Review 36: Terms of Endearment (1983)


The blending of comedy and drama film is a tricky recipe to pull off, and some directors are better “chefs” than others. There’s a great danger of over seasoning with schmaltz, under seasoning the laughs and adding an unappetising dollop of cliché just to be safe. Garry Marshall for instance, has repeatedly burned and poisoned the formula with squirm-fests such as ‘Valentine’s Day’, ‘New Year’s Eve’, ‘Raising Helen’ and ‘Georgia Rule’. His better attempts (‘Beaches’, ‘Pretty Woman’) can only be called passable guilty pleasures. Thankfully though, I’m not reviewing a Garry Marshall movie.

Let me put it this way: if Hitchcock is the master of horror, then James L Brooks is the master of the comedy tearjerker. If you’re squinting at the name James L Brooks with the strange sensation of having seen it somewhere before numerous times yet it never having registered look no further than the picture below.


That’s right. Not only is Brooks an Oscar winning director but was also partly responsible for what is arguably the greatest TV comedy ever made. And, as anyone who is a Simpson’s fan will know, there’s plenty of genuine tear-jerking moments in the show. He’s seemingly got that rare touch.

Or at least did. His latest project ‘How Do You Know’ starring Owen Wilson and Reese Witherspoon tanked, and deepest condolences if you sat through it. I assure you though, when Brooks gets it right, it’s five star. Case in point: ‘Terms of Endearment’.

Let’s make this review interesting. Continuing my little recipe analogy, what are the ingredients of a perfect comedy-tearjerker that Brooks mixed together to produce this marvellous little film?

1) A straightforward, no-frills plot

‘Terms of Endearment’ revolves around the turbulent thirty year relationship between mother Aurora (Shirley Maclaine) and daughter Emma (Debra Winger). To her mother’s chagrin, Emma’s choice of husband is a man as bland and idiotic as his name – Flap (Jeff Daniels). Their relationship is strained further when Emma moves away, and Aurora is left with an empty life, no longer having Emma under her control. Not to mention she must face the fact she has no love life to speak of. Thankfully her new neighbour, sleazy playboy ex-astronaut Garrett Breedlove (Jack Nicholson), may just prove an unexpected light in her life. As time passes, each of their relationships reach high and low points, flaws are exposed and life takes unexpected directions for them all. And then, one fairly normal morning, when Emma is at the doctor’s getting a flu shot, a lump is discovered in her armpit. It’s time to start coming to terms with each other for real.

2) Complex themes

The mother-daughter relationship is arguably the main plot thread. Aurora is overbearing, critical, prudish and dramatic. Emma is carefree, feisty, strong-willed and open. They dislike each other as much as they love one another. All the supporting characters and their relationships are significant and worth acknowledging too. Emma and Flap’s initial attitude to what marriage will be like is both naive and immature, and neither of them really grow up (particularly Flap). Motherhood doesn’t prove easy for Emma. Although a vastly different kind of mother than Aurora, her eldest child despises her. Garrett may seem like the mere comic relief but there is far more to his character – as even he is surprised to learn. All the characters wear their hearts and flaws on their sleeve. Many questions are invited by this film: why do we keep loving the people who hurt us? Why do people change yet somehow never grow? Is it our fault? Or is that just life?

3) Memorable, vivid characters and perfect casting

This film got four acting nominations and it’s no surprise. Shirley Maclaine and Debra Winger were both competing for best leading actress (Maclaine won). And Jack Nicholson and John Lithgow (who turns in a charming performance as Emma’s kind-hearted revenge lay) were up for best supporting actor –  Nicholson won that. I could rave about all the performances but would be here all day. Put simply, Nicholson is hilarious, Winger breaks your heart and Maclaine accomplishes both. Seriously, Shirley Maclaine is phenomenal in this film. For all Aurora’s infuriating character traits and less than tactful way of giving motherly advice (“You are not special enough to over come a bad marriage”), you somehow fall in love with her – much like Garrett does. She is too complex to not find endearing, and it rests on Maclaine’s performance. There’s debate whether Aurora is the mother from hell or one hell of a mother, and it’s a hard call for me to make. But for anyone who doubts Aurora genuinely loves her daughter – in whatever destructive, selfish way – the scene below should assuage that thought. On its own, it is powerful but in the context of the film it’s just heart-wrenching.

