Thoughts on writing and publishing, and the various sources of entertainment...
A weekly column by Abel G. Peña, best known for his Star Wars work.
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THE PHILODOXER for 04/02/2006
Rear Window (1998): Christopher Reeve in his Defining Post-Paralysis Role
Telemovies are an interesting breed of beast. I don't know why, but they fascinate me. I think it's to satisfy this unhealthy occupation I have with always trying to find the diamond in the rough. The desire is probably what Saint Augustine had in mind when describing the ungodly relish of investigation and discovery, even when the pursuit is harmful to us (You know what I'm talking about). Telefilms are nothing if not consistently harmful to your sense of good taste.
The 1998 television movie Rear Window, starring Christopher Reeve, is one of those prized exceptions to the rule. This is doubly impressive, given that it is also a remake-another class of fascinating beast. Rear Window has a few of the usual teeth-grinding moments of inanity characteristic of any made-for-TV movie. But there's something timeless about the voyeur story. Or hell, maybe I'm just a pervert. But honestly, the most charming aspect of the movie is the late Reeve. He was already inseparably tied to the role of Superman (something all too evident in 1991 when I watched Reeve play a child molester in the CBS movie of the week Bump in the Night), but following his crippling equestrian accident, the man's acting career became inextricable from the reality of his life. Rear Window confronts this fact head on.
It's arguably a cheap trick. But it's really a matter of knowing your audience. Only three types of folks are gonna watch this movie: my mother, who watches novelas and thinks Richard Gere is dreamy; Alfred Hitchcock fans, generally eager to lacerate any remake; and Christopher Reeve fans, which is to say fans of the 80s Superman movies.
The Reeve factor is a two-edged sword. Some of the greatest enjoyment of the film comes from seeing how the lead role is tailored to him. When I first heard about Reeve starring in the remake, the first thing I thought was, brilliant casting. It seemed like a natural, given that in the original the main character, James Stewart's L.B. Jefferies, is relegated to a wheelchair for the film's entirety. But there were practicalities to worry about. How would the protagonist's (now called Jason Kemp) backstory be altered to fit Reeve? Can an actor, inexpressive save for his face, carry a 90-minute movie? And ultimately, can this subtle psychological thriller stand-up to the 21st century without Hitchcock's magic touch?
At times, Rear Window borders on preachy, with Kemp lashing out at his ex-wife over her insensitive attitude toward his paralytic state, and later an awkward dramatic sequence in which a faulty oxygen hose combined with a nurse's incompetence nearly results in the premature asphyxiation of the main character. It's certainly an ignominious threat, which, while realistic, is unworthy of the hero of any story, paralyzed or not. Furthermore, while the drama of both scenes is valid, it is significantly removed from realities familiar to the viewers... the same reason why it's so rare for little folk, "ethnic" actors, and ugly people to snag traditional lead roles. Their struggle is often too abstract for the viewer to grasp. Empathy sadly fails us. But even for the most hardboiled, it takes only the most minimal reflection to realize that this is in fact not just any quadriplegic's reality... it's Reeve's. Superman.
Like I said, maybe a cheap trick, but certainly effective. And that's all that matters.
Ultimately, the made-for-TV version can't compare to the classic, but Reeve makes it a winner on his own terms. By default, the paralyzed Kemp character is hyperbolically more heroic than Stewart's Jefferies, and this is especially evident when his life is threatened by a sadistic artist. The remake also profits from the difficulty, if not impossibility, to forget while we watch Kemp go through the grueling process of rehabilitation for his crippling injuries that this was literally Reeve's painful reality. And the story successfully retains the flawed nature of the characters from 1954's Rear Window. Kemp is definitely a jerk at times, and several of the other characters are likewise flawed: selfish, rude, hypocritical, and ungodly curious. Other than the wheelchair, they're us alright.
There are times when the movie noticeably fails, the product of a cheap budget and the regular pitfalls of charting unknown territory. But it is what it is: a post-paralysis Reeve vehicle. The movie is one of the rarest creatures of all, both a telemovie and a remake that will leave only the most cynical moviegoers dissatisfied.
* Rear Window (1988) is available on DVD and VHS.
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