Vanity Fear SHOCKING REVISIT
Ever go back to a movie from your youth that you saw 1000 times and loved and thought was awesome and the best thing ever, only to discover that it was worse than the time your dog got rabies and your mom told you to go outside and shoot it, but he didn't die the first time you shot him and he managed to sink his fangs into your leg, necessitating the need for a series of painful shots?
This isn't about that.
This it-happens-when-it-happens series is instead about what happens when you revisit an old movie you used to love and discover that it makes you feel the exact same way you did the last time you watched it as a kid--maybe even a little better. It's a good feeling and not one that gets mentioned on the internet that often.
For my first look at such a movie, I have a film that's yet to make it to DVD, despite being a TV staple after its brief 1979 theatrical run. I must have seen it from beginning to end at least 10 times in the 80s, and was always shocked and thrilled by it's inclusion of a brief scene of nudity I AM NOT ALLOWED to enjoy today.
I am, of course, talking about:
Just You and Me, Kid
Bill Grant used to be a famous Vaudeville comedian, but he's an old man now, living his days as a bachelor in a beautiful house filled with mementos from his past. Kate is a troubled 14 year-old girl who attempts to escape her sad foster home existence by stealing $20,000 from a demented drug dealer named Demesta. But before she can run off to Arizona, he finds her and strips her naked in his apartment. She escapes with nothing but a towel, which she loses along the way. She hides away in the back of an old car, and when she's discovered by the old man who owns it, orders him to take him to her place, which he does. Bill has seen too much of the world to be shocked by the situation and treats his new unwanted houseguest with patience and good humour. Kate, on the other hand, is so desperate to get moving that she jumps out a window and sprains her ankle. Bill tends to her injury, tells jokes she doesn't think are funny, and still makes the appointments that define his life. Kate is slow to appreciate his generosity and regards him and his friends with constant suspicion, but eventually she realizes he's someone she's never met before--a good person. Demesta eventually tracks them down, but Bill's quick thinking makes quick work of them. Having formed a unique family, Bill convinces his worried daughter to adopt Kate, while his beloved friend, Max, breaks his silence and returns to the real world.
As a kid I was sucker for anything that was corny and/or sentimental. If it could make me cry (and it was--and still is--very easy to make me cry) then I loved it. Watching Just You and Me, Kid at the age of 8, 9, and 10, I always choked up at the moment when Bill ran into his house thrilled to be able to tell Kate that her advice worked and his friend Max had spoken to him for the first time in years. What moved me wasn't the news itself, but the obvious joy he had in having someone to share it with, and then the painful realization that she was no longer there and possibly out of his life forever.
That shit killed me, then. Turns out, it still kills me now.
There's no doubt this is a flawed movie. Roger Ebert's two-star review gets it mostly right. The film does bungle the part of Demesta, making him truly terrifying in the beginning, only to have him turn into a chickenshit dope at the end. It isn't hard to understand how this happened--there's only so much you can do action-wise when your heroes are a geriatric old man and a 14 year-old girl. The screenwriters wrote themselves into a corner and simply couldn't think of a better way to get out of it.
But I can't begrudge them their error. Even Mr. Ebert admits that the film had to have started out as a great script, since there is so much treasure to be found in its barely-TV-movie-level production values. That said the greatness begins and ends with George Burns, whose performance here--I feel--is actually superior to the one in The Sunshine Boys that won him his Oscar and completely resurrected his moribund career. It's easy to say that Grant is merely a version of himself, but that ignores the wonderful, thrilling joy of it. This is a man who can't help himself from singing aloud as he performs the little chores that keep him feeling active and vital, whose wits have not been the slightest bit dulled with age or lack of an audience, who truly LOVES show business in a way very few people can understand. It's a small, unassuming film whose existence is based only on the amusing juxtaposition of 1979's oldest and youngest superstars, but that doesn't negate the fact that in it, Burns gives one of my all-time favourite performances and creates a character I genuinely and sincerely love.
Perhaps the thing I love the most is how it allows Burns to have fun, be smart, and maintain his dignity. I HATE it when anyone attempts to wring laughs by having seniors behave like children. I don't find it cute or endearing--it's rude, disrespectful, and only made possible by exploiting those whose time in the spotlight has long past its expiration date. Just You and Me, Kid respects its elders and I approve whole-heartedly.
Where I do disagree with Mr. Ebert is in his description of the roteness of Brooke Shields' character, Kate, which suggests that her arc feels manufactured, rather than genuine. To my mind, her fear, suspicion and hostility make perfect sense, given her past. I also like how the script allows her to be canny enough to have genuine insight into her situation--allowing her to at one point accuse Bill of keeping her in the house because he needs an audience. It's presented as a throwaway moment, an accusation made in a peak of frustration, but it indicates that her character actually does pay attention and understand the world around her.
I was initially concerned that the film would sexualize Shields, as Pretty Baby had a year earlier and The Blue Lagoon would a year later. This seemed confirmed when she loses her towel and is shown running--naked from the back--down some stairs. To a present-day viewer the moment seems gratuitous and gross, but I remember that back in the 80s it wasn't even edited out of the TV version. Times have changed. Luckily, though, the script quickly realizes that Kate is a child and allows her to be treated as such--with only a few "she's a pretty girl" comments from some characters to remind us that Shields is playing the part.
I also appreciated how the script even allowed the film's non-drug-dealing villain--Bill's daughter--a moment of sympathy, giving her a chance to suggest ways in which her beloved father might not have always been a great dad. Her short speech gives the film the added depth of allowing us to understand that as happy as Bill appears, his life has been far from perfect. I was especially moved by her suggestion of an attempted comeback that was met with utter indifference. What's sadder than someone who needs to perform who can no longer find an audience?
So that's why, for all its flaws and flimsiness, my revisiting this classic film from my youth wasn't an experience in torture or self-recrimination. No one else may consider it a great movie, but I do--and it's these kind of personally fulfilling movies that matter more than most.