4) The drama is handled appropriately 5) the comedy is full on but reigned in as necessary (these two go hand in hand)

Terminal illness is handled very poorly in a lot of films. All too often it is a last-minute manipulative plot device inserted to give the illusion of true emotional substance. It comes out of left field, is portrayed completely inaccurately and even disrespectfully to sufferers (The most vomit-inducing instance I ever saw of this was without a doubt ‘A Walk to Remember’ – based on a book by Nicholas Sparks. Go figure). What is extraordinary about ‘Terms of Endearment’ is how poignantly realistic it is. It is sentimental in the most constrained way. I don’t know how he did it, but Brooks pulled off a film full of moments of sheer comedy that by the end leaves you crying your eyes out. And yet the subtlety and honesty of the film makes that emotional transition feel so natural. Because that’s life. One minute you’re laughing, the next you’re crying.

Verdict in a word: fan-fuckin-tastic.

(Oh and for the love of God, if you like this movie you MUST see James L Brook’s other home-run: ‘As Good as it Gets’)

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Review 35: You Can’t Take It With You (1938)

You Can't

When I’m stressed beyond the point of coping, watching an old black and white Hollywood comedy has the same calming effect on me as a bubble bath or mug of hot chocolate has on others. I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s the innocence of the humour (we have the tyrannical and homophobic Hayes Code to thank for that). Maybe it’s the light-hearted, guaranteed-to-have-a-happy-ending stories. Maybe it’s the soothing tones of Jimmy Stewart’s drawl.  The reason isn’t important. What matters is just over two hours ago I felt like chewing a live wire but am now perfectly placid thanks to movie magic.

Even prior to the meltdown this week brought upon me, I was excited to see this film purely due to the director. Frank Capra’s other works include big five winner ‘It Happened One Night’ (which I have reviewed on this blog) and Christmas family favourite ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’. ‘You Can’t Take It With You’ has all the warmth and smile-evoking moments you’d expect, which is just what I needed.

The film, adapted from a Pulitzer prize winning play, revolves around a young couple in love who come from very different backgrounds. Tony Kirby Jr (James Stewart) is the vice president of a Wall Street Banking company owned by his father Anthony Kirby Sr (Edward Arnold). Alice Sycamore (Jean Arthur) is a humble stenographer in the company. Despite the gap between their class and position in society, they remain unaffected by this fact and plan to get married. But as is often true in real life – especially in romances where class conflict  is involved – their in-laws ruin everything. Not only is Alice’s ‘lowly’ position a hot button issues for Mr and Mrs Kirby, but her somewhat zany family aren’t winning favour either. Their life philosophy is all play and no work. The head of the extensive household is Martin Vanderhof (Lionel Barrymore) whom everyone in the neighbourhood as well as family knows as Granddad. He quit his high-pressure job years ago once he realised he wasn’t having any fun, and encouraged his family to pursue the true joy found in the simplicities of life – singing, dancing, painting, inventing and generally creating happy memories with loved ones. Unlike the Kirby’s who live the dream of success and wealth, Granddad’s circus lives the dream of doing whatever they want. You can probably see where this is going having been weaned on Hollywood tropes all your life. Things quite literally get comically explosive when the two family’s meet, but ultimately everyone emerges a wiser person. Let cliché ring.

The charm of Capra’s films were appreciated in his time as well, and ‘You Can’t Take it With You’ was awarded best picture in 1938. Makes sense. It’s funny, has great characters, the film-making is swell, and it contains a both uplifting and valuable message to take from it.

Well, maybe I do have one complaint. Just one though. A teeny tiny wee one. Maybe a little bigger than that actually. Quite a grating one. I won’t lie, I have my doubts about this being a ‘best’ picture per se, not to mention stunned that the text it was adapted from won a Pulitzer. Okay I can either brush it aside, round this short review off on a positive note regardless and go have a beer…or I could rant for 600 more words about the negative aspects of the film.

