Surveying an Icon’s Life and Work
I find it curious how often many of us think of the everyday lives of well-known actors and actresses as being virtually identical to the parts they play in movies and on television. These performers are so convincing in their roles that countless viewers tend to believe their on-screen and off-screen personas are virtually indistinguishable. However, when we examine the credibility of that idea, many of us can’t help but come to the conclusion that this notion is patently ludicrous, yet the memorable nature of their portrayals is so strong that we often have difficulty shaking that belief. Seeing these individuals for who they really are when they’re not on camera can be a challenging sell, but one film that does an excellent job of examining, but separating, the personal and the professional can be found in the insightful new HBO documentary, “Being Mary Tyler Moore” (web site, trailer).
For decades, actress/singer/dancer/comedienne Mary Tyler Moore truly came to be seen as “the girl who can turn the world on with her smile,” as the lyrics from the theme song of her self-titled TV sitcom proclaimed. In fact, it’s a skill that the performer and her characters had been doing for years, first as plucky suburban housewife Laura Petrie on The Dick Van Dyke Show (1961-1966) then as sweet, naïve rich girl Dorothy Brown in “Thoroughly Modern Millie” (1967) and then as perpetually perky single career woman Mary Richards on The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970-1977). And, for her efforts on these projects, she earned six Primetime Emmy Awards, two for Van Dyke and four for her own series.
Moore’s characters became so associated with the actress’s performances that audiences saw her as Laura Petrie and Mary Richards. In fact, during and after her first TV role, many viewers sincerely believed that she and television husband Dick Van Dyke were actually married in real life. And later, as Mary Richards, fans of the show believed that Moore was the modern, single, career-oriented woman that she portrayed when, in fact, she was a happily married wife and mother.
So how closely did Mary Tyler Moore the person reflect the characters she played? As this documentary reveals, there were many similarities but also plenty of differences, many of which she kept carefully concealed. As a resolutely private individual, she rarely let those aspects of her life show during the early days of her career, keeping them from interfering with her professional life. Not long after her second TV series ended, she endured a variety of difficulties, including a sometimes-troubled relationship with her parents, two divorces, a miscarriage and an ongoing battle with type 1 diabetes. And, shortly thereafter, she experienced the loss of her only son in a gun shot accident, the untimely deaths of her two younger siblings and a bout with alcohol abuse that landed her at the Betty Ford Clinic. None of these ordeals were the kinds of events that viewers thought someone as sweet and lovable as “Mary” would have to endure.
Not long after The Mary Tyler Moore Show went off the air, the actress’s life went through some significant changes. She divorced from her second husband, TV producer Grant Tinker, and moved from Los Angeles to New York. Moore found the changes challenging but liberating. She saw this as an opportunity to stretch as an artist and as an individual. She took on different roles, such as that of icy middle-aged mother Beth Jarrett in the dark domestic drama “Ordinary People” (1980), for which she received a well-deserved Oscar nomination, and as quadriplegic sculptor Claire Harrison in a Broadway production of the right to die drama Whose Life Is It Anyway? (1980), a portrayal that earned her a special Tony Award. These projects not only allowed Moore to expand her range as an actress, but they also served as a de facto form of art therapy, helping her to heal from the tragedies she suffered and making it possible for her to open up more about them. The world was at last beginning to see that there was more to Mary than “Mary.”
The film brings these matters to light in a candid but respectful manner, enabling viewers to see Moore in a brighter light than perhaps ever before. In some ways, it evokes a strong sense of empathy for the actress, especially among those who may have never known any of these particulars about her life. Many audience members may indeed respond with a pronounced “We never knew” reaction, especially if they’ve long continued to believe that the actress was a mere reflection of her characters.
The impact of this carries many implications. For starters, the film makes clear that we’re more than just monodimensional beings – even actors and actresses. We might not always reveal all of the various sides of ourselves, which, of course, is our prerogative. However, we should be aware of the consequences of this practice, both in terms of the pain it can cause by keeping it bottled up and in keeping others – especially those who want to help – from seeing the real us.
Second, Moore’s accomplishments reveal the power connected with generating and sustaining impressions about her believability as evidenced by the indelible impact her performances left on so many of her fans for so long. At its heart, this is a prime example of make-believe at work, one that’s so convincing that its effects remained in place for years, a real tribute to an artist and her gift. At the same time, though, as admirable and memorable as these accomplishments might be, they can also become an artistic trap if left unaddressed – typecasting carried to an extreme.
Perhaps that was the impetus – either consciously or unconsciously — behind the change in direction Moore took after the seven-year run of her TV series. Her subsequent roles as Beth Jarrett and Claire Harrison, as well as other later parts, were so different from what preceded them that their depictions couldn’t help but prompt viewers into seeing Moore in a new light. Some of those who knew her well, in fact, observe in the film that these parts were in many ways more reflective of Moore as an individual than any of the other roles she played previously. Whatever the actual reason, though, we can be thankful that the actress decided to chart a new course so that we could see everything she had to offer as an artist and not remain stuck in the previously unchanging role of an endearing but perpetual lightweight. More importantly, however, this new direction also helped Moore become a new person, one who was more open, more free to be herself, a development that, one could argue, enabled her to grow as a performer and as an individual. And that’s something we can be thankful for, too, both for the sake of her own happiness and for the enjoyment she gave us as an entertainer.
