The Seduction of Joe Tynan & Honeysuckle Rose - (1979, 1980)
As a fan of New York filmmaker and photographer Jerry Schatzberg, I decided to finally see two of his films that until now had eluded me. Willie Nelson’s first starring vehicle “Honeysuckle Rose,” and Alan Alda’s first feature film after his Hawkeye stardom, “The Seduction of Joe Tynan”. Only to realize, more or less, they’re both the same movie.
Both films are about public figures, in Willie Nelson’s case country and western superstar Buck Bonham, and in Alda’s case a liberal senator Joe Tynan. The story of both films is a public figure, who are both in loving marriages with wonderful wives, Dyan Cannon in “Honeysuckle Rose,” and Barbara Harris in “Tynan.” In both films, the public figure goes out on the road, in Nelson’s case literally on a concert tour, in Tynan’s case figuratively on business trips looking for damning evidence to use against a possible Supreme Court Judge appointee. And in both films, they drift into an affair with a younger, sexy business associate, Amy Irving’s background singer in the music movie, and Meryl Streep’s political operative in the Beltway film.
In both films, the wife finds out about the relationship in a public setting. In “Honeysuckle Rose,” Cannon watches backstage as Nelson & Irving share a passionate kiss on stage in front of an arena of fans. In “Tynan,” Harris’ wife figures it out while sitting on a dais in front of an audience during a dinner honoring her senator husband, by witnessing her husband’s body language when he interacts with Streep. Both wives confront their partners; in “Tynan,” being a proper political wife, that night in the privacy of their bedroom. In “Honeysuckle Rose,” being the badass cowboy hat wearing Texas babe Cannon is, right that minute on stage in front of the whole arena crowd (in one of the film’s best scenes). In both films, the wives give the hubby the heave-ho, thus ruining the affair with the younger piece of strange.
And both films end (literally the last scene of both films) with the public figure (Joe & Buck) on stage, in front of his adoring fans, beseeching a silent sign of forgiveness from their scorned partner. As similar as their stories are, what I find the most interestingly insightful about comparing the two is seeing where they’re different. “Tynan,” which was written by Alda himself, was the better script. Yet “Honeysuckle Rose” is the better movie, and especially the better Schatzberg movie. The opening scene of the country & western opus is Willie Nelson hitting golf balls on the side of the road at dawn, while his bandmates in the tour bus sleep. This opening sequence immediately lures you into Schatzberg’s photographic gaze. While in “Tynan” (which looks a little drab by comparison), the most involving section is a B storyline of old, slightly demented senator Melvyn Douglass (terrific) trying to push through a racist Supreme Court candidate, and Tynan’s opportunistic betrayal of the old colleague. The “Seduction” of the title doesn’t refer to Streep & Alda’s philandering, but Tynan’s realization of his own opportunism. “Honeysuckle Rose” doesn’t even have a B storyline. Yet Tynan was written by a man (Alda) for himself to play. Where “Honeysuckle” was written by a woman Carol Sobieski (yes, there were many hands on this script, but it was originally Sobieski’s script, and not written for Willie Nelson, but for Hoyt Axton). And the way the female and male writers deal with the infidelity is where the two films part company. The way most male-centric movies deal with a husband’s infidelity is to bury excuses for their actions inside of dramatic scenes (Blake Edwards’ “Micki & Maude” for example). Implying that the wife, wonderful as she is, is unknowingly pushing her husband in the arms of another woman. And the character of the other woman is usually younger, sexier, and professionally more impressive.
I mean how can he resist, he’s only human?
And naturally, writer Alda starts stacking the chips against Barbara Harris’ wife right from the start. Revealing to both him and the audience that she resents the life of a political wife and has a distaste for politics in general. She even implies that while she supported his campaigns, she never really thought he’d win. And now she resents the political life she’s been forced to live, and that he’s become a stranger to their children by always being in Washington. Where naturally the sexy Streep is a natural born political animal, who not only shares the same goals as the senator but speaks his language as well. Thus giving a logical and emotional basis for the attraction and eventual affair (I mean it’s okay for a woman to not like football, but not if she’s married to a football player).
On the other hand, “Honeysuckle Rose” is surprisingly free of these dramatic justifications. Dyan Cannon’s wife is pushed such power in the script she could almost be its hero, and by the time she storms the stage, she is. She’s presented from the beginning and to the end as the perfect woman for Nelson’s superstar troubadour. And Irving is presented as who she is, a young sexy starstruck neophyte who seduces the older man into bed because she can. But in “Honeysuckle Rose” it’s not even like she’s particularly talented, or the two share a special chemistry on stage that bleeds into real life. On the contrary, earlier in the film Nelson and Cannon share a duet of Kris Kristofferson’s “Loving Her Was Easier (Than Anything I’ll Ever Do Again)” that brings down the house and illustrates the couple’s bond (it’s one of the best music scenes ever in a singing star’s movie vehicle). As opposed to Alda, Sobieski not only does not let Nelson off the hook, she has multiple hooks. Amy Irving’s character isn’t just some backup singer hired randomly to go on the road. She’s the young daughter of Willie’s old band mate (seemingly) best friend Slim Pickins (Irving doesn’t look like she even knows Slim Pickins, forget about being his daughter). So the entire story doubles down on Buck’s betrayal. Sobieski offers Nelson’s character no excuses other than the lure of young poontang when away from home. Both Willie Nelson & Alan Alda would go on to do many more movies. After “The Seduction of Joe Tynan,” all of Alda’s other scripts would be directed by Alda himself, and for a while he’d become a popular, if not important, writer-director-actor in the eighties. But they all would contain a white bread self-pity draped in soft focus sitcom glibness.
Willie Nelson would make many more movies as well. With this and Alan Rudolph’s stoned companion piece “Songwriter” being the best.