Friday, July 06, 2012

'Butterflies Are Free' Was Infuriating, Touching

Mrs. Baker (Eileen Heckart): [Jill says she has to go to an audition] Then you're an actress?

Jill (Goldie Hawn): Well, yeah.

Mrs. Baker: Might I have seen you in anything, besides your underwear?

Jill: Um, not unless you went to Beverly Hills High School. I was in The Mikado. I played Yum–Yum.

Mrs. Baker: Yes, I'm sure you did.

I was a young boy when "Butterflies Are Free" made its theatrical debut 40 years ago today.

It addressed a lot of issues that were over my head at that stage in my life.

I was old enough at the time to know that I thought Hawn was sexy — most of my friends in those days had crushes on more obvious TV stars of the time, like Barbara Eden and Elizabeth Montgomery — and I knew from the TV commercials I had seen that Hawn spent a good deal of the movie romping around in a bra and panties.

For a young boy who was just beginning to notice girls, however, that was all that was necessary — although it wasn't anything Laugh–In viewers hadn't seen many times before.

And I probably could have gotten in to see the movie — it was rated PG, and PG movies in those days contained no nudity — but I grew up in the country, and I wasn't old enough to drive, not by a long shot.

So it was several years before I saw it. And that might have been a good thing. Because, when I did, I realized that it was about a lot more than I thought. It was about disability and parent–child relationships. It was about independence and overprotection. It was about love — romantic love and parental love.

It was about narcissism and generosity of spirit. And it was about how opposites really do attract.

Hawn played a free spirit who became friends with her neighbor, a blind man (Edward Albert). Through their relationship, modern audiences can catch glimpses of life as it was in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

The original play on which the movie was based was set in Manhattan. The movie was set across the country in San Francisco, which seems more appropriate to the time.

Frankly, I never really thought the location mattered. No landmarks were ever really seen. Practically all of the film's action took place in the neighboring apartments occupied by Albert and Hawn — and nearly all of the dialogue was between those two as well.

If there hadn't been references to the location in the characters' dialogue, I don't think anyone could have guessed it.

There was a third major character in the drama — the role of Albert's mother, played by Eileen Heckart, who won her only Oscar for her performance as an overprotective mother who wrote children's stories.

The essence of the story was that Albert's character, still young and easily influenced, had been in a relationship with a girl (never seen) who encouraged him to move out of his mother's home and chart his own course in life as a musician.

When Albert took her advice, she took up with a guy she met at a party, leaving Albert feeling abandoned.

When he moved out of his mother's home, Albert had made an agreement with her — she would not visit him until two months had passed. About halfway through that time period, Hawn moved in next door and began wielding her influence on Albert.

Although the audience never saw Albert with his previous girlfriend, it appeared that Hawn picked up where the first girlfriend left off, extolling the virtues of independence. And Albert appeared only to eager to hand her the baton.

Enter Heckart with an unscheduled visit to her son's apartment, launching a war of wills between Heckart and Hawn — and Hawn, who had commitment issues, not unlike Albert's first girlfriend, eventually announced that she was moving in with a man who was directing a play in which she was to perform.

The development seemed to crush Albert, who started to speak of wanting to go home. But Heckart's character had undergone something of a transformation of her own, and she told her son that she wanted him to stay.

She reminded him of the stories she had told him as a child whenever he felt challenged — stories of a blind boy named Donnie Dark who faced all kinds of obstacles but was never prevented from accomplishing his goals. Those stories had been inspired by her experiences with her blind son and her desire to teach him to be self–reliant.

Heckart struck a nice balance between the shrewish character she was at first and the loving and caring individual she revealed herself to be late in the movie. She certainly walked a fine line with her role and was rewarded with the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress.

For Heckart, I suppose, it was the most encompassing performance I ever saw her give. And what a performance it was — alternately infuriating and touching.

And that, I guess, was a pretty good summary of "Butterflies Are Free" — it was alternately infuriating and touching. Or, at least, the characters in it were.

In the process, though, I think they learned something about themselves, too.

And so did the audience.