely and getting on with it. I'm going to hope that some clever writers in Hollywood read this and get the idea of writing a modern comedy that thematizes the changes taking place in our ideas about adultery.

Anyway, my respects to Tiger now for trying to save his embattled marriage. But my respects to Jenny Sanford for 'walking away from trouble with her head held high'. Lastly, my respects to David Letterman for facing the music squarely and getting on with it. I'm going to hope that some clever writers in Hollywood read this and get the idea of writing a modern comedy that thematizes the changes taking place in our ideas about adultery.

The Awful Truth (1937) (Irene Dunne, Cary Grant)
Casablanca (1942) (Bogey and Ingrid Bergman)
Dr. Zhivago (1965) (Alec Guinness, Julie Christie)
The Graduate (1967) (Ann Bancroft, Dustin Hoffman)
Bob & Carol, Ted & Alice (1969)
The Woman Next Door (1981) (Gerard Depardieu, Fanny Ardent)
Postman Always Rings Twice (1981) (Jessica Lange, Jack Nicholson)
French Lieutenant's Woman (1982) (Meryl Streep)
Fatal Attraction (1987) (Sharon Stone, Michael Douglas)
Sex, Lies and Videotape (1989) (Andie Macdowell)
Indecent Proposal (1993) (Robert Redford, Demi Moore)
Bridges of Madison County (1995) (Meryl Streep, Clint Eastwood)
American Beauty (1999) (Kevin Spacey)
Eyes Wide Shut (1999) (Tom Cruise, Nicole Kidman)
Unfaithful (2002) (Diane Lane)