In his role as a critic and a writer, I have admired Roger Ebert for a very long time. Richard Corliss, the movie critic for Time magazine, described Ebert as a “polymath” (look it up yourself – I had to!). I couldn't think of a more perfect description of Roger Ebert. He was a tremendous critic, and he was also a terrific writer with an impressively broad range of knowledge.
You may wonder when my life-long love of movies began. With The Wizard of Oz, or the 1951 sci-fi classic, The Thing from Another World? Perhaps with the Alistair Sims version of A Christmas Carol (actually titled Scrooge). Give me a day-and-a-half and I’ll only make a modest dent in my list of films I watched with great joy and excitement when I was a young fellow.
I do know that I owe a deep debt of gratitude to good old WOR-TV in New York City for indulging my love of movies in those days. When they got their hands on a movie they seemed to play it all day and all night. They didn’t really, of course, because they had to make time for “Joe Franklin’s Memory Lane” and other noteworthy shows, but they would play a movie about two hundred times every week. You can get to know a movie pretty well when you watch it two hundred times in seven days.
I remember watching the 1939 version of King Kong twice every evening - when I could – I had two much larger big brothers to contend with in vying for control of our little RCA Victor black-and-white cabinet TV. Then I got to watch the movie once or twice a day on Saturday and Sunday, come rain or come shine. If you want to know more about Million Dollar Movie, here’s a description of the show from the Internet Movie Data Base, written by firstname.lastname@example.org -
“This series began in NYC, on local station WOR TV 9, in 1955, and ran for over a decade. It featured first run movies, where each feature would run for an entire week, airing twice nightly. This format, that simulated the local neighborhood movie house, was also adopted by other local stations, realizing that this was one way to reach the most viewers, considering the competition from the networks. The first three features were Magic Town, starring James Stewart, Body and Soul, starring John Garfield, and A Double Life, starring Ronald Coleman. Much of the 1930s and ‘40s library from RKO were featured. As the station was a subsidiary of RKO General Tire, many of those films were rented free to the station. Those RKO films included King Kong, Gunga Din, Citizen Kane, and the Fred Astaire - Ginger Rogers RKO musicals. In the summer of 1957, a few of those RKO films such as King Kong and Top Hat were aired one time only on ABC Network TV on Saturday nights, after which they returned to be rerun on ‘Million Dollar Movie’. Today, those RKO films as well as thousands of others are part of ‘The Turner Classic Movies’ vault.”
Million Dollar Movie always opened with Max Steiner’s “Tara’s Theme” from Gone with the Wind playing as background for very-out-of-focus film clips of the Manhattan nightscape. The scenes in that opening montage were very familiar to me because my dad worked in Rockefeller Center, right in the heart of Manhattan, for over thirty years. I can’t help wondering, though, if those run-of-the-mill, clichéd shots of NYC would make a non-native think twice about visiting the Big Apple. They were unimpressive and made the city look dark and dingy.
For those of you who watched New York City TV growing up, this will bring back a lot of memories: You can watch the Million Dollar Movie opening sequence here by clicking on "Million Dollar Movie" at the end of this essay.
As I was saying, I’ve been a big fan of Roger Ebert’s for a very long time. I consider him a truly gifted essayist. His writing was concise but delightfully descriptive. In a few, very well-constructed paragraphs, Ebert was able to evoke most of the visual and emotional experiences that a film had brought to me. He clarified and expanded my appreciation of many films, and he helped me understand how the screenwriter, the actors, the director and innumerable supporting crew members had made the whole thing “work,” when it did, or why they failed when it didn’t.
A few days ago, Janice and I watched, for the second or third time, “Something’s Gotta Give”, which stars Diane Keaton (Erica Barry), Jack Nicholson (Harry Sanborn), Keanu Reeves (Dr. Julian Mercer), and Frances McDormand (Zoe, Erica’s sister). For the record, we’re both suckers for good romantic comedies, and this has become one of our favorites. In his review, Mr. Ebert makes a number of points that immediately came home to me and that I’d might never have been able to observe or express without his insights.
For example, Mr. Ebert said, “After playing an older man entirely unlike himself in About Schmidt, Nicholson here quite frankly and cheerfully plays a version of the public Jack, the guy who always seems to be grinning like he got away with something.”
Can you think of a better way to describe the Jack Nicholson public persona or how he plays this role? I sure can’t.
