Marie Weinberg, C’est Moi

The Not-So-Mysterious Case of the Disappearing Woman

Jennifer Lawrence will have been nominated for an Oscar by the time you read this. Or not. I am writing this before the Academy Award nominations will be announced on January 16, so I can’t know for sure. But she appears to be a lock. After all, she just won a Golden Globe. And I’m sure she will deserve her nomination, although I can’t watch my screener of American Hustle — one of the perks to being married to a television writer, I get screeners — because the hotel room where I am writing this does not have a DVD player. (I never go to the movies; that’s one of the perks of being the mother of a young child.) I believe that I will love the film American Hustle when I do see it. I believe that David O. Russell, the director and writer, consistently creates interesting parts for older actresses — Mary Tyler Moore, Lily Tomlin, Melissa Leo. I believe for every drop of rain that falls, a flower grows.

(I do not believe that Jennifer Lawrence was thinking about cake when she fell down at the Academy Awards ceremony in 2013, unless she was thinking, “Oh my god, in two hours, I can eat cake again.” But I like her. I like her a lot and I think she’s a wonderful actress.)

Still, I’m a little depressed. I’m in Key West, Florida, attending a literary festival, being treated like a queen, the sun shining, waves lapping on the beach two stories below me, and I am depressed about who’s not in American Hustle.

American Hustle is a film inspired by the Abscam scandal of 1978. It was one of those scripts that made the so-called Black List of great-but-unproduced screenplays. Then Russell took it on and rewrote it. He has made it clear in interviews that he had no interest in making a historical film. He changed the names, changed circumstances.

Lawrence plays Rosalyn Rosenfeld, inspired by Marie Weinberg, the wife of the conman at the center of this story, Melvin Weinberg. She does not play Marie Weinberg. To repeat, emphasize: She does not play Marie Weinberg. SHE DOES NOT PLAY MARIE WEINBERG.

Which is good, because she would need a lot of old-age makeup. Jennifer Lawrence was twenty-three when American Hustle was filmed. Marie Weinberg was in her late forties during the events of Abscam. She committed suicide at age fifty in 1982. One of the last things she did was give an interview to 20/20, castigating her husband. Melvin Weinberg, now in his eighties, is still alive and living in Florida. He reportedly received $250,000 to act as a consultant for the film. He complained that he would never wear a green jacket as Christian Bale does in the film. He didn’t mind his overall portrayal, which showed him as a good guy who remained married to a much-younger flake because he felt protective of her son, whom he adopted.

Previously in this venue, I claimed to have a super power, the on-and-off ability of true empathy. Well, I have another one. Sometimes, I am invisible. This is something that happens to women in middle age. We disappear. Especially in the movies.

Wait! protests someone who actually went to the movies in 2013. What about Gravity? What about Philomena? What about August: Osage County? Sandra Bullock, Judi Dench, Meryl Streep, Margo Martindale. And Emma Thompson! Sure, she played a woman who needed Tom Hanks/Walt Disney to help her work out her lifelong father fixation, but she made a menopause joke at an awards ceremony, so it’s a wash. Anyway, that’s a lot of older ladies. Isn’t that enough?

No. It’s not, not for me. But I admit, I won’t be satisfied until there are franchises similar to The Fast and the Furious and The Expendables, franchises where women are the majority of the leads with one or two men thrown into the mix. Woman cannot live by Nancy Meyers films alone. I want films like The Bucket List and Grudge Match and Last Vegas only a) with women of a certain age and b) good.

I am in Key West for the 32nd annual Key West Literary Seminar. The theme this year is “The Dark Side” and most of us are crime writers, although some are literary writers with an interest in crime (Joyce Carol Oates) and William Gibson is representing for science fiction. On Sunday morning, I moderated a discussion with Megan Abbott (Dare Me) and Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl): “Fatal Vision: The Imprint of True Crime Movies.” It sounds very fancy, but it was a discussion of our sincere, non-campy affection for made-for-TV true crime stories, especially on the Lifetime network.

“Lifetime movie” is a well-established pejorative in our culture. In 2006, novelist Claire Messud, then being feted for The Emperor’s Children, said she abandoned one work in progress after her husband, the literary critic James Wood, said it read like a Lifetime “special.” She told the New York Times that she had started another book. “I am hoping it does not have the ‘Lifetime TV’ problem,” she said, winking.”

But what is the Lifetime TV problem? Is it Lifetime’s problem or our problem? Seven years after Messud winked at a New York Times reporter, she received a lot of attention for calling out an interviewer who suggested the eponymous protagonist of Messud’s The Woman Upstairs wasn’t likable. But Lifetime has long gloried in unlikable women of all ages. As with any any genre, it has its highs and lows. As with most genres, it is often defined by the lows. Yet there is good stuff there, usually inspired by real-life stories.

In fact, some of the fare we think of as “Lifetime” movies was first broadcast on major networks: the two movies about Betty Broderick, the San Diego socialite who flipped and killed her ex-husband and his younger, prettier second wife; A Killing in a Small Town, in which a woman flipped and killed her lover’s wife. (That is a Lifetime trope, flipping and killing, preferably in a fugue state.) But it is Lifetime where these films have found a home and are rebroadcast. It is Lifetime where new generations of women will discover them. And the sources for these films are some of the best fact-crime books ever written — Bella Stumbo’s Until the Twelfth of Never, John Bloom’s and Jim Atkinson’s Evidence of Love.

Lifetime can’t win. Even when it aims high — making a film of Sue Monk Kidd’s The Mermaid Chair starring Kim Basinger — a review attributes the film’s shortcomings by saying, “Still, it is Lifetime.” Yet a cable channel’s identity can change. HBO transcended its origins, which were far from lofty (Boxing, Real Sex, Taxicab Confessions). AMC was basically the place where George Clooney’s dad worked before Mad Men and The Walking Dead. Is Lifetime one critical hit away from its upgrade?

As it happens, the next big “Lifetime movie” will air Sunday, January 19. It’s a new version of Flowers in the Attic, starring Kieran Shipka, Heather Graham, Ellen Burstyn. ELLEN BURSTYN. She’s eight-one and has worked constantly, in part because she’s taken gigs from Law & Order to Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream. (Aronofsky happens to be the director attached to Abbott’s Dare Me, adapted by Abbott. “Where are the boys,” the executives kept asking her. How can there be a movie about cheerleaders without football players?) Burstyn has two Oscars, two Emmys and a Tony. Compare her career to Jack Nicholson’s, more or less her contemporary, with three Oscars. But no Emmys — because Jack Nicholson hasn’t done television. He hasn’t had to, presumably.

So you know where I’ll be Sunday night — watching Girls. Because nothing — nothing — makes me feel better about being a middle-aged woman than watching Girls. And because I don’t want an either-or world in which the only way to have more stories about middle-age women is to have fewer stories about young women, whose lives I find fascinating precisely because they’re not at all like mine. Hey, I watched every episode of Entourage. I’m not proud of this, but I did it. So what’s to stop a young, heterosexual man from watching Golden Girls? Trust me, he’s getting the better end of that bargain.

I’m interested in everybody. I’m interested in Marie Weinberg, who was more prone to call investigative reporter Jack Anderson than to have an accident with a sunlamp. She was a woman in a long-time marriage whose husband cheated on her, even as he cheated other people. She contended that her husband did, in fact, profit from Abscam. She committed suicide at the age of fifty by hanging herself in the garage of their Florida condo — not too far from the condo where her husband had moved his mistress. She could make a darn good Lifetime movie.