July 15, 2014
The year after he directed the Emmy-winning football weepie Brian’s Song, Buzz Kulik made the now-forgotten coming of age drama To Find a Man. Brian’s Song packed big emotions into the small-screen, while To Find a Man is a big-screen feature after the small things: privileging atmosphere over grand gestures. It’s a teen sex movie interested in the kids’ milieu and personalities rather than their libidos, which it treats as a given. The plot is straightforward: it’s Christmas break on the Upper East Side of NYC, and nerdy ginger kid Andy (Darren O’Connor) is tasked to find a discreet abortion doctor for his beautiful and increasingly demanding childhood friend Rosalind (Pamela Sue Martin). New York State legalized abortion in 1970, when the film was in pre-production, necessitating full-scale changes in Arthur Schulman’s screenplay, which proceeded as if the procedure was still illegal (Schulman had covered similar ground in his Oscar-nominated script for Love With the Proper Stranger (1963)). With naturalistic, awkward performances from O’Connor and Martin, it was selected for a competition slot at the 1972 Cannes Film Festival, but it didn’t make an impression stateside, and was eventually retitled by Columbia Pictures as The Boy Next Door and Sex and the Teenager to lure the trenchcoat crowd (to no avail). It has been almost impossible to see until it recently appeared as a digital download at iTunes and Amazon, though in a cropped 1.33:1 version, probably made from a television broadcast master some decades ago. But it’s either viewing it this way or not at all, and it is a valuable time capsule of NYC in the early 1970s, as well as being an affecting portrait of how freeing the loss of youthful illusions can be.
To Find a Man might never have been made if not for the suggestion of former New York Times film critic/stick in the mud Bosley Crowther, who had left the Grey Lady for a position as story consultant and editor at Columbia. In 1969 Crowther oversaw the purchase of the rights to S.J. Wilson’s novel To Find a Man. Arnold Schulman was announced as director, and production was supposed to begin in December of 1969. That plan was dissolved when New York State legalized abortion, necessitating major rewrites. The protagonists’ ages were lowered to justify their inability to easily secure the now legal procedure – now justified by Rosalind’s fear of her parents finding out. Shooting finally began on February 1st, 1971, and according to The Hollywood Reporter, Arnold Schulman was still the director. Kulik was not brought on until early March. It remains unclear if any of the footage shot by Schulman made it into the final film, or why he was removed from the job in the first place. It was to be the veteran writer’s directorial debut after twenty-one years as a writer for TV and film. Perhaps he started to fall too far behind schedule and Kulik, familiar with the even tighter schedules of TV and fresh off the popular and critical success of Brian’s Song, was a logical replacement.
While we don’t know what caused his departure, Schulman has a big influence on the finished film, as he retained the sole writing credit, and shepherded the project through its many iterations. To Find a Man contains many similarities to Love With the Proper Stranger. They share a non-judgmental view of sex and its aftermath, preferring to dig into location and character. To Find a Man depicts Andy’s insulated Upper East Side, one with neighborly pharmacists (Tom Bosley) and avuncular neighbors (Lloyd Bridges), though one also strangely emptied out. All the adults have disappeared or are wilfully ignorant of their activities. Andy’s parents have left on a trip and are absent the entire feature, while the man who impregnated Rosalind is the latest boy-toy of the mother of Rosalind’s best friend. Though there is a psychic toll to all this absenteeism, physical violence occurs only when Andy crosses the line out of the UES and into the wider world of NYC, including chaotic public hospitals and pawn shops. Love With the Proper Stranger is concerned with working class upbringings on the Lower East Side, of families only a generation or two removed from Italy. Their families are suffocating in their constant presence, leading to Natalie Wood flailing into sex to escape her childhood home.Perhaps this is why neither feature is available on DVD or Blu-ray, despite the latter’s star power of Steve McQueen and Wood. It’s easier to market sex than the lives that happen to engage in that activity.
To Find a Man may not have stars, but it does have indelible performances. Whether or not Kulik was involved in their casting, he elicits engagingly gawky performances from Darren O’Connor and Pamela Sue Martin. It is the only film O’Connor ever acted in, and the reedy, squeaky-voiced redhead is deeply affecting (his sister, Glynnis O’Connor, has had a long career on TV (Law & Order) and movies (Johnny Dangerously)). The role is a nerdy archetype, but O’Connor doesn’t play it as insecure or shy despite his body type. Instead he’s a process-oriented obsessive, intent on getting the most discreet, cost-effective abortion he can find. With his parents AWOL, Andy can take care of himself, and he’s one nerd who never succumbs to self-pity or misogyny. Sure, he’s in love with Rosalind and jealous of her lover, but he also is able to process and compartmentalize it with swift efficiency. The sadness to him is that he has lost all remnants of being a child. This becomes painfully clear when Rosalind’s dad (Lloyd Bridges) has a drunken heart-to-heart with him and blurts that his daughter’s “got most of her brains in her tits.” Andy is continually pulled into the adult world of self-loathing and misogyny, just out of circumstance.
Rosalind is another complicated teen. She is conceited, increasingly aware of her sexual power over men, but also intensely loyal to her friends and very sweet when she lets down her guard. Pamela Sue Martin can shift between shrieking vanity and calm concern as if they were on the same wavelength (she would hone that shrieking later in 1972 on The Poseidon Adventure). There are no big twists or breakthroughs, and Andy doesn’t get the girl. At the end of To Find a Man, everyone is basically back where they started. It’s a film where nothing happened and everything happened at once. In aiding Rosalind in getting an abortion, Andy has shed his last vestiges of innocence, extinguished his puppy love and walked away from his lonely childhood forever. And he seems happy about it.