Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Home Before Dark

By Hadley Hury

SEPTEMBER 28, 1998:  Some of the early buzz about One True Thing, which is based on the 1995 novel by former New York Times columnist Anna Quindlen, is further proof (as if we needed it) of the barbaristic dumbing-down of the media. Filmgoers should not be deterred by reviewers resorting to “weepie,” “melodramatic,” “heavy,” and other lame-brained labels that do not begin to describe One True Thing but which certainly swell the sad commentary on the state of critical thought in our society today. If Quindlen’s storyline has a few too many broad strokes and neat tucks, it is on the whole an intelligent, thoughtful, and moving study of a complex family dynamic. Directed by rising star Carl Franklin (working from a screenplay by Karen Croner) and featuring a remarkable ensemble of actors, One True Thing is that rare project in which the creative elements, each strong in itself, combine in a memorable incandescence of filmmaking. In an era when many films assault the audience with cacophonous appeals to our lowest possible common denominators – negligible attention spans and desensitized appetites – One True Thing insists that the viewer lean in. It has a largeness of scale that has nothing to do with special effects; it has some violence, but it’s of a psychic sort and discreetly deployed; its humor is credible rather than banal; and it has naked emotionality rather than maudlin sentiment. It is a real human journey that moves with the thrilling suspense of a dream and holds us fast, and – though viewers may leave the experience with differing perspectives – when we reach the end, we know we’ve been somewhere.

The film is set in the late 1980s. George Gulden (William Hurt), a professor of literature and literary critic of some note at a college up East, asks (rather, insists) that his daughter Ellen (Renee Zellweger) come home from Manhattan to the small college town to care for her ailing mother, Kate (Meryl Streep). On a journalistic fast track at New York magazine, Ellen’s first impulse is that a nurse should be hired; she agrees to leave the city primarily to please her adored father. Ellen is not heartless, only ambitious. She has always emulated her father, not her mother, who is, by her own cheerful admission, one of the last of that breed of 1950s women who went to college (a) to find a husband and (b) perhaps to have a teaching certificate “to fall back on.” Ellen wants more than anything not to be like her mother, whose homemaking skills and interests seem to lack seriousness beside the intellectual glamour of her father.

In the hands of lesser actors and a director less imaginatively cinematic, the film might well have turned out to be arid and pretentious – an Ordinary People redux. Franklin illuminates – with a dramatic arc not unlike a suspense thriller – the unexpected and profound alterations in Ellen’s world as she comes to realize that neither her father nor her mother is the person she has grown up perceiving them to be. The film is essentially a delicate character study; there is no overt action, only the course of an illness and a series of small epiphanies that accrue until they ultimately transform the characters’ understanding of one another – and of life. Franklin’s eloquent psychological realism, his embrace of emotion, and the brilliant deployment of detail in his mise en scene bring us into the story, face to face with the actors’ vivid performances. One True Thing is never less than absorbing; it is frequently – for long passages in which time seems suspended – riveting.

Zellweger, who proved her ingenue mettle opposite Tom Cruise in Jerry Maguire, stakes out a new level of her actor’s craft as Ellen. It’s the sort of big role in which the sheer volume of screentime itself can become a performance’s worst enemy, constantly threatening credibility pinpricks. Zellweger manages to navigate cleanly the subtle shadings in Ellen’s transformation. She never shows her hand by overdoing her initially unsympathetic chilliness or her subsequent warming and enlightenment; it’s an intelligent, even-handed performance that draws the viewer into Ellen’s shifting viewpoint.

Hurt, a skittishly self-conscious actor, allows a notable degree of self-effacement here. Perhaps his recent turns in the classics onstage are proving instructive for his film work; perhaps it is Franklin’s tutelage. For whatever reason, this performance is Hurt’s best in years; it submerges itself thoroughly in the character and serves, shoulder to shoulder with his fellow actors, the exceptional sense of ensemble. His George is affable, attractive, self-absorbed, weak, and ultimately heartbreaking.

When Meryl Streep first appears early in the film – readying a surprise birthday party for George to which the guests come as their favorite literary character – the viewer fears that something may be terribly wrong, that the movie, along with Streep’s performance, is irremediably off on the wrong foot. We share for an uncomfortable moment the sullen Ellen’s view of her mother as a bit ridiculous. Even for a costume party, the sight of tall Kate Gulden bustling around the kitchen in short gingham pinafore and pigtails with bows seems ill-considered. In retrospect, we see that there is nothing about the scene – or about Kate’s choices – that is ill-considered; they say a lot about Kate and about Streep’s performance. The wife of an academic star, Kate has chosen Dorothy as her favorite character in literature – Dorothy, whose defining truism is “There’s no place like home.” And, as always, Kate is busy spreading good cheer and enjoying the moment; the last thing she would consider is that she might look faintly ridiculous. The scene prefigures Ellen’s (and the viewer’s) understanding of this woman and is testament to Streep’s risk-taking commitment to her character. She is almost over the top in this scene, but as she then goes about layering Kate’s character, we realize how absolutely right she was to begin here.

Even ardent fans of Streep may often be heard to say that their favorite performances are the more “Streepless” roles – those in which the famous cerebration and technique, and even the distinctive swan-like visage, become transparent in the interest of a character whose persona we assume to be quite different from Streep’s own. (Silkwood is a good example; others might include Death Becomes Her, A Cry in the Dark) One True Thing allows Streep another opportunity to become, very fully, Streepless. Her Kate is galvanizing in her simplicity. This is not to say that Streep doesn’t bring her formidable battery of skills to bear; as a matter of fact, she is able in One True Thing to combine nearly her entire range of styles into one keenly felt, beautifully detailed, luminous performance. There are a couple of scenes – one a climactic Christmas moment in the town square – that do, indeed, seem stagy and dramatically overripe. Franklin’s missteps account for perhaps a total of four or five minutes in an otherwise masterfully conceived and articulated two-hour film. In these actors, he had rich natural resources with which to work; it is clear not only that he fully appreciated and was inspired by the potential, but that his cast wisely allowed his brilliant eye and rich sensibility to guide and inform their work.

One of Anna Quindlen’s professional precursors, journalist Adela Rogers St. John, was asked in her early seventies, during a television interview, if she was afraid of dying. She answered, “Oh, no, not all. It’s just that I want to see how it all turns out.” Quindlen, Franklin, Streep, Hurt, and Zellweger argue an unsentimental, and therefore all the more deeply moving, case for the importance of making it “turn out” – on a daily basis.


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