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My Mother's Stories: Michael Koresky on Films of Endearment

"Obsession is entirely the wrong word to describe the way Leslie and I talk about movies. Rather, they're a way of life, a totalizing force that informs our experiences and interactions. When you love movies so desperately, you see the world differently through them and because of them. And you return to them, because movies change as we change, grow as we grow, friends that reveal new facets with every viewing ... My mother instilled this love."

These words appear early on in Michael Koresky's beautiful book Films of Endearment: A Mother, a Son and the ‘80s Films That Defined Us, and they are its organizing principle. "Leslie" is Koresky's mother, a woman who comes to life in these pages, in all her complexity, humor, and humanity. The book is a hybrid, part-memoir, part-biography, and part-film criticism and film history, as well as a fascinating examination of the oft-derided 1980s film. Koresky artfully weaves all of this together through Films of Endearment, so by the end of the book you not only feel like you have gotten to know his mother, but you may very well want to pop in "Baby Boom" again, or "Crossing Delancey," or "Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean," or any of the other films explored. (This is true as well of the movies mentioned peripherally, movies that don't get their own chapter—like "Avalon." Koresky captures beautifully why the people who love "Avalon" love it so powerfully.) Koresky comes to these films with fresh eyes, even after seeing them so many times since he was a child, and examines how each film "speaks" to his mother, reflecting her experiences, in different areas and eras of her life. What was it about "Fabulous Baker Boys" that touched her so deeply? How did "9 to 5" illuminate his mother's own career choices? At the same time, Koresky digs into the films themselves, their history and context, the specific time in which they opened, as well as look at how his own perceptions have changed over the years.

Films of Endearment, while about a specific mother and a specific son, expresses an experience we all know: you see a movie at a certain time in your life, and it strikes a chord. You don't question why. You just know it's happened. You remember where you were when you first saw it. You remember who you were with. You may not even understand the "how" of it, but you hold that memory with you, and when you think of the film, you think of that time in your life. It's all the same thing. Sometimes when you re-visit these films, they disappoint. They no longer emit the same glow. You have changed, you've grown beyond it. But the first experience you had with the film remains pure. The film was there when you needed it.

This is what Films of Endearment, a sneakily powerful and emotional book, explores.

Koresky has made a career out of the obsessive movie-love instilled in him by his mother. His writing has appeared in Film Comment (his biweekly column, Queer Now and Then, was essential reading), Cinema Scope, Sight & Sound, Film Quarterly, and the Village Voice. He also writes regularly for The Criterion Collection, and serves as a freelance programmer for the Criterion Channel. He co-founded the online film journal Reverse Shot, where he also serves as co-editor-in-chief. As if that weren't enough, he is also editorial director of New York's Museum of the Moving Image. (Incidentally, the museum will be doing a couple of screenings in May connected to Koresky's book, so keep your eyes on that calendar if you're in the area.) Koresky is also a filmmaker, having written and co-directed the 2018 film "Feast of the Epiphany," and his book on British filmmaker Terence Davies was published by the University of Illinois Press in 2014.

It was a pleasure to connect with Koresky over Zoom to discuss Films of Endearment. Read an excerpt from the book here

Talk to me about the genesis of the book, how you were thinking about it at first and how it might have changed.

There were two events, one of which I wrote about in the book. I had a conversation with my mother where I asked her which film era she loved most and she said the '80s. I was blown away. Because—1. nobody says the '80s are the best era of filmmaking and 2. That's my era, not hers, that's the era I grew up, so what is my mom doing taking on my era? I thought she would say the '40s, or '50s, or the '70s. Of course she loves all those eras. We both agree that the '40s are the best era for films. American filmmaking was at its zenith in the '40s, nothing has ever come close, we both get that, but she said that the '80s were when she was a young mother, and we were bringing VHS tapes home to share as a family. It was the first time that movies became this glue that held things together. 

The second event was my husband and I were on vacation in some Airbnb, and we ended up watching "Steel Magnolias" on Netflix. As gay men are wont to do. It's not even really my favorite movie but I watched it so much as a kid I know entire scenes by heart. In talking about it afterwards, I realized that my mother had introduced me to "Steel Magnolias" as a kid. So that started me thinking about all of these great performances and how connected to my mother's perspective they were. That started me thinking about how this could be a book.

"9 to 5"

How did you pick the movies to include?

Whenever I sit down to write, I tend to give myself limitations and structure. It's how I work. So I decided to pick one film per year, and I could weave my mother's stories in through that. Each film I picked was connected to a particular theme in my mother's life. I start with "9 to 5." 1980. "9 to 5" is about the mainstreaming of American workplace feminism, and through "9 to 5," I could talk about my mother's working experience. This is when I thought: What do I know about my mother's working experience, though? I realized this was going to be a research project, it was going to be a way of getting to know things about my mother that I never knew before.

