A year before he directed All About Eve, Joseph L. Mankiewicz made A Letter to Three Wives, which landed him the Oscar for best director and best screenplay. It unabashedly falls within the category of Woman’s Picture, as it deals with the nature of female rivalries and how they can affect marriage. Three women—Deborah Bishop, Lora Mae Hollingsway, and Rita Phipps—constantly compare themselves to Addie Ross, a longtime friend and rival. By doing so, the women cause the weaknesses in their marriages to grow until the possibility of failure seems likely.
The story starts with Deborah, Lora Mae, and Rita escorting a group of underprivileged children on a picnic. They have each had some sort of disagreement with their husband, and are somewhat frazzled. As they wait for their friend Addie to show up, they are met with the news that she has left town for good and receive a goodbye letter in which Addie lets them know how much she will miss them. Oh, and by the way, she has taken one of their husbands with her. The three remaining women are forced to spend the rest of the day pondering their marriages and wondering if they are the one who will be left alone. Each wife has a flashback that elucidates the troubled nature of her marriage, and all will be revealed at the dinner dance later in the evening.
Deborah’s (Jeanne Crain) marriage is the first to go under the flashback microscope. She met her husband Brad (Jeffrey Lynn) in the Navy, and they have now come home to civilian life. Brad is older and wealthy and she comes from a farm, but the disparity of their backgrounds meant little when they were both in uniform. As she prepares to dine out with Brad’s friends, she realizes that her dress and hair are quite wrong and that she looks like a hayseed. She tries to bow out of the event, but one of Brad’s oldest friends, Rita (Ann Sothern), convinces her that everyone will accept her because she is Brad’s wife. While at the party, she learns of Brad’s old flame Addie Ross, who is his equal in distinction and class: Addie always does the right thing at the right time. Most everyone assumed that Brad would one day marry Addie, and it is this vision of what-could-have-been that haunts Deborah’s marriage. In her mind, she is only a poor substitute for Addie, and she believes her husband will always be comparing them. It doesn’t matter that she grows into her role of Brad’s wife by becoming sophisticated and socially successful; in her mind she will always be less than what Brad desires and deserves.
Next up is Rita and her husband George (Kirk Douglas). George is a schoolteacher and Rita is a successful radio writer; they have twins and what seems to be a perfect marriage. Rita earns the bulk of the family income, and George is generally pretty cool about it (especially for the late 1940s), only occasionally feeling emasculated. For the most part, though, he is proud of his smart and independent wife. He does not, however, value radio and the commercialization of its content, which makes his wife feel as though what she does is not valued.
Their relationship comes to a head when she invites her boss over for dinner. George does not like how Rita kowtows to her boss, and it certainly does not help that Rita’s boss, Mrs. Manleigh, is a philistine who believes that the evening radio soap operas are equal to the classics in quality. The situation is compounded by the fact that it is George’s birthday and Rita has not remembered, but Addie Ross has. In the end, Rita feels as though she fares poorly when compared to Addie, who has “taste and discrimination.” For all that they enjoy the money that she brings home, Rita feels as though her work is devalued by a man who would rather listen to the rare classical music records that Addie gave him than appreciate the radio work that helps support him.
Lora Mae (Linda Darnell), and her marriage to crass Porter Hollingsway (Paul Douglas), is the most visibly contentious of the three. Porter owns a chain of department stores, and she once worked for him. In her flashback, she consents to date him because she wants to explore the opportunities that seeing the boss can provide. There’s no funny stuff, though; just because she lives right next to the railroad tracks, it doesn’t mean she is going to act like a girl from the wrong side of town. Her end goal is marriage—not just a promotion or a raise—and if Porter doesn’t want to give her what she wants, she isn’t going to put out the goodies.
Porter is friends with Addie Ross, and would love to possess her and all that she embodies. He is a self-made man, and there is one thing that he will never have—class. Addie, and by extension her class and distinction, is something that he can never have, and thus he wants nothing else. By the time Porter and Lora Mae come to an agreement regarding marriage, he feels as though he is being used for his money, and Lora Mae feels as though she is viewed as property. She cannot help but to compare what she brings to the marriage (beauty and sex) with what Addie Ross would have brought.
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