Once upon a time, I did not like The Heartbreak Kid, starring Charles Grodin and Cybill Shepherd. There were many reasons. The first one was that when I initially saw it, I thought it was just one tediously long set up to a very obvious and simple joke. The set up is that a guy goes to ridiculous lengths to pursue a woman who’s completely out of his league. The punchline is that as soon as he gets her, he becomes disenchanted because when you get down to it, he never really loved her; it was all about the thrill of the chase. My initial reaction was that if this was the entire point of The Heartbreak Kid, a lot more could’ve been done with this joke.
Another reason why I didn’t care for the movie initially is that it felt like director Elaine May had put out a poor man’s version of The Graduate as an expression of some professional envy she might’ve had of Mike Nichols. This may not make sense to younger readers, but if you don’t know, Elaine May was one half of the 1960s comedy team, Nichols and May. When they went solo, Mike Nichols shot The Graduate, which not only became a smash hit and cultural phenomenon but put him on the map as a well-respected, regarded director. May, on the other hand, never really attained the level of acclaim that Nichols did. In fact, she would later go down in history as having written and directed one of the worst, most maligned movies of all time, Ishtar (1987).
Knowing this, I used to feel as though The Heartbreak Kid was a self conscious attempt at trying to compete with Nichols–or at least prove to everyone that she was just as capable as he was of making a name for herself outside of their partnership. Not only were the themes and pacing of both movies very similar, May even had the movie end similarly to Nichols’ film, with the protagonist looking lost and uncertain about his marriage on the day of his wedding.
Keep in mind that I don’t know what May’s intentions were when she made The Heartbreak Kid. For all I know, it could’ve also been shot in admiration of The Graduate. I’m just saying what my initial impressions of the movie were. Something about it to me on first watch reminded me of that classic song, “Anything You Can Do.”
A decade after having last seen the movie, I had pretty much forgotten it because of how underwhelmed I’d been by it. Then it came on last year and I decided to see whether my negative impressions held up. To my surprise, I found myself enjoying the movie a lot more than I did the first time, perhaps because I had learned so much about all the themes that the movie was trying to explore. But before I go into these themes, let me give a synopsis:
The Heartbreak Kid: A Rundown
Charles Grodin plays Lenny Cantrow, a newlywed who begins to have buyer’s remorse just days into his honeymoon. After one really exhausting road trip from New York to Miami Beach where he’s forced to listen to his dopey wife Lila warbling Karen Carpenter off-key for several hours, he mentally checks out by the time they reach their hotel in Florida. A day or two into their Miami Beach honeymoon, he’s out on the beach sunning himself to escape from Lila (who is convalescing in their hotel room after a bad sunburn), when all of a sudden, he’s approached by a very beautiful young flirtatious blonde woman named Kelly Corcoran. A vision of loveliness, it’s love at first sight–at least on Lenny’s end–and he decides right then and there to dump his wife and marry Kelly instead.
Kelly Corcoran couldn’t be more disinterested in Lenny; bored while vacationing in Miami Beach with her parents, he’s nothing more than a harmless flirtation to pass the time before going back to Minnesota. On top of that, he’s clearly a thirsty little slime ball. But he is very persistent in trying to get her, even as her father, Mr. Corcoran, grows increasingly hostile towards him.
Facing both indifference from his love interest and abject hostility from her father, any other man would’ve just given up and walked away. But to Lenny, these obstacles only make the pursuit of Kelly even more exciting. So, after he divorces Lila, he literally goes out to Minnesota to stalk Kelly at her college campus. Eventually, he wears her down until she gives in and agrees to marry him.
At the wedding reception, Lenny couldn’t be more overjoyed; he has finally won the object of his desire. But then the movie ends on a completely sour note, with the triumphant groom suddenly sitting forlornly on a couch by himself, looking just as lost and uncertain as he did in the beginning of the movie when he was having second thoughts about his first marriage.
Now, with that being said, what is The Heartbreak Kid about? It it just a one-joke movie about a shallow, immature dope who lets his impulsive feelings of lust get the best of him? Is it a cautionary tale about confusing love at first sight for the excitement of chasing someone that is hard to get? Or is there something else going in?
