Tuesday, December 26, 2017

A Pearl of a Movie

Lisa (Janet Margolin): What do you see when you look at me?

David (Keir Dullea): I see a girl who looks like a pearl. I see a pearl of a girl.

When I was in elementary school, I had a rather intense crush on a girl named Lisa.

I thought she was an exotic creature — well, as exotic as one can be, I suppose, when one is 7 or 8 years old. She told me she was part Indian (Cherokee, I think she said), and I believed her — I had no reason not to. It seemed plausible to me even though Arkansas' Native American population at that time was quite small.

But I was 7 or 8, and I knew nothing about population totals. I believed what my eyes and Lisa told me. Lisa had long straight black hair, and she had the bone structure of the Indian maidens I had seen on TV. She told me her family had moved to my little hometown from some other state. She probably told me which one, too, but it meant nothing to me.

It's hard to be sure now, but I think we met when we were in second grade. It seemed everyone who knew me knew of my infatuation with this girl, but then we took a family vacation that summer to visit some of my parents' friends who knew nothing about it. During that visit I recall that the subject came up one evening, and my mother made a remark of some kind about Lisa and me and a movie called "David and Lisa." I didn't know what she was talking about — I don't even remember the remark except that it included that title, and I gathered that there was some sort of irony about the names. I didn't know what it was, but all the adults apparently understood. I recall much chuckling and many knowing nods.

Well, Lisa's family moved away the following year, and I have not seen her since. It was many years after she moved away that I finally saw the movie that was mentioned that night. I thought it was very well done — but I saw no connection between my little schoolboy crush and the characters in the movie — other than the names and the fact that it was a love story (albeit an unusual love story).

As love affairs go, ours was sort of the Walt Disney version. But, really, what else would you expect from 7– or 8–year–olds?

Anyway, I guess that was a sort of sneaky way of getting around to saying that it was 55 years ago today that Frank Perry's "David and Lisa" made its big–screen debut in the United States (it premiered in Italy a month earlier).

As the movie began David (Keir Dullea, who is probably best known for his work in "2001: A Space Odyssey") was brought to a psychiatric facility by his mother. His chief problems were a fear of being touched and an obsession with clocks. He tended to keep to himself and absorbed himself in his studies — especially clocks.

Dullea's tantrums when touched were thoroughly believable, and he deserved praise for his work. He received a Golden Globe for Most Promising Male Newcomer.

While David was at the psychiatric facility he met Lisa (Janet Margolin), who suffered from split personality. One personality could only speak in rhymes; the other could not speak but could write.

Margolin, an unassuming beauty making her first movie appearance, could light up any room (or movie scene). She was just one of those totally likable personalities — even when her characters required her to do unlikable things. And Lisa did some pretty unlikable things.

Margolin's work earned her a Golden Globe nomination for Most Promising Female Newcomer.

Both performances packed the kind of emotional punches that are rarely seen in movies anymore.

As time passed David began to open up to his psychiatrist (Howard Da Silva), but after he got into an argument with his mother during a visit, his parents decided to take him out of the facility and bring him home. It didn't take long for him to decide he didn't want to be home; with nowhere else to go, he returned to the facility.

Lisa discovered she was both girls and tried to share this revelation with David, but he was listening to another student play Bach on the piano. She ran away from the facility and got on a train to Philadelphia — where she had earlier put her arms around a statue of a mother and child.

David joined the facility staff in searching for Lisa, but of course they didn't find her. Then David realized that Lisa might have returned to the museum so he and his psychiatrist went there and found Lisa on its steps.

It seemed to be a turning point for both of them. Lisa, for the first time, spoke in prose, and David overcame his fear of being touched, allowing Lisa to hold his hand.

Perry was nominated for Best Director but lost the Oscar to David Lean for "Lawrence of Arabia." The movie was also nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay but lost to "To Kill a Mockingbird."

But the absence of Oscars on its resume is no reflection on the quality of the movie. The story was powerful. The performances were memorable. The black–and–white cinematography was brilliant.

There just aren't many movies that are as good.

(And you can see it on Turner Classic Movies Saturday, Jan. 6, 2018, at 9:45 p.m. Central.)