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Movies Excel At Breathing Life Into The Inevitability Of Death

Avoiding the eventuality of death is a favorite human pastime. As a young dancer in the just-released theatrical film “Love! Valour! Compassion!” states it, “I’m immortal. I’m never gonna die.”

That, of course, is before he steps onto a small airplane that.. well, you get the picture.

Several themes run through “Marvin’s Room,” the movie version of Scott McPherson’s play that last year earned Diane Keaton a Best Actress nomination (see capsule review below). Among them: sibling rivalry, unrequited love, the painful quest for self-satisfaction, the challenge of raising children.

But the most prominent is the inevitability of death. It is something that one woman, played by Meryl Streep, wants to ignore and that her sister, played by Keaton, couldn’t avoid if she even wanted to - which she does not.

Hollywood has offered up a number of such film studies over the years. Following are just a few notable ones:

“Bang the Drum Slowly” (1973): Robert De Niro is the baseball catcher who, stricken by Hodgkin’s Disease, struggles through one final season. Michael Moriarty portrays the pitcher who supports him. (Note: A 60-minute 1956 made-for-TV version of this same story, adapted from Mark Harris’ novel, is also in circulation. It stars Paul Newman as the catcher, George Peppard as the pitcher and features Albert Salmi in a supporting role).

“Brian’s Song” (1971): This weepy real-life tale of dying football player Brian Piccolo (James Caan) and his friendship with Gale Sayers (Billy Dee Williams) will wring tears from all but the hardest of hearts.

“Love Story” (1970): Erich Segal’s best-selling novel about a young blueblood (Ryan O’Neal) and the working-class woman (Ali MacGraw) whom he loves, albeit briefly. Manipulative but, it can’t be denied, utterly effective.

“My Life” (1993): Michael Keaton, in one of his serious roles, portrays a hard-spirited public relations guy who doesn’t want to let a little thing like incurable cancer force him to face up to his inner pain. Keaton uses his own unsentimental style to buoy an otherwise sentimental story.

“Terms of Endearment” (1983): The classic family-based weepy, this one powered by the starring performances of Debra Winger as the dying daughter and Shirley Maclaine as the woman who tries to keep her alive by will alone. The two vied for a Best Actress Oscar, and Maclaine won.

The week’s releases:

Beavis redux

What with the release of “Beavis & Butt-Head Do America” on video (see capsule review below), it’s only fair to remind you that at least one S-R reader saw value in the Mike Judge creation.

“I think that B&B; are the ultimate caricature(s) of adolescent America,” wrote Dyche Alsaker. “The movie ribs us for our cultural failures and stereotypes… Of course the movie is idiotic and puerile. I’m not saying it isn’t. But in case you’ve been living in a cave for the last 50 years, so is almost everything else the entertainment industry puts out. At least this is humorous and unapologetic…”

Marvin’s Room


In adapting Scott McPherson’s stage play to the big screen, director Jerry Zaks wasn’t able to avoid some of the more maudlin aspects of the family/tragedy/comedy/drama. The plot involves two sisters: One, played by Diane Keaton, has stayed at home taking care of Dad (Hume Cronyn) and an aging aunt (Gwen Verdon); the other, played by Meryl Streep, has lived a trailer-park kind of life that has left her with a set of unsatisfied ambitions and two sons, one of whom (Leonardo DiCaprio) is emotionally troubled. When Keaton’s character develops cancer, the family is forced to do some sibling renovation. While no brilliant study of human endeavor, much less honest emotion, “Marvin’s Room” does feature some very good acting -especially by the Oscar-nominated Keaton and the always superb Streep. Rated PG-13



Although the ending seems something of a cheat, and director Nora Ephron never really explores her script’s full range of possible humor, this story offers up John Travolta as a slovenly angel come to Earth and that is enough good-spirited fun to qualify for an evening’s worth of entertainment. While clearly no Clarence, as in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” Travolta’s angel takes his task no less seriously. It’s his penchant for sugar, smokes and sex that confuses the trio of tabloid journalists William Hurt, Andie MacDowell and Robert Pastorelli come to tell his story. Hurt is solid and so is Travolta, who continues to light up the screen whenever he steps into the spotlight. Rated PG

Beavis & Butt-Head Do America


If you’ve never seen these MTV cartoon characters, you might not understand their draw. Then again, pee-pee humor has been around longer than indoor plumbing, so it’s not that difficult to see why crowds are flocking to this mostly full-length animated feature. It involves the two sheep-dips who, while trying to find their stolen television set, get mixed up in a secret arms deal that takes them all over the country - and, of course, affords them the opportunity to trash whatever they come across. The humor is occasional, the animation as basic as you can get, and the result is pretty much for B&B; fans only. Rated PG-13

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Photo

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