“The World According to Garp, 1982”

“It can be a real adventure having a life.”

The World According to Garp, 1982 (Robin Williams), Warner Bros.

What is a “Garp?” According to Hume Cronyn (when informed of his grandson’s name), it sounds like a fish. He’s off by a consonant, but if the other side of the glass in his particular fishbowl is the world, it’s a world T.S. Garp is never permitted to enjoy. Various attempts to improve his condition are undermined by his attention-seeking mother, Jenny Fields (Glenn Close), who is inspired by Garp’s desire to become a writer by writing her own book – a speculative satire/self-help tome titled, A Sexual Suspect, that becomes an enormous hit and solidifies her status as a cult-like leader to millions of disenfranchised women all over the world.

Meanwhile, Garp marries and has children with high school sweetheart, Helen (Mary Beth Hurt), and tries to further his own writing career, but is overshadowed by Jenny at every turn. Interestingly, her legion of dedicated followers greet Garp with nothing but disgust, marginalization, and objectification due to his status as a man. These are oddly prescient themes in 2017; those that define themselves by their identities, lack of perceived privilege or status have now become the spirituous bullies of others. One does not have to imagine Garp’s frustration in his world to understand what he is feeling. Unfortunately, Irving’s story lacks a strong narrative focus, but this has always been a failing of his fiction.

In John Irving’s estimation, we (as characters) are tiny little chess pieces inhabiting an immense board. For every decision that Garp makes in the story is based upon the reactions or anticipation of either fellow characters (or pieces) observing him or situations that have arisen without his knowledge or consent. Aside from one tragic incident occuring later in the story, he is essentially blameless in everything that occurs. At least that’s how I interpret the story. There is a forever changing and evolving world, and then there are the forced masses, chained to ideals or weighed down by family that keep us stationary and stagnant. Garp is the embodiment of this stagnation.

Aside from the curious disconnect between the story’s collection of eccentric characters and the audience, Garp is a fascinating, unforgettable personal journey into one man’s private Hell. Robin Williams (in an early strong, dramatic performance) is immensely watchable, even as he tries to give us some distance from his comedic stage work. He’s not quite there yet as a credible dramatic lead. I think Williams learns more from his capacity for humor in creating a dramatic performance than the other way around. For reference, consider Good Morning Vietnam and Good Will Hunting and compare those characters to Garp. You’ll be surprised to see how much he had evolved as an actor.

Glenn Close gives the keynote performance for the film. The characters shift and the narrative turns on her character’s every decision. In fact, she’s so good in this movie that I absolutely hate her. She creates such a real person in the midst of all the catharsis that you’ll swear she’s a member of your own family. She has this irritating pleasantness and a robotic smile that you feel she’s patronizing her sycophants in addition to her family. Strangely, the most sympathetic performance in the film comes from John Lithgow portraying Roberta Muldoon, a one-time football star who had a sex-change operation and must negotiate the waters of her own fishbowl as “she” tries to connect with fellow human beings in a cruel, prejudiced world.

Our first cable box was a non-descript metal contraption with a rotary dial and unlimited potential (with no brand name – weird). We flipped it on, and the first thing we noticed was that the reception was crystal-clear; no ghosting, no snow, no fuzzy images. We had the premium package: HBO, Cinemax, The Movie Channel, MTV, Nickelodeon, CNN, The Disney Channel, and the local network affiliates. About $25-$30 a month.  Each week (and sometimes twice a week!), “Vintage Cable Box” explores the wonderful world of premium Cable TV of the early eighties.

Vintage Cable Box: Terms of Endearment, 1983

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“I don’t know what it is about you, but … you do bring out the devil in me.”

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Terms of Endearment, 1983 (Shirley MacLaine), Paramount Pictures

Aurora is constantly worried about her baby, Emma. When Emma doesn’t cry (in the pre-credit sequence), Aurora charges in and starts shaking her. Emma starts crying. Relieved, Aurora mutters, “that’s better” and then leaves the room. As long as Emma is crying, Aurora will know she is okay. Years after my daughter was born, I would go in and check on her. Okay, so I still do it. I just like to know that she’s breathing. That’s what parents do. We worry constantly, and if there’s only one element of Terms of Endearment that remains beautifully true, it is Shirley MacLaine’s awe-inspiring performance as Aurora Greenway. MacLaine is truly a mother in this movie. She is a mother in real life. In fact, it was her relationship with her own daughter that inspired friend William Peter Blatty to write The Exorcist.

