DATE September 26, 2003 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Pat Conroy discusses his new book, "My Losing Season"
BARBARA BOGAEV host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Barbara Bogaev, in for Terry Gross.
Writer Pat Conroy made his father famous, but not for the traits a father
would want to be famous for. In the novel "The Great Santini," Conroy
presented a fictionalized version of his dad, a Marine Corps pilot who
disciplined his wife and children with verbal abuse and violence. In the film
adaptation of "The Great Santini," the father was played by Robert Duvall.
Conroy went to military college at The Citadel and wrote a fictionalized
account of the harsh discipline he encountered there in his novel "The Lords
Last year Terry spoke with him about his memoir called "My Losing Season" that
includes the real version of some events he's fictionalized. It focuses on
his years at The Citadel, when he played for the school's basketball team, the
Bulldogs, and was coached by a man nearly as authoritarian as his father. "My
Losing Season" is just out in paperback. Here's a short reading.
Mr. PAT CONROY (Author): `Because I grew up a complete stranger to myself, I
did not even seem to catch a glimpse of a determined young man who developed
in secret during college. I did not recognize the intense stranger who stares
back at me in photographs faded and frayed around the edges. My coaches
throughout my youth all approved of me because my attitude was upbeat and
fiery, my enthusiasm contagious, and I gave everything I had. I liked that
part of me also, but had no idea where it came from. As a boy, I had
constructed a shell for myself so impenetrable that I have been trying to
write my way out of it for over 30 years. And even now, I fear I have barely
cracked its veneer. It is as rouged and polished and burnished as the
specialized glass of telescopes, and it kept me hidden from the appraising
eyes of the outside world long into manhood. But most of all, it kept me
hidden and safe from myself.
`No outsider I have ever met has struck me with the strangeness I encounter
when I try to discover the deepest mysteries of the boy I once was. Several
times in my life I've gone crazy and I could not even begin to tell you why.
The sadness collapses me from the inside out, and I have to follow the thing
through until it finishes with me. It never happened to me when I was playing
basketball, because basketball was the only thing that granted me a complete
and sublime congruence and oneness with the world. I found a joy
unrecaptureable beyond the realm of speech or language, and I lost myself in
the pure dazzling majesty of my sweet, swift game.'
TERRY GROSS, host:
Pat Conroy reading from his new memoir "My Losing Season." At The Citadel,
you played for a losing team.
Mr. CONROY: Yes.
GROSS: You write that you learned a lot from losing. What are some of the
things you learned from losing?
Mr. CONROY: Well, the thing that has always been a theory of mine--it does
not sit very well in America--is I don't think you learn anything from
winning. You know, you just jump up and down. It's wonderful. It's
fabulous. It's glorious. You're happy. Your coach is happy. Your school is
happy. But losing--there's a deeper music in loss. There really is something
about losing that you have to figure out what you did wrong. You have to
change the way you played. You have to look at yourself in a different sort
of way. Losing seemed to prepare me for life: bad reviews, my mother dying.
There was nothing about my mother's death that reminded me anything about
winning, but it did remind me of how I felt whenever we lost.
GROSS: You had a coach who worked the players really hard and could be very
negative when working you. What...
Mr. CONROY: Terry, I think you read him correctly.
GROSS: Tell us about his style.
Mr. CONROY: Coach Mel Thompson was a great rebounder and player from North
Carolina State. He was coached himself by the great Everett Case, who, with
Adolph Rupp, was one of the guys that brought basketball to the South.
Everett Case was famous for being tough on his players, and Mel Thompson was
as tough as any man I have ever met. And he was on us from the time we began
practice to the time he blew the whistle for practice to be over. He was the
kind of man that was, I think, very common, certainly in my childhood, and I
think certainly in the '50s and '60s, where he simply--I think in a Bobby
Knight sort of way, simply screaming was an art form with him, and I think
eventually the breaking of his team's hearts was what he did. He did not
meant to be. He just simply coached the way he was coached, and I feel a lot
of people did that back then.
GROSS: What do you mean by the breaking of his team's hearts?
Mr. CONROY: I think Coach Thompson eventually--the boys that he broke on my
team were the boys with real talent, not boys like me. And Coach Thompson, to
me, was a much milder version of my father.
