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My Mother and the Movies

On a life through film.


She would have had no way of knowing it at the time, but when my mother was coming of age in Sioux City, Iowa, in the 1950s and early 1960s, she was living through the last great golden age of motion pictures. As faithfully as she attended services with her family every Sunday in her Lutheran church, each week she went to one of the grand movie theaters that dotted her hometown to see one masterpiece after another. Some of her favorite movies then were Leo McCarey’s Affair to Remember, Stanley Donen’s Indiscreet, the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical South Pacific, Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest, Elia Kazan’s Splendor in the Grass, and Otto Preminger’s Exodus.

I only came to realize this as I grew older, but the movies provided my mother with something of a moral formation. Her parents, my grandparents, were solid, decent, and kind people, but the movies—these movies—touched on aspects of life that even good parents might not have occasion to address. I have no doubt, for instance, that my mother’s respect for sincere, entirely un-pious demonstrations of faith was informed by seeing Cary Grant surreptitiously, almost bashfully cross himself in a lovely moment in An Affair to Remember. I am equally certain that her confidence that the love between a man and a woman could overcome nearly any earthly force was fortified by the romance of Rossano Brazzi and Mitzi Gaynor in South Pacific. My mother took these movies to heart. It was certainly thanks to Splendour in the Grass that she could recite the words to Wordsworth’s “Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood” (“Though nothing can bring back the hour / Of splendor in the grass, of glory in the flower”), and it was because of Exodus that she adored Paul Newman until the day he died and mourned his loss forever thereafter.

Undoubtedly, the movies provided raw material for girlish crushes. Into her seventies, my mother could easily be swept off her feet not only by Paul Newman and Cary Grant but other particular favorites of hers whose stardom had dimmed among the general public but who remained alive and vital to her: John Kerr, James Franciscus, John Gavin, Brandon deWilde, and George Peppard, to name a few. She had an obvious affinity for bookish, even rather brooding types, but she also loved virile, manly, fatherly figures: Rock Hudson in Giant, Gregory Peck in To Kill a Mockingbird, William Holden in Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing, Sean Connery in the early James Bond films and in what was, I think, her favorite modern movie, Fred Zinnemann’s portrait of a love triangle among the Alps, Five Days One Summer—which came out in 1982, the year before I was born.

My mother did not like weakness, although she had a definite preference for displays of courtliness and courtesy. She loved the moment in Hitchcock’s Rear Window when Jimmy Stewart—a movie star somewhat before her time but whom she loved anyway—warned his detective buddy against drawing conclusions about the propriety of his girlfriend, Grace Kelly, from the presence of her nightgown in his apartment: “Careful, Tom,” he said, and my mother could imitate the line in a way that made “Tom” sound, in true Stewart fashion, like “Tawm.” To this day, I am certain that one reason my mother married my father was because his manner—firm, rather unyielding—reminded her of a later infatuation of hers, the rather moody and abrupt Albert Finney. She loved Finney alongside Audrey Hepburn in another classic Stanley Donen romantic comedy, Two for the Road; my father loved him in Tom Jones.

Of course, Grace Kelly herself—Grace Patricia Kelly of Main Line Philadelphia and later Her Serene Highness Princess Grace of Monaco—was undoubtedly a major source of the appeal of Rear Window for my mother, who loved all of the pretty, proper young women then to be seen on the silver screen: Audrey Hepburn, certainly, but also Eva Marie Saint, Natalie Wood, Dina Merrill, Jane Powell, Jean Seberg, Carol Lynley, Yvette Mimieux, and Dolores Hart. For my mother, these actresses were worth emulating not just for their physical attributes but for their inner essences: the winsomeness of Audrey, the decorousness of Dina, the wholesomeness of Dolores (who, in real life, became a nun after making Loving You with Elvis Presley and the classic spring break comedy Where the Boys Are). Perhaps the most significant difference my mother ever had with her mother about a movie star was in their divergent opinions of Sophia Loren, whom my grandmother loved but whose vivacious, slatternly quality was precisely the opposite of the gracious reserve of Deborah Kerr, another one of my mother’s very favorites.