The movie starts with the death of Aurora’s husband and her newfound single status, raising Emma to young adulthood.  Emma grows up to inhabit her mother’s values even if she has less-than-stunning taste in men.  She marries ne’er–do–well teacher Flap Horton (an infuriating Jeff Daniels), who knocks her up with three kids (while her best friend lives a happy and fulfilling life in the big city), keeping her trapped in a marriage she realizes is running on fumes at this point.  They have no money, and Aurora has to loan them money to survive, even though he has a full professor’s position at an Iowa college.  Aurora’s dislike for Flap extends to her not even attending Emma’s wedding, and then she completely flips out at the dinner table when Emma tells her she’s pregnant.  She protests that she’s not ready to be a grandmother, and to prove it, she courts next-door neighbor, astronaut and womanizer Garrett Breedlove (Jack Nicholson).

While Aurora is trying to enjoy her life, she suffers in silence at her presumed betrayal of her husband, and Garrett bristles at the emotional responsibility of maintaining a monogamous relationship.  Emma conducts her own affair with a timid banker (John Lithgow) when she discovers Flap has been letting it flap around a little too much.  It seems he really enjoys his students, and not in that good, educational, inspiring way.  Asshole!  Eveything Emma has done for him!  Every compromise!  Every child!  This is what she gets?  On top of this, she gets fucking cancer!  I know, right?  This is fucked up!  What was supposed to be a routine flu shot turns into fucking cancer because the doctor notices some suspicious lumps.  He orders a biopsy, and that’s it – she’s got fucking cancer.  I remember this whole bit making me incredibly angry and sad watching it for the first time on cable television.  I knew I was in for an emotional rollercoaster ride, but I didn’t know we would jump the tracks and wind up in a ditch.

Emma puts all her ducks in a row.  She travels to New York City with her best friend, Patti, lives it up, meets new people.  She tries to bond with her children, sweet Teddy and incorrigible bastard Tommy.  She tries to make peace with Flap, but I think (in Emma’s defense) she always knew that Flap was a hopeless idiot.  A devoted (if not faithful) husband and father he may be, Aurora correctly sums him up as being careless and inconsiderate.  He agrees with her assessment, but he also holds her to task for never welcoming him into the family.  Emma returns home to die.  She spends her last days in the hospital.  One particular scene that always causes me to lose it is Aurora pleading, begging, and ultimately shouting at a nurse to give her daughter a shot for her pain (which she almost seems to preternaturally feel).  It is chilling and heartbreaking.  When Emma finally dies, Aurora is devastated and she clutches at Flap, almost unable to surrender to an embrace with a man she detests, but she has no choice now, as Flap is and always will be family.  That’s what we learn from Terms of Endearment.  We may hate them, and they may irritate the Hell out of us, but they are family.

This is such a damned good piece of filmmaking; pandering and manipulative, but also hysterically funny, with performances so good I almost forget the actors and actresses involved.  While I have stated this is MacLaine’s absolute showcase (for which she won a well-deserved Academy Award), ancillary performances from Debra Winger (as Emma), Daniels, Nicholson, Lithgow, and Danny DeVito (as one of Aurora’s early prospective suitors) are top-notch.  Nicholson is interesting to watch in this film.  As part of The Movie Channel’s premiere of this movie in 1984, there was also a Jack Nicholson retrospective which included Easy Rider, Carnal Knowledge, The Postman Always Rings Twice, and Chinatown.  Terms of Endearment is the odd-movie-out for him; a sentimental, sometimes cloying family melodrama with colorful bursts of humor, Nicholson seems out of place.  Emma’s funeral scene at the end perfectly illustrates this point as he hangs back while the immediate family mourns, uncomfortably rocking back and forth with his hands in his pockets.

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James L. Brooks directs the movie with an incredibly sure hand, a love for offbeat humor and romance, but with such sophistication, it’s easy to forget he got his start in 60s and 70s sitcoms, such as The Mary Tyler Moore Show, That Girl, and Room 222.  He would follow up Terms of Endearment with Broadcast News, and Nicholson’s own showcase, As Good As It Gets.  Terms of Endearment would inadvertently kick-start a subgenre of movies in ’80s and ’90s known as the “chick-flick”.  Movies such as Beaches, Steel Magnolias, Mystic Pizza, and Fried Green Tomatoes were directly influenced by this movie.  Usually the formula goes that you have a clutch of female friends, who like to dance and share secrets about love and romance, and then one of them dies of fucking cancer.  Terms of Endearment is a movie like The Big Chill, wherein I have a difficult time understanding the character’s motivation primarily because of a perceived age or generation gap, but Terms of Endearment is still a stunning example of modern melodrama.

Our first cable box was a non-descript metal contraption with a rotary dial and unlimited potential (with no brand name – weird). We flipped it on, and the first thing we noticed was that the reception was crystal-clear; no ghosting, no snow, no fuzzy images. We had the premium package: HBO, Cinemax, The Movie Channel, MTV, Nickelodeon, CNN, The Disney Channel, and the local network affiliates. About $25-$30 a month.  Each week (and sometimes twice a week!), “Vintage Cable Box” explores the wonderful world of premium Cable TV of the early eighties.