In February of 1989 (shortly before the release of Last Crusade), Spielberg’s three-and-a-quarter year marriage to actress Amy Irving came to an end. The filmmaker who for so long had told stories about divorce, having endured the separation of his parents when he was younger, had now experienced one of his own. Needless to say, it was devastating to Spielberg, but he continued to pour himself into his work (as he had done for twenty years by this point) and his latest project was a remake of one of his favorite movies: Victor Fleming’s 1943 A Guy Named Joe with Spencer Tracy (glimpsed briefly on a TV in Poltergeist). As with every film in his career, the emotional tenor of Spielberg’s personal life affected his art and in this case, unfortunately, not in a positive way. Spielberg had wanted to remake Fleming’s film for a long time and it is possible, even likely, that had Spielberg made Always several years earlier it would have been a very different, and probably much better, movie.
A Guy Named Joe told the story of a WWII flyer named Pete (Tracy) who is killed and then comes back in the form of a ghost to inspire another young aviator (Van Johnson) but then has to watch as this new pilot falls in love with his former girlfriend (Irene Dunne). The film may be grossly sentimental and with strong propoganda intentions, but these qualities appealed to Spielberg’s sensibilities. If there were any filmmaker in the 80’s who could do a good remake of A Guy Named Joe, it would have been Spielberg. And yet, nearly every decision made during the film’s production seems to be the wrong one, his first mistake being the story’s setting. Always revolves around an aerial firefighter named Pete who risks his life to save his good friend during a flight gone wrong. Given Spielberg’s love for the WWII era, it is strange that he chose not to do Always as a period piece (like his Amazing Stories episode “The Mission”), which would have allowed Spielberg to re-create the forties in all its magnificent detail (as he did in 1941). For whatever reason, though, Spielberg chose a more modern setting. “It’s a contemporary movie.” he said. “It feels like it’s set in the forties, but in fact it is set today.” Unfortunately, by trying to give the film a timeless quality, Spielberg failed to make the story either believable or relevant. At one point in the film Pete’s buddy Al says: “What this place reminds me of is the war in Europe, which I personally was never at, but think about it. The beer is warm, the dance hall’s a Quonset, there’s B-26’s outside, hotshot pilots inside, an airstrip in the woods... It’s England, man! Everything but Glenn Miller.” While this dialogue is an attempt to explain why this contemporary tale has such an old-fashioned feel to it, it only works to further confuse the audience.
Another problem with removing the story from its original WWII setting is that the tragic death of Pete pales in comparison to the monumental sacrifice made by an American pilot giving his life for freedom and democracy. As Roger Ebert observed in the Chicago Sun-Times review: “It's one thing to sacrifice your life for a buddy in combat and quite another to run unnecessary risks while fighting forest fires.” Ralph Novak of People added: “Spielberg’s miscalculation was to forget that A Guy Named Joe spoke to a most particular need. Coming in WWII, when young lives were so palpably precarious and the need for comforting illusions so great, it had a ready audience. These were Americans who, if not more naïve than we, were at least more willing to suspend their cynicism.” Peter Travers of Rolling Stone claimed the time shift was “calamitous—-Joe spoke to a nation’s sorrow; Always lacks a similar sense of scope or urgency.”
As further evidence that Spielberg himself didn’t seem to know what era the story was taking place in, he has a character utter an epithet like “Aw, nuts!” and then at another juncture in the film toss out a “Shit,” the inconsistency only heightening the film's schizophrenic nature. Also, as Pete’s girlfriend Dorinda makes a glorious entrance in a supposedly beautiful dress (when in reality it’s quite hideous), all the men stare as Pete whispers “Gosh!” The dance scene between Dorinda and Pete, incidentally, is another example of Spielbergian excess. Not only does it go on for far too long but at one point it descends into (literally) cartoonish humor with Dorinda telling the men desiring to dance with her that they must first wash their hands. They all immediately rush to the bathroom to accommodate her wishes. It’s a scene right out of Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and might make more sense if it were believable that the men would treat Dorinda like a goddess, but there seems to be no reason to. Thus, their actions seem unbearably cute.
As David Denby noted in New York magazine, Dorinda’s entrance is “the most purely sexless moment in Spielberg’s long career as a boy, and it made me realize to what extent sex in his movies is a matter of dreams and idealization.” However, as author Doug Brode observes, “when Pete and Dorinda retire for the night, they do what a pair of lovers would do today: get in bed together, though they’re not married, something the couples in the forties film would never do. Their frank attitude about sex only makes the earlier idealistic attitude toward Dorinda seem all the sillier: it’s as if Spielberg can’t decide whether he wants to make an honest movie about today’s flying firefighters, whom he could easily observe firsthand at any Northwest outpost, or a sentimental film about the wartime pilots he knows from old movies and stories told him. Either approach would probably have been fine, but the combination in a single film is uncertain and all wrong.”
