President's Message #5, Winter 1999
by Dr. Marjorie Engel
Clutching my invitation to a special showing of the movie about two women who dislike each other, two kids caught in the middle, and one man trying to survive I slid into a comfortable seat in the New York screening room. Without preamble, the marketing pros at Columbia Pictures dimmed the lights and the film began to roll. Within minutes, it was clear that Stepmom was going to be reel life with all the tears and laughs of a real family.
What's this? A movie about divorce and remarriage that's not implying a catastrophe? For years, movies have been entertaining us with warnings that divorce is a mistake see Cary Grant and Irene Dunne in 1937's The Awful Truth; Burt Lancaster and Rita Hayworth in 1958's Separate Tables; Sissy Spacek in 1992's Hard Promises; and Bette Middler in 1997's That Old Feeling. Or that remarriage isn't successful see Anne Bancroft and Peter Finch in 1964's The Pumpkin Eater, Frank Sinatra and Deborah Kerr in 1965's Marriage on the Rocks; and 1994's Don't Talk to Strangers. Movies have encouraged children to believe they have mystical powers over their parents relationships see Van Helflin and Patricia Neal in 1951's Weekend With Father; 1988's It Takes Two, and especially the 1998 remake of the 1961 Haley Mills gimmicky tragi/comedy The Parent Trap, deftly exploiting children's parent reconciliation fantasies.
By far the largest group of films portray stepparents as repellent creatures see Teri Garr and Sarah Jessica Parker in 1984's Firstborn, Bette Davis in 1989's Wicked Stepmother, Richard Benjamin and Kim Basinger in 1988's My Stepmother is an Alien, 1992's Radio Flyer and Big Girls Don't Cry... They Get Even; Anjelica Huston and Raul Julia in 1993's Addams Family Values; 1993's Stepmonster; 1994's The Secret Rapture; Linda Evans and Alan Rachins in 1997's The Stepsister; Rachel Ward and Lauren Hutton in 1997's My Stepson, My Lover; and Anjelica Huston with Drew Barrymore in Ever After, 1997's retooling of the Cinderella story.
Until now, according to Hollywood, the only viable stepfamilies are always warm, fuzzy, and slapstick see Lucille Ball and Henry Fonda in 1968's Yours, Mine and Ours; Doris Day in With Six You Get Eggroll; Goldie Hawn and Chevy Chase in 1980's Seems Like Old Times; and, in a tentative move toward reality, Jeff Bridges and Farrah Fawcett in 1989's See You in the Morning.
Ironically, the one thing Stepmom has in common with previous movies about steprelationships is a stellar cast. Stepmom's family is expertly portrayed by professional photographer and soon-to-be stepmom Julia Roberts, perfect mom and ex-wife Susan Sarandon, kids Jenna Malone and Liam Aiken, and dad/ex and future husband Ed Harris.
Forced to confront some uncomfortable truths about mothers' and stepmothers' lives, director Chris Columbus noted that stepfamilies are:
...much more complex than we've been led to believe by the media. For instance, I know many stepchildren who have a real love for their stepparents. My understanding is based on people such as my nieces and nephews and the children of a lot of friends who have divorced and remarried.
While directing Mrs. Doubtfire, Columbus dealt with issues of a contemporary family and divorce. Focusing on how people actually deal with each other as their lives move forward, his objective in Stepmom was to be as realistic as possible. The script aptly portrays this realism with all-too-familiar phrases: "Can you ever fall out of love with your kids?" "You're not my mother!" "Mommy, if you want me to hate her, I will." "No one asked me if I wanted the divorce and a new mother." And the familiar parent's prayer, "The kids will be okay if we're okay."
Columbus agrees that children sometimes live in a fantasy world ala The Parent Trap. Nevertheless, Stepmom portrays its director's philosophy that "people tend to be wary and suspicious in new relationships." At the same time, Columbus says his message to kids of divorce and remarriage is that "life can go on if your parents aren't together."
In Stepmom, life does march on. Mirroring reality, the two moms are distant, draw a little closer, draw back, tentatively reach out again and then repeat the whole sequence. Most of the mishaps are due to their different life experiences. The developing relationship does not proceed smoothly or steadily but neither woman gives up on the task and, watching the process, even I sometimes wondered why not. The children, a teenaged daughter and younger son, make adjustments at different paces and for different reasons but the movie-goer can watch the sometimes almost imperceptible changes taking place. Dad plays a minor role as the connector for the two women in his life less than I would have liked however, he is a very involved dad. And he consistently puts the needs of his children at the forefront of any altercation with his ex, never forgets her importance to their children, and openly appreciates the parenting responsibilities accepted by the stepmom.
Columbia Pictures has captured a winner on film. The acting is superb and Stepmom is a movie almost everyone can relate to it shows the world that there is no one kind of perfect family; that the makeup of "family" is changing and expanding. Columbus did not set out to make a social statement, rather, he wants to give us all "a sense of reality." He succeeds admirably. At the same time, Stepmom also gives us a role model.
This emotional movie is not a chick-flick. Stepmom allows every member of a stepfamily to feel. The movie dredges up painful and happy memories, touches on ways the legal system can damage families that are already hurting, quietly depicts typical and unnecessary difficulties caused by a failure to clearly communicate with one another, and dares to speak the unspeakable thoughts. Take out your tissues when mom and stepmom begin discussing their feelings about the teenaged daughter's far off wedding day. When all is said and done, this scene portrays the essence of stepfamily-and-former-family complications.
Stepmom opens on Christmas Day. At some point over the holidays, gather together your scattered stepfamily members and go to the movies. You'll all have much to talk about afterwards. By the way, Stepmom is the first film to be recommended by the Stepfamily Association of America.
Dr. Marjorie Engel is president of the Stepfamily Association of America