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Optimism and old-fashioned values are back in style

By David Sterritt / November 20, 1980

After finishing her first movie, Claudia Weill traveled to Hollywood. On arriving, she phoned a "friend of a friend of a friend" who happened to be a producer.

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"You've made a film? How nice, dear!" said the producer who also happened to be a woman. "Does it have a happy ending"?

Miss Weill replied that it wasn't reallym happy, though it wasn't exactly sad, either.

"That's too bad, dear," said the producer. "It's gonna cost you a lot of money!"

It is to Miss Weill's credit that the endings of her films -- "Girl friends" and the current "It's My Turn" -- are hard to pin down with simple phrases. Yet in her own dollar-happy way, that "friend of a friend" was pointing up an important trend in today's movies: Optimism is back in style. And it's a bandwagon Miss Weill is happy to jump on, despite her liking for bittersweet finales.

The present trend doesn't mean there's joy to be found in "Raging Bull," or that "The Awakening" brims with cheer. In fact, "Stardust Memories" could be the sourest comedy ever, and "The First Deadly Sin" is morose to the point of absurdity.

Still, some of today's more intelligent and individualistic pictures are taking a stand in favor of positive values. Old fashioned commodities like "family," "romance," and "just plain folks" are having a comeback and they are being celebrated, not satirized.

For proof, see the finale of "Private Benjamin," a major hit that features Goldie Hawn slowly and surely fighting free of second-class personhood. On a different level, "The Elephant Man" finds hope and transcendence in the end, while even the grueling "Ordinary People" finishes on a somewhat upbeat note. And check the ending of "Gloria," wherein John Cassavettes follows his optimistic instincts beyond the bounds of logic, into the realm of pure trust. "People worry that the last part doesn't make sense," he told me recently. "That shows how much they know. Little miracles happen all the time, and we're just showing one of them!"

As a particularly pleasing case of the new optimism, consider the budding career of Jonathan Demme, who directed the current Melvin and Howard. His last picture was a minor thriller called "Last Embrace," but before that he made "Handle With Care" (also known as "Citizen's Band"), which impressed many critics with its concern for family, friendship, and community. The same values are an integral part of "Melvin and Howard," about an average man who stumbles into the generosity of billionaire Howard Hughes, with mixed results.

I recently asked Demme about the life-affirming attitudes of his new picture. "I can't become interested in a script," he said, "unless it articulates the difficulty of human relationships. And I need to see the characters taking a positive approach to those relations. On some level I hope that will be true for every film I make, because I'm very keen on it."