Movies Can Be So, Well, Moving

ALICE STEINBACH

March 15, 1992|By ALICE STEINBACH

Although this year's Academy Awards won't be presented for another couple of weeks, I have already picked my personal selections for the three top honors. And the envelope, please.

Best Picture: "The Silence of the Lambs."

Best Actor: Nick Nolte in "The Prince of Tides."

Best Actress: Geena Davis in "Thelma & Louise."

As usual, I spent a lot of time thinking about the Academy Awards before making my final decisions. And I found the toughest choice for me this year was in the category of Best Actress. In fact, it took three days of intense thinking before I decided Geena Davis had a slight edge over Laura Dern in "Rambling Rose."

The truth is, I haven't found the Best Actress category this challenging since 1953, when it took me a week to decide between Leslie Caron in "Lili" and Audrey Hepburn in "Roman Holiday."

I picked Leslie Caron. The Academy picked Audrey Hepburn.

And I still think they were wrong.

In case you haven't guessed: I take my movies seriously. Although not as seriously as I did in my preteen and teen years.

Growing up, it was a Saturday afternoon ritual -- going to the neighborhood movie house with my girlfriends. There were four of us, and we formed a tight little phalanx as we marched down the aisle in search of four seats near the front of the theater.

It didn't really matter to us what was playing -- although we preferred horror movies and musicals over western shoot-em-ups. We went anyway, knowing that inside the darkened theater there existed a world that not only prompted fantasy but welcomed it.

We welcomed it, too, of course. Where else could we indulge our fantasy lives so fully? And so safely. It was one thing to feel the stirrings of sexual longing for Gregory Peck in "Duel in the Sun" and quite another to harbor such feelings toward Mr. Doaks, our homeroom teacher.

Some movies remain as compelling to me now, in memory, as they were when I first saw them.

For instance, I still feel icy fear when I think of "I Walked With a Zombie," a horror film about black magic and voodoo. The idea that there existed supernatural forces capable of commanding the dead to do their bidding was more frightening to me than Dracula or Frankenstein could ever be.

By the way, I saw "Zombie" four times.

But the turning point for me, cinematically speaking, came when I discovered a downtown movie house called the Little Theater. In those days it was the only place in town that showed foreign films, and I discovered it through my grandmother's insatiable appetite for such films.

It was she who took me to see "The Red Shoes," a movie that I knew -- even before entering the theater -- was going to affect me in ways I could not articulate.

I still remember standing in front of the glass cases that held the film's garishly colored promotional posters and photos. One was a picture of a red-haired ballerina pirouetting out of control while the heads of two men, their faces quite serious -- disapproving, almost -- looked down on her.

The story of "The Red Shoes," as I recall it, was the story of a talented dancer who is persuaded by her demanding ballet master to give up her romance with a composer and devote her life to the ballet.

The demands placed upon her by both these possessive men are danced out in a ballet scene that is the equivalent of her real-life dilemma. Given a pair of enchanted dancing slippers, a young girl finds that eventually the slippers will not let her stop dancing. Exhausted and unable to stop, the young girl dies.

I guess you could say, among other things, "The Red Shoes" confirmed something I had vaguely suspected: That sooner or later a woman had to choose between something and something. And while I wasn't quite sure what that something was, I sensed the wrong choice could lead to tragedy. Or, at least, a bad pair of dancing shoes.

In talking to friends, I've found that most of them have stored away the youthful memory of a particularly influential movie. So it didn't surprise me to run across a collection of essays by critics and writers titled "The Movie That Changed My Life."

One after the other, such writers as Jayne Anne Phillips, Russell Banks and Meg Wolitzer recount in vivid detail how movies like "Premature Burial" (Jayne Anne Phillips), "Bambi" (Russell Banks) and "Shadow of a Doubt" (Meg Wolitzer) marked a turning point in their lives.

I believe there is a Little Theater in everyone's life. That out of the thousands of young people sitting in a darkened theater right now watching, say, "Boyz N the Hood," some will look back years from now and say: "You know, that movie changed my life."

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