Mr. CONROY: Coach Thompson would yell at me all day long, he didn't hit me,
so I ended up loving him.
GROSS: He didn't hit you because you were used to a devil far worse in your
Mr. CONROY: Yes. Dad was the toughest man I have ever met; Mel Thompson
GROSS: What were some of the things the coach would yell at you? What were
some of the things he'd save for you?
Mr. CONROY: They don't want to hear this on National Public Radio, Terry.
GROSS: Give us the clean version.
Mr. CONROY: Let's see, the clean version is--OK, `You guys are women, women.
You guys play like women, women, the lowest thing on Earth, women.' And it
was variations on that theme. You know, we were weaklings, we were cowards,
we didn't want it enough. We couldn't do it, you know, did we have no
manhood, did we have no pride. And there was a variation of that theme that
began in October and ended in February.
GROSS: You write in your book that you learned to substitute your voice for
his voice, so that your voice would be in your head instead of his voice.
Mr. CONROY: I was afraid of Coach Thompson and I was intimidated by Coach
Thompson. So what I had to do, and I had to learn it--and this was valuable
for later on in my writing life--I had to listen to my voice. I had to find
confidence by listening to me, because I could not find it listening to him.
Coach Thompson did not inspire confidence. He inspired terror. And until I
could listen to myself and ignore his voice, I did not come into my own as a
GROSS: How did you learn how to block out his voice with your own?
Mr. CONROY: It was in the locker room during the Loyola game during halftime.
I was not starting, and the team had a meltdown and Coach Thompson, who was a
heroic--How should I put this? He could take you apart verbally at halftime
of a basketball game better than anyone I've ever seen. On this night, it was
mythic. He simply came apart. He was flinging chairs all over the locker
room. He was screaming that our team was nothing, we didn't care, we had no
pride, played like women--magnificent profanity. And I looked around the room
and I saw my team, and they all had their heads in their hands, and I realized
my team had been broken--my team had been broken not by the other team, but by
So I sort of heard a voice inside of me saying, `You can't listen to this guy.
He's not good for you, pal.' And the voice shocked me at first, because my
family produces schizophrenia like some families produce freckles. But, I
mean, it was a voice. It was clear and it was solid. And I worried about
schizophrenia except for this: The voice was giving me good advice. This was
a voice I could trust. It startled me because it sounded like my father's
voice, and I did not recognize it at first as my own voice and what I later
called my writer's voice, the one I listen to, the one that brings me good
news, gives good advice, uses sound judgment.
And it was the first time that this had ever happened. Because in my
childhood--and look at this boyhood I lived, Terry. "The Great Santini," the
Catholic Church, the American South, the Citadel plebe system and Mel
Thompson. No one had a male-dominated childhood like I did that ever lived
upon this planet. And until this voice appeared, I was a very docile,
obedient cadet. I did not get in trouble. I was not a hood. I was not a
gang member. I did not smoke dope. I did not drink. I simply toed the line
of my very disciplined childhood. Until this night, I had never heard my own
voice say anything.
GROSS: Now your team was a losing team. What holds a losing team together?
I mean, what's...
Mr. CONROY: Nothing.
Mr. CONROY: Absolutely nothing. The reason I wrote this book is I was
sitting in Books & Company in Dayton, Ohio, a city I had never been to, nor
had I ever wanted to go to. But I was sitting there at the end of a book
signing, and I looked up and I saw my ex-teammate, John DeBrosse. And I had
not seen John in 30 years, and he and I had played guard together. I looked
up and I said, `DeBrosse, you ever been in a bookstore before?' He turned to
me and said, `Once, Conroy. I was lost.'
And he finally said, `Conroy, my wife and kids don't believe I know you.
Would you come to my house and meet them? I've been telling them I've known
you for all these years and, you know, I haven't seen you in 30 years.' So we
were driving out into the suburbs of Dayton, Ohio, and John started talking.
It was like the locker room came alive, sprang alive, and I had not thought of
it for all these many years. And DeBrosse, who's very competitive, said, `I
was better than you, Conroy. I was a lot better basketball player.' And I
said, `You certainly were, John, and you proved that every single day.'
