Friday, November 22, 2013

A Once-a-Year Rendezvous

Doris (Ellen Burstyn): You know, I can really talk to you. It's just amazing. I find myself saying things to you that I didn't even know I thought. I noticed that yesterday right after we met in the restaurant.

George (Alan Alda): We had instant rapport. Did you notice that, too?

Doris: No. But I know we really hit it off.

Ever since I first saw "Same Time Next Year" at the theater, I have marveled at it.

Part of that is due to the quality of the stars, Alan Alda and Ellen Burstyn. They pulled off what I think must be one of the greatest challenges for an actor — to portray a character through different stages of his/her life over an extended period of time. In this case, the story followed the lives of two people who lived apart nearly all the time — except for one weekend a month, which they spent in each other's arms.

"Did you know," Alda's character asked near the end of the movie, "we've made love 113 times?" He said he figured that out on his calculator and observed that there probably wasn't anything about Burstyn he didn't know. "I think it's wonderful when two people know each other so well."

It is a very personal movie.

It is also a testimonial, I think, to how talented Alda and Burstyn are that, through their characters' descriptions of their spouses and children, the audience knew all about their lives, so much so that, as Burstyn's character said when told that Alda's character's unseen spouse had died, "I never even met Helen, and I feel as if I just lost my best friend."

The characters met by chance in the early 1950s when they were both in their 20s, and their story was told in vignettes separated by about five or six years until the late 1970s. The illusion of the passage of time was aided by superb makeup but also (as it was with Dustin Hoffman in "Little Big Man" and Cicely Tyson in the made–for–TV flick, "The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman") by the actors' skill. Subtle changes that betray the influence of the aging process were expertly used to complete the effect.

Each vignette was connected by a kind of movie collage of images from the intervening years. I'm a history buff so that is the kind of thing that appeals to me. It helped to put things into historical context — although, being the nitpicker I am, I couldn't help noticing an inconsistency.

In the vignette for 1966, Alda was a right–winger (a reaction, as it turned out, to the death of his son in Vietnam) while Burstyn was a left–wing flower child who had gone back to school to find herself. They argued when Alda acknowledged that he had supported Barry Goldwater for president.

Goldwater did run for president. That wasn't the problem. The problem was twofold — Goldwater ran for president in 1964, and the premise of the story was that Alda and Burstyn got together once a year. With the vignette set in 1966, what happened in 1965? Did Burstyn not notice the change in Alda? Did Alda not notice the change in Burstyn? That was never mentioned.

For that matter, if the 1964 rendezvous was before the election, wouldn't the characters have argued about it then, not two years later? Lyndon Johnson won the 1964 election in a landslide, but, by 1966, his popularity tanked with approval ratings in the 40s by August. I would think that, instead of being as morose as he was initially, Alda's character of 1966 would have had a "told you so" attitude.

But it wasn't like that at all. Alda's character at that point in the story was a man overwhelmed by a rapidly changing world, which is certainly something to which everyone can relate on some level. When he said he was a "very old–fashioned" kind of guy, I think anyone could sympathize with that feeling on some level, too, regardless of personal politics.

I always thought the best scene in the movie came about halfway through when Alda's character was struggling with impotence ("I'm seeing someone out here who's an expert") and Burstyn's character was very pregnant.

George: We'd been to a party and we had a few drinks. So we went to bed and we started making love. And nothing happened. I mean for me. I mean, I ... I couldn't ... well, you get the picture.

George: I mean it was no big deal. I mean we laughed about it. And then about a half hour later, just as I was going to sleep, Helen turned to me and said, 'It's funny. When I married a CPA, I always thought that it would be his eyes that would go first.' "

It was such an honest scene, with Alda helping Burstyn deliver the baby, who was born prematurely.

Reminded of that near the end of the movie, Burstyn said she considered it "our finest hour."

It was certainly one of them. But it was too hard to narrow down a finest minute in this movie, let alone a finest hour.