My mother was one of four children, and the joke around her house growing up was that she had mastered the schedule to all of the shows on T.V.—from Ed Sullivan to Leonard Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts. I can believe that, because, all of her life, she had instant recall of all of the movies and movie stars I have just named. She consumed the popular culture of her era as voraciously as teenagers today soak in social media, YouTube, and TikTok, but there is an essential difference: the things she saw in theaters and on T.V. as a youth were—generally speaking—enriching, ennobling, life-enhancing.

Because she led such a good life—she was a devoted wife to my late father, a perfect mother to me and my brother, an Anglophile, a Francophile, a lifelong non-smoker, a lifelong non-drinker, a gifted pianist, an opinionated, even harsh judge of ballet performances, of ladies’ figure skating, and especially of the character or motivations of people she met in day-to-day life—it is obvious that all those movies and shows did her no harm and almost certainly did her a lot of good.

It wasn’t merely that the movies in my mother’s day were clean-cut—all kinds of lame, forgettable pop culture can be considered clean-cut, including the music of Pat Boone (whom she loved anyway) and The Mickey Mouse Club—but that they were good. By which I mean they were worthy of the art form that had been forged by D.W. Griffith; developed by Charlie Chaplin, F.W. Murnau, King Vidor, and John Ford; and perfected by Howard Hawks, George Stevens, Otto Preminger, Douglas Sirk, Delmer Daves, George Cukor, Vincente Minnelli, and Preston Sturges. My mother knew about all of those directors, many of them because she saw their movies as a youth and several of them because I, as a child, had absorbed her enthusiasm and then developed it further as I grew up. These men made every sort of movie, but they were linked by their use of cinema’s expressive powers to tell us something sad, amusing, or edifying about life.

When I think of the potential of the movies—of the sort of things they can do and the sort of emotions that they can draw out of us—I think of the startling final scene in Douglas Sirk’s Imitation of Life. Sarah Jane (Susan Kohner)—an African American girl who has passed as white and, in so doing, has rejected the outpouring of love offered to her by her mother (the incomparable Juanita Moore)—rushes to her now-deceased mother’s casket. The camera, following behind her, matches her hurried pace as she approaches it. Then, her head buried in the flowers atop the casket, Sarah Jane cries: “Mama, I didn’t mean it, I didn’t mean it. Mama, do you hear me? I’m sorry. I’m sorry, Mama. Mama, I did love you.” The swiftness of the camera’s movement, the desperate anguish in the voice of the actress, the basic plaintiveness of the scene—who could fail to be moved by this expression of humanity? My mother always was, and so was I—at first, because she was. There follows a funeral procession, captured by Sirk in all its majesty and mournfulness.

Imitation of Life is obviously a masterpiece, and it goes without saying that not every movie my mother saw and enjoyed as a child or adolescent was that—or even close to that—but nearly every one of them shared the baseline competency ensured by the studio system, the existence of which may be the closest thing to a justification for factory-like working conditions ever devised by man.

Think about how the studios functioned a half-century or more ago: a group of well-trained, generally well-behaved actors and actresses would show up on a stage somewhere in southern California. If they were making a talkie, they would come knowing their lines, which were likely to be written by someone like Ben Hecht, Dorothy Parker, Leigh Brackett, or Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin. Then the director would tell the performers to stand here or walk there—say, from the armoire to the window—and, concurrent with that action, would instruct the cinematographer to create a kind of choreography with his camera: the camera would glide, pan, or swoop. How, when, and why the actors and the camera moved was part of what distinguished a Cukor from a Minnelli; the different ways they staged scenes and arranged shots were equivalent to the different ways that Matisse or Renoir painted.

