When I began chemotherapy, the idea of an all-cancer film festival seemed—if not entirely natural, then not entirely sick and wrong either. I had hoped that watching these films would be a way of sharing in the communal cancer experience without having to do something drastic, like actually meeting other sick people. As an added bonus, videos go perfectly with the fetal position on the couch that’s been such a comfort of late.
In Life as a House, treatment’s not even an option Watching cancer movies, like being a character in one, affords an opportunity to learn many lessons. The first cancer-themed film was probably 1948’s An Act of Murder. Frederic March plays a judge who contemplates mercy killing when his wife gets a brain tumor. (It’s referred to obliquely as a “fatal ailment.”) The film established the prototype for the basic cancer movie plot: A protagonist learns a Valuable Lesson through exposure to the suffering of a loved one. (This “loved one” model includes such later weepers as Love Story, Brian’s Song, and One True Thing.) Sometimes, it’s the patient himself who needs to do the lesson-learning. This is the case in Akira Kurosawa’s classic Ikiru (To Live) (a local bureaucrat shakes off the ennui that’s rendered him lifeless); My Life (Michael Keaton lets go of his anger while he makes a video for his unborn child); Life as a House (Kevin Kline rebuilds a house and some relationships); and a mawkish variety of others.
Wit: How are you feeling today? Not surprisingly, verisimilitude has never been a highly prized feature of the genre. In An Act of Murder, the victim’s symptoms are confined to a broad grimace and clutch of the head, accompanied by a dramatic music sting. The marginally biographical The Babe Ruth Story, in which William Bendix rubs his neck a few times before collapsing at Yankee Stadium, was released the same year. The Babe’s doctors don’t mention throat cancer by name, choosing instead to use an array of baseball metaphors to tell him that the game’s over. In Love Story, when Ali McGraw is lying in the hospital, purportedly at death’s door, she looks no less fetching than she did skipping through Cambridge, Mass., tossing out witty ripostes at Ryan O’Neal like “Bullshit, preppy!” Granted, Emma Thompson in Wit and Meryl Streep in One True Thing look ill, but in Life as a House, Kevin Kline scampers over his new roof, somehow managing to make every joint plumb and straight despite terminal cancer and heavy narcotics.
What’s stranger is that cancer movies have failed to absorb the ubiquitous self-help literature that comes along with the disease. (Search “cancer” on Amazon.com, and get ready to wade through over 8,000 listings, many of which boil down to “Take control of your illness” and “Ask questions.”) This is understandable in the early films, made when a doctor’s authority was sacrosanct, but it’s odd in an era of patient activism. In Stepmom, Susan Sarandon plays a former Manhattan book editor, the kind of woman who’d spend weeks researching which long-distance carrier to use, not to mention where to send her kids to school. Yet when her oncologist recommends chemotherapy, Susan doesn’t say a word. In Life as a House, Kevin Kline’s reaction to his (unstated, off-screen) diagnosis is even more extreme. “Nobody’s even pretended to offer treatment,” he laments. No need to look for a second opinion, it’s off to Home Depot. (The doctors in these movies aren’t much better. If Love Story teaches that love means never having to say you’re sorry, being a cancer-movie doctor means always having to say you’re sorry, as in “I’m sorry. I wish there was something we could do.”)
None of the movies comes close to conveying what it’s like to live with the disease. Again, this is understandable in the early films, when cancer was a word that people whispered under their breath. For example, in 1950’s No Sad Songs for Me, a mom goes to the doctor expecting to find out that she’s pregnant and instead hears, “I’m sorry, etc.” For the rest of the movie, she hides the truth from her family and friends. However, even as the culture of the disease has evolved to include cancer workshops, cancer greeting cards, and cancer fashion tips, the victims in these films remain oddly isolated. In not one cancer movie that I watched was a sick person asked something as basic as “How’s it going?” thereby eliciting an insightful anecdote or a response befitting the surreal intensity of suffering from cancer.
The tears of Endearment All of that said, not every cancer movie is an affront. Kurosowa’s Ikiru is a brilliant study of a man trapped in a stultifying municipal bureaucracy who discovers he has stomach cancer and becomes determined to create a park before he dies. Cleo From 5 to 7 follows a singer as she flits around Paris awaiting the results of a biopsy, seeing omens and portents everywhere. The French New Wave style is still fresh, as is the snappy dialogue. (“Don’t say you’re ill. Men hate illness.”) Terms of Endearment, a much-loved movie that was loathed by my callow 25-year-old self, played much differently 19 years later. In contrast with all the cheesy films that show suffering leads to redemption, the movie recognizes that suffering isn’t ultimately about anything. That only heightens the tragedy. And when Debra Winger says goodbye to her kids? Not a dry eye on my couch. (Another sentimental choice is Brian’s Song, for the moment when a pre-Lando Calrissian Billy Dee Williams chokes out, “I love Brian Piccolo.” What guy doesn’t mist up?) The recent Wit, featuring Emma Thompson as a controlled, hyperarticulate English professor who softens as she faces her illness, is a compelling character study.
Terms of Endearment, Brian’s Song, and Wit typify something else about cancer movies: Virtually nobody makes it. Yet, according to the American Cancer Society, the five-year survival rate for all cancers is 62 percent, and for many individual types, the odds are even better. Clearly then, these movies are not really about cancer. The disease is just a convenient stand-in for impending death. A factual portrayal of the ill person’s odds would only confuse the issue.
With all due respect to my cancer-movie counterparts, I plan to stick around. I’d better: If it turns out that these are my waning days and I blew two hours watching Stepmom, I am going to be pissed.