And he started talking about the team and where they'd gone, and I realized
our team had scattered to the four winds. None of us had kept up with each
other, that we were all strangers to ourselves. We had not invited each other
to our weddings, to our christenings. I had no idea of the names of any of my
teammates' children; they did not know the names of mine. So as we're going
out there, DeBrosse said, `Conroy, do you remember the last game of your
career?' I said, `I certainly do, John, but I would never have mentioned it
to you. It must be very painful to you.' And John had missed a layup against
the University of Richmond in the Southern Conference tournament. If he had
made that layup, we would have beaten them and gone on to play West Virginia
the next day.
But John, who never missed layups, missed this one in the most important
moment of his life as a basketball player. And Richmond went on to beat us in
overtime by two points. And John looked at me and he--we went to the next
light, he stopped, and John, not an emotional man, not a touchy-feely man like
I am, looks over at me and he says, `Conroy, I want you to know this. I did
not miss that shot on purpose.' I said, `John, anybody that knows you knows
that.' And he says, `Our coach didn't. I think Mel Thompson thinks I missed
it on purpose to get him fired.' And then John grabs me by the wrist and
tells me, `Conroy, I think missing that shot partially ruined my life.' And,
Terry, words like that get my attention.
Mr. CONROY: And I began going back, having no idea that that year had touched
anybody except me so completely, so totally and so unforgettably. So this
book is a result of that moment.
BOGAEV: Pat Conroy talking with Terry Gross. His memoir "My Losing Season"
is now out in paperback. We'll be back with more of their conversation after
the break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
BOGAEV: If you're just tuning in, Terry's guest is writer Pat Conroy. His
books include "The Great Santini," "The Lords of Discipline" and a memoir, "My
Losing Season." It's just out in paperback.
GROSS: Now you played at a military college through your career, The Citadel.
How do you think basketball at The Citadel compared with basketball at other
schools in the league that you played?
Mr. CONROY: The other schools were much better. There's a problem about
playing in a military school as an athlete. And all athletes at all military
schools--West Point, the Naval Academy included--athletes are not liked by the
other cadets, and...
GROSS: Yeah. You know, you say that in the book, and I couldn't figure out
why, because, you know, in so many schools, the athletes are the heroes, or at
least in certain circles, they're the heroes. And you say...
Mr. CONROY: Not in mili...
GROSS: ...that they're second-class citizens...
Mr. CONROY: Yes.
GROSS: ...in military schools.
Mr. CONROY: But not in military schools. We are sometimes loathed because we
get out of parade, we get out of inspection on Saturday morning, we get out of
drills. Even though we're down there practicing three hours, the Corps never
sees that, so they don't appreciate that. And, you know, one of the things
that my teammates are still bitter about is they come across alumni who said,
`Oh, you were an athlete. You didn't really go through the system.'
GROSS: Were there teams you played with a more street approach to playing
basketball that you were unprepared for?
Mr. CONROY: Well, this was a time in the South before integration. One thing
that still I laugh about every time I see is a picture of my team, it's all
white. And, of course, basketball now is a black game, a city game, an
in-your-face game and it's changed completely since I was down there. And
when I was there at The Citadel, it was still in the South a white boys' game.
And that has changed completely.
Now what I loved was how the game was played in the ghetto, and I grew up
following my father to Washington, DC, and I learned to play with black kids.
And I loved to drive, I loved to take it to the hoop, I loved fast, I loved
behind-the-back passes, through-the-legs dribbling. And I was early to that
GROSS: But you couldn't play that game at The Citadel?
Mr. CONROY: Well, I played it--after the New Orleans game, I started the rest
of the season and I found myself as a basketball player. My father and mother
came to see me play my first college game. We played East Carolina. And all
I remember from that game--I don't remember being at East Carolina, I don't
remember a single thing about the game. I remember that after we lost, the
manager came up to me and said, `Your dad's outside. He wants to see you.'
So still in my sweaty uniform, I walked outside, and I remember this part
exactly. My father put his hand upon my chest, pushed me against the cinder
block wall and he said--and you have to translate this--`Son, you're crap.
Your team's crap, your coach is crap and you couldn't hold a candle to me on
the best day of your life.' I said, `We didn't have a very good game, Dad.