But the resulting images are not at all like a painting, because they capture real life rather than a mere interpretation or reproduction—a rendering—of real life. At the same time, the images are also quite unlike photographs, which certainly capture real life but which remain still, stagnant, inert. In a movie, when Lauren Bacall instructs Humphrey Bogart on the proper way to whistle, we are watching real people do real things in real time in real environments. Some would counter that movies are therefore merely the bastard children of the performing arts, but—aha—plays, operas, and ballets are infinitely more artificial than even the most studio-bound of movies: in a movie, the set designer has at least tried to create a plausible-looking backdrop, while a play, opera, or ballet asks the audience to accept the obvious fakeness of actors trotting into a “drawing room,” or a “castle,” or a “forest”—they are on a stage, for heaven’s sake! By contrast, Bogart and Bacall seem to be interacting with each other in what looks like a real room with real doors and lamps, and when the camera moves outside of the soundstage, well, it isn’t even a contest: when Julie Andrews sings about the hills coursing with the sound of music, she is doing so amongst those actual hills.

The miracle of the medium does not end there. Back in the day—my mother’s day—the various shots of the actors doing different things were then submitted to a troop of white-gloved artisans, film editors—“the priests of film,” as the director Bob Rafelson once described them to me—who decided when, and for how long, to savor a close-up of Vivien Leigh and when, and for how long, to cut to a reaction shot of Clark Gable. Then, someone—on any given day, it could have been Bernard Herrmann, Miklós Rózsa, or Max Steiner—reviewed the assembled shots, composed music for each scene, stepped onto a podium, and conducted Hollywood’s finest classical instrumentalists.

The Production Code ensured that no obviously offensive material found its way into the final product. Major directors like Hawks, Preminger, and Sirk were interested in testing the limits of artistic expression, but even these risk-takers never violated the standards of good taste and certain baseline moral standards. After all, they had a moviegoing public to appease, and moviegoers in my mother’s formative years had set ideas about proper behavior. They could allow themselves to be swept away by a wild romance or a crazy comedy—Jayne Mansfield was popular back then; so was Jerry Lewis—but they would never tolerate a film that was actually, actively, unambiguously, unrepentantly offensive, degrading, or immoral. It didn’t make for good box office during the Truman–Eisenhower–Kennedy years. The country’s moral compass and its commercial culture were once rather more aligned than they are today.

The resulting movie was then exported—to the big wide world, yes, but also to Grand Forks, North Dakota; Steamboat Springs, Colorado; Lafayette, Louisiana; Winter Park, Florida; Bethesda, Maryland; and Sioux City, Iowa. In other words, the movies were disseminated small-“d” democratically. If my mother wanted to see the original stage version of South Pacific in a respectable production, she would have had to have seen it on Broadway, and that meant that she would have had to have lived in, or taken a trip to, New York. The same was and is true of most of the great performing arts: the Metropolitan Opera is in New York; so are the American Ballet Theatre and the Radio City Music Hall Rockettes. At best, these groups function as tourist destinations; for those who live far from the coast, they are things to see during once-in-a-lifetime visits or semi-annual vacations. Sure, my mother could have seen a local production of South Pacific, but had she done so, she would have compromised her standards: instead of Rossano Brazzi and Mitzi Gaynor, she would have been saddled with Joe Schmo from the hardware store and Jane Smith from the beauty school—wannabes who could not possibly approximate professional performers, let alone ones chosen or approved by Rodgers and Hammerstein. In the provinces, the lively arts are regrettably dependent on what John Wayne in Rio Bravo called “well-meaning amateurs.”

But, in the movies, Rossano Brazzi and Mitzi Gaynor are Rossano Brazzi and Mitzi Gaynor no matter where you see them, including in Sioux City. In this way, the movies trump every comparable art form: they are available “everywhere all at once,” to paraphrase the title of a recent popular movie I decided to miss on purpose. These days, so is every “limited series” seen on television or streaming, but here too the movies win: watching a show on a T.V. set, computer screen, or smartphone cannot even begin to equal the grandeur of seeing it on a gigantic screen while seated in the dark in plush seats among strangers who have made the same pilgrimage you have. That is how my mother saw South Pacific and every other Rodgers and Hammerstein show that she loved: State Fair and Flower Drum Song and The Sound of Music.

As my mother grew into adulthood, she became occupied with a great many things. She supported my father in his career as an Air Force officer and later as a banker and eventually a C.E.O. She managed a home, mastered a kitchen, entertained friends, and ultimately—and most importantly—raised, nurtured, and saw through to adulthood her two children, to whom she gave every second of every day.