Through this documentary, viewers see Moore as the complex, multifaceted individual that she really was, both in her professional and personal lives. Even if some of these aspects of her persona weren’t readily apparent throughout her life, they all somehow managed to emerge at some point, namely, when the time was right. That occurred when the beliefs fell into place to make these developments arise. And that’s crucial, since our beliefs dictate the nature of the existence we experience. Whether Moore was aware of this school of thought is open for debate, but, based on how her life unfolded, it’s apparent its principles were present nevertheless.
Where Moore was concerned, the most significant beliefs she needed to address were those related to how open she was willing to be about her personal and professional choices. This, in turn, is arguably tied to underlying core beliefs associated with things like fear, confidence and a willingness to confront the unpleasant. And, as a number of the film’s interview segments with the actress reveal, she openly acknowledges that she never saw herself as a risk taker, undoubtedly what accounted for her reluctance to speak openly about her private life and the comparatively “safer” and more familiar choices of roles that she accepted during the early part of her career. But was that really the case?
Given her professional choices in her early career, Moore indeed took chances that represented big risks for the time, even if she didn’t necessarily recognize them as such. As Laura Petrie, for example, she portrayed a housewife who was unafraid of expressing her opinion, even to her husband, something that TV sitcoms (other than perhaps I Love Lucy) typically didn’t dare do at the time. She even helped establish women’s fashion trends at the time, regularly sporting her signature capri pants, a departure from the house dresses, pearls and full makeup worn by virtually all television housewives of the period.
Moore took even bigger chances as Mary Richards, a single career woman who was more content with developing her professional life as a local TV news producer than settling down and getting married. In this way, Moore became something of a poster child for the women’s liberation movement in the 1970s, epitomizing the outlooks of many feminists of the time and encouraging those who may have once settled for more traditional options to look further afield when it came to their lives and choices. It was a role that Moore wasn’t always completely comfortable with as a married woman in real life, but she didn’t shy away from it, either, as someone who also pursued a professional life of her own while being a wife and mother.
However, by the time Moore went on to pursue new personal and professional choices after the end of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, something changed – her recognition of the fact that she could explore new avenues. She came to believe in the possibilities, and that shift enabled her capacity for taking risks to surface, which she began to exercise freely, as evidenced by her new roles and her entry into a new and loving marriage with third husband Robert Levine, a relationship that endured until the end of her life. She at last became conscious of an ability that was present all along; the difference now, though, was that she believed in it, a quality that was once consciously absent, despite ample evidence to the contrary in the outcomes she achieved.
From this point onward, Moore sought to stretch her capabilities, as evidenced in her work in “Ordinary People” and Whose Life Is It Anyway? But that venture didn’t stop with these projects. It also became apparent in her film work in “Six Weeks” (1982), the story of a mother dealing with the impending death of her young daughter, and “Flirting with Disaster” (1996), a screwball comedy in which a neurotic New York mother wrestles with her adopted son’s desire to find his biological parents, both of which are touched on briefly in the documentary. Admittedly, not all of Moore’s professional choices panned out as successfully as hoped for during this later phase of her career (and, thankfully, this film respectfully disregards them), but her actions during this time show how we’ll never know what we’re capable of if we’re unwilling to overcome the fears and limitations that hold us back and to embrace beliefs that enable us to take chances that could pay big dividends. Indeed, nothing ventured, nothing gained.
To a great degree, this depends on our ability to view ourselves authentically, to see ourselves for who we really are and to envision the possibilities that spring forth from such an examination. And, as noted earlier, that relates to our capacity for picturing ourselves as the inherently multidimensional beings that we are, individuals who are capable of far more than we may initially believe. This is evidenced by the clips of Moore’s various performances that are included in the film. In scenes from “Ordinary People,” for example, we see Moore in full-out ice princess mode – cold, judgmental, close-minded and thoroughly in denial of her circumstances. By contrast, in “Chuckles Bites the Dust” (1975) from The Mary Tyler Moore Show, an episode in which Mary takes a self-righteous stand about what she sees as her co-workers’ inappropriate joking about the untimely death of a clown from a local children’s television program, the actress delivers a master class in comedic acting, a performance that helped earn the show TV Guide’s designation as the best television comedy episode of all time. Through these two performances alone, we see Moore’s extensive range on display, showing off her multidimensional nature as an entertainer, one who could truly do it all, simply by believing in herself and her abilities.
At the risk of sounding like I’m gushing, this documentary effectively illustrates the depth and versatility of this performer’s talents, as well as her capacity for courage in facing and addressing her many personal challenges. We come to see her as more than just the affable television characters she portrayed. Instead, we see her as someone whose gifts were often underappreciated in light of what she had to offer. It’s no wonder she captured the 2012 Screen Actors Guild Lifetime Achievement Award. Her peers saw what she possessed and honored her accordingly. Here’s hoping this film helps to do the same for a wider audience, especially among those less familiar with her work – and legacy.
