THE FAN WHO WOULD BE JOY

In movie annals 1993 ranks as one of the richest years for major male actors to have engaged in catharsis: Jeff Bridges in Fearless; Liam Neeson in Schindler’s List; Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington in Philadelphia and Anthony Hopkins in Shadowlands. The greater astonishment in this last one is not that Hopkins as C.S. Lewis, the triple threat writer of highly admired Christianity apologetics, Christian-based science fiction and children’s fantasy, could deliver the kind of performance he does, but that he did. This is a performance long coming—the kind of self-exposure of an ex-boozing actor connecting with the audience that a practicing alcoholic or drug addict often can’t accomplish. It’s all the more amazing because he did the role at around the same time he did The Silence of the Lambs, Howards End and the megabore Remains of the Day wherein he checks his inner-most shakes at the door. While I didn’t much care for those demonstrations of what could be achieved in boozlessness, he’s on an acting high, pent-up by the reserves of energy. Sometimes cleaned up lushes and dopers don’t become better actors, they lose their “edge,” and a prime example is William Hurt who, at this writing, remains fundamentally a bore. (How he managed an emotional recharge in The Plague while otherwise continuing to look in other movies as if he’s pouting about sobriety is confounding; conversely, there’s hugger-mugger Philip Seymour Hoffman.) Since 1968, Hopkins has worked every year, sometimes two or more roles per year, except in 1986. The longevity is commendable, but that won’t dismiss a current assessment: excluding Nixon and Hitchcock, he’s been abusing his prerogative to do too many junk movies strictly for the money and, having exhausted his methods to keep us interested, we may never want to see another. That’s why Shadowlands shouldn’t be missed.  

The frequent monotony of Hopkins is nowhere to be found in Hopkins’ C.S. Lewis, a role which could easily become sanctimonious, sticky, or worse, a Malcolm Muggeridge bliss-out. Born in Belfast, Lewis was educated at Oxford University, accepted there as a fellow after graduating with degrees in philosophy, ancient history, in Latin and Greek literature, and along the way took on the Greek language. He was only 38 when his Allegory of Love: A Study in Medieval Tradition, about love as a central theme in the literature of the Middle Ages, established his reputation within the intelligentsia. His career as an author actually began a bit earlier with two books of poetry, Spirits in Bondage: A Cycle of Lyrics and Dymer, published under the pseudonym Clive Hamilton. Not until Lewis turned Christian science fiction writer, with the classic Out of the Silent Planet in 1938, did he reach a larger audience: eventually to be known as The Perelandra Trilogy, with Perelandra and That Hideous Strength completing the trio, the initial story is about a planet—our own—that is silent because it had fallen from the grace of God. Early into Lewis’ youthful rebellion, he was a practicing non-believer, brought on by the premature death of his mother from cancer when he was a boy, and reinforced by an atheist Scottish schoolmaster and Lewis’ own formidable learning at Oxford. Detailing his conversion in his poignantly titled autobiography Surprised by Joy, the most important point also seems the most simple: through logic and reasoning, he believed common sense dictated a fourth dimension—God. It made sense to believe in the comfort of hope that something or someone awaits us after death than conceding to the sterility, the nothingness, of disbelief. By 1944, in Beyond Personality, he was penning embracing defenses of Christianity—to his own surprise, admired by agnostics and atheists—and he became so popular that the BBC gave him time to lecture over the radio during World War II. Two more collections of his essays followed: Miracles in 1947, and Mere Christianity in 1952. Considered by some his best novel, 1942’s The Screwtape Letters is a sardonic tale set in W.W.II about a devil—an Undersecretary of the Infernal Lowerarchy—teaching his nephew the ways and means of temptation. Lewis wasn’t particularly happy that he became famous after the book’s publication because he thought some of his other books were more worthy. The public, however, was much impressed by his writing style, his fluency with the language, and, most of all, his unbounded imagination, given encouragement by the Inklings, a group he formed with J.R.R. Tolkien, who would gather to read each other’s manuscripts in progress. To Lewis’ chagrin, only Allegory had the captivating, if not show-off effects of creative word play, while his other scholarly, syncretic nonfiction works, of which there are close to three dozen, were considered staid, formal, lacking no shortage of his customary erudition but absent stylish mode. His most acclaimed and widely-read work is of course his series of children’s books known as The Chronicles of Narnia. (The attics so prevalent in these writings come right out of Lewis’s and his brother’s childhood. And regardless of their long friendship, and his own devotion to Roman Catholicism, Tolkien found the Narnia books too simple, too Christian.) Throughout these years, Lewis remained single and, with less than a handful of opposite sex encounters that give no hint to sexual activity, likely celibate. He would have most probably remained a bachelor had not one day an American poet-fan asked to meet him. Lewis died from a heart attack (after a long bout with heart and kidney problems) in 1963, on the very day John Kennedy was assassinated and Aldous Huxley succumbed to a drug overdose.