Can I go out and see Mom?' `Negative. We've got to get back to DC.' My
surprise, Terry, was when I went back to the game and looked at the box score,
I discovered I had scored 25 points in that game, more than anybody on either
team. And I was the smallest guy on the court.
GROSS: You had a father who didn't know how to take pride in a son's
accomplishments. He only knew how to be competitive with his son.
Mr. CONROY: He simply--my father was simply overwhelming in that. I mean, I
think I could have been an All-American, I could not have satisfied him. At
the end of the year, I won two awards. I won the sportsmanship award, which I
always won. No matter what the school, I did, and my father hated it. He
loathed it. And he said, `Ah, the chicken award. My boy always wins the
chicken award.' But the other award was more difficult for my father. I won
the most valuable player award of this team I wrote about.
Now me winning the most valuable player award on this team says much about the
team and our fate. When I asked the players to rate the players by their
skills as a basketball player, I ranked 11th of the 12 players. So the fact
that I won the most valuable player shows how much this team fell apart. And
it seemed almost a mockery to me that I walked the world as the MVP of a team
where we had so much better basketball players than I was.
GROSS: Now, you know, the coach gave a quote about you to the local paper:
"Pat Conroy gave another great performance. That kid gets more mileage out of
his talent than any player I have ever coached." Now on the one hand, that's
a great quote, he's saying you get more mileage out of your talent. On the
other hand, you know, I couldn't help but wonder, is he saying, `He gets more
mileage out of a small talent,' you know?
Mr. CONROY: Well, that's exactly what it was. Coach Thompson, when he gives
you a compliment, there's always, you know, another side to it.
Mr. CONROY: And what he was saying is I was no good, but I overkeened that
somehow. And, you know, I knew what he was saying, but I still took it as one
of the greatest compliments of my entire life. And I think later on in there
I tell my children, my heirs--I said, `Put that on my tombstone. Put what Mel
Thompson said about me after my last game on my tombstone. That's what I want
GROSS: Part of your story is about your father, who you've written about in
other books as well, fictionalized particularly in "The Great Santini." And
you writ,e `In my life as a writer, each day I bring the ruined, terrorized
boy I was as a child and set him trembling on my desk so I can study the
wreckage of myself at leisure.' Why, as a writer, do you want to keep
returning to that terrorized boy that you were?
Mr. CONROY: Because I cannot get that terrorized boy to leave me alone. He
haunts me. In this book, I tell about my father as he was. I tell the story
of my life with Dad. It always shocks me. The story always gets to me.
Several years ago, Penn had a special thing at--What is it?--Folger Library in
Washington, and they asked writers to come up with their first memories. And
I remember Eudora Welty. Her first memory was sunshine on her face, and
Reynolds Price, a goat ate his diaper off him. And I remember all these
wonderful, fabulous first memories. Then I get up and give mine. I'm sitting
there in a high chair in El Toro, California, and my mother is trying to stab
my father with a butcher knife.
Mr. CONROY: And my father is laughing, and is beating her to the floor, as
I'm sitting there in my diapers watching this scene. And that was the first
thing I remember, and that was `Welcome to the world, Pat,' and that was the
world I inhabited until I was 21 years old.
BOGAEV: Pat Conroy from an interview with Terry Gross in 2000. His memoir,
"My Losing Season," is just out in paperback. We'll continue their
conversation in the second half of the show.
I'm Barbara Bogaev, and this is FRESH AIR.
BOGAEV: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Barbara Bogaev, in for Terry Gross.
Let's get back to Terry's interview with Pat Conroy. His books include "The
Great Santini," "The Lords of Discipline," and a memoir of his time at the
military school The Citadel called "My Losing Season." It's just out in
GROSS: Now your father died in 1998 of colon cancer. What was it like for
you watching the Great Santini, watching this really strong-willed, violent
man who abused his family, watching him get really weak?
Mr. CONROY: Well, it was heartbreaking. It was--in the last months of his
life, I was trying to think of a way to make it better for Dad, to make it
easier for him because he was dying. So what I did was I interviewed Dad over
his whole life, and I said I was writing a book called "The Death of the Great
Santini." And Dad said, `Great title, son. You know how to make someone feel
But Dad had changed when "The Great Santini" came out. There had been a sea
change in my father. He was horrified by the portrait I had painted of him.
