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A Very Private Woman:
The Life and Unsolved Murder of Presidential Mistress Mary Meyer
by Nina Burleigh
(Discounted Paperback from Amazon)
. "An American Affair"

If you share my distaste of twisting history for the sake of sensationalizing a film, you'll have nothing to do with this coming-of-age, politico-sexual innuendo fabrication that's formed out of mercenary disregard for such things as facts. Someone's mistaken the freedom to depict historical figures as an opportunity for anything-goes pulp. I particularly regret (almost resent) that it took one of my favorite actresses to pull it off. Which is an apt phrase, since it's much about pulling off the lady's dress.

So as to make that point without chance of too much subtlety, the two central characters are introduced to us when precocious thirteen-year old Adam Stafford (aptly named Cameron Bright) spots his new neighbor enjoying a cigarette in the nude. It's a window-to-window moment that utterly galvanizes the boy. He may be smart in school, he may be able to face down a bully, he may be picked on because of his tendency to be aloof, presumably "superior" to his mates, but this moment focuses his thoughts on a whole new range of subject matter.

As for Catherine Caswell (Gretchen Mol), this moment in which her nudity is espied by the neighbor boy sets the tone for the fabricated story to follow. Cigarette smoking is rarely as seductively physical, and one isn't quite certain if she's aware of being seen. We may presume it's an alone moment and not a posing session for Playboy. But, then, as we're marvelling at her fine breasts and sultry position, she lowers the shade as suddenly as if she was suddenly aware of being overlooked--as unnatural as artificial flowers.

Director William Sten Olsson keeps up his dramatic artifice by going from unlikely to unscrupulous as his script by Alex Metcalf takes us into the presumed philandering ways of the 35th president and his vaunted lineup of shadowy women. We see the man himself (Sam Navarro), aided and enabled by his Secret Service entourage, liasing with Ms. Caswell at her Georgetown digs one night--another moment in false history witnessed by the observant 13-year old.

Acting on instinct, the smitten boy disobeys his parents, shows up at Chez Caswell, presents himself as a neighbor looking for work, help-around-the-house, don't you know, so as to save up for a class field trip to Europe. Being the softie she is, she assigns the boy the task to rip up her... garden, for a replanting makeover.

In his imagined paramour's good graces, the boy discovers she's a minimalist artist working in oils and divorced from Graham Caswell, another Secret Service operative. Nothing quells his brazen actions and, later, hearing her return home while spying in her bedroom, he's forced to watch from a closet as she entertains a male, married friend on her bed.

His spycraft is further rewarded when, betraying her strict order, he follows her to a parkside meeting with a man who turns out to be Lucian Carver (James Rebhorn), a CIA operative whose task seems to be riding herd on the president's harem girls, keeping them under control and in line. Now, since Catherine was, at one time, the prez's confidante, he's not happy about her refusal to turn over her diary. How does he know about it? That's one more secret--and Catherine hasn't seen the last of this guy.

Adam's parents Adrienne and Mike (Perrey Reeves and Noah Wyle) are a study in professionals (journalists) who are away too much to control an errant teenager but act out their parts with stern commands as they become aware of their son's adventures next door, and the implications. That the parental exhortations ring hollow in his ears, disobedience easily follows.

The immersion of a titillating, gender-altered Lolita story into the political framework of global issues and supposed figures in 1963--down to a steady stream of archival footage--strikes a chord of wanton misuse of dramatic license. And, however far these story details keep you from a Marilyn Monroe parallel, the suggestion is implicit. We all know the film star had a special relationship with JFK, don't we? Just don't feed me the baloney that the filmmakers aren't calculating on a revenue boost because of it. It's called exploitation.

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Fetching as all get-out, Mol almost makes you forget that. Her character is a woman who is sweet, warm, understanding and can handle rejection with the best of them. She also has an understanding of political power without the ambition to capitalize on it. If we're ever told what the source of her income and ability to live comfortably is, I missed it. Perhaps we're to presume she's being paid off to maintain confidentiality. All in all, the role contains the perfume of Marilyn, which appears to be entirely intentional. Mol is a good choice to wear it well.

But exploiting fame and notoriety isn't why this film doesn't work. Try as you might to find one, there isn't a sympathetic character in the piece--including the aggressively brash adolescent at the center. For various reasons, you never quite form an abiding attachment to anyone and that leads to no one to root for. At best, you might hold an interested reserve for where it's all going and how it's getting there, but that bonanza waiting at the boxoffice destination should turn out to be as mythical and tenuous as the "what-if" foundation of the story.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

Opinion Section
Comments from readers:
I've seen the movie and disagree with the review

I totally disagree with the reviewer. I was the same age in 1963 and the movie impacted me to my core. So many of the feelings of a 13-14 yr old boy and the JFK assassination, and subsequent knowlwdge of affairs esp. Mary Meyer made this movie fascinating. The reviewer totally mised it.

                                                           ~~ Bob M. 
Site rating: 4

Actually, I believe the Gretchen Mol character is Mary Pinchot, another of JFK's lovers who lived in Georgetown and was, in fact, separated/divorced from her CIA operative husband. She did keep a diary -- much wanted by the CIA -- and it did disappear. She also was shot to death by an unknown assasin in Georgetown while walking, as was her habit, along the river path. She, too, was a beautiful blonde.

                                                           ~~ Ann D. 

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Gretchen Mol as the fetching Catherine Caswell
A femme fatale and an JFK "woman" - but not Marilyn Monroe.

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