Part of each day, though, was taken up with the movies. My mother’s mind was saturated with them, but they did not promote lassitude. They were fortifying; they were aspirational. Early in my parents’ marriage, my mother purchased a fur coat that resembled one worn by Catherine Deneuve in Luis Buñuel’s Belle de Jour—Deneuve’s fur coat (and cool blonde looks) being the primary, indeed only, appeal that surrealist film held for her. After the birth of her firstborn son (me), she caught on cable two movies that I believe left a lasting impression on her—both, incidentally, starring the transcendently beautiful, profoundly maternal Canadian actress Kate Nelligan: Without a Trace, starring Nelligan as the mother of a kidnapped boy, and Eye of the Needle, a dazzling World War II thriller starring Nelligan as a woman who must contend with the arrival of a Nazi (Donald Sutherland) on the Scottish island on which she lives with her crippled husband and their young son.

Much later, she was almost as taken with Steven Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun, another World War II story, in which young Christian Bale, living in Shanghai at the time of the Japanese invasion, is separated from his mother and father—but, from my mother’s perspective, the real separation, the only one worth talking about, is between mother and son. When Bale is brought back together with his parents at the end, my mother always pointed out the way that the father stands back to allow Bale and his mother to embrace on their own, as though they are the only two people on the planet at that moment. My mother was always profoundly affected by stories in which mothers care for, protect, or—if they have been somehow lost or gone missing—locate their sons. She even empathized with the Meryl Streep character in Kramer vs. Kramer: by walking out on Dustin Hoffman, Streep leaves her son for a time—an act of which my mother surely did not approve—but Streep wants him back because, as Streep put it and as my mother loved to quote, “I’m his mother, I’m his mother.”

My mother took the movies’ messages as mantras, and she freely repurposed them to the circumstances of her own life. For her entire life, she quoted Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s—when Hepburn, as Holly Golightly, says that nothing bad could happen at Tiffany’s—when she wanted to express her contentment at being home, a place where she felt nothing bad could happen. When something awful did happen—when, in 2010, my father unexpectedly died—she ultimately found strength in a line spoken by Montgomery Clift to the widowed Lee Remick in Elia Kazan’s masterpiece Wild River: “You can’t let a tough break ruin your whole life.” My mother wrote that line down in her notebook—maybe more than once—and I truly believe it provided her with a little strength to carry on without my father.

I saw a million movies in the company of my mother, usually in the theater, sometimes on home video. Sure, there was kids’ stuff when I was seven or eight or nine, but later on, as the seriousness and sincerity with which she watched the movies proved catching, we saw everything. Sometimes the experiences were revelatory, shattering, enriching—say, Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan (especially the scene in which the mother, standing in the doorway, is told her sons have been killed overseas)—but even comparatively routine movies impressed because they were usually still made according to the basic principles of the Golden Age: tell a story well, move the actors around imaginatively, use the camera intelligently and expressively. This describes everything from John Frankenheimer’s Ronin to Michael Apted’s Enigma to John Boorman’s adaptation of The Tailor of Panama to Alejandro Amenabar’s take on Henry James in The Others, all of which I saw with my mother as a teenager and all of which hold up as movies by her and my definition of the term. I embraced her favorites from these years too: Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility, Anthony Minghella’s adaptation of The English Patient, James Ivory’s version of Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel The Remains of the Day—because I saw what she saw in them.

During those wonderful years, when I went to the movies with my mother and the movies were still worth going to, we really shared so much while sitting quietly in the dark for hours on end. She would nudge me if she found something comical, but more often we didn’t need to interact to know what the other was thinking. I remember going with her to see James Ivory’s majestic film A Soldier’s Daughter Never Cries—much underappreciated in its day and virtually unknown now—which lightly dramatizes the expatriate upbringing of the daughter of the American novelist James Jones, Kaylie (on whose novel the film is based). Kris Kristofferson played the equivalent to James Jones, but it was Barbara Hershey, as the equivalent to Jones’s wife, who got my attention during two scenes in particular: in the first, Hershey denies being a pacifist when it comes to the well-being of her children (something my mother would say); and in the second, Hershey, having learned of a French teacher who unjustly punishes her little boy, throws a clump of sand at the aforementioned teacher (something my mother would like to have done if the circumstances ever had warranted). Did I say anything about these scenes to her afterwards? I doubt it, because I knew we were both thinking the same things. Watching the same flickering images, we talked to each other in silence.

