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Strangers: The Story of a Mother and Daughter (1979)

I’ve seen a vast number of Bette Davis films during the studio era, during the height of her stardom, from the early 1930s to the 1950s, but I haven’t seen many of her later films, though she worked her whole life. However, after reading about a TV movie called Strangers: A Story of a Mother and Daughter, in which she co-stars with Gena Rowlands, I couldn’t resist. I’m a sucker for stories about mothers and daughters anyway, but the cast made it irresistible.

The film was made for TV in 1979 and proved to be everything I was expecting. It’s the story of Abigail Mason (Gena Rowlands), who returns from Boston to live with her mother, Lucy (Davis), in a small New England fishing town. Abigail hasn’t seen her mother in over twenty years and is at first not even sure her mother will let her in the door. Lucy doesn’t say a word, only glares at her and continues doing her puzzle, while Abigail talks nervously. One can feel the tension in the room.

The story follows the two of them as they argue, accuse, talk, unbend, do puzzles, plant tomatoes and come to understand each other for the first time in their whole lives. Lucy, in particular, works on her puzzle a lot, though she isn’t very good at it. Her daughter, however, has a knack for doing puzzles. She has a knack for life, or perhaps a determination to persevere in life in general and gets her mother to do all sorts of things she hadn’t done in a long time: go out among her neighbors, eat out in a restaurant, buy a new dress. She even gets her mother to help her repair the toilet and fix a lamp.

Abigail brings a can-do attitude into Lucy’s life and even opens the blinds, exposes the dust, and then dusts. Ultimately, watching the two of them accomplish ordinary things together and grow closer and open up in the process is lovely. It’s not a film about dramatic events – the dramatic events were mostly in the past. As Lucy says, she thought she was destined to live and die alone, until her daughter came home to keep her company. Except there is something that Abigail has not told her mother.

Both performances are lovely as they play off each other. Bette Davis is her usual fierce self, but you can see the vulnerability beneath, the disappointments of her life, and her proud refusal to express her feelings. She’s a recluse at the beginning of the film, chasing away the neighborhood kids who like to ring her doorbell, when her daughter arrives and Gena Rowlands is equally excellent, fully up to starring opposite Bette Davis. Vulnerable in her own way, it manifests itself in frustration with her mother, eagerness to help, even a determination to help and not be bothered by anything her mother says or does, and a propensity to talk so that there won’t be too much awkward silence.

It’s really a bittersweet movie, as they discuss Lucy’s husband, Abigail’s father, and their conflict and misunderstandings. Bette Davis’ character literally unbuttons in the film. When we first meet her, she buttons every button on her shirt. By the middle of the film, the top button is undone, making even her casual appearance look less severe and, well….less buttoned-up.

(Spoilers) It turns out that the reason Abigail has returned home to live with her mother is because she is dying of cancer and wants to be with her mother, the only one she has left in her life, but she doesn’t tell her mother right away. Lucy has already nursed her husband during his illness and death, and she is angry and shocked when she learns that Abigail is dying, too, at first accusing Abigail of using her again, saying “How dare you come back and make me care.” Bette Davis makes her anger scalding, but also manages to convey that her anger is because of how much she does care.

“I am not going to go through that again,” Lucy tells a doctor, when he tells her that she is going to have to bring a hospital bed into the house and prepare. It reminded me of when I lost a family member to cancer, having had a hospital bed in the house and spent time nursing that family member; it seemed all the more poignant. The first time you nurse someone, you don’t really know what’s in store. How much worse when you know what is going to happen? When it is your own daughter, your last relative, who you’ve just found again?

The film doesn’t show Abigail’s death, but leaves the viewer with the renewed relationship between mother and daughter and how Abigail has found peace, but also brought her mother back to life again, so to speak. Very bittersweet, but with an emphasis on relationship rather than loss or death.

The film can be found on youtube, but the quality is admittedly poor. However, I have not found another place to view the film. It is worth viewing, however, for the excellent performances of Bette Davis and Gena Rowland.

This post was written as part of “The Third Annual Bette Davis Blogathon,” hosted by In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood. I made a mistake, however, and mistook the day the blogathon ended, so I am regrettably getting my post out a day late, but thanks so much to Crystal for her acceptance! Visit Crystal’s site for more posts celebrating Bette Davis and her films.

 
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Posted by on April 8, 2018 in Movies

 

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Laurie vs. Professor Bhaer – A Debate with Andrea Lundgren

Last December my cousin, Andrea Lundgren, and I read Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. We had a wonderful time discussing it with each other, but became aware that on one point we differed. Who should Jo have married: Professor Bhaer or Laurie? It is a debate that has engaged Jo March fans for over a century. We thought we would offer our opinions in a Professor Bhaer and Laurie blog debate!

