The neologism “cuckservative,” which has emerged from the family feud dominating the intramural GOP slugfest, may well outlast some of the mutual bombast long after primary season is past. Used as a hashtag by firebrands on the party’s right, it weds “conservative” to “cuckold,” implying that the current Republican establishment is not only out-of-touch with their militant base but, like the blinkered husband of an adulterous wife, they are clueless to the reality of their situation and will duly pay the price in public humiliation.
Whatever the justice of their cause, in their enthusiasm to hit their rivals, these insurgents have given cuckolds a bad name. Popular lore to the contrary, cuckolds have done pretty well in myth, literature, and history. To give cuckolds their due, one doesn’t have to go as far into the past as Menelaus, who retrieved Helen from Troy along with that kingdom’s booty; or King Arthur, whose stature was hardly diminished by Guinevere’s dalliance with Lancelot; or Henry VIII, whose grandeur looms large in history whatever the indiscretions—real or impugned—of Anne Boleyn.
The movies—that arbiter of popular taste in our own era—have given us some of the most memorable, charming and, indeed, touching portrayals of cuckolds. In this light, here are my Top 10 film cuckolds, along with why they appeal to our sensibilities, invoke our sympathy, and are arguably more engaging than their foes.
1. That Hamilton Woman (1941) Lord Hamilton, sensitively portrayed by Alan Mowbray, is the consummate sophisticated cuckold. As the elderly British ambassador to Naples during the Napoleonic wars, he is a collector of beautiful objects, not least of which is his young wife, the vivacious Emma (Vivien Leigh). His rival is Lord Nelson (Laurence Olivier). No contest. And no shame in losing out to England’s greatest naval hero. Hamilton makes the best of an awkward situation and, with great elegance, acquiesces to the inevitable. A graceful surrender to superior force.
2. Conquest (1937) Not the most famous of Garbo’s oeuvre, but a gem in which she plays the Polish countess Marie Walewska,who falls for another hero of the Napoleonic wars, Napoleon himself (Charles Boyer). She becomes his mistress only to be cast aside for political expediency. The betrayed husband in this case is played with dignity and grace by Henry Stephenson. Far from a figure of ridicule, he is a nobleman of great bearing and wisdom who understands his young wife’s passion but cannot countenance it.
3. Anna Karenina. (1935) Once again, Garbo is the straying wife; this time, the nobleman of choice is Count Vronsky (Fredric March). Although the betrayed husband, Karenin (Basil Rathbone), is often portrayed as a smug, priggish, tsarist bureaucrat, Rathbone displays a measured, worldly acceptance of his wife’s liaison. What he asks is not her fidelity but her discretion. It is when she can no longer accommodate this arrangement that Rathbone —and society—turn on her. Karenin’s cruelty, however, is less a personal fault than a reflection of the unforgiving world that he inhabits, along with his estranged wife, who will soon be abandoned by the far crueler Vronsky.
4. The Letter (1940) In this case, Herbert Marshall, a rubber grower in colonial Malaya, is the truly naïve husband, so obsessed with love for his faithless wife, played by Bette Davis, that he is blind to her affair with a fellow planter and oblivious to the fact that she has murdered her lover, not in self-defense but in a jealous rage when her paramour tires of her. Yet when Marshall finally faces the truth, it is he who enlists our sympathy as his eyes are painfully opened to his wife’s guilt and the fact that he still loves her.
5. Dodsworth (1936) Walter Huston is the offended party, but no fool he. An auto magnate of the Twenties, he retires too early with a restless younger wife (Ruth Chatterton) who uses a grand tour of Europe to conduct her own grand tour of its bachelors. Huston may be forbearing but he is not blind. He didn’t get to be a tycoon for nothing. After putting up with his wife’s peccadillos, he will ultimately repay her in kind by starting a new life—with Mary Astor.
6. The Earrings of Madame de… (1953) Charles Boyer is back, but this time on the receiving end. He plays an urbane general in Belle Epoque France who is amused by the flirtations of his vivacious wife (Danielle Darrieux) until she becomes genuinely enamored of a suave Italian diplomat (Vittorio De Sica), an affair of the heart which leads to an affair of honor. And what begins as a harmless bedroom farce turns tragic when the game of love is no longer fun, or games.
7. Unfaithfully Yours (1948) One of the most fascinating variants of the genre is the imagining cuckold (see Othello), played brilliantly by Rex Harrison, as a famous British conductor who believes his devoted wife (Linda Darnell) to be unfaithful. His overheated brain conjures up a symphony of revenge fantasies in which the fumbling artist becomes tangled up in his own fevered plots. The result is some hilarious slapstick in this Preston Sturges comedy with no harm done—except to Harrison’s bruised ego.
8. Unfaithful (2002) In this triangle, Richard Gere is the put-upon spouse, a suburban husband who, when learning of the trysts his wife (Diane Lane) is having in Manhattan with a charming young Frenchman (Olivier Martinez), decides to end the affair by dispatching the interloper with a snow globe. Although I include this movie in the list, I do so with a caveat in that the mayhem carries it into the murder genre, which muddies the marital waters.
9. A Double Life (1947) Ronald Colman plays a Broadway icon portraying the ultimate cuckold of the mind: Othello, who wrongfully murders his innocent wife. But Colman’s Method acting gets him too much into the role with lethal consequences and a chilling finale where he acts out his jealous rage on stage before a mesmerized audience and a terrified ex-wife (Signe Hasso), as the luckless Desdemona.
10. Divorce Italian Style (1961) The brilliant premise of Pietro Germi’s memorable comedy is self-inflicted infidelity. Marcello Mastroianni is a dissolute Sicilian nobleman who is smitten with the beautiful Stefania Sandrellli. The problem is that he is married and, with divorce out of the question, the only hope for separation is to do away with his doting wife (Daniela Rocca), without paying the penalty. He hits upon the novel scheme of driving her into the arms of a former suitor, with the goal of catching them in the act and committing a crime of passion for which he will not only be absolved but celebrated. Mastroianni’s plans go awry but the orchestration of his own cuckolding is a tour de farce of unintended consequences.
Doubtless, everyone can compose their own list, but the point of this very small one of my own favorites, is to remind readers that the horns put on a husband can sometimes be horns of plenty—at least in the movies.