Today is my birthday. It's also the birthday of Willard Scott, Maurice Ravel, Tammy Faye Bakker and my grandmother. Why is this important, you ask? Well, in the grand scheme of things, it probably isn't. Let's face it, Willard is never going to call me on his birthday to wish me a happy birthday, and humming Ravel's Bolero over a cake full of candles doesn't quite cut it.
But it gives me an excuse to talk about birthday movies. Birthdays are a funny thing. They can be joyful or traumatic, a time to gather or a time to escape. And because they are, arguably, the most important of our personal anniversaries, they hold a certain resonance. Perhaps that is why filmmakers have always been attracted to the idea of a birthday as a plot device, because it offers a wealth of potential material.
Here are some of my favorite birthday movies:
SIXTEEN CANDLES (1984): The generation of women born behind the baby boomers has anointed this high school fairy tale as something of a modern classic. While that may overstate its cinematic importance, Sixteen Candles reminds us of how important birthdays -- and having those birthdays remembered and recognized -- is to young people.
CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF (1958): People have been known to skip out on their taxes, which means the only sure things in life are death and birthdays, both of which are incorporated into this Tennessee Williams classic. When the family gathers for what could be Big Daddy's final birthday, the claws come out as a string of manipulations and machinations send a wealthy Southern family into a tailspin. What I've always loved about this movie is the names -- Big Daddy, Brick, Gooper -- the kind of monikers that can exist only in the mind of Tennessee Williams.
THE GAME (1997): At some point in everyone's life, a birthday present is received that the recipient may not want, but could very well need. Such is the setup for The Game. When Nicholas Van Orton (Michael Douglas) receives entree into a shadowy game by his estranged brother Conrad (Sean Penn), he believes it to be something -- like the rest of his life -- he can control. Soon, however, his life is spinning chaotically out of control with nobody, not Nicholas, not Conrad and certainly not the viewer, knowing where it will end up. A slick and stylish thriller.
CITY SLICKERS (1991): Ah, the midlife crisis. This could be a column all on its own. Mitch Robbins (Billy Crystal) responds to his age angst by mounting up for a trail ride for tourists. What transpires, predictably, is a new appreciation for life. The story is told with such sweetness and earnest desire to entertain that it's hard to fault, but the movie has been somewhat tainted by its ill-advised 1994 sequel.
TWIN FALLS IDAHO (1999): One brother lines up a prostitute for another as a sort of birthday gift. How sweet, I guess. But, as is always the case, there is a catch: The brothers are co-joined twins. I'm not kidding. What's remarkable about this film is that it never slips into freak-show mode. The brothers become full, fleshed-out characters with real problems in a real world, and their unlikely confidante, the aforementioned prostitute, a compelling character despite her heart-of-gold tendencies.
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