To say that iconic actress/singer/dancer/comedienne Mary Tyler Moore was a gifted, complicated, reserved, often-misunderstood individual is indeed an understatement. However, director James Adolphus’s new HBO documentary presents a reverent, insightful and respectfully candid biography of the famed star of TV, stage and screen, showing off Moore in all of her magnificent undertakings. The film chronicles how she changed the face of television comedy and demonstrated a degree of acting versatility rarely seen among many Hollywood artists. It also illustrates her ability to survive under harrowing conditions, many of which touched her life in ways largely unbeknownst to the public. The fighter within her found ways to work through the anguish in her professional missteps and personal ordeals and helped her emerge triumphantly virtually every time. The filmmaker tells Moore’s complex, moving and inspiring story with an array of clips from her work, archive interview footage with renowned journalists and celebrities, and ample voiceover observations from those who knew her and those who admired her for the example she set for later generations of women and acting professionals. The narrative is admittedly somewhat straightforward and formulaic, seldom breaking out of the boundaries of typical documentary filmmaking, but it nonetheless presents an excellent composite of images and insights into the life and work of a legend, one that’s assured to depict her in a new light and could well introduce her to a new generation of fans who may not have previously been aware of her many accomplishments. Take a bow, Mary.
Summing up anybody’s life in two hours is truly a difficult task, especially for someone who lived a rich and varied existence like Mary Tyler Moore. However, what we take away from such a summation can provide us with much to think about in terms of how we choose to lead our own lives. And Mary showed us a lot to emulate, both personally and professionally. We should all be so fortunate to lead an existence as remarkable as hers. But, if we follow her example, there’s no reason why we can’t – as long as we believe in ourselves and the possibilities that reside within us.
A complete review is available by clicking here.
New Movies for June
Join Good Media Network Movie Correspondent Brent Marchant and show host Frankie Picasso for looks at four new films on this month’s movie review edition of the Frankiesense & More video podcast! The show, to begin airing Thursday June 29 at 1 pm ET, will examine two new compelling documentaries, a Pride month offering and more. Tune in on Facebook or YouTube for all the fun and lively discussion!
In Praise of a Mother’s Love
In honor of Gay Pride month, the PBS series Independent Lens is currently streaming the inspiring documentary “Mama Bears” about a group of fundamentalist Christian mothers who have defied the dictates of their religious leaders and chosen to openly support their LGBTQ+ children, forming a support group known as the Mama Bears. I screened this film at the 2022 Milwaukee Film Festival, and it’s certainly a worthwhile watch (check out my review by clicking here). The film is currently playing on the Independent Lens web site and the PBS app. Tune in for an insightful and enlightening documentary.
Weighing the Value of Honesty
Most of us would probably agree with the time-honored adage that “Honesty is the best policy.” But is that really true? Certainly we appreciate its value when it comes to sharing the truth about the circumstances that touch our lives and in expressing the feelings we hold for one another, particularly loved ones. However, is honesty truly worth everything it’s said to be when unadulterated candor cuts like a knife, hurtfully undermining one’s enthusiasm, emotions or expectations? To be sure, there are times when such a tough love approach may be necessary for someone’s well-being, but is it called for when it undercuts tact or encouragement? In situations like this, blanket endorsements of the aforementioned maxim might readily be called into question, as explored in the delightful new comedy-drama, “You Hurt My Feelings” (web site, trailer).
Like a number of other offerings from writer-director Nicole Holofcener, this latest feature outing examines its subject matter as applied to a group of Gothamite friends, colleagues and relatives from an array of perspectives, an approach often used in many of the pictures of Woody Allen. The result in this case is a meditation on the thorny issues that can sometimes arise where honesty is concerned and the impact that can result when it’s employed a little too liberally. The film asks us to consider, “What would we do if comparable scenarios arose in our own lives?” It thus provides viewers with considerable food for thought when it comes to what we do, what we might not want to do and how we might approach such situations that allow for the best outcome for all concerned.
The primary story thread involves the relationship between Beth Mitchell (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), a reasonably successful author whose works are often looked on as not quite living up to their marketplace potential, and her husband, Don (Tobias Menzies), a well-meaning, middle-aged psychiatrist who feels he’s losing his edge, as borne out by some of the unflattering comments he receives from his patients. Despite their respective career challenges, Beth and Don are nevertheless thoroughly devoted to one another, having been happily married for many years. They support one another’s efforts unquestionably, always finding ways to buck up each other when they feel stressed. They’re also the proud parents of a twenty-something son, Eliot (Owen Teague), a struggling playwright who manages a marijuana dispensary to pay the bills, a job that worries Beth given its somewhat questionable clientele and associated safety factors (even though she freely smokes weed herself).
