Movie reviews

New 'David and Lisa' was a disaster

Review by Ken Stein

Ken Stein is with the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund.

David and Lisa has always been one of my favorite movies. I saw it originally in 1962 when I was a sophomore in high school. (I remember the dramatic tension was too much for my friend Barry Levine, who'd come to the movie with me. Just as David and Lisa touch at the grand finale, Barry burst into uncontrolled, uproarious laughter. I thought the other people in the theater were going to kill him.)

I watched the "Oprah Winfrey Presents" made-for-TV remake of David and Lisa on ABC in early November. What a disaster.

If Winfrey wanted "to introduce David and Lisa to a new generation of viewers," as was stated in the prologue, why didn't she just show us the original film? Who needed Oprah telling us at the outset that "This movie is about the healing power of love"? Hey! If the director couldn't get that across in two hours . . .

Keir Dullea, Janet Margolin and Howard da Silva's performances were impeccable in the original. I have always been an admirer of Howard da Silva's progressive credentials--he was a leftist blacklisted by the McCarthyites in the 1950s--his genuine caring and sincere humanity really came across on the silver screen. Sidney Poitier's performance (he played the doctor in November's redo) ran the gamut of emotions from A to B.

And maybe sweat just looks better in black and white, or maybe Dullea's raw gutsy portrayal was eons better than the polished frozen robot performance of Lukas Haas, but all in all there is no comparison. Oprah's Lisa did a whole lot too much long-shot bunny-hopping around the set. Frank Perry, the original director had the good sense to zero in on close-up after close-up of Janet Margolin's beautifully bedraggled fragility.

And what's with the added dialogue of the doctor saying to the mom, "We stopped blaming parents 20 years ago." Sez who? I'm all for blaming the parents. The original movie really blasted away at the overly repressed parents for screwing up their kid. Right on. (I think Oprah might have added that line herself--she spends a lot of time on daytime teevee telling parents not to blame themselves).

The new version had a lot of stuff about medication being "balanced" and how important meds were to the "progress" of certain of the patients--none of that in the original.

They cut out one of the greatest scenes of the original movie--the one at the train station where an uptight citizen lashes out at the kids, calling them "a bunch of screwballs spoiling the town"--a really really important scene in terms of showing the discrimination faced by people with psychiatric disabilities, and the horrible pain it causes.

The new version also cut out the sensitively-drawn portrayal of a gay male character (David's chess partner), an overweight therapist and a very strong Hispanic character, turning him into just another disturbed Anglo. Leaving us with whitebread. (Guess they didn't want to take any chances with the network that axed Ellen.) When that particular character comes on to David's mother during a parent visit, we don't hear David's "delusions of grandeur" speech about the character's sexuality, as we heard in the original; it's replaced by some ridiculous savage sexual assault going on on top of one of the picnic tables in the background. That sure helps make viewers feel sympathetic to adolescents with psychiatric disabilities.

The new version has the female therapist crying her eyes out when Lisa runs away near the end of the movie. Give me a break! Kids are always running away from residential facilities.

The 1962 version is fresh in my mind because I had just rented the video a month earlier. At the time, I couldn't help thinking the film was 35 years ahead of its time. Maybe we should make that 45 years.

The original film was a beautiful fairy tale about how messed-up people can help each other out of their respective pits. Mythic metaphor though it be, it has never been true in my experience. Anytime I've met someone as screwed up as myself and thought, "Hey, this is it! We can just love each other into better human beings and happier lives," it's never quite worked out that way. But at least the original gave me the feeling that I could still dream. And I still do love that myth.

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