Another time, I took my mother to see Woody Allen’s brilliant and imaginative musical Everyone Says I Love You. I say “took her to see” because Woody Allen was more my interest than hers, and by this point—the movie came out when I was thirteen—I had started to develop cinematic interests that went in different directions than hers. Nonetheless, she went with me, and among the many moments I loved, one gave me a pang of worry, a stab of what some unknowable future might hold: at the very end of the movie, set on New Year’s Eve in Paris, Woody is seen commiserating with his ex-wife, Goldie Hawn, with whom he has just danced on the banks of the Seine. Woody says something about the way he and Goldie managed to stay friends, and how he was there for her when she found a lump that turned out to be benign. It wasn’t played for laughs in the usual Woody manner, and I sometimes vaguely associated Goldie a tiny bit with my mother—not the young Goldie, but the middle-aged Goldie. They did not look alike or really act the same way at all, but they were about the same age, had the same posture (perfect), and, at times, had a similar effervescent bubbliness. But I hated thinking about that lump.

As the years went on, my mother and I continued to go to the movies, but fewer and fewer each year—new movies, I mean. I wrote about them professionally and reviewed a fair number each year, but somehow, the art form she had grown up with—the art form I had grown to love—had changed. Movies had become more like roller coasters or comic books; sometimes, they were comic books. She had no patience for C.G.I. imagery. No computers had been involved in the creation of Ordinary People, another movie she loved that was about a mother and a son—in this case, as a kind of warning about what kind of mother not to be (namely, the cold, cruel, merciless sort played by Mary Tyler Moore). For my part, I found that as my favorite directors died off—first Kubrick, then Altman, then Rohmer, then Edwards, finally Bogdanovich—most of the ones who remained barely understood where to put a camera. In the movies I loved, when a director filmed a long take (say, Hitchcock in Rope or Preminger in Bonjour Tristesse), you could feel the struggle it took to pull off the shot—the camera wobbled or quivered or lurched unsteadily—which gave it humanity: a director decided on this shot, a cinematographer set it up, and a camera operator tried to make it happen. It was a result of human effort. But when I saw the alleged “long take” in Sam Mendes’s 1917, I was seeing technology do all the heavy lifting: editing software that stitched together the illusion of a long take. No thanks.

But neither my mother nor I lost interest in the movies as a whole. We simply burrowed deeper into the past. She watched T.C.M. throughout the day and into the night; I increasingly spent my time writing about the old classics. There were enough riches there to last a lifetime. The kids could have their Marvel movies; I would become expert in every film noir made on Poverty Row and the unknown corners in the filmographies of Robert Aldrich, Richard Fleischer, and Richard Quine.

In fact, the movies I shared with my mother in the last few years became all the more precious because, more often than not, we were watching something she had loved for years and I had come to love: Mark Robson’s From the Terrace (from John O’Hara), Delmer Daves’s Youngblood Hawke (from Herman Wouk), Robert Mulligan’s Same Time, Next Year, Stanley Donen’s Charade and Arabesque, Robert Benton’s Still of the Night, Horton Foote’s The Trip to Bountiful (she loved the hymn that is sung over the opening credits, “Softly and Tenderly”), and of course the inevitable Five Days One Summer. (I still introduced her to movies she came to love, or at least really enjoy—just in the last year, Alfred Hitchcock’s Young and Innocent, Mark Robson’s My Foolish Heart, Robert Hamer’s It Always Rains on Sunday.)

We had lost something—current movies no longer reflected the art form bequeathed to us by Griffith and Ford and Hitchcock—but we had gained much more in immersing ourselves in the past glories of the art form. Looking at these movies again and again and again brought about a certain stasis. Even as the years passed, they never changed. Perhaps I started to think we never would.