The second principal story thread involves Beth’s sister, Sarah (Michaela Watkins), a people-pleasing interior designer who attempts to satisfy the tastes of a number of high-end fussy clients, and her significant other, Mark (Arian Moayed), an enthusiastic but struggling actor. Beth and Sarah spend a great deal of time together, volunteering at a neighborhood church clothing bank, shopping in the city and visiting their aging, quirky mother, Georgia (Jeannie Berlin), whose frank, uncensored comments are sometimes a little more candid than the sisters want to hear. And, while Beth and Sarah are out bopping around town, their partners, Don and Mark, spend a lot of time with one another as well, often serving as sounding boards for one another.
Even though the two couples have their professional issues to contend with, they still manage to live fairly happy and fulfilling lives. That all changes one day, though, when Beth and Sarah have an unexpected encounter with Don and Mark. While impulsively visiting a sporting goods store, the sisters spot their partners from a distance with their backs turned toward them. Beth proposes that they sneak up from behind them to give them a surprise hello. However, as they make their approach, Beth overhears Don saying that he doesn’t like his wife’s new book, that he doesn’t feel it and that it doesn’t speak to him. And, as he freely offers up his comments, he’s unaware that Beth is standing behind him and that she heard everything he said.
Needless to say, Beth is devastated. She and Sarah turn away without the guys ever having been aware that they were present and within earshot. Don is thus completely unaware that Beth heard his reaction to her latest work and the pain that his criticism caused her. Now what?
Things at home become frosty rather quickly, and Don is confused by the standoffish treatment he receives. Beth is evasive about discussing the situation, too, and she quickly finds cover for this behavior when Eliot returns home with a problem of his own – a difficult breakup with his girlfriend. Eliot’s heartache provides a convenient diversion for Beth, giving her an opportunity to focus her attention on comforting her son and to avoid bringing up her disappointment with Don, who simultaneously and unreservedly joins in offering solace to his son but remains puzzled while receiving the cold shoulder from his wife.
Meanwhile, as Beth anguishes over what she perceives as Don’s seeming insensitivity, he wrestles with growing discontent from his patients, including Jon and Carolyn (David Cross, Amber Tamblyn), a couple experiencing marital troubles who feel they’re making little progress in their counseling, and Jim (Zach Cherry), a malcontented young man who’s having difficulty getting along with his family and believes therapy is doing little to help him. Don begins to wonder if he’s lost his effectiveness as a therapist – not to mention as a supportive husband.
Fuel is dowsed on Beth’s fire when she begins to wonder if Don’s criticisms about her writing are correct. She repeatedly hears comments from multiple sources that sales of her previous book could have been better due mostly to the underwhelming marketing efforts put forth by her agent (LaTanya Richardson Jackson). She’s also astounded when the students in the creative writing course she teaches have never even heard of that title, despite being aware of comparable works from other authors.
As all this plays out, other characters experience their share of disappointments as well. These developments are either uncovered through brutally honest revelations or brought up during discussions about how much they can genuinely trust the supposedly encouraging “honesty” they received from others. Indeed, can well-meaning but knowingly insincere support do just as much harm to one’s beliefs about oneself and one’s work as harsh but frank truthfulness?
Suddenly, questions surrounding the sanctity of honesty don’t seem quite so clear-cut. The shades of gray that emerge in this discussion quickly overtake the unassailable black-and-white view that many of us might have held going in to this story. But, by bringing up these issues for debate, as they are here, audiences have an opportunity to examine them from a much more realistic perspective, enabling us to see that a one-size-fits-all approach to this subject is far from appropriate in all situations. “You Hurt My Feelings” illustrates the importance of considering all of our options before acting in scenarios like these so that we choose the ones that best suit the circumstances before matters get out of hand.
In light of the foregoing, one could indeed make a convincing argument in favor of the notion that honesty truly is a relative matter. In most cases, sure, honesty is indispensable. However, in instances where emotional considerations are involved, we need to consider the implications of being direct in conveying news and opinions. We must take into account the mindsets, sensibilities, perspectives and beliefs of those to whom we’re imparting the information. In turn, we also need to examine our own beliefs in terms of how we feel we should approach situations like these. That’s crucial given their role in how things ultimately play out in manifesting the reality we experience. It’s not clear how many of us have actually heard of this school of thought, but we should be cognizant of it considering how events can unfold – and the impact they can have on all those concerned.
From this, it’s apparent that revealing truths and opinions to others carries a tremendous degree of responsibility with it, both for those sharing these notions and for those receiving them. For example, those unearthing potentially troubling news or opinions to those who are sensitive or easily hurt must bear in mind the possible consequences of such disclosures in determining the approach used to pass along this information. Even if we believe that honesty is the best policy, simply blurting out such revelations without taking another individual’s feelings into account could cause as much harm as the news itself. Is that truly being helpful?
