The Big Sick
Finds that laughter-through-tears sweet spot, often in the unlikeliest of places.
Editor's note: To give you a chance to get to know our writers better, we've asked them to respond to some questions. In coming weeks, we'll be posting their responses, which will always be available as a link from their contributor biography page. Here's Nell Minow.
Where did you grow up, and what was it like?
I grew up in the suburbs of Chicago. But when I was in 4th-5th grade, we lived in Washington, D.C. because my Dad was the Chairman of the FCC in the Kennedy Administration. It was a time of endless excitement and possibility in early 1960's Washington, and I got to meet historic figures like Eleanor Roosevelt, the President and Mrs. Kennedy, and Robert Kennedy (who took us on a tour of the FBI).
I'm the oldest of three girls. Every night at dinner, we were each given three minutes to tell the family something interesting about our day. My parents' stories were always fascinating, always about some project to heal the world (tikkun olem), always filled with great characters and a sense of purpose and adventure. All three girls grew up to be lawyers. Martha is the dean of Harvard Law School and an expert on issues from civil rights to war crimes and Mary is the leading expert on legal issues pertaining to libraries, everything from the Patriot Act to copyright and ebooks. And when I'm not writing about movies, my legal speciality is corporate governance (overpaid CEOs, business frauds and failures, shareholder rights).
Was anyone else in your family into movies? If so, what effect did they have on your moviegoing tastes?
My parents both love movies, and to this day some of my favorites are ones they urged me to see. (Though I will never forgive my father for accidentally giving away the ending to "Charade" because he did not realize I hadn't seen it before.) My mother especially would encourage me to watch movies she loved when they were on television and I always wanted to know why she thought a film was worth seeing, usually a particular actor, an award-winner, or a great story. That was a fabulous introduction to older films and to thinking about what made one movie better than another.
My dad had a client who allowed him free access to a fabulous array of 16 mm films, so he got a 16 mm projector, the kind they had in schools, and my mom had a screen installed that pulled down from the ceiling. We saw "7 Brides for 7 Brothers" and "On the Town" more times than I could count. I especially remember seeing my first Marx Brothers film at our house. It was "A Night at the Opera," and I literally fell off my chair in the "sanity clause" scene.
And the last day of my freshman year in high school, I was diagnosed with mononucleosis, complicated by hepatitis. I ended up spending the entire summer in bed. My parents wheeled the little black and white portable TV into my bedroom. We had just four channels then, no cable or DVDs, so I had to watch whatever movies were on, mostly from the 40's and 50's. I could not have asked for a better introduction to thinking about movies.
In college and law school, I went to my hometown public library during spring vacation each year to make a list from their collection of 16 mm films and handed it to the circulation desk with a note that said, "Give me one every Friday all summer." I'd have people over for apple pie and ice cream every week. In those days before VCRs and DVDs and cable channels, that was a rare chance to see films that were not in current release. I was also lucky to have access to a couple of repertory houses in Chicago, including the Biograph Theater, where John Dillinger was shot because he went out to see "Manhattan Melodrama," and where the rest rooms were designated by life-size photos of Dillinger and the Lady in Red.
What's the first movie you remember seeing, and what impression did it make on you?
My parents recently came across a letter my dad wrote to my grandparents when I was four. He said they had just taken me to my first film, "Westward Ho the Wagons" with Fess Parker. He wrote, "Nell couldn't have loved it more. She talks of nothing else and wants to go to the movies all the time." That hasn't changed.
What's the first movie that made you think, "Hey, some people made this. It didn't just exist. There's a human personality behind it."
"Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid," with its shift from sepia tones to color and the juxtaposition of contemporary music in a period setting. That was the first time I thought about anything beyond the story and the actors and how entertaining it was and started paying attention to the directors' choices.
What's the first movie you ever walked out of?
The ONLY movie I have ever walked out of was William Castle's "13 Ghosts," with the special glasses you put on if you wanted to see the ghosts. When they told us to put the glasses on and I saw the ghosts, I told my mother, "I have to go RIGHT NOW." We went to the theater across the street and saw "Bells are Ringing" instead, which is still one of my favorites. I am now a William Castle fan, too.
What's the funniest film you've ever seen?
Can't argue with AFI on this one: "Some Like It Hot." I love Jack Lemmon as Daphne. Also on my list: the Marx Brothers, Laurel and Hardy, "Bringing Up Baby," "Sleeper," "Get Shorty," "Stuck on You," "Libeled Lady" and "I Love You Again" with William Powell and Myrna Loy, and three films by Dale Launer: "Ruthless People," "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels," and "My Cousin Vinny." And I adore what Stanley Cavell calls the "comedies of remarriage," from "His Girl Friday" to "My Favorite Wife."
What's the saddest film you've ever seen?
"Waterloo Bridge" And I cried buckets in "The Fault in Our Stars"
What's the scariest film you've ever seen?
What's the most romantic film you've ever seen?
What's the first television show you ever saw that made you think television could be more than entertainment?
I grew up with a dad who famously called television "a vast wasteland" (and who therefore inspired the name of the sinking ship on "Gilligan's Island"). So my parents had the three of us thinking very critically about television from the beginning. But that meant that they would sit down with us to watch programs they thought were worthwhile and that made me think about what was valuable about the shows they selected for us. They told us that "Rocky and Bullwinkle" cartoons were better than some of the other shows we watched, and, as I thought about it, they were right. My favorites were two series featuring films, Fred Silverman's famous "Family Classics" series hosted by Frazier Thomas and the "CBS Children's Film Festival," hosted by our family friend Burr Tillstrom, my first exposure to non-US films.
