Based on a novel published in 1978, “The World According To Garp” was released in 1982, and yet watching the film on the recently-released Blu-ray from Warner Archive, I was struck by how timely and even urgent the material felt, and how much more adult and daring it is than most of the movies released by studios today. Not only do they not make them like this anymore, but I'd offer the opinion that they never really did.
How can a film from 1978 have a better handle on the times we're living in right now than most of the films coming out this year? After all, much of John Irving's novel is a direct reaction to the late '70s and what Irving thought of the social landscape at that particular moment. How relevant could it be today, since we've obviously progressed so much since then?
You'd be surprised.
For those who have not seen the film (our own head of social media here at HitFix had never even heard of it when I brought it up to him today), I think it's safe to say this is one of the finest things Robin Williams ever did on film, but there's way more to recommend here than just one performance. Irving's book is a rowdy, vulgar, startlingly vibrant trip through the life of T.S. Garp, an author whose life seems to echo certain details of Irving's own life. One of the main themes of the book is the way radicalized feminism at the time was creating a new tension in culture, and seen through the prism of this year and recent events like the rise of GamerGate, it is clear that absolutely nothing has changed. When Caitlyn Jenner becomes a major media figure for the choice she made, it is fascinating to look at the character of Roberta Muldoon (John Lithgow), a transsexual who was a tight end for an NFL team before her transition.
The film follows Garp from his unconventional birth to a bittersweet resolution some forty-something years later, and while the book is so full of events that it seems impossible to get it all into a film that runs two hours or so, the screenplay by the gifted Steve Tesich (an Oscar-winner for “Breaking Away” just a few years earlier) manages to capture the essence of the book in every scene, whether they came out of the book directly or not. It's an impressive piece of screenwriting, and director George Roy Hill, best known for big entertainments like “The Sting” or “Slap Shot,” turned out to be a perfect choice for the material, sometimes directing with a surprising stage-like intimate delicacy and sometimes ladling things on with both hands, but always somehow making the right choice for how to pull things off. Garp is raised by his mother, Jenny Fields, an unmarried nurse who thinks lust is the root of all problems in modern society. As Garp grows up, he decides to become a writer, only to find himself struggling with the shadow thrown by Jenny's own publishing success with a book she writes about the socio-sexual landscape of the times. As he settles down into a marriage that runs into plenty of challenges, Garp continues to try to define himself as a writer while navigating the dangerous and political world that centers on his mother and her book.
“Garp” is a movie that you can't really do justice to simply by discussing what happens. Part of what I love about it is simply as a technical exercise, watching how Tesich took Irving's remarkable prose and translated it to screenplay, what choices he made to do so, and how he handled the book's most difficult elements. Part of what I love about it is the ensemble that Hill put together and the absolutely sterling work done by everyone in every scene. This is one of those movies where every scene adds something, every scene goes directly to theme, and it all feels both profoundly dense and oddly simple, with plenty of room to breathe even as it takes us through forty years of someone's life in a fair amount of detail. I love that the film has a grown-up attitude towards sex, and since much of the film is about the way sex drives us through our lives, that matter-of-fact quality is something that makes all the difference in the world. From the scenes when Garp and Cushie are kids and pretending to be married to the tension-filled scene where Garp drives a babysitter home to the unfortunate ending of Mr. Michael Milton, this is not the way Hollywood typically deals with the carnal side of who we are as people, and even now, it's bracing precisely because it is so unusual.
I honestly can't get my head around the idea that Robin Williams is gone. Part of that is because there have been several films that came out after his death, and part of it is because his work is still omnipresent. I can't imagine not keeping certain films in my rotation, and while it is harder for me to watch certain things with Williams because he's gone, I would rather feel that pang of loss than simply avoid his movies. “Garp” is especially painful, because much of “Garp” is about the value of life and the fragility of it. When “Garp” came out, Williams was primarily known for two things: “Mork and Mindy” and “Popeye.” Yes, he was a stand-up comic, but as far as character work and performance, there was his huge TV show success and his big-screen disaster. By 1982, “Mork and Mindy” was on its final legs, desperate and sweaty as it struggled to get one more season on the air. I was still watching, but that was because I found Williams fascinating, no matter what the context. I liked “Popeye” quite a bit when it came out, and my admiration for it has only grown over the years. I knew on first viewing that what Williams was doing in the film wasn't the safe popcorn movie choice, but the genuine true-to-this-weird-ass-character choice, and I love him for it. He seemed determined right away to build complete characters, and he seemed serious about his craft, no matter how odd the context. I would set his performance in “The World According to Garp” right up there alongside any of the great lead performances of the '70s. He plays Garp from high school to the end of the film, and the way he charts the character's evolution is subtle and beautiful. There is such joy and such sorrow in the performance, and Williams is young and beautiful here. One of the pleasures of the new 2K transfer done for Blu-ray by Warner Archive is seeing what a good job they've done reproducing the delicacy of Miroslav Ondricek's photography. One of the things we've lost to digital as opposed to film is the way skin used to look. Hill shoots a lot of this film in close-up, and these performances are all nuanced enough that the film benefits from being in close.