At the same time, we must also consider the impact of soft-peddling news and opinions. In an attempt to be considerate and tactful in sparing someone’s emotions or avoiding undue dismay, we might end up unwittingly conveying false hope, wishful thinking or unrealistic expectations about someone’s undertakings. Telling someone who weighs 300 pounds to have hope that he’ll eventually be able to fulfill his dream of becoming a jockey isn’t realistic – or helpful. While a deft touch might prevent hurt feelings in the short term, it could cause big problems in the long run (especially for the poor horses involved). Indeed, telling someone that he or she will be able to succeed at something for which the individual lacks the requisite skills, attributes or experience could be setting up that person for inevitable disappointment and painful failure.
This is particularly true when it comes to being honest with loved ones; the hurt of such perceived betrayals can run long and deep. When Beth tells Don that he’s a fine therapist despite the complaints from his patients, is she offering loving support or prompting him into denial about what may actually be true? Likewise, when Beth and Don continually tell Eliot that his play will be a success, are they being encouraging parents or are they offering unrealistic guidance, especially given how much he appears to be struggling with his writing? That’s a particularly crucial concern in this instance, given that Don is a counselor and Beth is a writer: Given their professions, shouldn’t they be able to readily sniff out trouble where their son’s aspirations are involved? And, if they don’t genuinely believe in his efforts, aren’t they giving him the aforementioned false hope, wishful thinking and unrealistic expectations?
As noted earlier, there’s as much a responsibility issue for the recipients of these revelations as there is for those imparting them, and, again, beliefs play a crucial role. For instance, when Beth considers Don’s comments about her new book, is she keeping them in perspective, or is she letting her imagination carry her away? If he doesn’t like the new book, does that somehow automatically translate into a dislike of her entire body of work? Similarly, if he has issues with her latest literary project, does that mean he has issues with her in general? Most of us would probably say that those notions are obviously the products of a runaway imagination, one fueled by beliefs related to hurt feelings and an inflated lack of confidence. That doesn’t dismiss the fact, though, that Beth has allowed these ideas to course through her consciousness. It’s something she must be careful about lest those thoughts be made manifest as bona fide creations. It’s thus incumbent upon her to keep those notions in check, dismissing them and keeping them from materializing, no matter what may have prompted her to believe in them to begin with.
The question of responsibility carries over into other areas of this story as well, perhaps best evidenced by Don’s patients Jon and Carolyn. They represent a case where they need to hear about their circumstances with genuine honesty, something that Don has been withholding in hopes of smoothing over the conditions of their relationship. However, such well-meaning tactfulness on his part has kept the couple from resolving their problems (and hearing what they need to hear), which is why they’ve felt they’ve made such little progress after several years of counseling. Clearly their marital problems rest with them, and they’re the ones who need to make the effort to solve them, with Don providing guidance along the way. Unfortunately, he hasn’t given them the kind of advice that they really need – something he needs to change if he ever expects them to make any progress. But will he? Is he being too nice when he needs to be more forthright?
As the film progresses, a significant outgrowth emerges from all of the various story threads, one that doesn’t directly involve honesty itself but that relates to how the characters react to it – our feelings of self-worth, especially those at the cross-roads of middle age. The key consideration in this revolves around a central question: How much do we equate our professional accomplishments with our feelings about how we see ourselves as worthy individuals? Beth, for instance, measures herself against the success of her writing. Don does the same with his counseling efforts with his patients. Eliot undergoes this with the frustratingly glacial pace of the work on his play. Mark wrings his hands over his inconsistent success with landing acting roles. Sarah wrestles with this in her dealings with her design clients, such as Ali (Clara Wong), a finicky upscale yuppie for whom she has protracted difficulty finding a suitable sconce for her living room. And, through it all, Beth and Sarah routinely get their regular doses of lukewarm approval from their mother, who always seems to think that they could do better in their respective endeavors. Imagine what uncensored honesty can do in all of these cases.
But are these kinds of achievements the true measure of a rewarding, fulfilling life? And, even if they don’t live up to expectations (and if we’re fully aware of that in all honesty), should we allow such seeming underperformance to detract from whatever other satisfaction we’ve attained in our lives? The film urges us to ask ourselves these questions and to put our observations about them into perspective. If we do that, we just might find that our feelings won’t get hurt after all.
One thing for sure you can say about the films of writer-director Nicole Holofcener is that they’re rarely what you expect but that they always deliver more than you hope for. What’s more, given her recent track record, she keeps getting better and better at this with each release. Building on inventive narrative styles, precise cinematic pacing, superb character development, a knack for perfectly capturing the unexpected and impeccable writing quality developed in her recent directorial works (“Please Give” (2010) and “Enough Said” (2013)), as well as her spot-on screenplay aptitude in “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” (2018), the filmmaker has done it again in this insightful comedy-drama, a piercing treatise on the nature of honesty and the place it should occupy in our lives.