Yet something did change this past summer. My mother, for the first time in her seventy-nine years, felt unwell. She had an unexplained pain in her neck and back, and she was tired and lightheaded—so lightheaded that she fell a few times, something she never did. On August 20, she went into the hospital. There, she was told she had metastatic breast cancer. I was shocked at the cruelty of it: a woman who loved her life—who loved her sons, who loved her avocations, including going to the movies—had to face it all coming to an end. All told, she was in the hospital for about five weeks. There was a surgery, and there were many treatments proposed and appointments made. But the cancer was too much. She passed away on Sept.ember 28—the worst day of my life.

I spend most of my time now replaying the forty years, six months, and one day my mother was in my life. That includes all of the movies we looked at together during those four decades. The last movie we saw together in a theater, about a month and a half before she went into the hospital, was To Kill a Mockingbird, on July 1. Because my mother, even then, was not feeling her best, it was not lost on me that Atticus Finch was a widower and that his kids, Scout and Jem, were growing up without a mother. I tried to banish those thoughts from my head at the time, but I cannot escape them now. As ever, she loved Gregory Peck, the music of Elmer Bernstein, and the narration of Kim Stanley. We talked about it all.

Two weeks later, on July 12, we went to a drive-in theater for a story I was writing. And about three weeks after that, on August 5, we watched the last movie we would ever see together at home: Hitchcock’s Psycho, which sounds like a ghoulish choice, but of course neither of us knew the end was near or felt compelled to pick something more sentimental. Besides, though my mother hated gore, she loved Hitchcock and was in no way a prude. Maybe the last really splendid new movie we saw was the previous November, Steven Spielberg’s The Fabelmans—there again, a mother and a son and the movies. She whispered to me, “Steven is back”—because maybe she hadn’t cared for, or paid attention to, his recent movies, but she loved this one.

How I wish I could sit down with my mother and do anything—talk, crack a joke, tell her about something I am writing, ask her how I can possibly face the rest of my life without her. But I also want to sit down with her and watch Rear Window, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, The Man Who Knew Too Much, and The Awful Truth. I want to watch Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy with her on Thanksgiving night—that had become a tradition. I want to watch The Shop Around the Corner or Christmas in Connecticut or The Holly and the Ivy with her on Christmas Eve before we tune into Midnight Mass from the Vatican. (She loved the ex-actor pope, John Paul II.) I want to watch a Clint Eastwood movie and hear her say that not only is Clint a good director but a great composer. I want to hear her imitate Jimmy Stewart. I want her to tell me that she thinks Julie Christie in Richard Lester’s Petulia would be a good girlfriend for me—not the troubled character in that wonderful movie, but a girl who looked and talked like that. I want to watch Woody and Goldie in Everyone Says I Love You, and for his line about the lump to mean nothing—nothing at all.

In the last few years, my mother and I watched my favorite film by Éric Rohmer, A Tale of Winter. The story centers on Félicie, a young woman who has a dalliance with a young man named Charles but, momentarily misremembering her own address, later loses track of him. They lose contact—a tragedy for Félicie, who, in the course of her brief romance with Charles, has gotten pregnant by him. She becomes the mother to his child, but she does not know where on earth he might be. Insisting that someday, somehow she will find him and form a family with him, she declines the entreaties of other suitors. At one point, she finds herself in an empty church with her little girl in tow—Charles’s daughter—and, though she had been tempted to embark on a long-term living arrangement with one of her suitors, decides, at just that moment, to walk away from it. In the eyes of Rohmer, who was a serious Catholic, Félicie’s expectation of Charles’s return is like our faith in God’s existence: we must believe in him (or Him) even when tangible evidence is scant. And, at the end of the movie, whether by fate, Providence, or prayer, Charles turns up—delivered, at last, to Félicie and their little girl.

Do I dare believe in the sort of miracle shown in A Tale of Winter? The movies have given me many things in my life: entertainment, aesthetic pleasure, a grand subject to write about and think about. But now—as I remember each movie I saw with my mother—they are giving me someone I lost and someone I hope, with all my heart and whatever faith I have, to find again.