In the book, there's a running thread about the way Garp hates late-night phone calls because he knows that only bad news could ever lead to a phone call at that hour. It's something Irving spends a fair amount of words establishing and illustrating. In the film, there's one scene towards the end, with Williams sitting on the porch outside his mother's house, and the entire thing is played silently by him as he listens to an off-screen phone call. Williams tells you everything you need to know about Garp and his relationship to late-night phone calls with what's going on behind those oh-so-blue eyes of his. I'm not sure enough can be said about what a key part of his skill set his eyes were. When he laughed, he started laughing with his eyes well before his mouth and his body caught up, and when he played fury or heartbreak, it was almost too much to take, looking directly into his eyes. He was incapable of lying to the audience, and when he was trapped in a film that didn't work, it was mainly panic that you saw there.
In “Garp,” he's firing on every cylinder, and he has amazing partners in his scenes. His relationship with Jenny (Glenn Close) is both classic in the mother-son dynamic and unique in the way Jenny's world view and work shapes Garp's life, and there is a respect in the way they play together in the film that is lovely. Even better is the relationship Garp has with Roberta (Lithgow), the best friendship of his life. Lithgow is amazing in the film, and for the most part, he's playing scenes with Williams. There is such a great easy honesty between the two of them that it makes me immediately flash on the people who have been my best friends at times I've needed them. Whatever it is that makes people connect, it's present in the Garp/Roberta stuff, and it's very moving without ever being maudlin. And Mary Beth Hurt, who has the lions share of the burden of showing the passage of time, is perfect as Helen Holm. She meets Garp in high school, where her father is his wrestling coach, and they stay in touch even after he moves to New York to become a writer. They eventually marry and have kids and share this rocky marriage, and the way they chart the highs and lows of that relationship, I recognized every beat of it. Even though our problems and our stresses in our marriage were different, it's the way those problems and stresses threaten the foundation of things that I recognized. Irving's book is very wise about the real way people behave, good and bad, and the script preserves all of that perception, with Hill's own choices as a director layered on top of that, and it is clear that he knew just how strong these performances were and wanted to make sure you were close enough to see everything, every raw, real second played out on these great faces. One of the craziest things about the film is the way the cast's ages work compared to the characters. Close and Williams are only a few years apart, and Mary Beth Hurt and Close are only a year apart. They do a great job of etching these relationships the right way, and make-up is such a small part of it that it's impressive. “Garp” was the first major film role for Close, who was Oscar-nominated for her work, and Lithgow had been chipping away for a decade on film, but had his big break-through here and was also Oscar-nominated for his work. When you talk about supporting work, this is practically the textbook definition, because everything they do gives real support to Williams, and it all serves the larger vision of the film.
As always, I am struck by just how right Irving got things in the book. When Jenny publishes her book, “Sexual Suspect,” it becomes a flashpoint for a whole cross-section of feminist extremes as they had evolved by the late '70s. It is clear from the moment her book is released that Jenny strikes a nerve in many women who never felt represented in the media, and that she also terrifies men who fear female strength or independence. I would have told you if I was watching this film five years ago that it was pure exaggeration, but the last couple of years online have changed my mind about that. Now, if anything, I think Irving was retrained in the way he paints the extremes. The Ellen Jamesians, for example, feel to me like something that could actually happen. In both the book and the film, Ellen James is an eleven-year-old girl who was brutally raped and whose tongue was cut out to keep her from identifying her attackers. The Ellen James Society is a group of women who voluntarily had their own tongues cut out as an act of protest and to draw attention to what happened to the real Ellen. Garp recoils from the Ellen Jamesians, arguing with Jenny that his sympathy is for the real girl and not the group who have chosen to do this to themselves. Garp draws even more ire when he writes a piece about the girl, a plea for people to leave her alone and stop mutilating themselves. When Ellen James finally shows up in the film, it's a moment I've always found deeply affecting, but seeing it this time, it flattened me. Part of the added impact came from my friend pointing out to me that the actor playing Ellen James had a special relationship to Williams, and it's one of my other favorite moments in his career. Ellen is played by Amanda Plummer, his “Fisher King” co-star, and the weight of that on-screen relationship hit me this time, making it even harder to watch.