Holofcener’s multi-layered storytelling approach covers a great deal of ground, from how much honesty is too much to taking personal responsibility for resolving one’s own issues to wrestling with the ennui of nagging midlife challenges (particularly where matters of career performance are involved), and the overlapping story threads integrate seamlessly, often with carefully crafted, boomerang effects. This is also the filmmaker’s funniest work to date, evoking big laughs throughout and in some of the unlikeliest of situations (who would have thought that an armed robbery could be funny?). But, in addition to making viewers laugh, the film also makes them think, serving up incisive scenarios that truly give audience members much to contemplate, including incidents that they might have otherwise failed to consider. This is all stunningly brought to life by the positively stellar ensemble cast, especially Julia Louis-Dreyfus in one of her best-ever lead performances. To be sure, the story meanders a bit at the outset, but the opening act is decidedly designed to set up what’s to come, all of which plays out flawlessly as the picture unfolds. “You Hurt My Feelings” may not conform to convention or deliver what viewers expect going in, but, like a well-prepared dinner, it definitely satisfies one’s appetite for a thoroughly satisfying meal. View hearty, everyone. The film is playing theatrically.
It would be so much easier on us all if questions related to honesty were as simple and straightforward as we would like to believe they are. After all, absolutes are seemingly so much simpler to deal with than concepts requiring nuance and relativity, qualities that must be deftly finessed for genuine effectiveness. However, when it comes to this subject, those areas in between black and white often require deliberate, thoughtfully considered attention if we hope to get things right. We should do the best we can to devise the right solution for each situation that arises, based on well-chosen beliefs designed to suit the prevailing conditions. After all, we can stand to lose a lot if we don’t – and we’re not talking just hurt feelings here. Indeed, honesty may be the best policy, but be sure to read the fine print that comes with it.
A complete review is available by clicking here.
Fighting for Recognition and Acceptance
Imagine being compelled to live your life completely on others’ terms, never doing what you want, no matter how strong your desire. Sounds pretty dismal, right? Yet, for those in certain communities, that kind of coercion can be an everyday circumstance. The isolation can be positively crushing, removed from what suits you and being forced to pursue your dreams in secret, if at all, for fear of the repercussions. And, in the meantime, you’re likely to find yourself behaving in uncomfortable, unnatural ways, tantamount to living a lie everyday of your life. If you can appreciate that, then you can understand what many members of the LGBTQ+ community must still endure to this day, even under today’s supposedly more enlightened conditions. These are the circumstances addressed in the heartrending new Moroccan-Dutch gay domestic drama, “El Houb” (“The Love,” “Laat de liefde spreken”) (web site, trailer).
Moroccan-born businessman Karim Zahwani (Fahd Larhzaoui) lives a successful life in Amsterdam, enjoying the material comforts that many immigrants only dream of. He’s been so successful, in fact, that he’s been able to share his good fortune with his family, namely, his mother, Fatima (Lubna Azabal), his father, Abbas (Slimane Dazi), and his younger brother, Redouan (Sabri Saddik). But, despite the professional success he so openly enjoys, there’s a part of his life that he keeps as a heavily guarded secret – his gay orientation.
As much as Karim loves his family, their conservative Muslim religious and cultural outlook flatly rejects anything that even hints at same-sex partnerships, which has forced Karim to keep silent about this part of his life. But that’s become increasingly difficult for him now that he’s become romantically involved with a loving boyfriend, Kofi (Emmanuel Ohene Boafa), an open Ghanaian immigrant who walked away from his family (and virtually anyone else he knew) who refused to accept him for who he is. The disparity in the duo’s outlooks on this matter has put a strain on their relationship, too, given that Kofi wishes Karim could be as free in being himself as he is, a disconnect that threatens their future together. Still, Kofi remains hopeful that Karim will come around to his way of thinking, though preferably sooner rather than later.
That question gets called a lot sooner than Karim was expecting. Early one morning, Abbas pays a surprise visit to his son’s apartment, where he finds Karim and Kofi together not long after they wake up. Abbas turns heels and departs as Karim anguishes about what to do next. Obviously he’s going to have to deal with this dilemma now. But how?
Shortly thereafter, Karim visits his childhood home, the modest apartment where he grew up after his family immigrated to the Netherlands. He’s met with a mix of emotions, from blissful ignorance to utter outrage. Fatima and Abbas initially engage in willful denial about this new revelation, but they soon turn angry when Karim openly raises the subject of his visit– to clear the air. They lament how he could possibly behave in what they see as such a dishonorable, heretical manner, one that they believe will bring disgrace upon the family, a classic “what will the neighbors think” reaction. They argue, and Karim makes a valiant effort to bring them around to his view, but the effort goes nowhere. And so, in a drastic attempt to get their attention and to force them hear him out, he resorts to a tactic that his younger self (Shad Issa Abdullah) often did during parent/child confrontations – locking himself in the utility closet, an ironic gesture but one that seriously gets their ear. And, before long, the ante gets further upped when he begins shutting off the utilities – first the water, then the cable television and finally the electricity. Forcing their hand, he hopes, will finally help to bring about resolution.
Through the closet door, they continue debating the issue. Karim struggles to get them to understand his viewpoint and to see that he’s just as deserving of acceptance as anyone else. He fights with Fatima. He fights with Abbas. And he has some especially scathing bouts with Redouan, whose spiteful tone seethes with unbridled hatred and blatantly homophobic barbs. It’s an ugly scene for all concerned, to be sure.
