Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Two Stories in One

I'd be willing to wager that you probably never heard of Sydney Walker.

He spent most of his career on stage, and his film career was largely made of character roles, but the odds are pretty good that you saw him, however briefly, in at least one movie.

Maybe it was in his role as the bus driver who had a bit of a crush on Mrs. Doubtfire. Or as a doctor in "Love Story." (That one goes way back.)

But my guess would be that it was in his role as the old man who switches places with a young bride (played by Meg Ryan) in "Prelude to a Kiss," which was released 20 years ago today.

Well, that is the one that I think of when I think of Sydney Walker. And that isn't surprising, either, is it? I mean, his other roles were sort of minor, hit–or–miss propositions.

He took second billing behind Baldwin and Ryan because they were the bankable stars, but his part was as demanding as any in the film — and was primarily responsible for much of the movie's relatively modest financial success.

It occurred to me, too — when I first saw this movie — that it was like two plots in one.

The first plot probably could have stood on its own merits and been made into a complete story. It was about how opposites really do attract — and that has been done by many people. To make it work in 1992 would have required a really unexpected twist to the storyline.

Ryan's character was kind of a freewheeling free spirit. Her spouse (played by Alec Baldwin) was a bit stuffy, which certainly has been done before. That was the basic plot of Neil Simon's "Barefoot in the Park" nearly 50 years ago — with Jane Fonda and Robert Redford — and that is precisely where the story of "Prelude to a Kiss" seemed to be taking the audience — until about halfway through.

Enter Sydney Walker, playing the aging (and terminally ill, although he doesn't know it) father of Kathy Bates, with whom he has been living since his wife died. He is frustrated with his life.

He gets on a train, choosing his destination at the last possible minute, and winds up at the wedding of Ryan and Baldwin.

No one in the wedding entourage can place him. And, while they're still puzzling over his presence, he asks if he can kiss the bride.

As he does, clouds pass by the sun, and, through supernatural interference, his soul is transferred to the bride's body. Meanwhile, the bride's soul is transferred to the old man's body, producing mayhem that was worthy of William Shakespeare a la "A Midsummer Night's Dream."

At first, neither realizes what has happened. But it is clear even before Baldwin confirms it to Walker (who is now playing Ryan's role).

And it was in that setting, with the two of them playing Scrabble in the kitchen, that Walker sums up life and observes to Baldwin that their love had been "a trip."

"It was bitchin' for awhile," he/she tells Baldwin with a sly grin that seems wholly inappropriate for Walker, but the audience could easily see the rough–edged Ryan saying it.

And Baldwin, in what may have been the most poignant line in the film (a truly sublime moment that spoke volumes about the maturity of loving relationships, all the more remarkable because it was delivered by one so young), says to Walker, "I adore you."

Walker, whose body was housing Ryan's spirit, still struggled with the host's physical ailments — shortness of breath, poor hearing, etc. — and couldn't hear what Baldwin said. Or, at least, he/she pretended that it was so.

Speaking a bit louder, Baldwin tells Walker that he/she would have hated the honeymoon in Jamaica — and Walker smiles a knowing smile. And the audience knows that he/she heard more than he/she let on.

I thought Walker pulled off his role splendidly. It couldn't have been easy to be convincing playing a young woman trapped in an old man's body. He deserved credit for that.

But so did Ryan, who wasn't seen nearly as much after the wedding scene but had to walk a similarly narrow line as an old man trapped in a young woman's body.

After their spirits had been restored to their bodies, Walker looked at his arms and remarked that it felt "like an old suit." It was a seamless transition.

"Prelude to a Kiss" successfully combined the first story — the one in which opposites attract — and merged it with the second — in which two people trade bodies involuntarily — and imagined the kind of problems the newlyweds would encounter.

Pretty neat trick.