And when he and I talked about it, I said, `Dad, I'm sorry I hurt your
feelings, but there's nothing you can do to make up for my ruined childhood.'
But here's what Dad did. He became a good man. He became a good guy. All
six of his children who were still alive. He--we could not believe we were
weeping at his funeral.
Right before he died, and a couple days before he died--he still was the same
guy. I mean, there was a basic core of Santini that never changed. My
sister, the poet in New York, Carol, came down from New York, and we had
shifts as Dad was dying at my sister Kathy's house. And I went over there one
day, and I heard screaming from the outside--I'm half deaf now, Terry, so
I--you know, I don't hear screaming very often. So I heard screaming, and I
went in. And as I got closer and closer, it was Carol screaming at my father,
`Dad, you've got to tell me you love me, Dad! You got to tell me you're proud
of me before you die! You just have to, Dad!'
So I motioned to Carol to come into the next room, and I said, `Carol, that is
Don Conroy dying in there. It is not Bill Cosby.' And Carol said, `He's
never told me he loved me. He's never told me he's proud of me.' And I said,
`He's never told me that, either, Carol. But he sends you money every month,
Carol. That's how he says I love you. He brags about you to me and your
poetry.' He always used to love this, Terry. He would brag--he would always
tell me--he says, `You know your sister's a much better writer than you, son.'
I said, `Thanks, Dad. I appreciate it.' `And poetry is a much higher art
form, son, than prose. Did you know that?' I said, `Well, thank you very
much, Dad.' And, `I prefer your sister's poetry to your writing. She says in
five words what you say in 5,000.' And I said, `Thank you very much, Dad.'
And I said, `Now, Dad, will you do me a favor? Would you name me one poem
that Carol has ever written?' And Dad just roared with laughter.
But on this day, I was trying to tell Carol that Dad had different ways of
saying he loved us. He couldn't tell us that directly. Anyway, I give this
to you. I calm Carol down. We go back in. And Dad would be dead in two
days. And as we go back in, my brother-in-law, Bobby Joe Harvey, who calls
himself the family redneck, and for good reason calls himself the family
redneck, and he lives up to the name. Bobby Joe's coming in to cut Dad's
hair, cut his fingernails, doing something. And as Bobby Joe comes in, Carol
and I are sitting in chairs around the room, and my father opens his eyes,
sees Bobby Joe and says--and I quote, Terry--"I love you, Bobby Joe. I'm
proud of you, Bobby Joe." And Carol went off like a Roman candle. But that
was the Santini's old humor and old malice at work to the very end.
GROSS: Did he ever, like, really get the fact that you were wildly more
successful than he ever was? You know, after all the years of him putting you
down and telling you that your basketball game could never be as good as his
and that you could never be a man like him and etc., etc., etc.? Did he ever
realize--I mean, really get how successful you were?
Mr. CONROY: You know, I don't know, Terry. You know, Dad--here's what Dad
never became: `Son, I'd like to have a talk with you heart to heart.' You
know, he never did anything like that with me, and I would have to interpret
Dad. The thing that I treasure most about Dad and my career was after "The
Great Santini," a book he hated, but he loved the movie--and my father thinks
he made Robert Duvall's career, thinks he is fully responsible for Robert
But when "The Great Santini" came out, Dad--I remember coming to Rich's
Department Store in Atlanta, and he was still--his feelings were still hurt.
He was still brittle and he was still--his mother, my grandmother, never spoke
to me again, and his family had gone nuts when the book came out. So I'm
sitting there signing, and the next thing I knew, somebody had come up to my
father and asked him to sign the book. So my father signed it, `I hope you
enjoy my son's work of fiction.' He underlined `fiction,' you know, 10 times.
And he then signed it `Old Loveable Likeable, the Great Santini.' And it
started something that became habitual in my father's life. Whenever I had an
autographing, he would sit beside me and he would autograph the book. And I
think it's the only time in American history that a father and a son sat and
signed books together.
And, you know, what I loved about it is he would be signing--Dad was slower
than I was. He was much more elaborate. And he was charming. His second
half of his life, his charm came out, which I never saw once in the first half
of his life. And he would sit schmoozing and talking and laughing and
enjoying himself, and then he would look up and he'd look over. And he would
look over at me and he says, `My line's longer, son.'
