(2007) Directed by Dan Klores and Fisher Stevens; Written by Dan Klores; Starring: Burt Pugach, Linda Pugach, Bob Janoff, Sylvia Hoffman, Rita Kessler and Joyce Guerriero; Available on DVD
“It’s a story that interested me…on a number of levels, because I think most people, as much as they don’t want to admit it, will make decisions about not being alone that affect the rest of their lives.” – Dan Kores
“In court, I was still in love with her when I saw her. And to me, just seeing her in the courtroom was a profit. In other words, I was happy to be a defendant, because I was able to see her.” – Burt Pugach
In the immortal words of musician/songwriter Graham Parker, “Love gets you twisted.” When it comes to affairs of the heart, some of us may take leave of our senses over that special someone, especially if that special someone doesn’t reciprocate (ahem, not that I’d know anything about that). For his documentary Crazy Love, Writer/director Dan Klores mined the depths of tabloids and sensationalistic talk shows for a most unconventional love story. It’s the sort of film that could only be told as a documentary – If it had been a work of fiction, no one would have bought it.
The year is 1957, and Burton (“Burt”) Pugach, a successful young negligence attorney with a penchant for pretty women and fancy cars becomes fixated on Linda Riss, a 20-year-old receptionist. They don’t exactly hit it off when they first meet, but she reluctantly agrees to go out with him. Things seem to go well for the new couple until she learns that he’s still married. When it becomes apparent that Burt is dragging his feet with his divorce, she breaks up with him, and embarks on her own pursuits. Her engagement to another man sets Burt off the deep end. One day in 1959, he hires thugs to threaten her, but one of them throws lye in her face, permanently damaging her eyes (she lost one eye, and 80 percent of her vision in the other). Burt serves as his own defense attorney in the ensuing trial, he’s convicted, and goes off to prison. In most cases, this would be the tragic end to the story, but he still holds a candle for her. Burt continues to send her letters from jail, professing his undying love for her, referring to Linda as his bride. After serving 14 years of his 30-year sentence, he’s released from prison, and endeavors to resume his relationship with Linda. (Cue the clichéd record scratch sound…) She relents, and eventually marries him. It’s a plot twist that wouldn’t pass muster in a second-rate Hollywood production, yet it’s the core of the film.
The obvious question that any reasonably sane individual would ask is: why on earth would she marry the guy? The film comes up short on answers, but maybe that’s the point. When it comes to matters of the heart, not very much makes sense. Love is a messy business. At least from her outward persona, Linda doesn’t appear to be lacking in self-esteem. In her mind, however, she might have harbored feelings of inferiority and inadequacy, due to her disfigurement (she wears large dark glasses to mask her damaged eyes). Perhaps she felt her only recourse as “damaged goods,” was to give in to Burt’s marriage proposal. In his DVD commentary, Klores provided additional insight about Burt’s motivations for marrying her. He was stuck in the past, and when he looked at Linda, he only saw her younger, idealized self. We may never have all the answers. Only Burt and Linda understand their true motivations. Their relationship defies rational explanation. They somehow click, but shouldn’t.
In his interviews, Burt Pugach comes across as funny and charming at times, and overconfident to the point of arrogance. His favorite subject is clearly himself, with Linda second.* Narcissistic tendencies aside, there’s little to indicate this is the same man who descended into mental illness, and plotted to attack Linda, but the film suggests that the seeds of Burt’s obsessive behavior had been sown during his childhood. Crazy Love traces his difficult past, with a domineering, abusive mother and a passive father. As he grew up, he may have come to the realization that he had to assert himself to take what he wanted, which shaped his view of people as possessions to be acquired or rivals to vanquish.
* Because of Burt’s “domineering” personality, Klores decided to shoot Burt and Linda’s interviews separately, with the exception of a few choice scenes.
Burt and Linda Pugach don’t seem particularly enamored of each other or compatible,* but something compels them to stay together. They were products of a different era, when it was more important to be together than alone, and having financial security took priority over love. Their fractured relationship reminds me of a plaque that my parents displayed in their house: “Marriage is a Mutual Understanding,” a paradoxical aphorism that held true for their marriage, and an apt description of Burt and Linda Pugach’s dysfunctional, oddly enduring union.
* According to Klores, they reminded him of his own parents. “They would talk at the same time and never quite listen to one another. They would talk and never listen.”