The many manifestations of Don Draper
In this column, we highlight films that have directly or indirectly inspired the most cherished and popular movies of contemporary cinema. We will discuss the antecedents of a popular movie in a reverse chronological order—working backward through film history. This week we’ll be screwing with the formula somewhat as we tackle the antecedents of the popular, critically acclaimed 60s-era television drama Mad Men.
Mad Men, like the other great premium-cable shows that preceded it, such as The Sopranos and The Wire, is distinguished from its network counterparts by its novelistic and filmic qualities. The show’s protagonist, Don Draper—creative director at the fictional Madison Avenue ad agency, Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce—is incredibly good at his work and incredibly bad at being married. He lies, cheats, drinks on the job and generally makes poor decision after poor decision, except when he is coming up for a slogan for a tobacco company Lucky Strike (whose cigarettes he smokes like a chimney). Complicating (and maybe over-complicating) this deeply flawed character is a vaguely dark past with even more vague undertones that comment in/directly on the myth of the American Dream. Or not. Whether you think Mad Men is high art or just really entertaining entertainment, you will nonetheless find several cinematic references sprinkled throughout the show in homage to its predecessors. Here are a few of them:
The Sopranos (1999-2007)
No, The Sopranos isn’t a film. But it was as provocative as any art-house flick at Railroad Square and far more entertaining than any of the billion-dollar blockbusters at Flagship. Besides, it was chock-full of film allusions, had an episode-by-episode budget roughly at the level of a very expensive independent film, and the acting, writing, directing, lighting, photography, sound, all of it was as good as any movie produced in the near decade that it was on the air. It is not a stretch to say that The Sopranos was and remains the most important show on TV. The show’s critical success and popularity proved that art had a place in a medium that had been defined and derided by its artlessness. It was, and still is, the epitome of “popular art.” Oh, and the showrunner of Mad Men was a writer and producer on The Sopranos for its final two seasons. For a number of reasons, I’m not sure Don Draper exists without Tony Soprano.
Albert Hitchcock’s entire filmography—Especially Notorious (1946), North by Northwest (1959) and Vertigo (1958)
Mad Men owes an enormous visual debt to Hitchcock’s films. Every slow tracking shot through the corners of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, the Saul Bass/Vertigo inspired credit sequence (one of the best on TV), the languid editing and deliberate pace (the latter of which is not totally Hitchcock but also has to do with a tradition in TV storytelling which, once again, starts with The Sopranos), the camera constantly pushing in on Don Draper with his back toward us: these are just a few of the visual cues taken from Hitchcock’s films, some more conspicuous then others. You also see Hitchcock’s fascination/weird obsession with icy blonde women in Betty Draper, Don’s ex-wife, who I think was put on earth, sadly, to play an ex-wife in Mad Men. She is a dead ringer for Grace Kelly in Rear Window and is reminded of this constantly within the show: just another facet of Mad Men’s hyper-allusive style.
The Apartment (1960)
Showrunner Matthew Weiner has referenced the influence of The Apartment on Mad Men. The parallels are fairly obvious: early 60s New York, workplace/corporate setting (though it’s insurance, not advertising), and lots and lots of philandering and lying and cheating—all by men who should probably know better. Crucially, The Apartment makes comments about gender and relationships between men and women in the 60s—or, really, anytime—that are explored in depth in Mad Men. While many people may associate the show with Don Draper and his infidelity—or basically the rampant bad behavior of the men on the show—it’s crucial that Mad Men is a show that examines honestly and painfully the root causes of this particular strain of all-American masculine ugliness. It does not glorify either of the sexes, nor does it dehumanize them; it captures the contradictions and compromises that make up relationships between the sexes and the politics within the sexes. In the way that The Sopranos (we swear this is the last time) was totally NOT about the Jersey mob, Mad Men is emphatically not about bad behavior for the sake and coolness of bad behavior. It has The Apartment to thank for that.
The Stories of John Cheever (originally published in 1978, but some of the stories go all the way back to the 40s)
We’re breaking another rule here on this week’s “Loose Canon” because it’s the middle of November on the Hill, and we have too much reading to go watch films. So here we’ll plug what is an incredibly important influence on Mad Men: the collected short stories of the author John Cheever. For those who don’t know, Cheever was a Massachusetts-born writer of several works of short fiction and a handful of novels, most of which were set among the upper-middle classes in New England, New York City and Ossining, NY—not coincidentally the hometown of Don and Betty Draper. Many of his short stories—you might know “The Swimmer,” “The Enormous Radio” or “Goodbye, My Brother,” all of which are, for our money, three of the best short stories ever written—center around infidelity, suburban and city life in the mid-twentieth century, alcoholism, various sorts of ennui and other first-world white people problems. If you can get over the fact that everybody in the story is so rich and so self-absorbed (and if you’re watching Mad Men, it’s fair to say that you can), you’ll love this collection.