This film is ridiculous. I appreciate the film is supposed to to be a screwball comedy but nonetheless its themes are serious. Class conflict and clashing families are such relevant and relatable themes yet they’re so seldom handled in a realistic, dramatic way. I’m not saying comedy can’t speak volumes but I wish this movie had toned down the screwball. Furthermore, the two families are very extreme and there’s no question of which one we are supposed to like. The Kirby’s are unapologetic, workaholic, money-focussed snobs. The Vanderhof’s are loveable, genuine, quirky and kind. They’ve practically got their own entourage of fans. I’ve no qualms about making a family of snobs the villain, but it would be much more effective if they weren’t such caricatures. Full disclosure: as someone from a working class background who was fortunate enough to make it to St Andrew’s University, I have networked with my fair share of snobs. And let me tell you, the worst kind of snob isn’t the what-are-your-people-in type, but rather the indirect snob. The seemingly likeable and modest one that behind their façade hides political ignorance and arrogance that you only pick up on if you understand the struggles of the working-class. The kind that thinks they have the right to dismiss the concerns of members of society they’ve barely associated with, let alone lived among. The sort who doesn’t realise how damaging and hurtful their attitude can be because they are honestly blind to it. And one gets the feeling that even if they did realise their blindness, they wouldn’t give a shit.

Forgive me, but living in a country where Eton-boy pricks rule and people still think the Royal Family has value beyond being a great tourist attraction can make a person weary.

The film actually plays down the class issue and plays up the clashing family values thing more. This is perfectly fine, and is I would concede something 99% of people can relate to. And despite my criticism, I must reinforce that I really liked this film. My favourite part was without a doubt when Alice had an epiphany that I myself had not long ago. When you meet your significant other’s family it’s easy to feel inferior, especially, if like me, your partner does happen to be from a different class. Putting aside class though, you might, like Alice, start to worry about whether your dysfunctional  family is good enough or worthy enough. Suddenly they start to resemble the Barones from ‘Everybody Loves Raymond’. You suddenly wish you could give them a normality makeover.

But then, you have a realisation, sometimes through a blow-out argument or sometimes through just getting over your insecurities. And you realise that you and your family are good enough, in fact, that the word ‘enough’ has no right to be in this sentence. It applies to all relationships in life – we get so caught in whether we’re worthy enough for someone we forget to ask if they’re worthy enough for us.

The unique values your family instilled in you (however zany or unlike your S.O’s) made you the person you are; a person your S.O. adores. And at the end of the day, the only two people that matter are you and your partner, and the values you’ll share and build on together.

This review got a lot deeper than I intended. So I guess this cheerful little comedy affected me far more than I realised. For the wrong reasons possibly – not due to its substance but rather lack thereof. But whatever. I’m not sure this is a Best Picture – there’s no way nowadays it would win – but it’s definitely a really great fun one.

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Review 34: Cimarron (1931)


Just a heads up: this is going to be the worst review I’ve written so far. Not worst as in the film’s quality (although I did hate this film) nor worst as in the quality of my writing – I’ll be as wry and witty as ever I assure you. No, worst in the sense that by definition this article can barely qualify as a review, because I honestly don’t know what the hell to say.

When I was a child I remember my parents reminiscing about the old, classic films they’d watched as children at Christmas and such, and insisting my brother and I one day see these great, irreplaceable oldies ourselves. Films like ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’, ‘Casablanca’, ‘Great Expectations’, ‘Citizen Kane’ and many others. Anyway, of the countless recommendations they offered, I don’t recall ‘Cimarron’ being amongst them, and for good reason. Full disclosure: I am a complete ignoramus regarding the western genre. And I am this partly by choice, as I have little to no interest in it. If you asked me to name a famous cowboy, I’d say Woody from the ‘Toy Story’ films. In fairness, the western film has more or less diminished, although there have been occasional and largely cringey attempts to bring it back – ‘The Lone Ranger’, ‘Cowboys and Aliens’ etc. The genre’s best hope of revival  is Tarantino, who gave it a splendid makeover in ‘Django Unchained’ and fingers crossed, will have another hit with ‘The Hateful Eight’.