Believe it or not, there’s a lot of very interesting and subtle social commentary going on in The Heartbreak Kid, one that might be somewhat surprising to younger viewers. Let’s take a look at what is lurking underneath the surface.
WASP-itis, Jewish Self-Consciousness and the Shiksa Goddess
In recent years, there’s been a lot of confusing dialogue about race, class and privilege. This is especially when it comes to talks about “whiteness.” People will often talk confidently about “white privilege”, “acting white” or “stuff white people like” as if they were certain about what they were talking about. But if truth be told, they actually don’t. So, to clear the air, we need to pin down exactly what people are actually talking about when they mention “white people”, or alternately, “wypipo.”
Okay, then–so what does anyone really mean when they either praise or rant about “white people,” especially in terms of class or privilege? They may think that they’re talking about all white people. But they’re not. What they’re really referring to is a specific demographic of white person, what we used to call the WASP.
What is a WASP? Short for White Anglo-Saxon Protestant, this is a person who is white, middle class, suburban and Ivy League-educated. WASPs used to be directly associated with New England; however, they can come from any region of the country where a white person not only fits the WASP criteria but looks, acts and dresses in a way that immediately scream “WASP.” Some stereotypical attributes that usually come to mind when thinking about WASPs include: being members of a country club; preppy fashion (blazers with insignias on them, tennis togs, and cardigan sweaters tied around the shoulders); interest in upper class sports (for example, tennis, polo and golf, as opposed to baseball, boxing and racecar driving); owning one or more luxury yachts; hosting and attending fancy dinner parties; Neoclassical mansions styled in a very reserved, traditional English country style.
Seems pretty innocuous, right? However, over time, anything WASP started to be mocked as white bread or “vanilla.” The reason is that a key aspect of WASPiness was stripping oneself of anything that might betray any ethnic, immigrant or regional roots, not just in terms of name, but in terms of appearance and tastes. So, for example, the WASP did not have names like Angelino, Arianna, Dominic or Billy Ray. He or she had a name like Lyndsey, Ann, John and Robert. The WASP did not have dark, curly or wavy hair, suggesting he might be Jewish, Italian or other type of non-Northern European ancestry. His hair was always straight and typically blonde, gray or light brown, and done in a very neat, conservative style. He did not have certain tell-tale facial features that hinted at some Eastern European, Mediterranean, Latin, Asian or black roots, like dark eyes, a large nose or thick lips. He or she had what was called an All American/Boy or Girl Next Door look, best exemplified by Ken and Barbie and such actors as Robert Redford, Farrah Fawcett and Christopher Reeve. This look often included but was not limited to strongly defined jawlines and cheekbones, very thin noses and pencil-thin lips.
To the uninitiated, the term WASP may seem like a frivolous throwaway term to refer to a particular demographic. But WASPs were more than a demographic; they were the ideal by which Americans all had to live and die by. WASPs represented wholesomeness and purity, like the Cleavers from Leave it to Beaver, The Bradys from The Brady Bunch and the Nelson family from The Ozzie and Harriet Show. WASPs represented class, intelligence and breeding. But most of all, WASP were pure American through and through–as American as apple pie, July 4th fireworks, the bald eagle and the national anthem.
In short, the WASP defined what it meant to be a true, blue American. But it also was the standard by which whiteness itself was defined. That is to say, in America, naturally, the best thing was to be white, but look–if you were going to be white, be WASP. Why? Because WASP was the best white to be, the purest kind of white. If you were white and non-WASP, then you fell short of being really white. But worst of all, you were never really fully American.
This sounds like an exaggeration, so let’s play a little game. Many celebrities over the years changed their name from something that was pretty ethnic or regional to something that was WASPy, in order to be acceptable to mainstream audiences. Let’s see if you can guess who some of them were.
Q. Who was Aryeh Leonard Rosenberg? ———————————————————> A. Tony Randall.
Q. Who was Concetta Rosa Maria Franconero? ———————————————–> A. Connie Francis.
Q. Who was Ramón Antonio Gerard Estévez? ————————————————-> A. Martin Sheen.
Here’s one last one, which I’m sure you’ll love–
Who was Tadeus Wladyslaw Konopka? Yes. You heard me. Tadeus Wladyslaw Konopka. Who was that guy?
