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Movie Personality Islands: The Formative Films of My Life

Inside Out,” Pixar’s latest animated marvel that isn’t just for all ages but for THE ages, not only engaged me emotionally—sniff, sniff—but also got me thinking about it long after the end credits. Like Riley, the 11-year-old subject of the film, I was left emotionally unmoored as a youngster when my parents decided to uproot us from our shady arbor of a city home with its inviting front porch and downstairs grandparents to the sun-bleached wasteland known as the suburbs with its endless expanse of concrete and dearth of corner stores filled with penny candy.

But there was one imaginative concept among the many that filmmaker Pete Docter and his team employed to explain how our brains work that especially enticed me: The idea that there are several key personality islands fed by core memories that define who we are. In Riley’s case, her islands include family, honesty and ice hockey—the sport being one of her favorite activities.

When Amy Poehler’s Joy began to explain all this, something clicked inside. Oprah has her “aha” moment. This was my “hmm” moment. What if people who grow up to be film writers, critics or simply just avid fans have in their brains an island devoted to all the movies that shaped not just their taste in cinema but informed their very being?

These influential titles aren’t necessarily Oscar winners or certified classics. They don’t even have to be very good. Sometimes, it’s simply a matter of seeing them at a susceptible point in your formative years. Perhaps you responded deeply to a theme, a setting, a performance by an actor or a character, a particular scene—so much so, that it somehow is still tucked away in a corner of your brain and continues to not just mold your relationship to movies but also perhaps your nature. 

I began to go through the catalog in my mind of films that basically sparked an intense reaction when I first saw them. Turns out, many involve powerful female characters and standout actresses who I have continued to admire to this day. I was always trying to figure out the correct way to react to the expectations involved in being a girl. The dark of the theater (and often our family room) provided a safe way to experience adventures and situations that were still beyond my reach by engaging my imagination and basically allowing me to try them on for size. 

As the always-insightful film historian Jeanine Basinger once told me, “We go to the movies to see ourselves and make that connection. To feel what we can do, what our lives are, what we can learn, what we can achieve.” 

With that in mind, and to perhaps encourage other cinephiles to share the names of their formative films, here are 10 titles from my childhood that at least are partially responsible for making me who I am today. Oh, and that Buffalo, N.Y., suburb that we moved to? Turns out, it would end up being a less than 10-minute drive away from one of the first movie theaters built outside the city limits and the first to feature double screens under the same roof. Good move, parents! 

My first tearjerker: “Heidi” (1937)—When I was on the cusp of kindergarten, I became completely besotted when I first spied Shirley Temple as this adorable  Swiss miss. This curly-topped orphan could melt the hardened heart of a cantankerous old man with a mere flash of her deep-dish dimples. Shirley’s tap-happy performances in other more tune-filled movies would inspire me to invest 10 years of my young life in learning the art of shuffle-ball-changing. But “Heidi” was the movie that taught me that films could move you to tears. I defy anyone not to weep when Heidi and her hermit grandfather (Jean Hersholt of Oscar honor fame, camouflaged by a bushy white beard) desperately call out to each other before they are finally reunited.  I secretly wished I could try to re-enact this stunt with my parents, but they refused to try to sell me to the gypsies. 

My first feel-good film:  “Pollyanna” (1960)—Another unbelievably talented child actress in an orphan role. My first exposure to Hayley Mills came via TV’s “Wonderful World of Disney” in the form of a pig-tailed ray of human sunshine who turns a cranky town’s frowns upside down. Somehow the novice British actress who took on this notorious literary goodie two-shoes transformed her into a spunky pre-teen delight without hint of cloying artifice.  Though I knew that such unflagging optimism was well beyond my grasp, I became a devoted fan, loving everything Mills did from then on, from the light-hearted “The Parent Trap” and “Summer Magic” to the heavier “Whistle Down the Wind” and “The Chalk Garden.” 