Has your mom read the book?

She was my ultimate fact-checker and I would send it to her chapter by chapter. She had a lot of corrections and they were really important. She's the keeper of all that history.

As you re-watched these movies with your mother, you wrote about some of the things she said that surprised you.

The "Mommie Dearest" chapter was the hardest one to write because my mother was talking about her childhood trauma at the hands of her own mother. I had heard her talk over the years about the abuse—psychological and physical—she endured as a child, but I wondered how much would she be willing to talk about it, and would it be okay for me to write about it? It was tricky territory. But because we were tying the conversation into the movie we just watched, which was "Mommie Dearest," which—ironically—is a movie we both think is hilarious ... my mother was able to open up certain doors she hadn't before. I hadn't heard a lot of those stories before, about the general sense of agonizing instability my mother felt. She opened up about it in a way I found inspiring but also unsettling. I asked her, "Are you sure you're okay with me talking about these things?" She said she is.

I just have to say that the "Mommie Dearest" chapter is an important piece of writing about that film. "Mommie Dearest" is such a camp classic it's difficult to talk about it as an actual movie, and it's difficult to talk about Dunaway's performance—which I think has a brilliance to it. Who else would have even attempted to do what she does in that performance? You wrote about it in a way that was sensitive to all those aspects while also admitting, Listen, this movie is hysterical. I love the line in the movie when Joan says something like "I want you to take that wall down—"

I'll tell you exactly what she says. [perfect imitation of Dunaway/Crawford] "I'm going to tear down that bitch of a bearing wall and put a window where it ought to be!" My mother quotes that line all the time.

It's easy to treat "Mommie Dearest" as a joke but of course when they were making it they didn't think it was a joke. Dunaway treated it with utter seriousness.

That chapter goes to the heart of the book in that there are always two levels. There's the emotional connection you have with something, like the connection I have with my mother about movies, and then there's the analytical side. You have to balance the two. "Mommie Dearest" is a good example of a film I knew I had to write about in a way that was real to my experience of watching it with my mom, which is that this movie makes us laugh, but I also had to take myself out of that personal experience and analyze it as a film, and also analyze how it relates to my mother's trauma. I had to do all that while also being fair to Faye Dunaway and Joan Crawford. A whole other layer was knowing that my grandmother—who had been abusive to my mother—was a huge Joan Crawford fan and refused to watch "Mommie Dearest" her whole life.

The "Baby Boom" chapter was so interesting! Your mother said, "This character is lucky she found such a nice man. I felt the same way." Could you talk about her comment and your response to it?

"Baby Boom"—unlike the other movies in the book—has a politically fraught ideology. I have wrestled with it over the years. It is one of my mother's favorites, without question. In re-visiting it with her, there were all these levels to deal with and that quote is a good example. I can stand here and say "Here is my idea of what feminism is supposed to be." But my mother— who came of age and got married and had her first child during the mainstreaming of second-wave feminism—has her own perspective that is much more valid than mine. If she thinks "Baby Boom" is reflective of an idea of feminism she believes in, then that's what the movie becomes. That's what the movie is for her. When Diane Keaton leaves the rat race and goes to Vermont, and discovers her country maternal self (while at the same time starting a business empire, let's not forget), this was considered by a lot of critics of the film as a betrayal of feminism, when in fact it's a lot more complex than that. Nancy Meyers is doing something complex in her script, and we don't want to talk about things in nuanced ways anymore, everything has to be black or white. The firm tries to seduce Keaton to come back to New York, promising all these perks, and she turns them down, not because she wants to be a mommy in a rocking chair but because she's actually building something for herself. 

My mother feels like this validates her own life and her own choices. My mother built something for herself too. She's happy she had children, she's happy she found a man she loved, and she is happy to have her favorite gingham curtains—which were inspired by "Baby Boom," by the way.

I love how your mother notices all the interior decorating production design elements in movies. I was personally thrilled to hear your thoughts—and hers—on "Fabulous Baker Boys." It's one of my favorite movies in the book for all kinds of reasons I'm not even sure I can put into words. I respond to it in a very emotional way. Your mother loves Susie Diamond so much.

When my mom talks about "Fabulous Baker Boys," she never says "Michelle Pfeiffer was so great." She says "I love Susie Diamond." This is not true of any other film in the book. My mother loves "Crossing Delancey" but she never says, "I love Izzy." She says "I love Amy Irving." But Susie Diamond speaks to my mother on such a profound level. "Fabulous Baker Boys" is the only movie in the book that my mother responds to more than I do. Don't get me wrong, I love it, but it wasn't a movie that I "got" as a kid. I think it's a really sophisticated movie.

Yes. It's about adults, and it's for adults, adults who have some miles on them.

