On December 29 of every year, I quietly celebrate my 39th birthday. When I was growing up and watching the Jack Benny Program on CBS, I always enjoyed the running gag that Jack always claimed to be 39 years old. However, I never really understood the reason for his claim until I actually turned 39. The man was an absolute genius. Enjoy any of the following on whatever birthday you are having. Each film is as special as you.
1. Murphy’s Romance (1986) with Sally Field, James Garner, Brian Kerwin, and young Corey Haim:
This is a dandy film from director Martin Ritt. James Garner is nothing short of perfect as widower Murphy Jones who finds himself attracted to the recently divorced Emma Moriarty, winningly played by Sally Field. Things get complicated when Emma’s ex-husband shows up. Bobby Jack is likeably played by Brian Kerwin, but even their son (scene-stealer Corey Haim) knows his father is irresponsible. Trying to find how old Murphy is, Emma asks him how many candles should be put on his birthday cake. “Set the damn thing on fire,” he responds. The music by Carole King is icing on the cake.
2. On Golden Pond (1981) with Katherine Hepburn, Henry Fonda, Jane Fonda, Doug McKeon, Dabney Coleman, and Chris Rydell: Ethel and Norman Thayer are at their summer residence, and their daughter Chelsea comes for Norman’s eightieth birthday celebration. With her, Chelsea brings her future husband and his son. This family has a lot of relationship problems, and the question is whether they will ever be resolved before Norman passes away. The two screen legends in this film each earned Oscars for best actress and actor, and they are a marvel to watch. Young Doug McKeon (in photo) holds his own with these two masters, and he plays a pivotal role. At first he gets “the creeps” seeing Norman turn eighty, but then he comes to love the old man. Director Mark Rydell weaves the gorgeous photography of Billy Williams and the beautiful music score by Dave Grusin into these incredible performances, and the result is a movie to behold.
3. Route 66: Journey to Nineveh (TV series, 1962) with George Maharis and Martin Milner with guests Edgar Buchanan, John Astin, and Jenny Maxwell, with special guests Buster Keaton and Joe E. Brown: Buz Murdoch and Tod Stiles continue their search for roots as they drive across the country in their Corvette. In this episode, they are planning to relax and do some fishing, but they come upon a hard-luck fisherman named Jonah, superbly played by silent-screen comic genius Buster Keaton. Jonah is en route to deliver a birthday cake to his brother Sam, played by big-mouthed comic Joe E. Brown (best remembered today for playing the tycoon in Some Like It Hot). However, the brother is in jail, where he will stay until his grand-daughter Susie returns an engagement ring to her ex-boyfriend. The ring is on the end of Jonah’s fishing pole! When Jonah’s dog Shaggy tries to lead them to the courthouse, Tod asks Buz, “Do you get the feeling this whole thing is not for real?” Classic television at its very best.
4. Running on Empty (1988) with Judd Hirsch, Christine Lahti, River Phoenix, Jonas Abry, Martha Plimpton, and Steven Hill: This is a little-known gem by director Sidney Lumet about a family on the lam from the Feds. During the anti-war movement in the 1960’s, the mother and father committed a crime in which a man was accidentally injured. Continuously moving from place to place and always changing their names, their oldest son is approaching college age. What will they do? Steven Hill (the original district attorney on Law and Order) gives a shattering performance as the mother’s father, who is asked to take the boy. River Phoenix was nominated for an Oscar for playing the talented young pianist who wants to attend Julliard. There are moments when he might remind you of James Dean in East of Eden. On the lighter side, there is a birthday party given for the mother, and the boy has invited his girlfriend. It’s wonderful.
5. What’s Eating Gilbert Grape (1993) with Johnny Depp, Leonardo DiCaprio, Juliette Lewis, Darlene Cates, and Mary Steenburgen: Johnny Depp gives a fine performances as the title character, who is a somewhat flawed saint. Gilbert Grape works in a mom and pop downtown grocery store that is being driven out of business by a Wal-Mart-type store on the edge of the small town. He regularly delivers groceries to a married woman (Ms. Steenburgen) who “has the hots” for him. His mother (Ms.Cates) is “a beached whale,” so obese she can hardly move. His brother is mentally disabled, and the family is preparing a birthday party for him. Leonardo DiCaprio’s flawless performance as “the birthday boy” earned him an Oscar nomination. Somewhat offbeat, but beautifully done.
6. “10” (1979) with Dudley Moore, Julie Andrews, Robert Webber, Brian Dennehy, and Bo Derek: Even though this movie has one of Henri Mancini’s finest scores, what most people remember is his use of Ravel’s “Bolero.” And “Bolero” can never be thought of in any other way ever again! Julie, a singer, gives Dudley, a composer, a surprise birthday party, which causes the poor guy to fall into a deep mid-life crisis. At 42, he soon spots a woman who is a perfect 10, and he ends up chasing her all the way to Mexico while she is on her honeymoon! Director Blake Edwards created a comedy masterpiece with this one, and it should be watched annually by anyone under or over 39. As Dudley’s collaborator/lyricist, Robert Webber reminds us that “after 40, it’s just patch, patch, patch.” I watch this one every year.