Weird Crush Wednesday: We’re haunted by JoBeth Williams in 1982’s ‘Poltergeist’

When “Poltergeist” was released to theaters, I was 12 years old, and it was smack dab in the middle of the best summer of movies I'd ever seen. Film after film after film, I felt like these movies were hitting me right smack dab in my own particular pleasure center, and when I walked into “Poltergeist,” I was ready for anything.

One of the most complicated things about my reaction to the film was thanks to JoBeth Williams, who played Diane Freeling in the movie, the mother to the family that was troubled by the visitation. In the movie, she was 33 years old, a suburban mom, pretty much the opposite of what most kids at the age of 12 would consider an object of desire. It is safe to say that I had a full-blown out-of-control crush on Williams by the end of the film, though, and I'm not sure I could have even pulled it apart to explain why at that point in time.

Watching the film again now, at the age of 45, a full 12 years older than the character onscreen, I have a very different range of reactions, but she remains one of the most compelling suburban moms in movies, and I think it's clear to me that I imprinted on her without realizing it at the time. Leggy brunette who loves her family and who isn't afraid to get righteously relaxed with her husband, who obviously still finds her hot? Good lord, that's not just my type; that's my ideal.

Since this is “Weird Crush Wednesday,” I'll explain why I feel odd about it, and it's not just the 21 year age difference that separated us on first viewing. It's also because of the context. This is, after all, a horror film about a family that is shattered when their youngest daughter is pulled into a television by ghosts. This is a film that builds to JoBeth Williams fighting with a muddy swimming pool full of skeletons. This is not the kind of movie that typically helps foster crushes of any kind.

The pure primate on me reacted to the “Royal Wedding” sequence in the film, in which Williams is thrown around her bedroom's walls and ceiling by the ghosts in the house. She's wearing just a red t-shirt and a pair of bikini underwear, and while I've seen thousands of hours of far more explicit material since then, it remains one of those moments that I would consider defining. I'm sure seeing her in “Kramer Vs. Kramer” a few years earlier didn't hurt, but it was “Poltergeist” where I noticed.

Another thing I found enormously affecting is something I didn't even fully understand in 1982. All I knew was that when they were alone, there was a hugely playful banter between Steve and Diane, and the chemistry between Craig T. Nelson and Williams wasn't all heat and romance, but instead felt comfortable and real and familiar. It felt like the two of them liked each other, and I've always remembered that. So often, couples on film are defined by heat, not by friendship, and it made them stand out. The way they share that joint while Nelson's horsing around and exercising is enormously charming, and when I look at it now, I get almost misty at seeing just how strong and simple their connection seems.

What makes me love her now when I watch the film is something I noticed was distinctly missing from the new version I recently reviewed. There are several moments in the film where you can see just how human and vulnerable Williams is, but also how ferocious she is as a parent who has been provoked. She is fearless, but not for herself. There's a beautiful moment when Zelda Rubenstein first allows her to speak directly to Carol Anne, and Williams reacts to the sound of her baby's voice in a way that is so real and so involuntary… and, yeah, as a 45 year old father, that maternal thing just plain gets me.

In general, there were a group of movie moms I saw during my formative years that made the suburbs seems entirely fetching. Teri Garr, Melinda Dillon, and, yes, JoBeth Williams were all significant stops for me on the way to adolescence, and of them all, Diane Freeling is the one I still carry a torch for. I'll have more on this one for you tomorrow, which marks the 33rd anniversary of the film's release.

“Poltergeist” is available on a lovely Blu-ray. Please don't watch the remake. Ever.