The Hidden Hazards of Black and White Movies


When I began researching my biography of the American film director George Stevens, my daughter, Lizzie, had just turned eight. She was a smart, intuitive kid for her age, and downright sophisticated by the time I put down the last pencil and collected the last job from my printer for the book. I liked to think that the wit and wisdom Stevens gave the females in his films — Katharine Hepburn, Jean Arthur, Irene Dunne — had somehow rubbed off on my preteen. I remember the day Lizzie and I boxed up my manuscript to send to my publisher. She glanced over at it a few minutes and with a measure of defiance, announced, “Goodbye, George, Hello, Lizzie!”

The book was deeply researched and took me five years to complete. That was fine, because it was a fascinating five years. I loved working on Stevens, and I especially liked the idea that my daughter would be exposed to great classic American films — at least for this period of time in her young life. She’d receive a rare kind of education from living with these films – one that many other kids her age, not to mention their parents, would probably never see. It was all good.

Well, it was almost all good. It didn’t take long for me to discover a small residual, a surprising little gift that George left us after his departure. Hanging out with his films for those five years had affected Lizzie’s imagination in a way I could never have anticipated.

Let me explain.

George Stevens worked with some of the greatest icons in Hollywood history, people who still define what Hollywood is and will always be: Cary Grant, Irene Dunne, Alan Ladd, Montgomery Clift, Rock Hudson, Elizabeth Taylor, James Dean, Spencer Tracy, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. All I had to do was pop in a DVD and they showed up. The only problem was: when they showed up, they showed up D.O.A. These were dead people in our living room. These were actors and actresses who, though they were dancing, riding in cars, kissing, walking and talking in front of us, had, in truth, departed this world years ago.

Although Lizzie had mastered the concept and the process of how real people get onto celluloid and then onto the screen, she now had to come to grips with the fact that celluloid means forever. Even if you’re dead, you can still be carrying on in a movie theatre or in someone’s living room. And what’s more, if you get to know these people and love them like your own family, that isn’t really fair. If they’re moving around like that, when did they stop? “I’m in love with dead people? You mean all these people are doing this but not really doing this? Isn’t even one of them still alive? What? You mean that all of this happened before I even got here? And which ones are dead and which ones are still alive?”

That was the moment I created my mantra, repeating it ad nauseum to Lizzie as I pointed out the various actors in Stevens’ films: “He’s dead but she’s still alive…or is she? She’s dead, he’s alive. Well, I think he’s still alive?..but that other one over there, he’s dead. And when a new face showed up, I’d say, “Guess what? He’s still alive!…yes she’s still with us!” I felt beyond thrilled anytime I could announce that one of the actors we were looking at was also still alive. Of course, I didn’t get to make that announcement too often, especially since time seemed to move much faster than I did during those five years.

While the mantra made me feel better, it turned out to be a false sense of hope. Nor was it the best thing for Lizzie. When did I realize this and see the light? It was the day Lizzie‘s third grade teacher, Mrs. Leland, asked me to meet with her to discuss an “issue” Lizzie had in class.

According to Mrs. Leland, over the past few months in class discussions, Lizzie had developed a rather peculiar line of questioning. When Mrs. Lehman talked about a character in history, or a person in current politics, even a pop culture celebrity the class admired, Lizzie would raise her hand and ask, ”Is he dead, is she still alive?” About Abe Lincoln, she asked, “Is he still around?”… for Diane Feinstein she said “did she die yet or is she still alive?”

Unaware of Lizzie’s indoctrination into the black-and-white world of dead people that I had been hurling at her over these past few years, Mrs. Lehman expressed serious concern about my daughter’s emotional state of affairs. Then she looked me straight in the eye and said, “Lizzie is obsessed with death …this is worrisome!”

I faced a new dilemma. What to do? Do I tell Mrs. Lehman the truth and risk looking foolish or, worse still, open myself up to accusations and certainly disapproving looks from the other moms or other faculty. Was this child abuse? Was I looking at jail time?

Do I save myself and throw my death-obsessed child under the bus by agreeing with this diagnosis and claiming helplessness in solving it? Or do I admit my crime? Lizzie’s future teetered on the edge and could go either way, depending on what came out of my mouth. But, either way, I figured, Lizzie and I were looking at public humiliation; worse still, doing time in one of those god-awful 10 week sessions with the first available social worker at Cedars Sinai Medical Center. Neither option looked appealing to me.

So, I took the road most traveled. I admitted nothing. “I’ll take care of this, Mrs. Lehman,” I said. “Don’t you worry.”

I went home, turned on the TV, slapped in a DVD of Disney’s ”The Little Mermaid” — in full glorious color — then plopped my Lizzie down in front of the action. Disney may certainly seem like another kind of abuse, but one thing is certain: mermaids never go black and white on you. Better still, they never die.

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