I was taken by surprise, however, at Ebert’s lack of appreciation of the role played by Keanu Reeves as Dr. Julian Mercer. Ebert wrote:
“It's Dr. Mercer who seems like nothing more than a walking plot complication. We don't believe or understand his relationship with Erica, and it must be said that a young man who would propose marriage to a woman 25 years his senior and fly to Paris with her, plan marriage, and yet immediately surrender her to his rival without a struggle (out of good manners and breeding, it would seem) has desires that are all too easily contained.”
I disagree. To me, Dr. Mercer is a great deal more than a walking plot complication. He has several qualities that make him deserving of our respect, and those characteristics enrich the plot of the film and the development of the other characters. He’s more than a healing machine, he’s a physician with a soul. He has a wonderful bedside manner and a comforting ability to talk about very serious medical problems in a frank and friendly manner. His education and interests extend well beyond medicine; he is a student of and a lover of the humanities. And the basis for his affection for Erica is well-established in his admiration of her work as a dramatist.
Julian Mercer doesn't consider Erica’s age to be anything other than an insignificant detail. She’s attractive, quick-witted, interesting, accomplished, and charming. What’s not to like? A lot of us would find it easy to find Erica attractive.
Without the handsome Dr. Mercer being pulled into the plot, the movie would have risked being quite bland, just another Autumn-Autumn romance. With Julian around, Erica has to choose between an older man who’s scared to death of commitment and a much younger, much more attractive man who would love to commit to a long-term relationship. The plot is made more complicated because Erica’s emotional integrity is tested. Her character becomes more interesting when Dr. Mercer enters her life.
It’s worth noting that Erica nearly fails the test presented to her by Julian’s interest in her. Her sister, her daughter, and probably most of her friends (and most likely a lot of the viewers), would have told her she was crazy to even consider the roguish, heart attack- and anxiety attack-prone Harry Sanborn over the quietly passionate Dr. Mercer. In fact, she might have ended up with the younger guy if the younger guy hadn’t seen what she wasn’t able to see – that she was really in love with Harry. Julian, had he won his suit, would have tried to build a life with a woman who was always going to be looking over her shoulder at her memories of Harry, wondering if she’d made the right choice.
As for his willingness to abandon his pursuit of the alluring Erica Barry, I don’t perceive this as demonstrating that Julian had “desires that are all too easily contained.” I guess he could have challenged Harry to a duel, but his malpractice premiums would probably have soared.
Dr. Mercer’s decision to abandon the woman he had hoped would return his love is proof of his maturity and integrity. He knows he has to walk away, not like Rick in Casablanca, who had the knowledge that Ilsa would always love him more than Victor, but in the painfully frank realization that Erica really does love Harry more than she loves himself, no matter how obvious Harry’s faults might be. Julian realizes that building a relationship on this unstable foundation could be painfully risky and ultimately unsatisfying. This takes real courage. Good for him.
Nancy Meyers, who wrote the screenplay and directed Something’s Gotta Give, has created a real gem. It’s wise, it’s funny, it has memorable characters, and it proves yet again that a good-hearted, up-beat film can also have depth and meaning. King Lear gained his wisdom through terrible suffering, yes, but why not have a couple of good characters come out of a broken love affair a bit wiser but still ready to continue life with an optimistic mien?
By the way, would you like to take a guess as to which is my favorite scene in Something's Gotta Give? It's the very last scene in the movie, when Harry, Erica, Erica's daughter, her husband and their baby go into a restaurant for dinner. Watch Harry after they sit down to dine. He's a man who's found new pleasure in the simple things of life: the stable companionship of a woman he admires very much, the company of her daughter, whom he also admires, and her husband, whom he's beginning to like, and time spent with a newborn child, in whom he sees the circle of life continuing to spin gracefully. Watch Harry as he looks around the room, smiling, taking it all in. Life can be pretty good when you are a grown up. Better than one might ever have hoped for.
I think this film will be enjoyed many years from now by quite a few people. I just hope they have Roger’s website address so they can, with his help, get much more from it than just a few laughs.
It’s snowing outside, Janice is home, and it’s a perfect day to reflect on a lovely film and another writer’s point of view. What’s not to like?
More Information: Roger Ebert, Something's Gotta Give, Casablanca, Jack Nicholson, Diane Keaton, Keanu Reeves, "Million Dollar Movie" Opening Sequence, Richard Corliss, Nancy Meyers, About Schmidt, La Marseillaise in Casablanca