It is the end of the U3A summer term for the U3A Old Women in Film Group.
I had put aside, to consider later, Marvin’s Room (1996) Screenplay by Scott McPherson (1959-1992), based on his own play.
Diane Keaton (Bessie), Meryl Streep (Lee, Bessie’s younger sister), Leonardo Di Caprio (Lee’s son Hank), Hume Cronyn (Marvin, sisters’ father), Gwen Verdon (Marvin’s sister), Robert de Niro (Dr. Wally), Hal Scardino (Charlie)
Multiple family relationships and conflicts, sisters, disturbed youth, terminal illness, bone marrow donors , mental and physical disability, caring and love and more.. There are also farcical, and hilarious interludes.
My first viewing left me puzzled.
I had always resisted the temptation of answering what is it about and who stars in it when asked about a film. I firmly believe that there is no way of summarising a film in a few words and actors can give good or bad performances. But I needed some help to make sense of the pieces of the puzzle that I could not put together. One sentence kept tugging at my consciousness: At the beginning of the film during a farcical scene at a surgery, Bessie talks to the absent-minded Dr. Wally (de Niro) about her father Marvin
… Dad is dying, he’s been dying for about 20 years – He’s doing it really slow so I do not miss anything.
I thought: This is the black humour that only a person who has experienced the complex feelings of watching somebody die would write.
Neither the title sequence with one long travelling shot in closeups of a multitude of medicine containers nor the lyrics of the credits sequences focusing on two sisters’ reconciliation helped me.
I needed to think clearly about the roles of the dying father Marvin and the dotty old Aunt Ruth and consulted the reviewers. A quick search reveals many writings about the very successful play. The New Yorker even reviews a revival of the play in its July 10th – 2017 issue.
There are few critics of the film and they mainly consider the stars’ performances and family relationships.
It is an article by David Richards (Washington Post 05-01-1997) that enlightened me. I think that unless one knows about McPherson’s life, the AIDS epidemic when he wrote the play and later adapted it for the screenplay, it is difficult to interpret the many pieces of the jigsaw that make Marvin’s Room a very interesting film. McPherson died at the age of 33 of the complications of AIDS after years of caring for or being cared for by his companion and lover.
Richards comments: The play’s unique tone, that commingling of deep feeling and black humor, was, he said, merely a consequence of his inability to keep the laughs going. He wrote funny until his energy flagged. Then, he wrote serious.
The screenplay was one of the last pieces he completed, before illness became his full-time occupation and he started referring to himself, jokingly, as a “playwrit.
I will only consider the two old characters. I tend to disagree with Richards when he writes: I don’t know if there’s much to be gained by showing Marvin (a gummy Hume Cronyn), who was an evocative offstage presence — a childish gurgle, really — in the play.
I cannot comment on the play, but I found in Bessie’s care of her father an aspect of caring that is unusual. (She herself has leukaemia and in need of a bone marrow donor. She hopes that her sister Lee or sons Hank or Charlie may be compatible.) Apart from a slight hint of soiled sheets there is not representation of personal intimate care as seen in other films about care like Amour or Chronic . Although Marvin cannot communicate and is helpless lying motionless in bed he shows a capacity for pleasure – mainly sensory pleasures that make him smile in wonder. Bessie understands his needs and provides him with the stimulation of light reflections of a mirror on the room walls and furniture, describes in details the meal she is going to cook for him. She understands that if he puts odd objects in his mouth it is because he likes the way they feel. When she introduces him to his grandson there is an ever subtle hint of a smile on his face and one can imagine that at the end of the film his noiseless mouthing directed at Bessie says ‘I love you, I love you’. Briefly although old Marvin is severely disabled, he is seen as a feeling being.
Auntie Ruth is described by reviewers as silly, spaced out, dotty, eccentric, nearly senile, bemused, funny/sad ailing, has a wacky obsession about watching soap operas. What they do not say is that Verdon gives a wonderfully, touching performance of a likeable, sweet, vulnerable, ineffective beautiful old woman. She shows enormous empathy with people – including TV soaps characters, but cannot cope with the practicalities of life. She may never have been capable of looking after herself. She feels completely lost when she cannot rely on the presence of Bessie. Her inadequacies are very funny and give rise to hilarious, surreal episodes. Her innocence provides the humour in the film but we never laugh at her. Her severe back pain that kept her in bed is cured by electric stimulation of her brain. But the side-effect of this is that the garage door opens when it is activated. Side effect indeed.
In two long sequences of mins 35 and 2mins 22 the interactions of Bessie and Ruth go from the funny to the heartbreaking. In the first Bessie comes back from seeing the doctor having left Ruth to look after Marvin. Ruth has been watching TV and has not given Marvin the pills he has to take at regular times. She gives the excuse that it is because of her brain stimulator but Bessie replies the excuse used to be her back pain. Ruth: Stupid me – I am so useless. She breaks down at the realisation of her own failings but proceeds to tearfully express her fears and anxieties: what if he dies? Bessie reassures her. The mood lightens up when Ruth notices the plaster on Bessie’s arm (blood sampling) and proceeds to offer her useless funny medical advice for her ‘deficiency’. She also volunteers to make soup. Both gestures are gallantly refused by Bessie who knows that they would be more trouble than help.
In the second sequence showing a descent from laughs to tears the scene is a hospital bed where Bessie is recovering from radiotherapy treatment for leukaemia. Ruth tries to suggest to Bessie ways of dealing with being confined to bed. With wonderful facial concentration she comes up with ‘sleep… or… lay awake’. The comic mood continues when she describes how she conceals from Marvin the presence of a nurse in place of his daughter as carer. The skill of the screenwriting and the wonderful acting makes the viewer visualise a surreal hilarious scene. This turns to tragedy when Ruth is told off by Bessie for concealing the truth.Then a crying distressed desperate Ruth asks how else could she explain to Marvin that his little daughter is dying.
In a one minute scene with Ruth, it is the warm relationship between her and Charlie (Lee’s younger son) that is shown. They are sitting face to face and they talk about the TV soap while Charlie is busy putting the last touches of make up on Ruth’s face. She already looks beautiful with a tiara on her white curly short hair, earrings and necklaces.. She looks at her face in the mirror and is delighted what a good job. Lee enters and the beautician in her admires and sees her aunt in a new light: You look beautiful
Ruth: I am not. I am just a silly old woman getting dressed up for a TV show.
Later, a short clip shows young boy and great-aunt enjoying together the drama of a TV soap.
I have only considered the old characters in this piece but the film deserves more attention. I feel it is suffused with McPherson’s sensitivity and compassion:
We all take care of each other, the less sick caring for the more sick… At times, an unbelievably harsh fate is transcended by a simple act of love, of caring for one another. By most we are thought of as dying. But as dying becomes a way of life, the meaning of the word blurs.