The film seems to land on the side of the women in the film, even when they go too far, because it is so clear that there is a world full of men just waiting for a chance to do them harm over their opinions. There is a constant air of danger to the film, floating along and occasionally erupting, and while men might well be upset by their treatment in the film, I think the film almost doesn't go far enough in terms of how angry or how political it is. Irving's a rabble-rouser, or at least he was at that point in his career, and it seems like “Garp” should have been far more controversial than it was. It seems like the more honest something is, the more people freak out about it, and “Garp” really doesn't make any of it easy. No score means there aren't constant cues about how we're supposed to feel towards anyone. Things unfold in what feels like a very honest manner, especially when it comes to performance, and if it feels incendiary while we're debating whether or not to defund Planned Parenthood, it's obvious we've gotten nowhere and that “Garp” is still urgently important.
Lithgow's work is very physical, and one of the best things about it is how you can see his background as a professional football player in the way he carries himself, but he's also clearly become Roberta at this point. There's nothing about his performance that feels like he's putting it on or mincing or playing it broad. I believe in Roberta. I think one of the reasons I grew up accepting that people who are born with gender identity issues are grappling with something real and undeniable that deserves empathy from others is because of this performance. I saw “Garp” when I was 12, and I read the book the year before that. The book was way too mature for me to fully process, but in some ways, it was trying to understand the things I didn't fully understand about the book that helped me start to decipher the adult world. The difference between Roberta on the page and Roberta onscreen is the difference between something theoretical and seeing it put into practice. Thanks to Lithgow's nuanced work, Roberta is a sexual being, a good friend, and the sort of person anyone would do well to have in their lives. Lithgow can get big laughs and also be emotionally piercing, often on the turn of a dime, and I would wager that there's no one who could have played Roberta any better. It is a generous performance, and at a time when we're seeing people praised for things like “Transparent” and “The Danish Girl,” Roberta feels like an early benchmark that the more contemporary films have to strive to match.
While I think Hill was a solid filmmaker, I don't think he was necessarily an inventive one. Looking at his early TV work or his first few films like “The World of Henry Orient” or “Hawaii,” he was fairly meat-and-potatoes. Every now and then, it seemed like he found a way to elevate a moment or nail something down in terms of visual metaphor. By far, his most exciting work before “Garp” was on “Slaughterhouse-Five,” a film that is less successful as an adaptation of a difficult and ambitious book. It's clear that Hill knew he had to reach for something deeper when he started with something as rich and strange as Vonnegut's book, and I think he made about as strong an attempt at translating it as anyone could. Stephen Geller's screenplay simply doesn't crack the code of Vonnegut's text, though, and as a result, that film never really comes together. Steve Teshich turned out to be an inspired choice to adapt Irving's sprawling book for the screen. He had worked in TV and on stage for a while before he wrote “Breaking Away,” a semi-autobiographical piece about a cycling-crazy young man growing up in Indiana and his best friends in a small college town. He wrote “Eyewitness” and “Four Friends,” both solid but uninspired character driven movies, and in both cases, he worked with solid craftsmen. Peter Yates worked with Tesich on both “Breaking Away” and “Eyewitness,” and Arthur Penn directed “Four Friends,” and Tesich got sole credit on all three of those movies. He was learning how to work with a director, and when he collaborated with Hill, the result was lovely. Tesich's script is so tightly constructed and so rich with subtext and foreshadowing that it seems like Hill just had to focus on shooting what was on the page.
The moment that defines their success is a moment that, in the book, taught me so much about storytelling that I am still humbled by it when I experience it either onscreen or on the page. It comes about 2/3 of the way through the film, and it is the culmination of so much careful exposition, so many things carefully laid out in order to make sure that it would pay off completely, that it should be studied by other filmmakers. On the page, it was handled one way by Irving, and it's one of the finest moments of his whole career as a writer. There is an accident, horrible and sudden, involving Garp and his two sons in one car and his wife and her lover in another car, and as the accident happens in the book, Irving abruptly jumps forward in time, and we immediately see both Garp and Helen and how they are. What we don't see is what happened to Garp's two sons, and Irving makes you wait for it. And wait for it. And wait for it. And by the time he finally tells you, you are so sick with the anticipation and dread of it that it's almost a relief to hear that someone has died. Almost. On film, Hill and Tesich handle things in a slightly different way, but they obviously not only understood why Irving's structure is so powerful, but also that they couldn't do it exactly the same way onscreen simply because of the difference between watching something and reading it. When you're reading, you are in essence a blind man, waiting for someone else to describe the world for you. If they don't include a detail about a scene, you can't be expected to know it. A character could be standing in a room, but because the author doesn't mention them, the reader never knows that.