GROSS: In the very beginning of your memoir, "My Losing Season," you write,
`I grew up a complete stranger to myself.' Once you became an adult, you--I
think you've lived a life of very complete introspection both through therapy
and through writing because so much of your writing has been autobiographical
fiction. And I guess I'm wondering about going from that one extreme of being
a complete stranger to yourself to the other extreme of this regiment of
therapy and introspective writing.
Mr. CONROY: You know, I don't know how that is going to end up. I was
surprised when I went back into this childhood again. You know, it took me by
surprise. But I realized I never told the whole truth about it. My father
was extraordinarily hard on me and extraordinarily hard on his family. In
turn, I have been extraordinarily harsh with myself. In this book, I think I
was after a task. The one thing I've never done for myself is like myself
very much. And I think I went back to this book because I needed to fall in
love with the boy I once was.
But as I was writing this book, I was going, `What a boy. This kid's
something. Here this kid is coming out of this ridiculous family, wants to be
a writer, he's a cadet, he's on the honor court, he takes everything
seriously, he tries to be a good member of The Citadel community,' and I
started admiring the kid. I just started admiring him. I thought, you know,
`This kid's doing the best he can under arduous circumstances.' And I think
that was my task in this book. I needed to like myself for the first time.
GROSS: Is this a book a memoir instead of fiction because your father's dead?
Mr. CONROY: Well, it's--I think it is. It's--I do not think I could have
written it when Dad was--I found out this. I found this out by accident when
I wrote an introduction for a book called "Military Brats" by Mary Wertsch.
My father did not mind it as much when I call him Bull Meechum, or as he said,
when I made him a shrimper in "The Prince of Tides" or I made him a drunk
judge in "Beach Music." I said, `Dad, you couldn't catch a shrimp in a Long
John Silver's. Give me a break.'
But my father said something that I felt was great literary criticism. He
said, `Son, you'll never be able to write the word "father" without my image
coming up. And the father will never be an easy word for you because my face
will loom up.' And my father's right. You know, `father' is a damaged word
When I wrote this thing--an introduction for Mary Wertsch's book, it shocked
me because I wrote the words, `In my youth, I thought Don Conroy wanted to
kill me,' and my father went berserk when I used his name. And he did not
mind me using Bull Meechum or Great Santini 'cause he could say that it was
fiction. But when I used the word `Don Conroy,' I was using his name and I
was talking about him, and there was no place for him to run and hide when I,
you know, just said who it was.
GROSS: I think it's really lucky, probably, that you feel your father changed
as he got older and that you had a much more decent relationship, you had a
good relationship with your children, so that you have another way of thinking
of him and you're not continuing your life after his death with nothing but
hatred in your heart for him.
Mr. CONROY: Yes, I was lucky. I adored Dad when he died, and my father knew
it. And I think I was writing--I think I wrote "The Great Santini"--I think
I've lived my life for this. I thought I wrote "The Great Santini" because I
hated my father, and I realized later that I wrote it because I needed to love
him. I needed a father to love. And I think it's a human need and a human
wish, and I had it as strong as anybody. So I think I forced my father to
become a good man and a good father.
GROSS: Pat Conroy, thank you so much.
Mr. CONROY: Thank you so much, Terry.
BOGAEV: Pat Conroy's memoir is "My Losing Season." Coming up,
singer/songwriter Shelby Lynne.
This is FRESH AIR.
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Filler: By policy of WHYY, this information is restricted and has
been omitted from this transcript
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Review: "Under the Tuscan Sun" based on the book of the same name
BARBARA BOGAEV, host:
The former child actress Diane Lane has made a comeback in the last few years
playing married women who rediscover their sexuality in the films "A Walk on
the Moon" and "Unfaithful." In her new movie, she stars as Frances Mayes, the
author of the surprise best-seller "Under the Tuscan Sun." Film critic David
Edelstein has a review.