If you suspect I’m try to stall the actual review with yammering, you’re correct. Okay, let’s start with the plot. From what I can gather the film is set in 1889 during something called The Oklahoma Land Rush, where thousands of hopeful American fled to seize free land. The main character Yancy, is pipped to the post by a prostitute, who grabs the property he wanted. He decides to move his family to I guess what’s known in cowboy dialect as a one-horse town. As is expected , he gets into a few shoot outs. After cleaning up, he then decides to move again, this time to land that previously belonged to native Americans, until the government gave them some magic beans and told them to get lost. His wife stays and runs the newspaper Yancy owned, while he settles the Cherokee strip. He swans back a short five years later, the length of time I felt I’d been watching this film. The prostitute he shared six minutes maximum screen time with is on trial for public nudity, and for some reason he goes all Atticus Finch on us and defends her. Then some other stuff happens involving gratuitous social commentary on prejudice towards the Indians. I’m going to end the synopsis here, partly because I don’t want to spoil the entire picture but mainly because I’m getting beyond pissed off regurgitating these two hours of boredom.

One thing I will say that really didn’t help my viewing experience was the god-awful sound quality of the copy I watched, the only one I have access to. I mean, not only was it poor, it had that weird fizzing distortion that sounds like heavy rain pounding off sheet metal. I’m not saying without that I would have liked the film itself any better, but I probably wouldn’t have been driven to the state of catatonia I was.

(Oh, you may have noticed I’ve not mentioned any actors that starred in it, or the director. Yeah, that’s because I don’t care. I honestly couldn’t give less of a fuck. Wikipedia it if you’re desperate to know.)

So here’s the problem I have. As much as I hated this film, I can’t call it bad. It’s very much a film of it’s time – cowboys back then were as trendy as zombies are now. Plus, in it’s time it would have been considered a blockbuster or an epic. There’s a reason it isn’t held in the same esteem as the aforementioned classic films: it’s not classic. It’s not timeless. The same way I highly doubt ‘Avatar’ will be in 80 years. But it wowed critics and audiences in its time, so good for it.  I’m not grasping at straws for positive commentary, I’m just trying to be reasonable and keep things in context.

Thankfully, this was the only western film to win best picture, so I’m spared any further hell. Oh that is, unless you count ‘Dances With Wolves’ made in 1991, which I am looking forward to immensely. What’s that? Kevin Costner’s the director? Oh well, I remain optimistic. His skills as a director must surpass his skills as an actor. Huh? He stars in it too? FML.

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PS. There was a remake in 1961 that may be more tolerable. If you ever see it let me know.

Review 33: American Beauty (1999)

American Beauty (1999) Mena Suvari (as Angela Hayes)

This film blows my mind, but not in the way you’d assume i.e. the way it did viewers and critics when released. Rather it evokes a reaction that no other film that I can think of does. See, it’s one thing to be unsure whether a film is good or not (‘The Wolf of Wall Street’ – I loved it but seriously doubt its actual quality). It’s one, albeit rarer, thing to be unsure whether you like a film or not (‘The Accused’ – a great film I thoroughly recommend but can’t say I really enjoyed the viewing experience). It is another thing entirely though to be unsure how much you like a film. This is the conundrum Sam Mendes’s ‘American Beauty’ puts me in: I like this film, that I am sure…but how much and for what reason(s)? The tagline instructs you to ‘LOOK CLOSER’. Challenge accepted.

Most would describe the film as a drama, a genre which covers everything from ‘The Notebook’ to ‘Philadelphia’. Very helpful. Others might refer to it as a black comedy – a term which nowadays can be loosely translated as a funny film where someone dies and/or makes you use your brain and engage emotionally. This now I think about it is actually quite a fair way of describing ‘American Beauty’. In lieu of a synopsis I’ve decided it would be better to give a character list as, although some are far more prominent than others, fundamentally the film is about the hell that goes on behind the close doors of seemingly blissful suburbia. And I would argue there is no one plot, rather many separate ones that thread together to paint a collective picture of the American dream gone wrong.

Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey): a middle-aged man who has lost the will to live. Not in a suicidal way, more in a going-through-the-motions of crippling emptiness way. His mojo is abruptly awakened when he forms an intense infatuation with his 16 year old daughter’s best friend Angela. Don’t worry, it’s not creepy/paedophilic as long as his fantasies are portrayed incredibly artfully. This new surge of life inspires him to quit his creativity-numbing job and relive his teenage years of pot-smoking and serial masturbation. Believe it or not, this is the hero of the film.

Carolyn Burnham (Annette Bening): Lester’s high strung, materialistic and secretly desperate wife. Her real estate business is floundering and her marriage is as dead as fried chicken. While Lester is beating off to his Lolita-esque* fantasy, she finds salvation in an affair with career-rival Buddy, seemingly having bought in to the notion – that if you’re a stressed out woman, a man’s penis is all you need to fix your problems – the media so enjoys force-feeding us.

Jane Burnham (Thora Birch): Lester and Carolyn’s daughter. At first glance an angsty, insecure teen but turns out to be more complex than that (LOOK…….CLOSER). She dislikes her mother and abhors her father (in fairness, he all but dry-humps her best friend right in front of her and accuses her of “being a real bitch just like her mother” when she has the audacity to ask him not to sleep with her underage best friend) She plays the plain, subservient friend when with Angela but allows her own uniqueness and beauty to flourish after forming a relationship with her rumoured-to-be-crazy neighbour Ricky.

Angela Hayes (Mena Suvari): the obscenely beautiful focus of Lester’s fantasy (which she encourages for all she’s worth). Much like Jane, Angela’s surface appearance in deceptive. Her vanity, self-assurance and attention-seeking ways cover up a secret terror of being ‘ordinary’.

Ricky Fitts (Wes Bentley): The Burnham’s neighbour and Jane’s classmate. Mysterious, poetic and perceptive…although probably not as much as he (or screenwriter Alan Ball) think. Having supposedly just got out of a mental institution, Ricky has moved back in with his parents (who would benefit from a stint in there as well to be honest), and is watched like a hawk by his tyrannical and obsessive father. Not closely enough though, as along with his unorthodox hobby of filming everything – from unsuspecting people to plastic bags blowing in the wind – he makes a fortune as a drug dealer.

Col Frank Fitts (Chris Cooper): Ricky’s aggressive, old-school, ex-marine, homophobic father. That’s really all there is to him…or so it seems. Blah look blah closer.

I know there’s other characters but I’ve covered the main ones and hopefully in doing so conveyed the numerous themes and strands that run throughout the film. There is no villain in the film. Or rather, every character has hateful qualities. Perhaps one could argue each character is their own antagonist, just as we all are in life. Or maybe materialism and the illusion is the true villain. I don’t really care to be honest. There are so many theories and interpretations you could apply to this film, a popular one being ‘pretentious crap’. This I disagree with. For me, pretentious is something that thinks it’s saying a whole load of meaningful stuff through symbolism and metaphor but in fact is cryptic, indulgent garbage. ‘American Beauty’ though artful, is explicit and accessible. It’s imagery has all the subtlety of the Jesus allusions in ‘Man of Steel’ for God’s sake.

That’s not to say it isn’t laughable at some points. It is an intentionally funny film but there’s a few times I snickered for the wrong reasons during my recent viewing. The plastic bag scene is a little eye roll-inducing now, as is Lester’s epilogue. And I lost it over Lester’s “it’s just a couch!” outburst at Carolyn. It just seemed so uncalled for – the poor lady had a point, it was a damn nice couch and he was going to spill beer on it.

That said, the film definitely packs most of it’s emotional punches well. Carolyn’s private meltdown after failing to sell the house is extraordinarily uncomfortable and saddening to watch. The final fifteen minutes of the film are excellent, I’d even go so far as to use words like exquisite and haunting in some moments. All the actors are faultless, and I must say, there’s a tonality to this film – dark yet uplifting, haunting but hilarious, relatable but twisted – that I’ve never seen captured in any other.

