Yesterday I watched two movies with stellar performances, but the “star” was not the actors or actresses, even though Julie Christie, Genevieve Bujold and James Cromwell are among the all time greats: Awards, best actor or actress, either primary or supporting Cromwell 7 wins, 24 nominations. Christie 47 wins, 28 nominations, Bujold 13 wins, 10 nominations. Roles: Cromwell 186 roles, Christie 54 roles, Bujold 77 roles. Between just those three, 67 best awards, 62 nominations, 307 different roles. But the “star” of those two movies–Still Mine and Away From Her—was Alzheimer’s disease.
There were deep insights and poignant, unexpected scenes. In Still Mine, which was based on a real couple and a real situation, Cromwell and Bujold are a couple married for 61 years, living in New Brunswick, Canada. She was the Alzheimer’s victim, he was dedicated to building a house which could accommodate her safely, after she fell down stairs and in another incident, tripped over her errant shoe. He had learned how to build from his father, a skilled shipwright. The plot on the surface was “one man against the bureaucracy”, as officious building inspectors and impractical regulations kept impeding his efforts to build just the right kind of home she needed. The portrayal of a couple with seven children, still in love after 61 years, struggling to remain as independent as possible against bureaucracies unconnected to the real world, was something rare. He was portrayed as the ultimate faithful husband and father, totally competent, sacrificially leading, though stubborn. For a movie made in 2013, incredible!
Even his attempt to build a side income by selling strawberries was frustrated by new rules. In one scene, he arrives at his wholesaler who has been buying his berries for years, expecting to sell them. But he is told that a new regulation has gone into effect that no wholesaler can buy fruit unless it has arrived by refrigerated truck. Cromwell says the berries were picked two hours ago, and are far fresher than anything that is trucked from a distance. The truth doesn’t matter, the regs trump reality. The same goes for the house he is building. His attorney, meeting with the building commission, presents affidavits from the best home builders in the area that the house he is building exceeds the building code, but to no avail, the work must stop because the house has 26 violations of the (petty) code. He goes ahead and eventually wins. Ten years later, at age 91, he and his wife still live together in the home he built.
Away From Her, 2006, which also takes place in Canada, is very different, and even deeper. Julie Christie is the Alzheimer’s sufferer, Fiona. Her husband Grant cannot care for her, as she is physically more robust than he. One day she wanders away across the frozen lake their house fronts on, and nearly freezes to death. He puts her in a memory care facility. In there, she meets a man, Aubrey, a wheelchair bound mute, whose wife has recently taken him there. Fiona and Aubrey have forgotten their spouses, and fall in love, thinking they are married to each other. Each day Grant visits her, soon despairing that after 45 years of marriage, he has lost the love of his life. In fact, eventually she tells him never to come back, because his presence upsets Aubrey; he still visits, but observes her from a distance. The most poignant scene to me was on a day when the facility puts on a party for the families of the residents, most of whom are rarely visited.
Grant is there, sitting on a sofa watching Fiona and Aubrey treating each other as he and his wife once were. The table next to them is occupied by a family which includes a teenage girl who is clearly bored with the whole scene. She appears to be a rebel, with her red purple streaked hair, piercings and tattoos. She goes over to the sofa Grant is sitting on, plops down and sticks her headphones on. She assumes he is a resident and says, “must suck for you that nobody came to see you.” He tells her that he is visiting his wife, and points her out. She is confused that Fiona is acting as if Aubrey is her husband, and ignoring her actual husband. Grant tells the girl, “we’ve been married 45 years and I will continue to watch over her.” This rebellious- looking, jaded-seeming teenager suddenly sees him, and her own life, in a new way. She looks right at him, pats his shoulder and says, “I should be so lucky.” It’s doubtful she will ever look at the scenes of families trying to connect with their parents and grandparents in the same way, with that persona of bored indifference.
These types of movies were not box office stars. They are not good time flicks. They curdle the fake butter on the popcorn. All of us, you included, know someone who is struggling with Alzheimer’s, maybe in your own family. For better or worse, films such as these can provide valuable insights, and perhaps increase compassion for the families that have to deal with dementia. Another film I highly recommend in addition to those two is Still Alice, about a linguistics professor who is struck with early onset Alzheimer’s, which is even more frightening than the more common elderly plague. All of these movies are available on Amazon video.