He was…wait for it…this guy–
Why did Margarita Carmen Cansino–later known as Rita Hayworth–have her hairline straightened via electrolysis, on top of dying it red?
Because, being of Spanish descent, her hairline was a dead giveaway that she wasn’t purely American–i.e., not WASP-y enough for American audiences.
The point being? For the longest time, even if in America you were white, you weren’t truly white or fully American until you WASP-ified your name and appearance.
Here is another more stunning example of how large a figure the WASP cut in American society. When JFK ran for president, many Americans were completely terrified at the idea of him winning. The reason why is that JFK may have been white as snow, Ivy League-educated, a war hero and from New England but he was–gasp–a Catholic and had ethnic roots. So, people at the time literally thought, “Oh, shit–a Catholic Irish guy? We can’t have him as president! We need a real American, one whose loyalties are to America and not to the Vatican or Dublin.”
The sheer and utter dread in the early 1960s of a white Irish-American Catholic becoming president was such a big deal that it actually became a bone of contention during the presidential election. It was such an issue that JFK had to keep reassuring everyone over and over again that it was okay–he was a real American, and no, he wouldn’t be taking orders from the Pope or getting the national anthem replaced with “Londonderry Air.”
The prejudice that people like JFK experienced because of WASP Worship was of course ridiculous. But worse than the prejudice was how so many people wound up internalizing it at the expense of their self-worth. After growing up learning that WASPs were the most attractive, most socially desirable and most privileged out of any demographic, many people who weren’t WASP developed an inferiority complex–a “WASPitis,” if you will–that automatically made them feel that they were “less than”.
A movie where you can see this inferiority complex playing out to a tee is the tearjerker, Love Story (1970). In it, a college student of working class ethnic stock named Jenny (played by Ali McGraw) falls in love with a classic preppy WASP, Oliver (played by Ryan O’Neal). It truly is a match made in heaven. However, when they first meet, she heaps nothing but scorn on him. Not only that, she takes perverse pleasure in swearing like a truck driver and acting like a boor to watch him squirm, because according to the stereotype, WASPs are delicate little snowflakes who can’t handle anything remotely edgy or earthy. They are the type to clutch their pearls and faint from shock if you even so much as utter a “damn.”
Why does Jenny behave this way towards Oliver, even though she’s really in love with him? Because being working class, ethnic and immigrant, she is so insecure about the fact that Oliver is WASP–and so threatened by the potential of being looked down on him or of having to live up to his exacting standards–that she handles her insecurities by going both on the offensive and the defensive. On one hand, she’s all, “FUCK YOU, YOU DON’T LIKE THAT I’M WORKING CLASS, WASPBOY? WELL, RIGHT BACK ATCH’YA!” When she’s not busting Oliver’s balls, she’s all, “I don’t care if people like you really think people like me are uncouth, loud and beneath you; I’m gonna swear, talk dirty and be blunt. I’m gonna wear all the characteristics of being working class with pride.”
As insufferably childish that Jenny is in the beginning, Oliver is smart enough to realize what’s happening and puts up with her obnoxious behavior. What eventually happens is that Jenny finally gets over her insecurities and realizes that Oliver couldn’t care less about her working class roots. She then goes on to make a life with him, living happily until the bitter end.
Not everyone saddled with WASPitis matures out of it like Jenny from Love Story (1970) does. Some people are so tormented by their feelings of being “less than” and not measuring up to WASP standards that they start going to absurd lengths to get over them. One classic tactic is to simply try to act and pass for WASP. For example, if they have a last name like Bartoli or Lewinsky, they might change their last name to Bart or Lew. They may adopt the stereotypical mannerisms and looks of a WASP. For example, they might drop their regional Midwestern, Southern or New Yawk accent for a flat Mid-Atlantic or New England accent, dress in preppy clothes and start eating stereotypical WASP food, like spring salad and watercress sandwiches.
In the most extreme cases, they may even resort to bleaching their skin and hair, putting in blue contacts and using plastic surgery to erase anything from their nose, lips and eyes that gives the tiniest hint at their race or ethnicity–i.e., anything to get that “All American/Ken and Barbie” look.