How much do I like this film? I can’t give an official measurement. “Rather a lot” is about as specific as I can get. All I can conclude is that I like it for all the right reasons and all the wrong reasons. When it’s good, it’s fantastic film-making in it’s truest sense, when it’s bad, it’s still brilliantly entertaining. No doubt some will find my personal reading of the film inaccurate or flawed. If this is the case, maybe you just need to LOOK CLOSER. Or write your own review. Whatever. One thing this film has taught me is that Lester’s “haters gon’ hate” attitude is crucial to living your life happily.

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*Lester Burnham is an anagram for ‘Humbert Learns’

Review 32: The Apartment (1960)


Like all good fathers, my dad has inundated me with advice and life hacks in a bid to help me survive and thrive in this cold, unforgiving world. When I sift through them all, numerous and varied as they are, I can more or less sum them up in three bullet points.

  • Never trust anyone
  • Never be a mistress
  • Money can buy you happiness

The film I recently watched ties in with bullet point number two. It does indeed serve as a mildly humorous warning about the disadvantages of being, not just a mistress, but any kind of pawn in someone’s immoral affair. Unfortunately, there’s not much else I gained from ‘The Apartment’.

I know, I know, I’m disappointed too! Practically everyone seems to adore this film – critics and viewers old and new. I keep reading reviews hailing it as hilarious and romantic. Well, okay I smirked three or four times maybe and I guess I was glad when C.C whatever-his-face-was (can’t remember, not a good sign) and Fran got together in the end (that’s not a spoiler, you know it’s going to happen about eleven minutes into the film) but nothing clicked as being especially masterful.

For the record, I was very excited to see this film as I loved Billy Wilder’s ‘Double Indemnity’ and this one just didn’t come close to that work. I say this for anyone making the inaccurate and offensive assumption I’m the kind of person who can’t appreciate an old film or a film that’s in black and white – in fact, I take umbrage with any self-announced film lover who has that attitude. I just didn’t see what was really that special about this one. I feel like the student in maths class who just can’t get their head round a theorem but everyone else understands it fine. It’s frustrating but eventually you’ve just got to cut your losses.

In fairness, I suppose some themes were near-the-knuckle for 1960, although Hitchcock’s ‘Psycho’ (a movie that actually got him banned from Disneyland) was released the same year which no doubt took the heat off any flack ‘The Apartment’ was getting. The film revolves around an insurance company worker (Jack Lemmon) whose career is skyrocketing for the wrong reason. That being he rents his apartment out to office superiors who need a place to bring their floozies and dames (because apparently it never occurred to these rich, smart executives that there’s such a thing as a motel). In return he is promoted and praised at work. When the boss (Fred MacMurray – who was in ‘Double Indemnity’ in a far better role) finds out, he at first reprimands him then casually hints that he himself will be requiring Lemmon’s service. His mistress however is Fran (Shirley Maclaine). The attractive and witty elevator girl everyone, including Lemmon, fancies madly. She is poorly treated by MacMurray – a married man full of insincere promises to leave his wife. The conundrum is clear, sacrifice his career and win Fran, or lose the girl but be professionally successful.

The film is classed as a black comedy and there are moments, which I won’t spoil, that go into heavy drama territory which your average rom-com won’t touch. Wilder, of course, being one of the original kings of black comedy. I admired that aspect of it. And it was nice to see Shirley Maclaine in her youth. Most associate her with the overbearing, hysterical mother role in ‘Terms of Endearment’ so it was cool to see her play such a likable and wry character.

It saddens me I didn’t seem to have the right key for ‘The Apartment’ but don’t misinterpret me. I make no apology for my personal opinion and never will. Rather I  concede there must be something that doesn’t click with me that totally makes this film a real classic for some. It’s nobody’s fault, and I for one am quite happy to shrug and get on with my wisely affair-free life.

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Review 31: Midnight Cowboy (1968)


If films were food, my relationship to them would be that of a pregnant woman’s. By that I mean the oddest ‘cravings’ for films can strike me at inopportune times. A horror film on Christmas Eve, a historical epic on Valentine’s day…and in this case, for no real reason at all two nights ago, a sudden fiery desire to finally watch ‘Midnight Cowboy’…a bleak drama about the world of male prostitution.

