By Peter Hummers on July 29, 2021
In 1750, Benjamin Franklin, in his Poor Richard’s Almanack, observed the difficulty of knowing one’s self, with: “There are three Things extremely hard, Steel, a Diamond, and to know one’s self.” In Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, he writes, “know others and know thyself, and you will not be endangered by innumerable battles.” The idea of knowing oneself is paramount, but not as easy as it sounds.
This TV movie, an adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut’s Saturday Evening Post short story (which was collected in Welcome to the Monkey House), was an episode of American Playhouse starring Susan Sarandon (Bull Durham) and Christopher Walken (The Anderson Tapes) as players in a small-town community theater.
“Walken plays Harry Nash, a hardware store clerk who has achieved a degree of local celebrity due to his powerful performances in community theatre. Yet when not on the stage or in a rehearsal, Harry retreats into an insecure and unsocial personality. “The story is set in motion when Helene Shaw (Sarandon), a woman intending to stay in town for only eight weeks, is persuaded into auditioning for the role of Stella, opposite Harry’s Stanley Kowalski in a production of A Streetcar Named Desire.”[^]
It opens on an earnest small-town production of Cyrano, during which the title character lustily chews on the scenery, and the stagehand is so taken by emotion that one of the actors has to whisper “Curtain!” at the finale. At the wrap party the trouple considers as their next production A Streetcar Named Desire and the politicking begins.
The next day, the director visits the local Bell Telephone office to contest a phone charge, where he meets Helene Shaw, a no-nonsense employee who has just arrived in the town with the shop’s new automatic billing machine. She displays a charming southern accent and he recruits her, despite her doubts, to audition. In the street a hopeful waylays him, looking for the part of Stanley Kowalski, when he explains to the aspiring actor (and the audience) that of course Harry Nash would play Stanley, as he is the town’s finest actor. The director then goes to the local hardware store where Harry works, and we see an extremely reticent young man counting bolts in the back. “Would you consider joining the cast, Harry?”
With a pained shrug, Harry asks, “Who am I this time?”
This funny and charming Jonathan Demme (The Silence of the Lambs) tour de force has earned a 7.7/10 score among the users of the Internet Movie DataBase. It won the “Best Television Production Award” at the Semana Internacional De Cinema de Barcelona, invitational screenings in Russia (ACT I) and Italy (Venice Film Festival), and at the San Francisco International Film Festival.
Sometimes losing oneself can be a blessing. “Ambitious, callous, narcissistic, and at times unethical, Henry Turner (Harrison Ford, Star Wars and Indiana Jones franchises) is a wealthy successful Manhattan lawyer whose obsession with his work leaves him little time for his socialite wife, Sarah (Annette Bening, Open Range), and troubled preteen daughter, Rachel. He has just won a malpractice suit, defending a hospital against a plaintiff who claims, but is unable to prove, that he warned doctors about a pre-existing condition.
“Running out to a convenience store to buy cigarettes one night, Henry is shot when he interrupts a robbery. One bullet hits his right frontal lobe, while the other hits his left subclavian artery, causing excessive internal bleeding and cardiac arrest. He experiences anoxia, resulting in brain damage.
“Henry survives but can neither move nor talk and he suffers retrograde amnesia. While in a nursing facility, he slowly regains movement and speech with the help of a physical therapist named Bradley. Henry’s recovery creates a financial burden for the family. Upon returning home, Henry is almost childlike. As he forges new relationships with his family, he realizes he does not like who he once was.”[^]
Written by Jeffrey (J.J.) Abrams (Star Wars Episodes IX and VII) and directed by Mike Nichols (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?), Regarding Henry is the economically told journey of self-discovery of an egotistical and malcontented legal shark who’s been given a second chance at a meaningful life by a bandit’s bullet. Like an alcoholic who feels blessed by the disease as he is forced to confront the issues that brought him low, Henry must effectively start over from scratch. There’s pathos, then hope, plus some comedy, such as when Henry is served eggs his first morning back home “No eggs. I don’t like eggs.” His daughter says, “Yes you do! Eggs are your favorite!” Henry replies, “Okay, then, give me a lot of eggs.” There are unnerving surprises, too, as Henry researches his past. Entertaining and engaging if a little pat, Variety called it “a subtle emotional journey impeccably orchestrated by director Mike Nichols and acutely well acted. Regarding Henry has a back-to-basics message that’s bound to strike a responsive chord in the troubled aftermath of the 1980s.”
On the other hand, Roger Ebert thought it “so neat, so formula, so contrived, I was thinking about ‘The Graduate’ instead of about characters I had spent two hours with. So, I suspect, was Nichols.” Your mileage may vary.
Netflix’s Outer Banks season 2 (“OBX2”) is dropping tomorrow, July 30. “With a fortune in gold at stake and their futures on the line, the Pogues rush headlong into danger and a fresh mystery as they face foes old and new.” Here’s the trailer.
Next time, somw more from Kurt Vonnegut: Slaughterhouse-Five and Harrison Bergeron.
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