When arguing gets the parties nowhere, they begin resorting to other tactics. Abbas, for example, calls the local imam (Mahjoub Benmoussa) in hopes that he can suggest a solution to Karim’s “problem” (presumably some form of religious-based conversion therapy). When that doesn’t pan out, Fatima seeks to reason with Karim to reach a compromise, drawing upon her own experiences in which she was pushed into making sacrifices of her own (both romantic and professional) for the sake of preserving the peace in her family, decisions that she matter-of-factly chalks up to “that’s just how things are.” She hopes Karim will willingly follow suit, too, even if it means making life choices that don’t meet his needs.
Fatima also pushes the marriage issue, something she’s convinced will help make everything right. She hopes that Karim will settle down with a nice Moroccan girl, despite the fact the only woman in whom he seems to show any interest is his co-worker, Eline (Britte Lagcher), a Dutch woman whom Fatima disapproves of. Nevertheless, as Fatima sees it, any woman is preferable to a man where her son is concerned. She even calls upon Eline to try and talk Karim into coming out of the closet (though not in the way he aspires to). Even more shocking than that attempted manipulation is Fatima’s suggestion that Karim marry Eline and pursue his other sexual dalliances discreetly “on the side,” a proposal that may not be perfect but that she considers eminently more preferable than leading an embarrassingly open gay lifestyle.
In between arguments and these strained “negotiations,” Karim’s time in the closet provides him time to reflect on his circumstances, both in his recent past and in his youth, shown in flashbacks and dialogues with his younger self, as well as in memories of his early days with Kofi and in several surreal sequences. He especially ponders the turmoil experienced by his gay cousin, Soufian (Nasrdin Dchar), who endured torment at the hands of his family for being “different” even when he was younger (Rayan Berlhazi Alaoui) and who ended up trapped in an unhappy sham marriage just to please his relatives. The two were quite close, and Soufian often confided in his cousin, especially where orientation matters were concerned. Soufian desperately wanted to stop living a lie, though Karim repeatedly told him to stay silent to avoid undue disruption, a recommendation that he came to regret when tragedy struck.
Others express their regrets, too, especially Fatima. She laments some of the decisions she made about her own life, such as walking away from her relationship with a young man she adored but whom her parents disliked and “settling” for Abbas, a life partner who wasn’t her first choice but whom over time “she learned to love,” something she believes Karim is capable of, too. She even goes so far as to suggest that the family’s immigration to the Netherlands was a mistake, that perhaps things would have been better off for Karim if they had stayed in Morocco. But, as Karim observes, that wouldn’t have worked out either since his orientation would have been the same there as it has turned out to be in the family’s new homeland. What’s more, Karim tells his mother that she knows this, too, since he’s aware that she knew he was gay from the time he was a boy, even before he understood it (a common occurrence among gay men and their mothers), an acknowledgment she begrudgingly concedes.
As the arguments and discussions carry on, the situation grows increasingly tense, especially when it appears that no one is closer to any kind of a resolution after hours of heated, stressful back-and-forth. And, even after all that, much remains to be seen regarding how matters play out. Will Karim finally emerge from his closet, both literally and metaphorically? Will his relationship with Kofi survive? Can Karim’s family accept him for who he is, or will he continue to be subject to their unrelenting scorn? One hopes that matters will turn out well, though the road to reaching that point could readily become a rough and rocky path. And to think it all centers on simply receiving the recognition and just due that he believes he deserves just like anyone else, regardless of what his sexual orientation might be.
As much progress as the LGBTQ+ community has made over the past few decades, there’s still more work to be done in promoting recognition and acceptance, especially among more conservative, less tolerant, less open-minded communities and cultures. And, as obvious as these rights may seem to many of us, there are still those who cling to old prejudices, unfortunate as that may be. The question this naturally raises is, “Why?” That’s indeed a good question, too, one that this film may provide some clues to answering – and for reasons that may not be readily identifiable.
In essence, the persistence of increasingly outdated and outmoded notions such as these stems from the steadfast embrace of the beliefs that underlie them by their diehard proponents. That’s significant, too, given that our beliefs manifest the reality we experience. Some of us – and almost assuredly nearly all of those who hold on to these archaic ideas – may not have heard of this school of thought, which likely accounts for the endurance of these outlooks in certain segments of society, such as those depicted here.
Superficially speaking, these manifestations endure in part because of the specific beliefs directly supporting their materialization. But, as becomes apparent in the film, there are underlying beliefs supporting these notions. These thoughts and intents are arguably even more powerful, given that they provide backing and “justification” for the existence of these other beliefs that arise from them. These notions – often called “core beliefs” – act like the operating system of a computer on which all of the applications run. Because they function at a “foundational” level, they tend to be stronger in nature, with greater endurance capabilities, both of which make them more challenging to alter. And, consequently, they also tend to fuel the “applications” more intently, causing them to persist longer than other types of beliefs that are fundamentally easier to rewrite.