When reality trumped make-believe: “The Miracle Worker” (1962)—Notice a pattern here? Another movie featuring a child star makes the cut. But as much as I worshiped Patty  Duke, it was the subject of this biopic who truly touched and inspired me. I wrote my first-ever book report based on Helen Keller’s memoir, which I lovingly illustrated with “Life” magazine photos of a smiling Duke and Keller together. I could not believe that this untamed child so unfairly isolated from the rest of the world could grow up to be so bright, insightful and determined to help others. When I saw the film when it first aired on network TV,  not only did Duke’s Oscar-winning performance take my breath away (the scene when Helen has her communication breakthrough  with the word “water” is the second time a movie made me cry). It solidified my admiration for both her and Keller, and led me to raid the library for more stories of influential women, such as Eleanor Roosevelt, Harriet Tubman and Marie Curie. 

The “Star Wars” of my generation: “Mary Poppins” (1964)—Before I start babbling about leaping chimney sweeps, let me share another memory. My mom dragged me to see a 1962 medical soap opera called “The Interns.” It was the “Grey’s Anatomy” of its time. It starred actors like Telly Savalas and Cliff Robertson along with model Suzy Parker, the Kate Moss of her day. It mostly went over my head. But one scene is forever seared into my brain:  When a shy nurse at a party commits the cliché of getting drunk, tossing off her glasses, stripping down to her slip and doing the hoochie-coochie atop a table. I instantly made a vow to never dance drunk in my slip and I never have. At least, not in public. My mother more than made up for her own slip in judgment, however, a few years later by waiting in the freezing Buffalo cold in a blocks-long line with me on my 10th birthday to get tickets see Julie Andrew’s glorious nanny—a much more edifying role model. Yes, it was my first actual blockbuster and one with a woman in charge no less. I repaid my mother by doing free-range choreography in our living room while the soundtrack LP blared for weeks after. 

The film that ignited my inner feminist: “Billie” (1965)—I recall begging my mom to see this misbegotten attempt at a family sports comedy slash musical starring my beloved Patty Duke. The first warning sign should have been her new ‘do, an unflattering bleached pixie cut that was Hollywood code for tomboy. She played a high-school track star who can outrace the guys on the team, thanks to the “beat” she hears in her head. This, for some reason, erupts into a community-wide scandal. I recall suffering a kind of allergic reaction to this backwards attempt at pro-female message, with Billie saying, “I wish I was a boy” and her proudly chauvinistic politico dad (Jim Backus), responding, “Well, so do I.”  On top of that, “Billie” was the first time I recall seeing one of big screen’s most enduring tropes: The proper-lady makeover. You know “Inside Out’s” annoying chewing-gum jingle that echoes in Riley’s head? My version is a sickly sweet love ballad sung by Duke called “Pretty Little Butterflies.”  It took the terrific 1982 track-and-field drama “Personal Best” to finally initiate the healing process over the denouement when Billie casually decides to toss aside her athletic ambitions to concentrate on being a girl.

My not-so-secret obsession: “Calamity Jane” (1953)—Baby-boom childhoods were rife with Westerns—so much so, I thought being a cowgirl was a legit career option for me. However, I preferred mine set to music and featuring a female front and center. I would later be mesmerized by 1950’s “Annie Get Your Gun” with the always over-the-top Betty Hutton and its delirious Irving Berlin score. But a rootin’-tootin,’ buckskin-sporting Doris Day took aim at my heart first via TV and her version of “Secret Love” sealed the deal. This is yet another iteration of the proper-lady makeover after Calamity falls for a man. But she never has to compromise her natural exuberance or sharpshooting skills just because she dons a pretty dress.

