In addition to giving me life and keeping me in line, my mother also planted the seeds of my movie love. I can recall many a night, when I was an only child, that Mom and I would sit in front of the black and white TV and watch Million Dollar Movie or the network movie of the week. In the warm glow of television and maternal affection, I grew to love studio system classics, horror movies and trash. Sometimes the same movie qualified as all three.
I especially loved the old movies, as Mom would tell me about the actors and actresses. She was VERY opinionated about them, but when she liked an actor, I could feel her passion for them. She loved Stanwyck, Davis, Hepburn, Mitchum and Crawford. She adored Jimmy Cagney, whose own mother was tougher than any of the gangsters he played. She was IN love with Sidney Poitier, and boy, did it show! I looked forward to the film history lessons I got whenever these actors appeared on my TV.
Let me stop you now if you were imagining some prim, proper woman offering up scholarly lectures worthy of Turner Classic Movies. My lessons in cinema bore a tough, blue-collar slant. My mother cusses like a sailor, and not because she's married to one. She comes from a long line of great cursers, folks who made an art form out of the creative use of no-no words. I aspire to her level of profane brilliance. On my death bed, I just might reach it. For now, whenever I see Ann Blyth, I always think "she needs a mudhole stomped in her ass" for what she did to Mildred Pierce.
Perhaps the most enduring film-based thing Mom introduced me to was the Oscars. She enjoyed watching, even if she often said that Academy voters "needed their asses beat" for the choices they made. We watched together until a particular event drove her away from the show for good. Until then, I have some fond memories of Oscar and Mom. For this piece, I chose 5 different years, and one year I wish I could remember.
Oscar Night 1978: This was the first year I was allowed to watch the Academy Awards. It was (and still is) on a "school night," but I aggravated Mom to the point where she acquiesced. I was rooting for "Star Wars", which my Pops had taken me to see on opening day. I can still hear him complaining about the awful headache George Lucas gave him: "Sh*t kept blowing up every five minutes!" he told Mom. "It didn't make any damn sense!"
As a big Neil Simon fan, Mom was rooting for Richard Dreyfuss. She was also rooting for "The Turning Point", a movie that, to this day, I remember little about besides a catfight. But it was perfect Mom fodder—soapy, actress-centric and melodramatic. This isn't the first time Mom would root for a movie that would lose all 11 of the Oscars for which it was nominated.
"What the hell is 'Annie Hall'?" asked Mom
"It's the Woody Allen movie," my Pops told her. "I tried to take you to see it, but you said you didn't want to see a movie about a chick who dressed like a man."
"Woody Allen gets on my goddamn last nerve!" Mom mumbled.
Whenever I see Woody Allen, I think of my Mom's last goddamn nerve, which, coincidentally, I also always seemed to get on. I'll spare you what she said after she saw "Manhattan", the movie that turned her off Allen for good. Your ears won't be able to handle it.
Oscar Night 1982: Because she loved Kate Hepburn, my Mom took me to see "On Golden Pond". My Pops took me to the one movie I cite whenever I'm asked what my greatest movie experience is: "Raiders of the Lost Ark". Once again, George Lucas gave Pops a headache. I was rooting for "Raiders" on Oscar night.
This is the only year I can remember when most of Mom's choices took home awards. She loved "Arthur," Warren Beatty, Hepburn and Henry Fonda. Her favorite singer, Diana Ross, was on the show singing "Endless Love" with Lionel Richie. ("He looks like a nappy headed lion!" my Mom said of Mr. Richie.) All seemed well until they got to Best Picture.
"And the Oscar goes to 'Chariots of Fire'!" said the TV.
"Chariots of Fire?! Did we see that?" asked Mom. "Was that the horses**t about the guys running?"
Mom's perfect Oscar evening was officially ruined. "What the hell are these awards on? Dope or dog food?" Mom yelled. My guess? Dope.
Oscar Night 1983: This was the first year I was on Mom's Best Picture team. We were both rooting for "Tootsie." (I wasn't a fan of "E.T." until I was an adult.) This was also the first year a movie for which I received an ass-whipping was up for an Oscar. Horny, 12-year old me snuck into "The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas", and when Mom found out, she danced a little sidestep on my behind. Fellow sidestep dancer Charles Durning lost the Oscar for that movie; Lou Gossett Jr. won the Supporting Actor trophy. Since an African-American hadn't won since Mom's beloved Sidney back in 1964, this was big news.
Mom was mad.
"Why are you mad?" my Pops asked her. "He was great. Reminded me of my old drill sergeant back in the Navy. And they finally gave a damn award to a Black person!"
"I know," said Mom, "I'm happy for that part. But he pissed me off. He was mean to Richard Gere!"
When "Gandhi" won, Mom didn't have anything to say because she hadn't seen the movie. Since Gandhi had inspired Dr. King, I guess she gave him a pass.
Oscar Night 1986: This was the beginning of the end of my tenure watching the Oscars with Mom. We were both on "The Color Purple" bandwagon, whose wheels were about to fall off 11 times that evening. Thankfully, I'd stopped attending movies with my parents by this time, so I went to "The Color Purple" by myself. I also snuck in to see the movie playing next to it at Hudson Mall Cinema, which I found devastatingly boring. That movie was called "Out of Africa."
Making matters worse on Oscar night: My Mom, like millions of other American women, had just become addicted to Oprah Winfrey. So when Miss Sofia, one of my favorite characters in all of cinema, lost that Oscar, Mom turned the color purple. My Pops, who had seen and loved "Prizzi's Honor", was totally cool with the outcome of Oprah's category. Thank God he kept that to himself.
Mom was so mad about "The Color Purple"'s losses that she vowed to never watch the Oscars again. She did not keep her word.
Oscar Night 1989: This was the last Oscar ceremony I watched with Mom. And I didn't even get to watch the entire thing with her. She gave up about 10 minutes into the show. Lover of trash that is I, I have a sincere fondness for the notorious Snow White-Rob Lowe Proud Mary duet. But Mom couldn't hack it. I don't know if it was Snow's voice or the destruction of Tina Turner's classic or that she just hadn't forgiven Oscar for dissing Oprah. All I know is that, mid-song, my mother got up and simply said "F**k this!" and left, never to return to the living room that evening.
The ironic thing is that, for the first time in all the years Mom and I watched the Academy Awards, the movie she was rooting for won Best Picture. I'll never know what her reaction would have been.
To close, here's one extra year I am sure I watched the Oscars with Mom:
Oscar Night 1973: Of course, I have no memory of this, but since I've always been an insomniac, I'll assume 2-year old me was still up and in my Mom's room. I know she watched this, because Diana Ross was up for an Oscar. My Mom is the world's biggest Diana Ross fan, so I know she wasn't happy when Miss Ross lost. I doubt this actually happened, but I get such glee imagining my Mom yelling out "Oh HELL NO!" before imitating Elvis Presley and shooting her TV. Liza's smiling face would have suddenly disappeared from the screen in a huge puff of smoke.
Because of "12 Years a Slave", I convinced Mom to watch the Oscars this year. She's agreed to give up her ban on the show, but if "12 Years" loses, somebody's going to have to let me hide out at their place. I do not want that lady to find me.