Another thing that people suffering from WASPitis might do is try literally becoming a member of the WASP class, via political or business connections. Some may even decide to marry a WASP–the more blonde, blue-eyed and Aryan-looking, the better–in the same way a commoner in royal times have tried marrying an aristocrat to become part of that class.
Going back to The Heartbreak Kid, when you first meet Lenny, he’s looks like your typical weaselly social climber. He is, but not in the sense that we traditionally think of one. It’s not that Lenny wants to become rich, famous or powerful. The problem with him is that like so many people suffering from WASPitis, he’s become incredibly self-consciousness about his ethnicity–which is Jewish– to the point where he’s become a self-hating Jew. In his mind, there’s something about being Jewish that makes him less than in American society, and so he’s riddled with insecurities about his social status.
All of these issues have clearly been bothering Lenny for years, but they seem to finally bubble to the surface when he goes on his honeymoon with his Jewish wife. As soon as they get into the car, he starts noticing things about her that he hadn’t seen before and before he knows it, his wife starts to look more and more like a JAP to him.
What is a JAP? Short for Jewish-American Princess, this was a negative stereotype of a specific type of Jewish woman who was middle class but had earned a reputation for being incredibly image-conscious to the point of vainness and narcissism. She could also be shrewish, whiny, obnoxious or a combination of all three. (Think: Melissa and Joan Rivers, who spent most of their lives obsessed with designer clothing and plastic surgery.) On SNL, Gilda Radner famously poked fun of JAPs in a designer jeans parody called “Jewess Jeans,” where the model in the ad is said to have “designer nails and a designer nose.”
Is Lenny’s wife a JAP? Of course not. She’s just a woman who likes to sing Carpenter songs really loudly, has poor table manners and is insecure. But the oh, so self-conscious Lenny can’t just see her as having personal flaws that many people regardless of ethnicity may suffer from. Crippled by self-loathing, all he can do is look at all her, cringe, think, “Oh, so Jewish,” and see her as a living, breathing and walking reminder of all the ways he feels that a Jew like him falls short in a country where WASP is king.
Just as Lenny couldn’t feel worse about himself and his wife during his honeymoon, enter Kelly Corcoran the “shiksa goddess,” who suddenly appears to him like an angel descended from the heavens above. (Literally. Director Elaine May has her head halo’ed by the sun when she first enters the frame.) What is a shiksa goddess? To a Jew, she is a babe–usually blonde–who, most importantly of all isn’t Jewish. While a shiksa by virtue of not being Jewish is seen as automatically more attractive than a JAP, it’s the oh, so blonde WASP that separates the ordinary shiksa from a shiksa goddess.
Because Kelly Corcoran fits this shiksa goddess ideal to a tee, Lenny is immediately taken with her, but for all the wrong reasons. You see, besides Lenny being a self-hating Jew, he’s also saddled with all of this baggage about social status. When he marries fellow Jew, Lila, it’s not so much out of that all too natural human desire to marry someone of the same background. Lenny sees himself as settling for a middle class Jewish marriage, because in his mind, that’s all he can hope for in terms of social standing. In other words, marrying a Jewess and being a sporting goods salesman is the best he–as a Jew–can do.
When Kelly–an upper middle class WASP–begins flirting with him, Lenny doesn’t just see this as an inconsequential flirtation; for him, it’s a life-changing event. The fact that he can attract the attention of a WASP means that he’s good enough to marry one, and if he’s good enough to marry one, that means that he’s too good to spend the rest of his life as a middle class New York Jew married to another Jew. He can ditch his wife and that whole socioeconomic class for a WASP one, where he’ll be of a higher social standing surrounded by a better quality of people, with a better caliber of wife, living the high life eating WASP food consisting of “honest potatoes” and “non deceitful cauliflower.”
Driven by this lust for status and higher social standing, Lenny stops at nothing to win Kelly so he can move up the social ladder, even going so far as to even dump Lila and drop his business and home in New York so he can get a completely fresh start in Minnesota. You can see how little Lenny was interested in Kelly as a human being in the last scene of the movie. During the wedding reception scene, she’s wandering around among the guests looking for Lenny because he basically abandoned her to do some hobnobbing. When she finds him, he tells her, “I’ll be with you in a second,” because all he cares about at that point is trying to get into the good graces of everyone there.
