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Tuesday, July 20, 2010

One Foot in the Grave (originally published 10/95)

Diane Keaton's career as a director has taken on an interesting trajectory. With "Heaven" (1987), she looked at the afterlife. Now, with her current release, "Unstrung Heroes," she is dealing with death. I wonder if she's planning to work her way by slow degrees back to the cradle, or even to the womb.

Actually, by smiting Andie MacDowell with a fatal illness, Keaton is following one of the movies' oldest and most surefire traditions. Lay your main character low with a terminal disease, and the world will beat a path to the boxoffice to buy tickets to your show. If, like most of us, your idea of a good time is watching the slow demise of a fellow mortal on the screen, there are a multitude of classic titles to choose from. Here are a few of the better ones available on video.

"Dark Victory" (1939). Bette Davis gives what may be her best performance ever as doomed socialite Judith Traherne, whose glamorous life is about to be terminated by a brain tumor. The role is memorable in part because Davis is called upon to employ virtually her entire emotional palette. She goes from being a carefree, spoiled child of fortune to a humbled convalescent in love with the doctor who has saved her life. Then, learning that her cure is only temporary, she turns to the wild life, determined to go out with a flourish. Finally, she finds the path to a dignified death. Davis negotiates this cascade of emotional reversals with sure-footed grace and skill. Reproduced below, courtesy of Turner Classic Movies, is the film's promotional trailer.

"Diary of a Country Priest" (1950). If virtuoso acting and Hollywood's multiple-hanky approach to terminal illness puts you off, you might appreciate this quiet masterpiece by French filmmaker Robert Bresson. The title character is a young priest doing his best to minister to rural folk whose responses to his overtures range from apathy to outright hostility. When the priest falls ill, a victim of stomach cancer, Bresson methodically follows his decline and death, refusing at every turn to romanticize or sentimentalize the story.

"Cries and Whispers" (1972). Ingmar Bergman may well be world cinema's foremost interpreter of despair. This agonizing story of a woman dying of cancer is classic Bergman material. The main character's two sisters have come to be with her in her time of need, but only the faithful family maid is capable of the emotional connection that nurturing requires.

"Ikiru" (1952). Master Japanese director Akira Kurosawa shows us the last few months in the life of a man who is dying of cancer. The main character is a low-level bureaucrat whose life seems to have little meaning. Now that he is facing the end, however, he's determined to make every moment count. He turns to his family for comfort but finds them cold and apathetic. He tries indulging the pleasures of the flesh but finds no comfort there either. Ironically, in the end it is his dead-end job that provides him with a way to restore meaning to his existence.

"The Shootist" (1976). This was screen legend John Wayne's last film before cancer took him from us. Under the circumstances, it's hard to imagine a more perfect swan song. Wayne portrays J.B. Books, a legendary gunfighter at the end of his life, slowly and painfully dying of cancer. The parallels with Wayne's own life are too vivid to ignore, and director Don Siegel doesn't even try. In fact, the film begins with a recap of Books's celebrated exploits using clips from Wayne's earlier films.

"Bang the Drum Slowly" (1973). In one of his early roles, Robert De Niro plays Bruce Pearson, a baseball catcher who is afflicted with Hodgkin's disease. Michael Moriarty plays pitcher Henry wiggen, Bruce's roommate and friend. Bruce is dimwitted and naive, while Henry fancies himself a writer. Henry therefore remains in a more or less permanent state of exasperation over Bruce's cluelessness. Even so, Henry can't bring himself to abandon a dying friend. Instead, he sticks by Bruce, becoming his advocate when the team's manager, unaware of Bruce's condition, wants to send him back to the minor leagues.

As we've seen, stories of imminent death cut across both national boundaries and stylistic boundaries. There are even comedies on the subject, such as the wonderful "Nothing Sacred" (1937). Human mortality may well be the most universal subject matter of all, making stories about terminal illness a truly immortal dramatic form.

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