“Things don’t have to be true to talk about ’em, you know.”

Posted on August 15, 2010


A few days ago Amazon sent me a gift, a gift I paid for but, never mind, it felt like Christmas anyway. I received a DVD of the 1986 film ‘night, Mother starring Sissy Spacek and Anne Bancroft, written by Marsha Norman and based on her Pulitzer-prize winning Broadway play. Big deal, right? A DVD? Amazon ships millions of those out every day, you say. Well, it was an exciting event for me because I would say that ‘night, Mother is probably my favorite play of all time and this film version, which I love, has never been released on DVD in the United States. Like 84 Charing Cross Road I first discovered ‘night, Mother as a teenager among my parents taped-from-TV library, but it’s been out of print since it basically came into print and I’ve never managed to find a decent copy of my own. Some years ago, I found a used VHS copy on Ebay or Half or somewhere for a few bucks and bought it. I was careful with it but despite that the tape all but snapped in the cassette after only a couple of viewings. There was some way too pricey laserdisc version of it somewhere too, but who in the hell owns a laserdisc player anymore? In fact, who in the hell EVER owned a laserdisc player? They seem like one of those up to the nanosecond technology fads for people with too much money and not enough foresight to wait the six months it took them to invent DVDs. I imagine a shelf of laserdiscs in some tacky toupee-wearing bachelor’s pad right next to the poor sap’s collection of the Bee Gees ’70’s catalog on eight track. So I was resigned to waiting for it to pop up on cable somewhere to get my fix. (Usually, on Bravo or Ovation because, you see, it’s an “art” film.) (Which is just another way of saying “a film that nobody ever watches.”)

As a technical achievement of movie-making, it’s nothing spectacular. It, honestly, has more of a made-for-TV movie feel to it than a big budget box office smash, and the cinematography is functional if not particularly inspired. But what is phenomenal about this film is the acting and the words. One of its criticisms, by some prominent film critics, I might add, has been that it wasn’t opened up enough but I think that would’ve completely destroyed the story. It is a story about two people, in one night, in one house and had it looked prettier it may have escaped this criticism, as in construction it’s very similar to Ingmar Bergman’s Aumtumn Sonata which is much praised. To take the story outside of the house or to bring in any scenes (flashbacks, cutaways, etc) that weren’t in the original play would have defeated its narrative thrust.  Let me just give you a rundown in case you have no clue about this film. It’s about a woman, Jessie (Sissy Spacek), who suffers from epilepsy and who also lives with her mother, Thelma/Mama (Anne Bancroft), who’s a couple of decades older than her. They’ve lived together for quite a while and have a routine that requires little communication. One night Jessie announces to her mother that at the end of the evening she will be killing herself. The rest of the film/play, told in real time, is their battle about the why’s of Jessie’s decision. In the process of this argument/conversation, they ask each other things they’ve always wanted to know, talk about family drama and “secrets,” and so on. Most commentary, especially from the people who don’t care for this piece, focuses on the suicide element. Yes, the story is structured around suicide, but that is not what the film is about. What it is about is the tension of the undiscussed world that exists in all relationships and most especially close ones like the parent/child relationship. Those things we never say to one another because decorum or propriety won’t allow; those grudges or judgments we hold against somebody even though in truth we may have never delved into their real motivations; the sheer weight of the unspoken and how you construct the “truth” of your life no matter how much false information and assumption it may actually be based on. So the suicide becomes not the point of the story at all but simply the narrative device which allows this uncovering to happen. At one point Mama tells Jessie that if she stays around they could have more conversations like this one. Jessie responds, “No, Mama! We wouldn’t have more talks like this tonight, because it’s this next part that’s made this last part so good.” It takes the threat of the ending of a life to allow these two women, who have spent most of their lives mere feet from one another, to really connect and to really know each other. And that, I find, to be the point of the story and a message I feel to be very uplifting. Communicate with the people in your life, express your desires and your sadness and whatever else before it’s too late. It shouldn’t take a life-altering event to make us connect with people, but, most of the time, unfortunately it does.

Past the “moral of the story,” as it were, what I love so much about Norman’s writing is the masterful way she handles speech. This is a play about two ordinary women, and they talk like ordinary women would talk. They say utterly revelatory things, but they don’t say them using eleven dollar words or by speaking in some elevated style that would be foreign to who they are as characters. They say things incorrectly, sometimes they can’t say what they mean to say, they stumble over sentiments and all those things which are true to the way we speak in everyday life. Yet Marsha Norman takes that flawed, undernourished construction of “everyday” speech and uses it to say things echoingly profound. I am just floored by how she writes dialogue, it is so utterly succinct and polished and yet plain. It’s like struggling to write a term paper or something like that, and you struggle and you struggle to articulate your ideas and you tell someone and they repeat it back to you in one simple sentence. And those five or six words have all the subtext and referential meaning and clarity and poetry that you’ve been trying to build up and around. One word can change a whole conversation if it’s the right word.

I know it’s a gift with which Marsha Norman is muchly endowed. I have read all of her plays, but other than seeing this film numerous times and seeing a production of the play once on Broadway (in a revival I thought was mistakenly cast), I haven’t heard much of her writing out loud. At some point I started watching the TV series “In Treatment” and since I’d missed the first season I was watching it on DVD inbetween new episodes of the second season. The main character Paul weekly sees his therapist Gina, whom he’s known for years, and consistently their scenes were my favorite ones in the series. So the second season starts getting good to me, and I’m watching one of the Paul/Gina episodes and my breath is being taken away by the dialogue. The final scene of that show happens, and Gina (Dianne Weist) delivers this firecracker of a monologue and I am literally on my feet like it’s a revival and the spirit has hold of me. “This is some GOOD. FUCKING. WRITING!” I’m thinking. So I impatiently wait for the credits to roll and “Written by Marsha Norman” comes up. Shut the front fucking door. I go onto IMDB and, sure enough, it’s my girl. So, you see, it’s a true gift. Two people sitting across from one another in a therapists office, not being broad about anything, not trying to “get deep” with it, just plain talking and I am on my feet from the truth that is rushing forward. That’s Marsha Norman. And that’s why that writing-ass bitch is one of my idols.

So do yourself a favor and pick up one of her plays. Or do me a favor and go pick up a copy of the ‘night, Mother DVD so that the sales stay up and I won’t have to worry about it going out of print again. I’d hate to have to go raid that joker’s bachelor pad and steal his laserdisc player after all.