He is so focused, in fact, that right after he and Kelly walk around the reception hall arm in arm for a little while, he immediately ditches her again to hobnob with guests for a second time. However, this time around, there’s no Kelly to distract him and not too long afterward, we see a dejected Lenny sitting all by himself on the couch looking like the embodiment of that classic warning, “Be careful what you wish for…”
But why? He won the shiksa goddess and pretty much married his way into WASP society. So what’s the problem exactly, if there is one?
Enter the ending.
About That Ending…
If you thought that all there was to the ending of The Heartbreak Kid was exposing Lenny as an impulsive, immature dope, you’d be forgiven, especially if you’ve seen the ending to The Graduate. However, as we’re about to find out, there’s a lot more to the ending than a guy who is feeling as if his romantic pursuit has ended on an anti-climactic note. What we see is a victim of WASPitis realizing how delusional he’d been the entire time thinking that it was going to be smooth sailing and clear skies as soon as he married a WASP. Instead of life changing for the better, his dreams have come crashing down with a thud.
A lot of clues about what’s eating Lenny in the closing shot are in the dialogue during the wedding reception scene. After he gets married, Lenny couldn’t be happier or more triumphant. He’s won the shiksa goddess and has married himself into WASP society. Now all that’s left to do is start building connections with them and slowly but surely drop his Jewish roots and all the social insecurities that comes along with it.
But something tragicomical happens as Lenny starts talking to members of Kelly’s and her parents’ inner circle. He expected to start having lively, boisterous conversations with a demographic he has spent all of his life imagining to be superior in every way. He also expected them to be as impressed with him as Kelly and her mother were with him. Instead, what happens is that he can’t have a decent conversation with anyone. The first reason is that they aren’t really all that impressed with Lenny’s smooth moves and snake-like charms. When he tries to get something going, they just gloss over what he says and move on to the next topic.
Another reason why Lenny can’t connect with the wedding guests is that these particular WASPs are completely devoid of any real depth or personality. They don’t think about philosophical or political issues, and they have no real meaningful thoughts about anything outside of business and finance. So, they are as dimensional as cardboard cutouts and about as interesting, too.
As if that weren’t bad enough, many of these people are either in boring, vacuous or repugnant business sectors. One guy makes food for veal, a controversial food item that requires calves to be raised in horrible conditions. Another guy works in the oh, so exciting world of insurance and a third guy deals in tear gas. Even for a social climbing weasel like Lenny, the vapidity and soullessness is all too much, and the more he tries to connect with anyone, the more disenchanted he becomes. And now it looks like, much to his disillusionment, that these soulless vampires are the people he will have to interact with on a regular basis from that day on if he wants to become an established member of WASP society.
The nightmarish situation that Lenny has put himself in doesn’t really hit him until sometime later. Frustrated by how little headway he’s making with the adults at the wedding, he tries his luck with the children. He thinks, “Now, we’re talking! Maybe the adults are soulless and boring, but kids are always full of personality and vitality. Plus, they’re really impressionable and will really like what I have to say!” Instead, he learns that the children are just as vapid as the adults. He asks a 10 year old boy, “What do you want to be when you grow up,” and all the kid can do is shrug his shoulders and say, “I haven’t decided yet,” when he’s at that exact age when children usually dream of becoming firemen and ballerinas.
The children are also not taken with Lenny, and after he tries to get a conversation going with them like he tried with the adults, they simply politely excuse themselves to join the other wedding guests, leaving the disenchanted bridegroom all by himself wondering, “What did I get myself into?” And so the last lingering shot of Lenny Cantrow isn’t one of joy but disillusionment and ambivalence, even though he now has the bragging rights of having bagged a trophy shiksa goddess and gained entry into the upper echelons of Minnesotan WASP society.
Still The Poor Man’s The Graduate, But Much Better in Hindsight
You’d think that after all of this, I’d feel that The Heartbreak Kid is an underrated masterpiece or something. Well, no–I still think it’s a poor man’s The Graduate and a self-conscious attempt on the part of Elaine May to replicate its success. It’s just that given what I learned about all the themes it was exploring in terms of class and ethnicity, I have a better appreciation for the movie now than when I first saw it ages ago. Perhaps after reading this, you will, too.