The Coming-to-Life Movie
In evaluations of the varied 20 theatrical features he made across a 34-year span following a productive decade in directing dozens of noteworthy “golden age” television dramas, Robert Mulligan (1923-2008) has been viewed, based on a handful of those titles, as a specialist in the “coming-of-age” movie. Los Angeles Times obituary writer Claire Noland zeroed in on this: “As a director, Mulligan became known for his sensitive treatment of the emotional highs and lows experienced by children and adolescents when confronting traumatic circumstances. The Finch children see their father defending an innocent black man against his bigoted white accuser in To Kill a Mockingbird (1962); Hermie falls in love with a slightly older woman whose husband has been sent off to war in the nostalgic 1971 film Summer of '42 (with Mulligan serving as the narrator); a young white boy played by Neil Patrick Harris and his Jamaican nanny (Whoopi Goldberg) find common ground amid family turmoil in Clara's Heart (1988); and Reese Witherspoon's character discovers the pain of teenage heartbreak in The Man in the Moon (1991).” A closer examination of the man’s filmography might have also acknowledged the thoughtfully realized portrayals of Natalie Wood’s bruised, mixed-up Hollywood child star in Inside Daisy Clover (1965), the hormonally defiant but good-natured inner-city students of Up the Down Staircase (1967), the psychologically linked – and scarred – twin brothers at the center of The Other (1972) and even perhaps Richard Gere’s early-career work as a high school graduate who loves his blue-collar family but would rather not follow in their prescribed construction hardhat trade in Bloodbrothers (1978). No matter to Mulligan, who rejected any implied limitation and preferred his own spin, as Noland cited from a conversation with the director at the time of The Man in the Moon’s release. “‘Ordinarily they say that cliché, a coming-of-age movie, and I reject that term,’ Mulligan said in a 1991 interview with the Dallas Morning News. ‘I think it's coming to life. I felt, when I looked back on it, that I really didn't know what life was about until I was somewhere in my teens, when you become aware that sooner or later you're going to have to walk out the front door. Mother and Father are not going to be there, you're not going to be protected. All those things become exciting and terrifying at the same time.’” Mulligan found that excitement and terror, as well as beauty and tenderness, in this lightly autobiographical original screenplay by Jenny Wingfield, set in a humid 1957 rural Louisiana summer, and depicting the effect of first love and wrenching reality on a farming family consisting of hardworking and supportive parents (father Sam Waterston and expectant mother Tess Harper) and two teenage daughters (18-year-old Emily Warfield, playing 17, and Witherspoon, 14 playing 14). Jason London portrays the neighboring 17-year-old farm boy who is attracted to but inadvertently drives a wedge between the siblings, despite his innate decency and devotion to his widowed mother (Gail Strickland). The idyllic and turbulent tides of their relationships are superbly depicted in the pitch-perfect craft brought to the story by two-time Academy Award®-winning cinematographer Freddie Francis, composer James Newton Howard and veteran production designer Gene Callahan, who died shortly after the production concluded and to whom the film is dedicated. The Man in the Moon marked both a profound ending and a beginning: Mulligan’s final film and Witherspoon’s first, and it seems pluperfectly right that the director who helped shape the performances of young actors discovered and captured the moonglow of the future star of Sweet Home Alabama, Election, Legally Blonde and her Oscar®-winning Walk the Line, who in turn has developed, 26 years later, into a producer/executive producer of distinction, with high-caliber projects like Gone Girl, Wild and Big Little Lies. The Man in the Moon comes to life and gorgeously shines on Twilight Time hi-def Blu-ray May 16. Preorders open tomorrow, Wednesday May 3.