A Loving Lunar Swan Song
The moon cast a beatific and unifying spell across America this past week when it crossed paths with the sun and, for a brief time, awakened a cosmic sense of wonder in a citizenry that sought a momentary break from the hard knocks of everyday life. Yesterday marked what would have been the 92nd birthday of the highly regarded Robert Mulligan (1925-2008), and this versatile director who explored the mixture of aspirational comforts and romantic fears of troubled children and young adults underneath moonlit skies in such diverse, well-crafted films as To Kill a Mockingbird, Love with the Proper Stranger, Baby the Rain Must Fall, Inside Daisy Clover, The Stalking Moon, Summer of ’42 and The Other would finish his venerable career with an aptly named, deeply heartfelt project called The Man in the Moon (1991). Beneath a 1957 Louisiana moon, on the screened back porch of the family farmhouse, 14-year-old Dani Trant (Reese Witherspoon in a breathtakingly assured film debut) confessionally bonds with her older, more worldly, soon-college-bound 17-year-old sister (Emily Warfield) before the upcoming end of summer marks their parting. Dreamy, headstrong and anxious to experience first love and grown-up adventures, Dani is a mild worry to her loving but stern father (Sam Waterston) and patient but pregnant mom (Tess Harper). But this particular summer brings new neighbors into the family’s life, a struggling widow (Gail Strickland) and her 17-year-old son (Jason London) – and the sleepy tempo of life will change – both ecstatically and sadly. In his 2012 Streamline: The Filmstruck Blog entry on The Films of Robert Mulligan, essayist R. Emmet Sweeney observes: “The story is utter simplicity, but rendered with subtlety in Jenny Wingfield’s original script (her first). Dani is in the process of trashing her Elvis posters and fixing her attentions on a real live boy – the dreamy new neighbor Court (London). He literally crashes her childhood idyll, jumping into a swimming hole she had considered her own private domain. This rupture spurs Dani’s maturation, and engages her in a world of petty jealousies, shocking violence and unutterable tragedy. All of Mulligan’s coming-of-age stories are steeped in death, the loss of innocence revealing the world in all its unresolved, unanswerable reality. Dani, as with Scout (To Kill a Mockingbird), or William (The Pursuit of Happiness) or Hermie (Summer of ’42) has the veil removed from their childhood games, and they shift from a mythologized childhood to fraught adulthood.” Wingfield’s screenplay contained many autobiographical elements, and harkened back to the quality of writing that arose in the so-called 1950s golden era of live television drama which Mulligan inhabited before striking out into feature films with 1957’s Fear Strikes Out. From an October 1991 Film Journal profile of the filmmaker that coincided with the film’s release comes this observation: “‘The biggest thing in the world is what goes on in the human heart. There’s nothing more powerful than that.’ Director Robert Mulligan is explaining why a small, honest film can often affect an audience more than a big-budget extravaganza, but he could just as easily be expressing a credo that has informed his own movies over more than three decades. Mulligan’s expertise at guiding writers and actors can be traced back to his pre-film days, when he worked in live television, where he gained a reputation for his patient, low-key style, directing for such legendary shows as Playhouse 90, Studio One and Hallmark Hall of Fame. ‘There was a group of us: Sidney Lumet, Arthur Penn, John Frankenheimer, myself. The compelling idea behind live television at that time was to tell a story through people and language. Dialogue was crucial. We all learned to deal with writers and we were all rooted in literature, whether it was literature of the stage or just literature, period. There was a rooted focus about what was drama and what was not, what was storytelling and what was not, that was not so dependent on image-to-image. Let’s face it: in live television at that time you had to tell a story and it had to be about people, because you couldn’t get out to do car chases. And a camera could rest on a human face quietly, unobtrusively, and let something happen.’” Whether or not he knew at the time that The Man in the Moon, beautifully shot by Freddie Francis and scored by James Newton Howard, would be his last movie, it seems fitting that the final image would be a slow tracking shot backing away from an intimate moment of sharing between family members on a porch on a blessedly tranquil night. Here, as exquisitely presented on Twilight Time hi-def Blu-ray, the shot continues upward to spotlight a beneficent, healing full moon, still giving solace to sadder but stronger souls below.