Andrea has written the first volley, arguing that Laurie and Jo were each other’s best friends and that if Louisa May Alcott had not interfered in the story, they would naturally have fallen in love. As Andrea points out, Little Women has two parts, published separately, so it is possible the story was headed one direction in the first half and Alcott redirected it in the second half. Andrea has also written a wonderful post on how an author can successfully redirect a romance in a novel, from one part to another.

In my rebuttal post, I attempt to make the case for Professor Bhaer.

movies_christian_bale_career_gallery_3Jo and Laurie

Jo was Laurie’s best friend, but I am not sure Laurie was Jo’s best friend. She was also extremely close to her sisters. Laurie was lonely and bored when he met Jo, but Jo was not. They spend a lot of time together, but she doesn’t share her heart with him, as she does with Marmee, and the secrets he does know he worms out of her through teasing. I agree that in the first half of the book, Laurie is already falling in love with Jo – he likes her more than anyone else and he kisses her and tells her to hug him anytime – but Jo’s affections are less engaged and when the first half of the book ends, I believe it is open-ended enough for Jo to not fall in love with Laurie.

My main problem with Laurie is that he is less mature than Jo. Jo mothers him and he is always trying to live up to her, such as when he does well at college to earn her approval, rather than for his own sake or the sake of his grandfather. Jo also frequently calls him her boy, a phrase that brings to mind a later book by Alcott, Jo’s Boys. Laurie can be seen as the first of Jo’s boys. She loves boys, she gets along with boys, she understands boys. She never had much in common with other girls, not being interested in dresses or the usual things girls talk about. She and Laurie have a similar sense of humor and high energy and are very good friends, but she does not ever respect him as a man.

My other thought about Laurie is that he doesn’t have the personal resources that Jo has (in terms of finding amusement or employment for himself). He would want to be with Jo a lot and that would annoy Jo, who needs to be able to go off on her own to write and such.

0164Jo and Professor Bhaer

On the other hand, Professor Bhaer is often seen as the staid alternative to the passionate Laurie. The professor is less openly impetuous than Laurie, but it does not follow that he feels less deeply or intensely. He reveals depth of emotion on several occasions, when he is thinking that he can never have Jo and when he is defending ideals he believes in.

And Jo, as a reader with an inquiring mind, finds in the Professor an intellectual soul-mate, as well as a romantic one. She respects his judgment and his opinions on her writing. She is full of admiration when he passionately defends religion to a philosopher. He challenges her to maintain her writing integrity and seems to understand her without speaking about things.

Andrea makes the parallel between Professor Bhaer and Jo’s largely absent-from-the-book father, which was a great observation and really got me thinking. However, I think that actually makes Jo’s love of Professor Bhaer more likely. Professor Bhaer has a lot in common with her father and Jo has a lot in common with her mother. Jo and Marmee talk together frequently, they understand each other, both have tempers, both deeply care for people, struggle the least with self-absorption, and both are attracted to intellectual men who are also rocks of solidity who can temper their wive’s more fiery impulses and both are men not moved by social conventions, happily pursuing their own way in life while staying true to their convictions (as Mr. March does when he goes to war).

We don’t ever see Marmee and her husband together, but that does not preclude devotion to each other, when other people are not watching. That could be because Alcott has a more difficult time writing about married life. Her romances never seemed to me to be her strong suit. But because she does not show people in an intimate marriage, doesn’t mean they don’t have one.

Jo can still mother Professor Bhaer (she needs to mother people: Laurie, Beth, children) by darning his socks and sewing on his buttons and she will bring tremendous energy and sparkle into his life, but he will be able to support her as she flings herself into her projects and through life. But I believe it is the very things that make him so different from her – the gentleness (which Louisa May Alcott Is My Passion argues reminds Jo of Beth), the education and knowledge, the patience – that is attractive to her.

 
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Posted by on January 16, 2015 in Literary Thoughts

 

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When the Author Gets It Wrong: Jo March and Laurie Laurence

When the Author Gets It Wrong: Jo March and Laurie Laurence

The first post by Andrea Lundgren in our Laurie vs Professor Bhaer blog debate! Andrea opens with an excellent case for why Jo March should have married Laurie.

Andrea Lundgren

Generally, I defend authors as being the most likely candidates to get a storyline right. They should know their characters better than anyone else, and their insights are very valuable—never to be discounted. Sometimes, though, I think an author’s prejudice or personal opinions can skew their understanding of their characters, and one major instance of this is in Little Women, in the relationship between Jo March and Laurie Laurence.

Supposedly, Ms. Alcott never wanted Jo to marry anyone, remaining single throughout the books, as she herself was in real life, but the clamor of the fans and probably the pressure of her publisher made her go a different route. (Perhaps she did it to spite her fans?) But I don’t feel like the first volume supported the second volume, and I think Jo would’ve fallen for Laurie, if the author hadn’t interfered.

First of all, there are plenty of textual…

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Posted by on January 16, 2015 in Fiction, Literary Thoughts

 

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