'Boy's Life' sister remembers her father differently

May 09, 1993|By Susan Paynter | Susan Paynter,Seattle Post-Intelligencer

SEATTLE -- You sit in a theater watching the recently released movie "This Boy's Life," starring Robert De Niro as a monstrous martinet stepfather bullying and brutalizing his stepson.

The crowd boos. You cry. Why? Because a rage of unfairness overtakes you. You long to tell each person in the audience: "It wasn't that way at all. I know. He was my father."

That's how it was recently when Cheryl Sites and 16 members of her family trooped to a Seattle theater for the opening of the movie based on the biographical memoir by her stepbrother, Tobias Wolff. The movie is already being counted as an Oscar contender, so the effect on her family isn't apt to fade any time soon.

Ms. Sites -- portrayed in the movie as the author's younger sister, "Pearl" -- isn't saying that "Dwight" (really Robert) was a warm, fuzzy father. Or that life with him was a picnic in the park. "He was a strict disciplinarian," she said recently. "He had a way he wanted us to be. But he wasn't physically violent like they showed him in the movie. He wasn't brutal."

The film's fights didn't happen, Ms. Sites says, partly because you knew you didn't talk back or you would pay the consequences -- which were apt to be two-hour lectures. "Dwight" loved the sound of his own voice. About an hour in, Ms. Sites says, the kids probably would have preferred a spanking.

Being anything but bankrupt of vocabulary, Ms. Sites says, her father was also not the dolt he's portrayed to be. She never heard him say, "Shut your pie hole!" or the other crudities her fictional father repeats on film.

Neither does she think that her stepmother, who is played by Ellen Barkin, is done movie justice. "She was much more of a lady. She was always dressed like she'd just stepped out of a bandbox. Very neat," says Ms. Sites. And she didn't swear. The worst she ever said at her angriest was "damn."

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