On film, what is in the room is explicit because you're looking at it. When the accident happens in the film, Walt delivers the same last heartbreaking line, “It's like a dream!”, before Garp's car slams into Michael Milton's parked car at full speed, and while the image freezes, pushing in slowly on the perfect smile on Walt's face, we hear the accident, the monumental collision of steel on steel. That push in says everything, but at least ten minutes go by before we know for sure, and the way Hill almost casually cuts to Duncan, now wearing an eyepatch, is heartbreaking, and I let out a sound somewhere between a sob and a sigh when I watched it this time. It is devastatingly well-handled. What was new for me this time was seeing just how many times the film underlines what is going to happen to Walt throughout the entire movie. There's one particular image, a children's costume hanging on the back of a door, that almost broke me. Death lurks just out of the camera's range in “Garp,” ready to claim anyone and everyone as soon as they let their guard down. Lust is the exact same way, always there, always simmering but ready to boil over at a moment's notice, and that push and pull between something as vibrant as sex and something as terrifying as death is a big part of Irving's work.
Irving shows up in the film as a wrestling referee, and Hill has a memorable cameo as a pilot of a small plane that ends up crashing into a house. When the pilot gets out of his plane, most of the back wall of this house is missing, totally destroyed. The pilot seems relaxed about it, though, totally unflustered as he asks for a phone. He seems to be impossible to rattle, and it is a perfect image to have in my head of Hill as he set about bringing this movie to life. This is one of those movies that navigates a next-to-impossible tone, and the opening title sequence helped set that tone in a very immediate way:
Created by R/Greenberg Associates, this sequence used “When I'm Sixty-Four” by The Beatles to whimsical effect, and it's doubly-interesting because most of the film features no music at all. There's no score to speak of, and only a few songs are used, but because they are the only music in the film, they seem to become that much more urgent or interesting, and you are much more aware of the musical choice. There's a Nat King Cole track that follows Garp through the film, a sort of musical Undertoad, and I'll never hear it the same way again. The first real scene begins with Jenny Fields catching her baby she's been throwing into the air. She takes the baby inside and has a tricky conversation with her outraged parents, played by Jessica Tandy and Hume Cronyn. The respect Tesich has for the music of Irving's writing is apparent in hundreds of little choices in the adaptation right away.
Hill lets you see how funny he's going to make it, while also making sure we realize it isn't “just” a comedy. It is a fairly sophisticated piece, but grubby and sweaty, too, and like the book it is based on, it somehow seems to capture something important and true that is not easily digested or defined. I'm as impressed by it now as I was when I first saw it, if not more-so. I look at it now and I appreciate just how monumental a task it must have been, and how much pressure Williams must have felt to get it right. For many people, “Good Morning, Vietnam” was a breakthrough moment, proving he could be serious. The truth is that “The World According To Garp” was the moment where he came out swinging, and it's not just a great performance, it's a hungry performance. This is a character who can't escape himself, no matter how hard he runs, and last year, we learned that Robin Williams was running as well, and he finally ran out of options. In the film's final images, Garp is onboard a helicopter, being airlifted to a hospital, three bullets in him, and as he turns his head to look at the ground below, he is lit up from inside by that smile of his, and for that moment, as his eyes fill with grateful tears, he is that little boy from the start of the film, the one who dreamed of his pilot father. “I'm flying,” he tells Helen, and indeed he is. He flies over the world according to Garp, into an uncertain future, and the film is right to leave us where it does, not knowing if Garp dies because it doesn't matter. As the film has so thoroughly demonstrated, Garp lived, and he lived as hard as he could, as open as he could, as honest as he could. It is never the death that is important, the film says. It is the life and the living of it, and few films have ever landed a punch quite like it.
Ultimately, the best-case scenario for this article is that it inspires some of you to revisit this wonderful film or inspires some of you to see it for the first time. If you're convinced, then pull the trigger and get the disc from the Film Nerd 2.0 Store via the link below:
“The World According To Garp” is available now.