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Life With Stepfather : Tobias Wolff's memoir of a brutish '50s childhood, 'This Boy's Life,' proves to be a rewarding challenge to its film adaptors

April 04, 1993|PATRICK GOLDSTEIN | Patrick Goldstein is a frequent contributor to Calendar

Early one morning last spring, Michael Caton-Jones was on a deserted country road outside Concrete, Wash., filming a scene where the young hero of "This Boy's Life" races through the dewy pre-dawn, delivering newspapers.

"It was kind of Scotch misty," recalls the 35-year-old film director, who grew up in the tiny Scottish hamlet of Uphall Station. "And I just flashed back--physically and mentally--to the feeling of running down the road, delivering papers on my paper route when I was a kid. I just completely zoned out. I forgot I was out there, shooting a movie."

Based on Tobias Wolff's coming-of-age-in-the-'50s memoir of the same title, the movie offers a richly detailed, often disturbing portrait of our most vulnerable age--adolescence. Making the film had a similar effect on others involved in the movie. Veteran screenwriter Robert Getchell, who adapted Wolff's book, also was surprised how much "This Boy's Life" stirred complicated emotions he'd experienced in his youth as well.

"When a film draws from real life, it becomes personal for the audience, too. People relive their own lives through your film," Caton-Jones said.

Opening Friday, the movie stars Robert De Niro, Ellen Barkin and 18-year-old actor Leonardo DiCaprio as Toby Wolff, the story's ducktailed hero. An imaginative dreamer who often adopts the pose of a sullen delinquent, Toby accompanies his free-spirited mother to Washington state.

But all too quickly his mother has remarried, leaving Toby trapped in the brutish embrace of Dwight Hansen, his tyrannical stepfather. Persuaded that his stepson's misdeeds arise from laziness, Dwight assigns Toby a paper route, enlists him in the Boy Scouts and gives him such chores as husking huge mounds of spiny horse chestnuts. When Toby asks for a dog, Dwight sells Toby's beloved Winchester .22 to pay for an ugly hound with yellow eyes and a pink, almost hairless tail who growls at the boy whenever he enters the house. When Toby throws away a not-quite-empty mustard jar, Dwight erupts with a venomous rage.

For years, Toby--now Tobias Wolff, author of several acclaimed short-story collections--tried unsuccessfully to write a novel based on this experience. Stymied, he began studying coming-of-age tales by other writers, among them Frederick Exley's "A Fan's Notes," Frank Conroy's "Stop-Time" and Mary McCarthy's "Memoirs of a Catholic Girlhood."

"I think I was fighting the impulse to write about my own childhood," says Wolff, who lives with his family in Upstate New York. "But reading those books encouraged me to think that I could be extremely honest without disgracing myself."

Perhaps Wolff's memories were too painful, his boyhood scars too deep. Even today, Wolff refers to Dwight Hansen (who died last year) as "that person" or "my stepfather"--but never by name. When he talks about recalling the details of his troubled childhood, the verb he uses is exhume.

"Finally, I was compelled, by some instinct operating beyond my own will or immediate consciousness, to go back to this material and start writing," Wolff explains. "I think it had a lot to do with the process of becoming a father myself.

"Once I started working the vein, things just welled up--it really surprised me. I had a sense of something just pulsing under the surface that-- boom-- came out of me."

Last spring Wolff and his mother, Rosemary, returned to Concrete for the first time in 32 years to watch his youthful escapades being transformed into a Hollywood movie.

Everyone made a big fuss over his mother, who sat in Caton-Jones' director's chair and befriended Ellen Barkin, who plays her in the movie. Wolff renewed acquaintances with boyhood pals who were appearing as extras in the film.

Wolff was startled by how little Concrete had been altered since he left--or so it seemed. "We'd spent all this time stripping the facades of the stores and '50s-izing them," Caton-Jones explains. "So when Toby turned up, he said, 'Oh my God, it hasn't changed at all!' He didn't know it was our work."

But it was seeing Robert De Niro, dressed in his stepfather's two-tone shoes and hand-painted ties, using the hand gestures and vocal inflections he remembered so well, that really sent Wolff reeling back in time.

"There were moments of--well-- collapse ," Wolff says now, his voice betraying only a tiny whiff of emotion. "I don't know how else to put it. I felt my mind collapsing back somehow as I stood there and watched them filming--us--this terrible family walking down the street together."

Michael Caton-Jones doesn't mince words, whether he's offering a tart thumbnail sketch of Hollywood ("a town built on laziness, fear and stupidity") or defending his right to tamper with the text of "This Boy's Life."

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