Despite the welcomed inclusions of ipse dixit—“Pain is God’s megaphone to rouse a deaf world”—screenwriter William Nicholson seems less afraid of offending his non-religious audience than he is stingy in selecting the more appealing of Lewis’s championship of Christianity. Hopkins covers the slack; iterating the meager averments, he gets right to the apologist’s soothing ecumenicalism and we like the declarations even when, in fear of the sensuous, he wears superiority, exasperation and wariness not on his sleeve but his Oxford-Cambridge vestment. This is integral to our acceptance: though he’s fully capable of slicing away his opponents’ arguments or snobbishness or students’ indifference, because this Lewis carries the aura of the presumptively profound, his own life is filled with tentativeness, not sure he can commit himself to anything or anyone other than God and not exactly sure why. He recognizes, perhaps soon regrets, that he’s explored the dogma of Christianity more fervently than living. This is set up for us as Hopkins is waiting to meet this persistent fan named Joy Gresham, played by Debra Winger; when she calls out his name to speed up the first time greeting, the look of anxiety on his face comically mirrors vulnerability. We’ve all been there.

Winger—well, she’s dying again. Early in, with an on again/off again urban New York accent, she’s a bit of Streisand doing a lettered Owl and the Pussycat, Nicholson’s script providing her with some snap and crackle with Hopkins and another don. But nothing quite pops; what pops out is that she’s not quite likable physically at first: she has an Eleanor Roosevelt Oxford-Shoes clop and an unnecessarily ugly, color-blind wardrobe, and if there’s a charm somewhere, it’s not readily evident, and, in what has become trademark, she thinks it’s okay for us to watch her trying to find her way into the character. She manages more class in her approach to dying than in Terms of Endearment, yet something more is the matter with the portrayal: Joy’s out of a Fannie Hurst novel about a fan who, with a little boy in tow, longs to meet the famous author, even becomes enough of a friend that the author agrees when needed to a marriage of convenience. As if to make up for her invasion of his domain, and for the fact that she’s soon to die of the Big C., she leaves him with the child (played by Joseph Mazzello, who recalls Nicholas Gledhill in Careful, He Might Hear You), whose father is conveniently a cold-hearted drunk. On screen, it becomes Harold Kushner’s When Bad Things Happen to Good People. (The audience is given only one child when in fact Joy dragged both her sons to England.) Son Douglas Gresham has said Shadowlands is “fiction and makes no pretenses about that, but the emotional values are absolutely spot-on accurate.” The movie’s not major fiction: Joy, a Jewess who converted to Christianity, a 30s Communist turned 40s staunch conservative, did travel to meet the man most responsible for her conversion. She was running away from a bad marriage to husband-writer William Gresham, a womanizer, alcoholic and author of Nightmare Alley (made into a movie with Tyrone Power). And she did become ill—originally and inaccurately diagnosed with acute rheumatism. When England’s Home Office didn’t want to renew her residence permit, Lewis, out of genuine charity, agreed to the civil marriage in order to automatically grant citizenship to her and her two sons. Joy’s illness turned grave shortly afterwards, and the bonds between her and Lewis strengthened considerably, to the point that Lewis decided to offer his hand in a religious ceremony of marriage. Emerging love, positive thinking and radiation provided Joy with a remission and for a few years the marriage had a honeymoon flavor to it.

Actor Richard Attenborough’s dependably dignified direction precludes Shadowlands showing much of that lovey-dovey transition—we’re rather promptly put on notice this is going be an Oxford-style Love Story, meaning an inconsideration of a distaffer’s kiss off. When the tears come, all eyes are on Hopkins and little Douglas. Attenborough knows these moments take us where Lewis wasn’t overjoyed to go; a gentleman of propriety and unimpeachable decency, he could only grant a peek into his private anguish in A Grief Observed under the pseudonym N.W. Clerk. Yet he wasn’t a separatist on emotions; he believed in the equality of release. Seldom an enthusiast of Winger, I recognize and lament she got caboosed by Attenborough to stay faithful to Lewis’s courtliness, derailing the fan who would and did bring cathartic joy.

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Text COPYRIGHT © 1999 RALPH BENNER  All Rights Reserved.