My dad was also very involved in what became PBS. When I was in high school, some of those dinnertime conversations were about a revolutionary new idea in children's programming he helped to get started called "Sesame Street." I happened to be home the day it premiered and watched the very first episode. I still remember the animation shorts I later discovered were done by the Hubleys. The imagination and insight of the show was stunning. And I fell in love with it all over again when my children were little. I actually called my husband at the office to tell him that Smokey Robinson was singing "U've Really Got a Hold on Me" while his leg was being grabbed by the letter U. Okay, I was a little stir-crazy, but that was pretty awesome.
What book do you think about or revisit the most?
I cycle through all the Jane Austen novels frequently, rereading each of them every few years. I also love to revisit some of my childhood favorites like Louisa May Alcott and The Phantom Tollbooth. My favorite book about movies is still Truffaut/Hitchcock.
What album or recording artist have you listened to the most, and why?
I will always be a Beatlemaniac. They provided the soundtrack to my teen years, arriving when I was 11 and breaking up when I was a senior in high school, and the music is still the best pop ever produced. I love their films, too. I've already put in an order for the Criterion "Hard Day's Night."
Is there a movie that you think is great, or powerful, or perfect, but that you never especially want to see again, and why?
There are many films I admire a lot but are too grueling to look forward to watching again, like "Schindler's List."
What movie have you seen more times than any other?
Probably my all-time favorite, "The Philadelphia Story." This really happened: we were visiting friends who had a spectacular new hi-def television and I had the chance to watch anything I wanted from their enormous library and their hundreds of cable and satellite stations. I was really enjoying exploring all the options until I saw that TCM was running the very non-hi-def "The Philadelphia Story," which I have seen countless times and know by heart, and yet, that was what I watched. And I don't regret it.
What was your first R-rated movie, and did you like it?
I turned 18 the year the MPAA rating system began, so I never had that experience of anticipating a movie I had previously been too young to see. But that meant that as I was turning 18, for the first time nudity and language and behavior that had never been in films before was all of a sudden on the screen. I do remember the first time I saw nudity in a movie ("The President's Analyst," great film) and the fuss over "Bonnie and Clyde," "Midnight Cowboy," "The Graduate," and "I am Curious (Yellow)."
What's the most visually beautiful film you've ever seen?
Who are your favorite leading men, past and present?
When I was pregnant with our son, the doctor told us that the baby would recognize our voices when he was born, from hearing them in utero. My husband said, "In that case, he'll recognize Cary Grant's voice, too. She loves to watch old movies." Our son still teases me that Cary Grant's voice makes him feel all warm and cozy. Cary Grant is my all-time favorite, but I love all the greats of the classic era: Gregory Peck, Henry Fonda, Sidney Poitier, Fred Astaire, James Stewart, William Holden. Favorites of today: Harrison Ford, Denzel Washington, Tom Hanks, Will Smith, Brad Pitt, George Clooney, Bradley Cooper
Who are your favorite leading ladies, past and present?
From the past: Katharine Hepburn, Bette Davis, Lauren Bacall, Audrey Hepburn, Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor, Jean Harlow, Barbara Stanwyck, Hedy Lamarr, Grace Kelly. From the present: Meryl Streep, Viola Davis, Jennifer Lawrence, Halle Berry, Amy Adams, Elle and Dakota Fanning, Sandra Bullock, Cate Blanchett, Nicole Beharie
Who's your favorite modern filmmaker?
Who's your least favorite modern filmmaker?
Adam Sandler, because he is so damn lazy.
What film do you love that most people seem to hate?
What film do you hate that most people love?
I hate "Million Dollar Baby" with the white hot hatred of a thousand fiery suns.
Tell me about a moviegoing experience you will never forget—not just because of the movie, but because of the circumstances in which you saw it.
I was a freshman in college, on the other side of the country from my boyfriend (now husband), feeling a bit lost. I watched "Sullivan's Travels" for the first time and it was one of those right movie/right moment marvels where I was a different person at the end of the film than I was at the beginning. "There's a lot to be said for making people laugh. Did you know that that's all some people have? It isn't much, but it's better than nothing in this cockeyed caravan." Later I would read a poem by W.H. Auden that made the same point equally well and it has become a favorite: "The funniest mortals and the kindest/are most aware of the baffle of being/don't kid themselves our care is consolable/but believe a laugh is less heartless than tears.”
What aspect of modern theatrical moviegoing do you like least?
I'm lucky to see most films surrounded by my critic pals, which I enjoy very much. But audience members who talk, text, or eat loud and noisy food should be forced to watch "Gigli" until they learn to behave.
What aspect of moviegoing during your childhood do you miss the most?
Going to movies with my parents! Though we still enjoy watching movies together on DVD when I visit them.
Have you ever damaged a friendship, or thought twice about a relationship, because you disagreed about whether a movie was good or bad?
Not for myself. But I knew one of my children's friendships was doomed based on the friend's favorite film. And no, I won't reveal which film, which child, or which friend!
What movies have you dreamed about?
I often dream I am in a movie. Once I dreamed I went to a movie and it was nothing but coming attractions. Anyone want to try to interpret that one?
What concession stand item can you not live without?
I love fresh-popped popcorn with real butter. If you know a theater that serves it, tell me!