By Melanie Williams (@BritFilmMelanie)
A somewhat obscure 1960s film recently released on DVD by Network, The Wild Affair (1963) is an intriguing proposition. In it, Nancy Kwan, Hong Kong-born star of The World of Suzie Wong (1960) and Flower Drum Song (1961), plays Marjorie Lee, a young woman spending her final day at work before leaving to get married, determined to have some kind of adventure before settling down. What better opportunity than the office Christmas party that coincides with her last day?
The film was written and directed by John Krish, better known now for his work in documentary, who had the casting of Kwan thrust upon him by Seven Arts’ Ray Stark (the film was a Bryanston – Seven Arts production), and admittedly it does seem odd that the half-Chinese, half-British Kwan plays the daughter of such an English-looking couple, with no attempt at any explanatory backstory; indeed Kine Weekly‘s reviewer found it ‘difficult to associate the pert, Oriental charms of Nancy Kwan with a British suburban typist’ (14 October 1965 p. 17) and Krish mentions in his BECTU interview that when he was adapting the novel on which the film is based, he had someone like Sarah Miles in mind. That said, Kwan is utterly convincing and entrancing as a young woman facing the difficult (enforced) transition from paid work to housewifery, looking at the prospect of swapping a glamorous urban workplace (the London office of a large cosmetics firm) for domestic quietude.
At exactly the point where the old morality began to give way to new (remember what Philip Larkin said about 1963?), Marjorie, still a virgin at 20, is worried that life has passed her by and she is facing the future without having had ‘a past’. Her anxieties about missed opportunities and the kind of woman she could be are displaced onto an alter-ego, Sandra, who talks back to her from the mirror; a sophisticated, sardonic and sexually daring shadow self in contrast to the real girl who is unsure of herself, hesitant and sexually inexperienced. Sandra urges her to take advantage of the male attention she attracts and to have an affair – ‘it’ll give you something to look back on while you’re stuck at home doing the ironing’. There are no shortage of candidates, including her boss Terry-Thomas and visiting overseas sales manager Mr Craig (Jimmy Logan) who gets her as far as a hotel room. But The Wild Affair’s Marjorie is torn between respectability and love of her fiancé and the possibilities for excitement offered by a still nascent permissive society. That tension is literalised through her arguments with the version of herself in the looking glass, and a crucial moment comes when she is provided with a makeover by Victor Spinetti’s make-up artist which suddenly renders fresh-faced Marjorie identical to vampish Sandra, and she decides to act upon Sandra’s provocations and live up to her new face.
But in the end, in spite of a few near misses, respectability wins out and Marjorie ends the film gratefully back in her fiancé’s arms, having also poured cold water on the increasingly hedonistic and amorous office party by turning on the sprinkler system. That’s not to say that the ending quite puts to rest the various questions about feminine identity that have been raised over the course of the film as Marjorie tries to negotiate what constitutes an appropriate level of sexual availability in early 1960s Britain. The film is cast in an interesting way, with international figures like Kwan and (despite his roots in British comedy) Terry Thomas appearing alongside the more domestically-resonant likes of Bud Flanagan and Betty Marsden, a mixture that seems to reflect the general uncertainties of the film’s tone, flirting with the new while cleaving to the old ways eventually.
However, one of The Wild Affair’s most fascinating aspects is its engagement with contemporary fashion. Mary Quant, already making a name for herself as a premier sixties designer, was hired to dress Nancy Kwan while an ‘almost famous’ Vidal Sassoon did her hair, cutting the actress’s long black hair into a chin-length geometric bob for the role. The photo session that detailed Kwan’s haircut was featured in British Vogue and images from it feature in Maurice Binder’s title sequence for the film.
Terence Donovan’s profile shot of Kwan’s elegant new hairstyle went round the world, making Sassoon’s name internationally known and his new way of approaching women’s hairstyling – centred on a shiny straight cut that you could run your fingers through rather than elaborately teasy weased beehives – ultra-desirable.
Donovan’s picture featured in US Vogue October 1963 and was quickly very widely replicated. But, by contrast, the film for which Kwan’s stunning haircut was created wouldn’t get a UK release until 1965, a victim of the broader exhibition crisis of 1963 which also held up the releases of Ladies Who Do, The Leather Boys, A Place to Go, and other British films judged insufficiently exploitable to squeeze through the bottleneck that had built up. By the time The Wild Affair got a release in late 1965, what had been absolutely cutting edge – the mod make-up, the Quant dresses, the pioneering haircut – now looked routine and familiar. ‘This is a rather aimless little tale, but frequent suggestions of naughtiness will appeal to some audiences. Routine light co-feature’ was Kine’s dismissive verdict (14 October 1965 p. 17) and John Krish later recalled seeing the film play in a near-to-empty cinema, disappointed at the commercial failure of what had started out as such an enticing project. After all, The Wild Affair was one of Bryanston’s few non-Woodfall ventures to attempt to engage with contemporary life, and moreover the inner life and experiences of a young woman; this was what Jill Craigie had pleaded with Michael Balcon, later head of Bryanston, to pay heed to as far back as 1958, but with little success (see Sue Harper, Women in British Cinema, p. 90).
The Wild Affair may have been a nobly intended box-office flop but it is striking in the way it gives voice to saucy Sandra, ‘the woman locked deep inside’ the outwardly sweet and prim Marjorie. And ultimately perhaps it is fitting that a film so sharply attuned to the deeper meanings of women’s outward appearances – the importance of a new kohl eyeliner or a frilly Mary Quant dress in constructing a sense of self – should have as its true legacy an epoch-making hairstyle, subsequently copied by countless women across the world.