DAVID EDELSTEIN reporting:
There's a very funny bit at the end of "Pee Wee's Big Adventure." It's when
Pee Wee Herman sells the story of his life to Warner Brothers and then goes to
see the movie. He's played by James Brolin, his girlfriend is Morgan
Fairchild, his 10-speed bike is a motorcycle and he's fighting off ninjas.
The Disney adaptation of Frances Mayes' best-selling memoir "Under the Tuscan
Sun" isn't quite that ridiculous, but I'd love to have seen Mayes' face when
she first got a look at the scene where Diane Lane, as the freshly abandoned
divorcee, leaps off a tour bus in Cortona to bid impulsively on a 300-year-old
house called Bramasole. It took the real Mayes and her boyfriend, a muscular
poet named Ed, years to find the place. And what did Mayes think when she
watched her cinematic self romping beside the sea with a hunk of burning
Italian love and then jumping around in her lingerie chanting, `I've still got
it.' Probably she thought about what she could do to that 300-year-old house
with all that Hollywood money.
Now it's true, the action of the book wouldn't make much of a movie. It's a
poetic meditation on finding oneself through cultural dislocation and manual
labor, with side trips into Etruscan archaeology and breaks for recipes. It's
not a lark. Mayes' writing is prickly, and some of her descriptions feel
fussed over. But I have a soft spot for it. I read it long before it was a
best-seller on my honeymoon in Tuscany. I even stumbled on Bramasole and got
a glimpse of the muscular poet trimming hedges and the author on her stoop.
I've wondered in the intervening seven years if tens of thousands of people
haven't descended on the place and turned this idyllic refuge into a gawker's
They certainly will now because the Disney adaptation, written and directed by
Audrey Wells, will be a huge hit. It's a star vehicle for the marvelous Diane
Lane, who here recycles her turns in "A Walk on the Moon" and "Unfaithful"
with a lot of added mugging. The early part of the film is like a slicker
version of âAn Unmarried Woman.â In San Francisco, book critic Frances gets the
news from someone whose novel she panned that her husband is having an affair.
Then, thanks to California's no-fault divorce laws, she has to sell her house
to her adulterous spouse and his new bride. Then she's in a furnished
apartment beside other suddenly singles who are wailing through the walls.
Then two lesbian friends give her the gift of a tour of Tuscany, and the rest
is history or, this being what's known as a chick flick, `herstory.'
Here is Frances with her Italian realtor in the throes of buyer's remorse.
(Soundbite of "Under the Tuscan Sun")
Ms. DIANE LANE: (As Frances Mayes) This house has three bedrooms. What if
there's never anyone to sleep in them? And the kitchen--what if there's never
anyone to cook for? I do, I wake up in the middle of the night thinking, `You
idiot, I mean, you're the stupidest woman in the world. You bought a house
for a life you don't even have.'
Unidentified Man: Why did you do it then?
Ms. LANE: Because I'm sick of being afraid all the time and because I still
want things. I want a wedding in this house. I want a family in this house.
EDELSTEIN: The significant part of that scene comes next. The realtor tells
Frances about a railroad line built through the Alps, even though no train at
the time could make the trip. The architects, he said, had faith that the
train would be built, just as she must have faith that her house will be
filled. And so the film becomes a female field of dreams. If you restore it,
they will come. Italians, Polish laborers, the newly single lesbian friend
from San Francisco and her unborn child--everyone comes to Bramasole to eat
Frances' cooking and to bask in her maternal radiance. The picture
practically ends with a fertility dance. And at a certain point, its spine
softens. The grueling process of restoring the house with contractors whose
culture she doesn't understand segues into cheerful montages. And even when
Frances' heart is broken, it's a piddly little moment, too predictable.
The film is fun early on for the tension between romance and reality, between
the gorgeous eternal countryside and the entropy of old houses and inconstancy
of human nature. But then her world falls romantically into place and the
sense of wonder dies. And by the way, what do these people do for money? The
most fascinating thing about "Under the Tuscan Sun" is what it says about the
nature of our escapist fantasies. Once they were about getting out from under
domestic obligations. Now they're about getting into them, preferably with
acreage, views and lots of guest rooms. The movie is like "Lost Horizon,"
reimagined by a realtor.
BOGAEV: David Edelstein is film critic for the online magazine Slate.
BOGAEV: For Terry Gross, I'm Barbara Bogaev.
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