Get out your handkerchiefs, moviegoers.
Here's public relations man Bob Jones (Michael Keaton in "My Life"), who has been told he has inoperable cancer and may never get to see the child his wife is carrying. There's corporate lawyer Andrew Beckett (Tom Hanks in "Philadelphia") baring his AIDS-related Kaposi's sarcoma lesions. And Debra Winger once again in a hospital bed--as writer Joy Gresham in "Shadowlands."
The time for holiday merrymaking may fast be approaching, but Hollywood seems to be in a less-than-festive state of mind. From a cluster of studio releases this season one might easily wonder if death is the latest industry obsession.
Like Columbia Pictures' "My Life" and TriStar's "Philadelphia," Savoy's "Shadowlands" will expose us to life-threatening illness. The film is based on the true story of the late-in-life marriage of author C. S. Lewis (Anthony Hopkins) to a woman who discovers she has cancer. Also tackling weighty questions of mortality is the Warner Bros. feature "Fearless," starring Jeff Bridges as an architect and airplane crash survivor who feels alienated from his friends and family because of his close brush with death.
With the Holocaust film "Schindler's List" and the Vietnam epic "Heaven and Earth," both arriving in December, this promises to be one of the more sober-minded collections of holiday movies in a long time.
Death and disease are not exactly great selling points, however, so it is not surprising that much is being made of how "life-affirming" these films are. Although the trailer for "My Life" is straightforward, print ads for the picture show two hands reaching for each other--an adult's and a baby's--with no mention of cancer. The trailer for "Shadowlands" is similarly silent on the subject of Gresham's illness.
Contemporary Hollywood movies serve up no end of violent deaths, often more cartoon-like than realistic. But slower forms of dying have not generally been in vogue since the 1930s and '40s, when beautiful heroines succumbed to fatal illness in such classic tear-jerkers as "Camille" (1937) and "Dark Victory" (1939).
In recent years, with some notable exceptions, it has mostly been left to television to show us sickbeds, doctors' examining rooms and radiation treatment units. The success of "Love Story" (1970) and "Terms of Endearment" (1983) notwithstanding, cancer has generally been regarded as too commercially risky for the big screen. (The hugely popular 1971 made-for-television movie "Brian's Song," based on a true story of a Chicago Bears football player's losing battle with the disease, was released theatrically but was quickly withdrawn because its audience had already seen it on television.)
When movie themes seem to reverberate off one another, the explanation is just as likely to lie in coincidence as in the \o7 Zeitgeist\f7 . Nevertheless, film critics and other Hollywood observers attribute the rekindled interest in dying primarily to the disproportionate effect of AIDS on the creative community. Other factors include the aging of the baby boomer filmmaking and moviegoing populations, heightened efforts to court adult female audiences and even the recession.
"In the last 10 years the movie community has known a lot of people who died from AIDS, and a lot of people under the age of 40 have had to encounter more death than most people would have at their age," said David Thomson, author of a recent Film Comment article on "Death and Its Details." "That has introduced them to the subject of mourning, and it's not too surprising to see them try to play it out on the screen."
To Times reviewer Peter Rainer, chairman of the National Society of Film Critics, movies such as the current "My Life" and "Fearless" are an extension of a trend that began with the 1991 films "The Doctor" and "Regarding Henry," both of which were about successful professional men suddenly confronted with illness.
"That was a kind of cover for the results of the recession," Rainer said. "The recession has brought all these yuppie achievers low, and the way to handle all this dramatically was to sock it to them in a way that made them discover their humanity and realize that life wasn't all about condos and limos."
The ravages of illness are depicted more realistically in today's movies than in the past, when a poor medical prognosis was not allowed to mar the beauty (or even the makeup) of Bette Davis in "Dark Victory" or Ali McGraw in "Love Story." For the most part, however, the uplifting message is the same as it was when the spoiled socialite played by Davis learned she had less than a year left. The "important thing," her doctor and future husband (George Brent) advised her, is "to live our lives so we can meet death whenever it comes--beautifully and finely."