Anyone who has been a frequent reader of this blog  should know me well enough that whenever I say what a film’s ‘about’, my definition is twofold. What a film’s about and what a film’s really about should be separated as quite different things. It’s the same difference as between the look of an orange and the taste of an orange (another food analogy, I must be subconsciously hungry). Let’s make this simple.

What ‘Midnight Cowboy’ is about:

A young, handsome and naïve Texan named Joe Buck (Jon Voight) quits his job to head the big apple to follow his dream of being a hustler. A dream people who know little about the film may snigger and scoff at but Joe’s passion and belief that he has a real gift in pleasuring women, and that this is his calling is as sincere as my writing and academic ambitions. Frankly, I rooted for him. Things don’t quite go quite as smoothly as he anticipated though, a hustler without a manager is like an amateur actor without an agent. He meets a sleazy and conniving small-time thief/conman named Rico ‘Ratso’ Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman) who initially scams him before they form a bond, forged by the scale of their dreams and poverty-ridden living situations. They go through the motions of survival. Rico’s health is continually deteriorating, and the two men decide to relocate once again to Florida where they will renew their ambitions.

What ‘Midnight Cowboy’ is really about:

For me, the prominent underlying theme is those on the other end of the American dream. Those that have to scrounge for money and do so perpetually in a bid to inch their way to success so far out their grasp yet a trick of the light makes it somehow seem close. People who somehow never had a chance. The very image Joe chooses for himself – a cowboy – is the epitome of the American hero. He grew up idolising John Wayne (who in an odd turn of events beat Voight and Hoffman to the best actor Oscar) and aspires to be like his onscreen idol – again, that illusion of something seeming so near – the TV screen – yet being miles away.

I’ve reviewed two Dustin Hoffman films back to back – both in extremely different roles – and cannot stress my awe enough at his versatility and dedication to his profession. I’ve often pondered what his finest acting role was. Most would say ‘Rain Man’ (understandable), or possibly ‘Tootsie’ (a film I wish with all my heart I was reviewing in this blog). One might lean towards his more down-to-earth roles, such as ‘Kramer vs Kramer’ or ‘The Graduate’…for me though, I think I’ve made up mind on ‘Midnight Cowboy’. It’s a role like no other he’s ever played. He makes his character ooze a sort of slimy charisma. He is a fundamentally unlikeable and un-admirable and yet amazingly sympathetic character.

For those who don’t know, ‘Midnight Cowboy’ was rated X upon its release. Nowadays it could probably pass for a 15 (in Britain). The sexual content and immoral thread if you will, not to mention the fact that the film breached homosexual themes was too much for censors in the 60’s but seems pretty tame now. But one aspect that most certainly hasn’t changed is the emotional impact. The characters and their situations are just as relevant and devastating now. I can honestly say ‘Midnight Cowboy’ may be the most depressing film I’ve ever watched. Not depressing as in traumatically sad like ‘Sophie’s Choice’ or ‘Schindler’s List’. Depressing as in unapologetically bleak. I’ve seen one other film of director John Schlesinger’s: the British New Wave  movie ‘A Kind of Loving’. While he certainly exhibited his talent with honest and gritty portrayal of real-life in that, ‘Midnight Cowboy’ is a crowning achievement, in cinema as well as for him personally.

It may make you deeply melancholy, but you will not regret watching ‘Midnight Cowboy’.

(Oh, and please stop fighting over whether “Hey, I’m walking here!” was improvised or scripted. Who cares, it’s a great moment. And it was improvised. Full stop.)

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Review 30: Kramer vs Kramer (1979)


The past month or so has been eventful for me to say the least. I took another step in my relationship with my other half and spent a weekend in Arran with his family, getting to know them all on a more personal level. Also, my own close-knit family has recently been through some turbulent times and changes (which account for my absence on the blog front…well, that and a computer begging to be defenestrated). In light of all this, I guess it isn’t surprising that when deciding what film to review next, I instinctively reached for the ‘family drama’ genre.