One need only look to many of the statements that Fatima and Abbas make in the film to understand this. For instance, consider their beliefs about what people would think if word about Karim’s gay orientation were to get out. But what is the real issue here? Is it because their son is leading an alternative, misunderstood lifestyle or because he’s simply doing something outside of widely accepted (and expected) conventional norms? And, as for the “shame” he’s allegedly bringing upon his family, isn’t that essentially attributable to the appearance that his family is tolerating (perhaps even sanctioning) something that goes against social and cultural conventions? (How dare they!) Consequently, the supposed disgrace associated with engaging in such “unacceptable” behavior is something that those seeking to fit in may find to be too high a price to pay for their actions; as they regrettably come to see things, such conduct must be squelched to avoid the inevitable shunning and scorn that would be sure to follow.
As much as Karim may dislike such conditions, he, too, has bought into them for a long time. He believes he must hide his sexuality at all costs to avoid the heartache it would cause him in relations with his family and their extended community. In fact, he abided by this thinking so thoroughly at one time that it provided the basis of the advice he gave his cousin. Such thinking is even apparent in the unfolding of seemingly simple, innocuous acts, such as Karim’s insistence that Kofi draw the curtains in his high-rise apartment building whenever he comes over for a visit, a demand made out of fear that someone on the outside may look in and see the two of them together. This could be viewed as somewhat extreme, even paranoic, but it shows the lengths to which Karim is willing to go in order to safeguard his secret and to protect himself from those whom he believes would unduly ridicule him for it.
Karim’s actions in this regard reveal another deeply ingrained belief that may be hard to change yet carries significant consequences – his willingness to give away his personal power. To many of us, such a belief would be unthinkable. However, considering what he believes he could stand to lose, he sees it as an “acceptable” compromise. The problem with that, though, is that he runs the risk of potentially giving away so much just to assuage the views of others that he shortchanges himself. Is that really worth it? Is abandoning one’s own happiness for the sake of appearances truly a beneficial trade-off? The limitations in that seem almost as confining as the size of the closet space he occupies, both physically and metaphorically.
Then there are also the beliefs based on the idea of “if we had to do it, then you should be willing to do it, too.” Consider the observations Fatima makes about giving up the romantic interest and career choices she wanted simply to please others, as well as her reconciliation to the idea “that’s just how things are.” This is another case of capitulation to the expectations of others and the relinquishing of one’s personal power. She believes those kinds of sacrifices are an accepted part of everyday life and that others – like Karim – should be just as willing to go along with them as she did. That may have been fine for her, but her son obviously can’t lay claim to the same notion. Indeed, why should he have to do it just because others rolled over and played dead? What kind of an expectation is that? And who decided that such acts were the “right” thing to do in the first place?
The presence of these core beliefs illustrates that the intentions behind our manifestation efforts can be more complicated than we might think. They carry the potential to drive many aspects of how we live our lives (and not always with the most desirable outcomes). Therefore, it behooves us to take a close look at exactly what beliefs underlie what we’re attempting to create for ourselves. Such an introspection could reveal some ugly little secrets that we don’t even recognize yet could be responsible for thwarting us in realizing what we hope to achieve. It’s important that we never lose sight of the fact that we each create our own reality, not the one that’s intended to satisfy the needs, wants and desires of others. They can do that for themselves, and we’d be best off letting them do just that – and not expect us to do it for them.
As this film so aptly illustrates, there comes a time for many of us when enough is enough. Such is the case with this film, one based on the stage work of lead actor Fahd Larhzaoui and drawn from his own personal experiences. The ordeal the protagonist undergoes here may be a difficult one, but it also represents an opportunity to finally get things out in the open once and for all. The picture’s inventive storytelling approach, deftly punctuated with well-positioned comic relief, unearths an array of entrenched revelations that apply not only to the beleaguered son, but also to his other family members and his loving partner. Writer-director Shariff Nasr’s debut narrative feature makes an impressive, albeit controversial, statement about knowing when to hold on to, and when to let go of, tradition, culture and even ties to kindreds when toxic bonds to those connections no longer serve us. The sequence of events may come across as somewhat meandering at times, but, given the confusion and frustration in play here, who’s to say that one could remain completely rational when undergoing such an analysis, a situation reflective of the conditions present in the mind of the protagonist at the time. Any deficiencies in this are skillfully concealed by the picture’s excellent cinematography and production design, as well as the superb performances of its fine ensemble cast. “El Houb” represents a noteworthy start for a filmmaker who obviously has much to offer, a career that I can’t wait to see develop and unfold. The picture initially played the film festival circuit but, thankfully, is now available for streaming on multiple online platforms.
If we truly hope to create a better world for ourselves, we have to begin with the concept of mutual respect, one whose underpinnings include recognition and acceptance, qualities that are, regrettably, still lacking in some quarters of this planet. Indeed, if we’re unable to afford one another something as basic and decent as this, we may be holding out false hope for circumstances ever meaningfully improving. However, if we’re able to open our minds just enough to allow these attributes in, we just might be able to turn things in the right direction. It would be to all of our benefit if we could bring enough love into this world to make it the kind of place it’s capable of being.
A complete review is available by clicking here.
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