The only film directed by a woman released in the United States in 1979, and the last feature Joan Tewkesbury would ever make, Old Boyfriends speaks to one woman’s journey to understand her sense of self through the relationships that made her. Celebrating the film’s second life via Kino Lorber and the Criterion Channel, Cody Corrall digs deeper into the curious, subversive text.
The opening of Joan Tewkesbury’s romantic drama Old Boyfriends feels eerily similar to an action movie. As the beginning credits roll, your eyes follow a beige car with an intense curiosity. It’s moving fast, as if it’s in a chase scene with itself. And then, boom. The car slams into concrete. A dead end.
In the driver’s seat was Diane Cruz — played by a phenomenal post-Rocky Talia Shire — a suicidal clinical psychologist tormented by her past and uncertain of her future, after the loss of her husband. Re-discovering and obsessively reading through her old diaries, Diane pursues another form of introspection: a road trip to find all the important men from her past.
“I realized that if I could figure out who I was when I loved them, I would know who I am now,” she thinks. “And maybe love myself, too.”
According to the Directors Guild of America, Old Boyfriends was the only feature film directed by a woman released in the United States in 1979. And, unfortunately, it was the last feature film Tewkesbury ever directed. Before Old Boyfriends, Tewkesbury was best known for writing the screenplays for Robert Altman's Thieves Like Us and Nashville. And prior to her career in film, she was a prolific dancer, choreographer, and theater director. But in the last few years, Old Boyfriends — a film that has largely existed in obscurity — has been given a second life through a new 35mm restoration that toured the U.S., a release from Kino Lorber, and a streaming spotlight on the Criterion Channel.
Tewkesbury’s Diane is constantly in conversation with her younger self, both through the narration of her diaries and her attempts to rewrite the past. With the men who loved her more than she loved herself, the men who hurt her, the men she coddled and mothered. And while the story is technically about old boyfriends, Old Boyfriends is more interested in examining who Diane is without them.
Jeff is the first, and most influential, ex-boyfriend Diane visits. They were college sweethearts, and he was infatuated with Diane enough to propose three times. But it was Diane who rejected him. “There’s no way I can be myself and a wife,” she writes in her diary. The framing of this relationship is indicative of a seismic shift in the way films spoke about women in the late 1970s. Following the sexual revolution in the 1960s and the overturning of obscenity laws in film, there was more room to experiment with the depiction of female sexuality, and a woman’s role in a romantic relationship. Diane is not doting or submissive, waiting for a man to save and protect her, and she’s certainly not hell-bent on marriage. Rather, Old Boyfriends gives Diane a refreshing sense of physical and emotional autonomy. Not only are traditional gender roles reversed through revisiting these relationships, but Diane is also able to find power in herself outside of men.
As it was originally written by Paul and Leonard Schrader, Old Boyfriends was intended to be Old Girlfriends, a gender-swapped version where a man tracks down his ex-girlfriends. But Paul was unable to direct the film, and his agent, who also represented Tewkesbury, arranged for her to join the project. And so, Tewkesbury helped re-write the screenplay from the perspective of a complicated, endlessly fascinating woman.
Throughout Old Boyfriends, there is an emotional weight given to the construction of Diane's appearances. In some instances, she wants to recreate how she looked at the time to revisit a past headspace, but other times, she wants to be almost unrecognizable. For Jeff, she was the mysterious woman drinking alone at a bar. For her high school boyfriend Eric, a pre-Blues Brothers John Belushi, she puts on the veneer of an aristocrat to insinuate that her life is better than his. She checks into a fancy hotel, dons an elegant nightgown, and orders an expensive bottle of Scotch — a complete diversion from Eric, a loser who plays in shitty cover bands for high school proms and empty bars.
The next night, Diane recreates the sexual fantasy Eric always tried to pressure her into. It’s one of the clearest moments of Diane’s attempt to rewrite history — they’re parked in her car at a popular teenage makeout point, Diane looks much younger with her hair pulled back by a thin headband, and she’s begging Eric to call her a “cock teaser”, to belittle her just like “old times”. But instead of giving him the satisfaction of finally winning her over, she leaves him sexually frustrated and drives off without him. By making Eric see their history from her own perspective, Diane is able to finally move on from the pain he caused her.
To conclude her experiment, Dianne visits Louis, the first boy she kissed in elementary school. When she discovers that Louis was killed in Vietnam, she bonds instead with his younger brother Wayne. Diane takes Wayne through her old life with Louis and tries to recreate it by sleeping with him, which makes the fantasy more morally complicated for herself and a still-grieving Wayne. The ripple effects from her entire experiment come back to her in full force, as she realizes the gravity of this relationship road trip and its intersection with her own mental health.
One of the most compelling features of Old Boyfriends is Tewkesbury’s use of colour and lighting. Diane looks and feels the most powerful against the red velvet hotel room she stays in to wait for Eric. She is the most vulnerable in the cobalt blue tile bathroom, crying and splashing bath water in the heat of her mental crisis. But the way Tewkesbury frames the men of the film is equally revealing. In an interview for the Criterion Channel, the filmmaker said she told cinematographer William A. Fraker to “light these men the same way you would light a beautiful woman.” When Jeff sees Diane for the first time in a bar, the audience follows his gaze as he looks to a mirror above him, his features softened and almost angelic. It’s a unique inversion of the rugged, tough-guy aesthetic that was typical of the era, illustrating how these men exist in Diane’s mind: objects of lust, of desire, of fantasies.
In the same interview, Tewkesbury explained she likes “movies that don’t answer questions.” Even with its confessional storytelling techniques, there’s an aura of mystery to Diane that looms over the film. The audience rarely learns a detail, unless she chooses to reveal it herself — and at some points, she’s not the most reliable narrator. It’s like reading a diary through a kaleidoscope.
Tewkesbury went on to explain that test audiences and critics hated the film at the time — largely in part because they found Diane unlikeable and her situation implausible. As a result of the film’s critical reception, Tewkesbury spent the rest of her career directing made-for-television movies and a string of television episodes.
Old Boyfriends’ recent resurgence is indicative of its timelessness. It’s a rich, curious text that hones in on life’s most confounding questions: Who are we because of the people we meet? Who are we when we’re all alone? With Old Boyfriends, Tewkesbury argues that these different identities aren’t at odds with each other, rather, they must coexist in order to get at the heart of who we are.
Cody Corrall (@codycorrall) is a culture critic for the Chicago Reader and Cine-File, among other places on the world wide web. They also co-host "Into the Twilight'', a vampire-adjacent podcast.