In 1979, an un-extravagant, inexpensive and simple-storied little film about the effects of divorce on a family won best picture. And why? well, in this reviewer’s opinion, whether people even realised it or not, that seemingly straightforward little film awoke in its viewers countless questions about not-so-straightforward topics: gender roles, what it means to be a good parent, the complexities of love and marriage…and in its own straightforward little way, is a revolutionary piece of cinema.

Let me just come out and say ‘Kramer vs Kramer’ is an extraordinary film. The plot is straightforward: an overly career-focused man Ted (Dustin Hoffman) comes home from work to find that his deeply unhappy wife Joanna (Meryl Streep) has had enough of this life and is leaving him and their young son Billy. Disbelieving at first, it slowly dawns on Ted that she’s not coming back and he painstakingly adjusts to life as a single father, along the way realising just how much he took for granted with his wife, and forming a very special bond with his son. A year and half passes when quite out of nowhere Joanna returns. She wants to re-claim custody of Billy to the devastation of Ted and they are forced into a vicious court custody battle.

So yes, the plot is simple, but the themes are certainly not. As well as ‘Kramer vs Kramer’ being arguably the most sensitive and accurate picture of the impact of divorce on a family, it also throws up many issues on gender roles – which of course in the time the film was made was prevalent. The Woman’s liberation had grown – more women were opting to join the workforce than become confined to domestic life, Roe vs Wade in 1973  had legalised abortion and the pro-choice movement had won. Conversely, men were encouraged by literature and society to take a more active role in the care of their children, and being emotional and sensitive was no longer the taboo it was in the 40’s and 50’s. But of course, with change comes confusion and “whose place was where?” was a big question. What did it now mean to be man/woman was hazy as each gender was seemingly crossing over into feminine/masculine territory respectively.

These themes are conveyed perfectly in Ted’s speech when he takes the stand in the courtroom:

My wife used to always say to me: ‘Why can’t a woman have the same ambitions as a man?’ I think you’re right. And maybe I’ve learned that much. But by the same token, I’d like to know, what law is it that says that a woman is a better parent simply by virtue of her sex? […] I don’t know where it’s written that it says that a woman has a corner on that market, that a man has any less of those emotions than a woman does.

Joanna Kramer could easily have been set up as the villain of this film, but she is not, and any fair-minded and intelligent person will realise this. She commits the action of abandoning her child based on her genuine belief she is no good for him. Ted, whether obliviously or not, has suppressed and overlooked her throughout their marriage, always putting his ambitions over hers – barely acknowledging she might have had any outside motherhood. Although gender equality was being revolutionised it was by no means a certainty. Nowadays there are still hurdles to overcome but watching this film did make me feel very fortunate I was born into a comparatively equal society. I myself am a woman who is far more interested in having a career and a life (in the sense of utmost freedom) than a child and the identity of someone’s mother. Not to say it definitely won’t happen and if it does I won’t enjoy it, but I know in my heart it alone wouldn’t be near enough for me to feel accomplished.  Joanna’s predicament is one I dread to think of and despite her having less screen time I find her every bit as sympathetic as Ted.

The film primarily however is about the agony of divorce. Hoffman was very recently divorced when the film was pitched and almost refused the role (director Robert Benton claims that when he went to meet Hoffman to discuss the part, the actor purposely stood throughout the whole meeting to make it clear he wanted him to leave as soon as possible). As an extra fun-fact, the women playing the typist in the courtroom was not an actress but an actual court reporter who had recently quite her job because she actually couldn’t bear to witness anymore custody hearings. As someone who has a cripping fear of failure, I reckon to be a failure at your own marriage – to have driven away the person who loved you enough to swear to be with you forever, or failed to love them through hard times – must be one of the worst  kinds of failure there is.

In writing this review, which I think is my most serious so far, and reflected on myself in depth. I appreciate more than ever what a wonderful film ‘Kramer vs Kramer’ is. I am an unmarried 21 year old and any claim I make about relationships are observations I collect and try to learn from. From the character of Joanna I learnt this: the problem isn’t always not loving and respecting your partner enough but rather not respecting and loving yourself just as much as them.

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