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NITA Movie Review: LIGHTS! CAMERA! DIVORCE?

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Written by guest blogger Judge McGahey

This month’s review will spotlight three Oscar-winning films that feature family court- type situations. (It does not include Kramer v. Kramer.  I still have to decide if I want to review that one.)

thePhiladelphiaStoryWe’ll start with The Philadelphia Story, from 1940. It’s perhaps the apex of a sort of subgenre popular in the ’30s and ’40s that revolved around the idea of remarriage as a springboard for romance.[1] Directed by George Cukor, this movie has a cast that truly deserves the label “all-star”:  Cary Grant, Katherine Hepburn, James Stewart, and Ruth Hussey. The movie revolves around Tracy Lord (Hepburn), a divorced woman getting ready to remarry.  Her former husband, C.K. Dexter Haven (Grant), shows up, planning to stop the wedding; he’s helped by Tracy’s mother and younger sister. James Stewart and Hussey play reporters from a People-type magazine, who (though something akin to blackmail) are permitted to write a story about the upcoming wedding. As one might expect, much confusion and comedy ensue.  (And believe me, this is a way oversimplified summary of the plot!)

The Philadelphia Story is highly acclaimed, with reason.  It’s number 44 on AFI’s 100 Years One Hundred Movies list and in 1995 was added to the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress. The movie was nominated for six Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Actress, and Best Director. It won two: James Stewart for Best Actor[2] and Donald Ogden Stewart (no relation) for Best Screenplay. I really can’t recommend this movie enough: it’s a wonderful example of what happens when great actors have great lines to deliver and a great director to guide them.[3]

paperMoonThe struggles of single parenting (multiplied by about a million) are at heart of Paper Moon (1973.) It stars Ryan O’Neal and his real-life daughter, Tatum O’Neal, as itinerant con artists selling Bibles to bereaved widows in rural Kansas during the Depression. Tatum O’Neal won the Oscar for Best Actress at the age of ten, thus becoming the youngest actor ever to win a competitive Oscar. Peter Bogdanovich directed.

Ryan O’Neal plays Moses Pray, who at the beginning of the film is working his scam alone.  He meets Addie at her mother’s funeral and discovers that Addie might be his daughter.  Moses, somewhat against his will, agrees to deliver Addie to her aunt. On the way, they meet up with a scatterbrained hooker played by Madeleine Kahn and a bootlegger and his nasty brother, who just happens to be a sheriff, both played by John Hillerman of Magnum, P.I. fame. Watching Moses and Addie interact—and bond—is what the movie is all about.  The ending will warm your heart—and make you laugh out loud.

mrsDoubtfireThe last movie we’ll consider won only one Oscar, for Best Makeup. But although it’s a comedy, it highlights the agonies that often surround custody and visitation—or as many states (including mine) now call them, allocation of parental responsibilities and parenting time.

The movie is 1993’s Mrs. Doubtfire, starring the recently lost and much-lamented Robin Williams as Daniel Hilliard, an irresponsible actor whose ex-wife is initially given custody because at the time of the divorce he has neither a job nor a home. Daniel is  so desperate to spend more time with his children that he disguises himself as an elderly Scotswoman and becomes his children’s nanny and confidant, without his children or his ex-wife (Sally Field) figuring out the deception, at least initially.  As he interacts with his children as Mrs. Doubtfire, he grows as a person and as a father and his children learn how to handle their parents’ divorce. He also becomes his ex’s best friend and confidant. Of course, Daniel’s disguise is eventually discovered and the judge, bothered by Daniel’s actions (what a surprise!), gives him only supervised parenting time. If you haven’t seen the movie, I won’t spoil the ending.  Rest assured, however, that it’s happy—and even a little uplifting.

Hope everyone enjoyed this year’s Oscars and that your favorite film/actor/actress/song came out a winner!

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[1] I won’t list any others here; I can use those movies as the theme for another review!

[2] Stewart always felt this Oscar was a “make-good” for his not winning in 1939 for Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. When you look at the other 1940 nominees, he may have had a point.  They included Henry Fonda for The Grapes of Wrath, Charlie Chaplin for The Great Dictator, and Raymond Massey for Abe Lincoln in Illinois. Stewart said he voted for Fonda. I would have, too.

[3] One caveat: there’s a scene at the very beginning of this movie that we would now recognize as domestic violence. Even though we understand that now, I’m pretty sure that the vast majority of the audience didn’t see it that way in 1940.

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NITA’s team of practicing lawyers, professors and judges from around the nation dedicates its efforts to the training and development of skilled and ethical legal advocates to improve the adversarial justice system. NITA's Goals are to:
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