There's a certain scuzziness to it and a layer of disappointment and melancholy, and it's also extremely sexy. These are all things that kids don't get. As an adult I am transfixed by it, but it took me a longer time to get there. Of all the movies in the book, "Fabulous Baker Boys" is her movie. I was trying to get to the bottom of that in the chapter and it seemed like it connected so much to my mother's stealth career as a singer. She has a wonderful voice and when she was younger her mother wanted her to make a professional career as a singer. She sang at bar mitzvahs and weddings, but then she decided to go another path. There's something about Susie Diamond's small-time striving in piano bars and lounges that my mom finds very comforting. The realism and the glamour really appeals to her, as does Susie Diamond's tough-ness. I wish Susie Diamond had a franchise.

"The Adventures of Susie Diamond."

I so want that to happen.

I was reading this book and I was thinking, "My God, where did movies like this go? What happened?" I mean, we all know what happened, but it made me sad. Your book has kind of re-oriented how I think about 80s film.

So many of the great 1980s movies had strong female protagonists. It was the last time it felt like women were the centerpiece of what American movies were.

And adult women. Mature women.

Yes. Definitely now, in the 21st century, it seems like most stars are in their mid-20s. Even if there are some very talented actors out there, they can't bring that depth of experience and complexity. It was so exciting in the '80s because good roles were being written and all these women were transforming themselves in film after film. You knew there was going to be a Jessica Lange movie every year. There's would be a Sissy Spacek movie every year. You don't really get that anymore.

And then there's Sigourney Weaver in the "Aliens" franchise, which you write about! To have been a young woman as those movies were coming out, to have an action hero, a leading lady, who looked like Sigourney Weaver was so powerful and exciting. Is this common knowledge now? I hope people understand how exciting it was when Sigourney Weaver arrived!

That's such an iconic role at this point that maybe people take it for granted. There were other female action stars around that time, like Linda Hamilton in "Terminator 2," or Demi Moore in "GI Jane"—but sometimes they seem unbreakable. With Sigourney Weaver there's emotional complexity and vulnerability, and there's a sense that even though she's carrying heavy weaponry and even though she's fighting these gigantic space beasts, she still could be killed at any moment. Ripley is an emotionally fragile and physically tough person, and I think that's why those movies work. That's what "Aliens" is all about. She's not invincible.

To swerve into the movie that gave the book its title: You write about not being prepared for "Terms of Endearment," both watching it, as well as discussing it with your mother.

That was the chapter where I knew I was going to have to talk about my father's death. I've always been evasive about it, honestly. So suddenly I'm writing this book and I'm going to make my mother watch "Terms of Endearment" and then we're going to have a conversation about my dad— which we always try not to do. I was genuinely dreading it.

What's so extraordinary about "Terms of Endearment," which you get into, is how it does not not tip its hand at all about where it's going.

My mom said something really interesting which I quote in the book: "Terms of Endearment" is not "Steel Magnolias," where in the very beginning Julia Roberts has her diabetic attack and you know where it's going. With "Terms of Endearment," not only is there no telegraphing of illness, it's a comedy for almost three-fourths of the movie!

Speaking about your dad, and for me this connects to your book: You mentioned the eulogy for your dad, written by one of his friends, and how it was an endless list of all the things your father loved. It made me think, in a way, that your book is carrying his legacy forward. You are your mother's son but you are your father's son, too. Is that something that is there for you?

Thank you for saying that. That's really meaningful to me. It's not conscious. I didn't make the connection between the two things until fairly recently. My husband made a comment that I think about a lot. "You and your brother and your mother are so similar." I was like, What are you talking about? My brother and I are so different that it's a running joke with people who know us. My husband said, "You both are so enthusiastic about the things that you love—even if those things are very different—and you want other people to feel that enthusiasm." When he said that, I started to understand it and I did connect it to the eulogy. I think about that eulogy when I think about my dog, or certain meals I've loved, or vacation spots I want to go back to, restaurants, movies, books—things I love so much. It was such a brilliant way of distilling my dad. I don't think anyone could have written anything more beautiful or perfect. It was a transformative moment for me.

It's so interesting, all of these connections. You have devoted your life to the thing you loved most when you were eight. How many people wish they could say that?

I'm at a place now where it's so wonderful to be able to choose the things I want to write about, things that are meaningful to me and hopefully to other people, too.

On May 18, at 7:30 pm EST, Koresky will be doing his official virtual book launch event with Greenlight Bookstore. The event will feature a conversation between Koresky and Mark Harris, author of the current best-seller Mike Nichols: A LifeYou can register for the event here

To order your copy of Michael Koresky's Films of Endearment, click here

Sheila O'Malley

Sheila O'Malley received a BFA in Theatre from the University of Rhode Island and a Master's in Acting from the Actors Studio MFA Program. Read her answers to our Movie Love Questionnaire here.

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