In a small town, three couples are close friends: the upper class Brad Bishop (Jeffrey Lynn) went to the war and returned married with the insecure country girl and Navy military Deborah Bishop (Jeanne Crain); the university professor George Phipps (Kirk Douglas) is married with the writer of silly screenplays of radio soap operas Rita Phipps (Ann Sothern), who makes more money than him and financially supports their home; and the wealthy tradesman Porter Hollingsway (Paul Douglas) is married with the smart Lora Mae Hollingsway (Linda Darnell).

In common, further to their friendship, the women hate and the men love the elegant and high-class Addie Ross (Celeste Holm). While going to a picnic on a nearby island in a riverboat with the local students, the three wives receive a letter of their "friend" Addie Ross informing that she is running off with one of their husbands. All throughout the day, with no way to return home, each woman recalls events that might have put her marriage in danger, while anxiously waiting for the end of the day to see which husband it is.

Oscar
3 Nominations
2 Awards
Best Director
Best Screenplay


Golden Globes
0 Nominations
0 Awards
The wickedly clever premise of “A Letter to Three Wives” is a brilliant jumping-off point for a clever and astute screenplay. The film's three different but equally troubled marriages offer an insightful glimpse into the gender politics, rotting class distinctions, and social mores of America in the mid-20th century. Unlike many filmic depictions of women of this era, the three leads in “A Letter to Three Wives” are not stereotyped or pigeonholed. Each one is independent and strong, despite nagging doubts about the strength of her marriage.

Joseph L. Mankiewicz's script goes right for the throat of middle-class suburban values via some very sympathetic characters; if the mix is occasionally uncomfortable; the aim is straight and true. He keeps his treatment entertaining by virtue of the snappy dialogue, a compelling narrative drive, and some unusual and distinctive directorial decisions. One of these is the way Addie Ross is invisibly present right from the start of the film. Her narration gives a cynical view of her supposed friends and shows amusement at the panic she has created in them, which starts the movie off with a sense of ironic detachment—and tells us a great deal about Addie herself. One of the many clever decisions Mankiewicz makes is never to show this character that catalyzes the action. This allows us to accept that she can represent an ideal for three quite different men—and it creates a mystique that underscores the almost supernatural dread and envy she inspires in the three wives. To all three women, she is an unseen presence in their marriage, a rival they are being compared to (even if only in their own minds). Like the unseen title character in Alfred Hitchcock's “Rebecca”, she gains power in the audience's mind through her physical absence.

Another standout character—a visible one, this time—is George. The young Kirk Douglas brings energy, quick intelligence, and a bracing edge to this character, and the writing endows him with surprising complexity. George is much more than what we at first expect him to be: an old-fashioned husband who resents his wife's superior earning power. He is defensive about being a schoolteacher—he carries a bit of a chip on his shoulder about being an intellectual, since he assumes that makes him less of a man in the world's eyes—yet he feels a passionate sense of vocation and defends his work movingly to his wife. He admits that his "male ego" is put out of joint by the fact that his wife pays many of the bills, but he admires her independence. It's not the existence of her job that he resents so much as her slavish obedience to her boss—and the fact that he has no respect for the medium for which she writes. One of the most exhilarating parts of the film is George's blistering denouncement of Radio Theater as mindless pabulum. The issues that complicate his and Rita's marriage are thus drawn not in black and white but in shades of grey, giving their conflict a more adult and realistic quality than those of most film couples whose marriage is threatened by the wife's career.

The ensemble as a whole is also excellent. Rita's tart intelligence, and the ready sympathy she shows Deborah in a social crisis, both seem to make her a precursor to the Celeste Holm role in “All About Eve”. Ann Sothern is an engaging screen presence as well as a deft comedienne, and her performance in this plum role makes me wish she had had more such opportunities for high-profile films.

Linda Darnell is excellent as the sultry, tough-talking Lora Mae, whose flashback is perhaps my favorite of the three wives' stories. We see her living with her blowsy mother literally on the wrong side of the tracks; there's a great running joke whereby every time a train passes, everyone in the house stops what she's doing and waits stoically for the shaking to stop. As we watch Lora Mae's pursuit of Porter in flashback (and his pursuit of her), it's fascinating to see all the roles she plays. She acts the dewy innocent with him at first, then starts to let her natural wised-up bluntness come through. At other intervals she reacts toward him with hints of jealousy and vulnerability. Both the writing and the acting create a fascinating uncertainty as to the real Lora Mae and her true feelings for Porter.

Opposite this beautiful enigma, Paul Douglas as Porter has a subtle appeal and an expressively homely mug; at first he seems just the cynical businessman, but we come to recognize that his tough manner is a form of self-protection. Like Lora Mae, he is more capable of both love and vulnerability than he wants to let on. Both characters are so busy trying to keep from getting hurt that they don't want to let anyone—probably even themselves—knows what they are feeling.

The always wonderful Thelma Ritter turns in a priceless deadpan performance as salty domestic worker Sadie, who links the worlds of low and high society. She assists at a disastrous dinner party for Rita's boss and is also present at the start of Lora Mae's courtship; on both occasions she has some of the best and driest dialogue.

Even the unseen actress turns in a memorable performance. Celeste Holm's softly mocking narration is delicious; she shows us the side of Addie the husbands don't see, a malicious quality evident in her enjoyment at the mental torment she is putting her "friends" through. The identity of Celeste Holm was kept secret when the film was released. The studio held a number of "Who is Addie?" contests around the country where moviegoers could guess the name of the actress.

Probably the weakest female member of the cast is Jeanne Crain, who nevertheless brings the right note of wistful vulnerability to her role as Deborah. It's not that her performance is inferior; it simply isn't up to the high level of the rest of the ensemble. The only really lackluster performance is that of Jeffrey Lynn. In fairness to the actor, it must be added that his character, as written, lacks perception and depth. His is probably the least developed, and least interesting, character in the film.

All in all, Mankiewicz's writing is a wonder. The following year, he wrote and directed the legendary “All About Eve”, leading to an unprecedented Academy Award record: Mankiewicz won Best Director and Best Screenplay for both movies, in consecutive years.