The “Citizen Kane” of nun movies: “The Trouble With Angels” (1966)—Being a nun came right after cowgirl as a future job choice. Maybe if I had gone to Catholic school and actually ran into real sisters on a regular basis, I would not have been so prone to buy Hollywood’s romanticized notions of these devoted women. Fellow critic Carrie Rickey once pointed out to me that great actresses such as Ingrid Bergman, Audrey Hepburn and Deborah Kerr sought out nun roles because they gave them a chance to play strong females and not just a love interest.  Rosalind Russell certainly acts the heck out of her Mother Superior in my favorite nun film of all time, which was directed by Ida Lupino no less. But what truly made this nun nirvana for me was the presence of Hayley Mills at her mischievous and iron-willed best as a student at St. Francis Academy, an all-girls boarding school.  Beware the sub-par sequel, “Where Angels Go Trouble Follows!”  (1968), which taught me that second helpings rarely equal the original. 

My cinematic sexual awakening: “Some Like It Hot” (1959)—I distinctly remember being introduced to this Billy Wilder classic at the impressionable age of 10 or so when it made its premiere on network TV. My parents had already explained the birds and bees basics to me. But, boy, did this movie fill in the rest. It didn’t matter that I had no clue that Tony Curtis was channeling Cary Grant when he tricked Marilyn Monroe into seducing him aboard that yacht. When his eyeglasses got steamed up after they kissed, I thought, “OK, now that is what sex is.” It has since become my favorite film of all time, one that I have never grown tired of watching once I noticed that that a terrific Jack Lemmon was in the movie, too.

My cinematic sexual awakening, Part 2: “Romeo and Juliet” (1968)—To experience the Bard’s tale of forbidden youthful passion brought to life by two gorgeous actors not much older than me was a true rite of passage. I was able to not only relate to Shakespeare’s timeless words but also admire the way Leonard Whiting looked in tights—a win-win for this future English major. A later generation would fall for Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes in much the same way. But to me, Whiting and Olivia Hussey will always be my star-crossed lovers.

Liza with a wow: “The Sterile Cuckoo” (1969)—My weakness for quirky actresses in misfit or underdog roles (Sandy Dennis among them) met its match with Liza Minnelli in this painfully bittersweet story of young love.  I can see myself sitting in the theater alone, barely taking note of milquetoast-y Wendell Burton as the college boy she falls for. Minnelli‘s raw emotions as outsider Pookie, who never knew when to quit or to shut up, simply overwhelmed everything else onscreen. I loved that it was a fall movie set for the most part in autumn and that it had the nerve to not end happily ever after.  And its melancholy theme song, “Come Saturday Morning,” added to the delicious agony of it all.

My passage to high school, college and beyond naturally led to a maturation of my tastes. In no particular order: “The Seventh Seal,” “Duck Soup,” “Bonnie and Clyde,” “Bullitt,” “The Graduate,” “American Graffiti” (in my humble opinion, George Lucas’ greatest contribution to pop culture), “Rosemary’s Baby,” “Harold and Maude,” “Nashville,” “Women in Love,” “Animal House,” “The Last Picture Show,” “Taxi Driver,” “An Unmarried Woman,” “Looking for Mr. Goodbar,” “Cabaret,” “The Exorcist,” “Night of the Living Dead,” “Sparkle,” “Mahogany,” “Fame” and on and on.  All films I have revisited countless times.

Although one formative title falls outside the time frame of childhood and early adolescence, it must be mentioned.  It was 1983. I had just gotten married but my husband and I would live apart for a couple months before I would eventually join him in a new city at a new job. My life was about to be forever changed and I looked to the movies for an escape. And there it was. “Flashdance.” I first saw it with my husband when he came back to town for the weekend. But I was so taken by the ridiculous premise, the flashy MTV edits, the dance numbers, the Giorgio Moroder soundtrack, the fabulous Jennifer Beals, the amazingly talented Cynthia Rhodes and the insane gaps of logic (just how did that breakdancing-influenced audition number qualify Beals’ Alex to become a classical ballerina?) that I went back to see it again the very next weekend—and I have probably seen it 40 more times since.

When I interviewed director Adrian Lyne for his 2002 erotic thriller “Unfaithful,” I sheepishly confessed my fatal attraction for “Flashdance.” When I noted how many times I had seen it, he just laughed and said, “I feel sorry for you.”  No need. Take your passion and make it happen—especially at the movies.

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