Another problem with the movie is the cast. Spielberg’s usual knack for picking exactly the right actors for the parts, bizarrely, seemed to abandon him on this one project. Spielberg friend and Jaws/Close Encounters collaborator Richard Dreyfus played the part of Pete, the devil-may-care pilot turned guardian angel. In fact, it was their mutual affection for A Guy Named Joe (discovered while working on their previous films together) that prompted Spielberg to want Dreyfus in the part originally played by Spencer Tracy. As fine an actor as Dreyfus is, he is no Tracy. As Pete’s girlfriend Dorinda, Spielberg hired the diminutive, but fiery, Holly Hunter. While Hunter has moments of wit and charm (particularly in a rather funny sequence when she’s trying to pretend that she’s spent all day in the kitchen preparing a meal which she really just bought ready-made), her usual tendency to over-act mars most of her dramatic scenes. Lest I get accused of being a "Holly-hater" I should probably beat everyone to the punch by adding that I have never been a big fan of Holly Hunter. Outside of the two Coen brothers' films (Raising Arizona and O Brother, Where Art Thou?), I find her very unappealing, unattractive and, quite frankly, annoying... particularly her voice (I always found it interesting that the role she played that earned her an Oscar was one where she hardly said a word). If that makes me a "meanie," then I'm sorry. Finally, the role of Ted, the pilot whom Dorinda falls for after Pete's death, is played by Brad Johnson (no relation to Van Johnson, who played the corresponding character in the original film), a 6'3" male model with, alas, very little in the way of acting talent. He's certainly handsome but why Spielberg cast him remains a mystery to this day. It is difficult to believe that Dorinda could be interested in such a "big lug" for some reason other than his mere sex appeal. Johnson comes off as awkward and completely lacking in any grace or substantial on-screen presence. Granted, his character is supposed to be clumsy (as in the scene where he tries to douse a fire in the trash can and misses) but it is unconvincing and seems fake.
In fact, out of the all main actors, only two come off as anything better than mediocre. The first is John Goodman who portrays Pete's big-hearted friend Al. Although he plays little more than a variation of his usual screen persona (first established in the TV sitcom Roseanne), he is nonetheless eminently funny, charismatic and memorable. Goodman virtually steals every scene he's in. My favorite moments involve him dunking his chicken leg in beer and sucking the cream out of a twinkie through a straw. The other performer who positively shines in her scenes is the radiant Audrey Hepburn who plays Hap, the angelic "spiritual" adviser for Pete. Hepburn's last big screen movie role was in 1981's They All Laughed (though she did do a TV movie in '87), so the iconic actress practically came out of retirement for Spielberg's film, which proved to be her final screen appearance as she died of colon cancer four years later. Although her presence isn't enough to save the film from its own shortcomings, her two scenes are like a welcome relief from how "forced" the rest of the movie feels. She practically glides through her dialogue with an ease and effervescence that only someone of her class and elegance could achieve. When Audrey's on the screen, Always truly does fly. When she's not, it sinks.
The storyline of a fellow coming back after death provided Spielberg with yet another chance to exercise his abilities as a metaphysical filmmaker. Always certainly wasn't the first time Spielberg showed death to be less of an ending and more of a beginning (a la Poltergiest), but quite apart from seeing it as an opportunity to say something significant about either life or death, Spielberg seemed content to use it simply as background for something else: the real focus of the film is the relationship between Pete and Dorinda. Unfortunately, it's a relationship that is heavy on romanticism and sentimentality and very light on genuine emotion or depth. The fact that Spielberg was in such a vulnerable state in his own life no doubt played a big part in the bittersweet tone of Always. Why else would Spielberg sidestep the main storyline of the original film (a dead pilot becoming the invisible "guide" of a living one) in favor of the love story. The climactic scene of the original, which had Spencer Tracy guiding Van Johnson through a dangerous mission, is in Always changed instead to Pete guiding Dorinda through a tricky drop. While this might bring an interesting twist to the plot, it shows how unnecessary the "Ted" storyline is. What's the point of having Pete as the source of inspiration for the Ted character if he's not even going to function in that capacity when the moment of truth comes?
Always is the kind of film for which Spielberg is constantly being derided for making: essentially a two-hour version of "Kick the Can." A film dripping with self-indulgent, saccharine "sappiness" that has the effect of turning off audiences rather than engaging them. It's overkill. Vincent Canby of the New York Times complained: "Always is filled with big, sentimental moments [but] it lacks the intimacy to make any of this very moving. Though the story calls out for simplicity, it unfoleds in an atmopshere of forced laughter and forced tears. Gentle and moving as it means to be, there is barely a scene that wouldn't have worked better with less fanfare." Even these flaws might have been forgiveable were it not for the fact that Always (unlike E.T. or Color Purple) is extremely dull. This is probably the worst sin of all. Spielberg's indulgences can often be tolerated if he is involving us in an interesting story or fascinating characters. Always, unfortunately, has neither and so the film comes off as slow, preachy and (with a few exceptions) devoid of humor. It is, in other words, a bore.
As with all Spielberg's work, though, Always is not without its merits. In spite of its oppressively sweet-natured content, Always does contain a great deal of very striking cinematography by Mikael Salomon (especially impressive after the more conventionally shot, but far more enjoyable, Last Crusade). The aerial sequences, designed by future October Sky director Joe Johnston, are also extremely effective. The film was shot on location in Montana and Washington and features some spectacular plane choreography. The filmmakers even took advantage of the devastating 1988 Yellowstone Park fires to help contribute to the realism of the forest fire sequences. Finally, John Williams' music, which may seem melodramatic when heard accompanying the film's over-the-top images, is actually one of the most subtle, delicate and poetic scores he's ever composed. When heard on its own, the music's beauty and simplicity is easily apparent. It seems to have been written, as the Musichound Soundtrack Guide eloquently states, as if it “existed on glass.” Indeed, of all the movie soundtracks I own it is one of my personal favorites and a real delight to listen to when I am in a contemplative or meditative mood.
While Always may/may not be Spielberg's "worst" film, it is certainly a major disappointment. I still like it and would sooner watch it than 1941, but even the most avid of Spielberg fans can't deny its massive flaws and its (at best) extremely mediocre aspects. Although Last Crusade , released earlier the same year, was a big hit with critics and audiences and seemed briefly as though it might have brought Spielberg "back from the edge of professional oblivion," Always did nothing to help the situation... nor did Spielberg's next film.
TOMORROW: Faeries and pirates and Children. Oh my!