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iris gumption kate winslet the holiday

I can’t remember exactly when I first saw The Holiday, but I remember the text my sister sent me after she saw it, with our mom: We found your dream house.

She was talking, of course, about the cozy book-filled English cottage belonging to Iris Simpkins (Kate Winslet), set among fields outside a quiet village near London. It has a spacious kitchen and a fireplace and so many sweet details, and those shelves lined with books. I instantly fell in love with the cottage, and also with Iris herself: smart, spunky, kindhearted and struggling to fully believe in her own brilliance. Perhaps it is no surprise that I saw myself in her.

I watch this film at least once a year, and I love Iris more every time: her romantic’s heart, her willingness to try new things (though she’s been stuck in the same loop for a while), her genuine curiosity about people. I especially love watching her pull away from the unhealthy patterns – including the toxic man – she’s been clinging to for a long time.

She has some help with this, in true rom-com fashion: a charming film composer (who knew Jack Black could be charming?) who brings her Starbucks and entertains her with his renditions of movie scores, and her elderly neighbor, Arthur (Eli Wallach), who tells her bluntly that she’s a “leading lady” but is behaving like a cinematic best friend. In short: Iris is way more brilliant and worthy than she believes she is, and she needs to dig deep to find the gumption to move forward with her life. (Arthur also gives her a long list of movies to watch, all featuring “powerhouse women” – he knows as well as anyone that we all need heroines and role models.)

Gradually, Iris begins to believe in herself again: finding her way around a new place, helping Arthur get into better shape, even throwing a party or two. I always want to stand up and cheer when she finally tells off her smarmy ex, Jasper (Rufus Sewell), toward the end of the film. “What has got into you?” he asks her, baffled. “I don’t know!” she says joyfully. “But I think what I’ve got is something slightly resembling – gumption!”

Gumption, largely inspired by Iris, was my word for the year in 2016. I had no idea how much I would need it, in a year that included two job changes, a move, and an election whose effects are still echoing in some ways. It is still an attribute I keep reaching for, in this lingering pandemic which includes (for me) another job hunt, continuing to heal from my divorce, and more solitude (and loneliness) than I ever thought possible.

I don’t for a moment believe that Iris’ new self-belief, or the new romance that came with it, solved all her problems. But I believe she’s on her way, and on the days when I emulate her and reach for my own gumption, it’s easier to believe that I am too.

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cosmo brown don lockwood singin' in the rain

I’ve been thinking lately about heroes and sidekicks.

I realize it’s a somewhat simplistic way to break down a cast of characters, and not all stories fall into this mold. (So many of my favorite stories center around heroines instead of heroes, but that’s a post for another day.)

I’ve done my fair share of swooning over traditional heroes, literary and cinematic: Aragorn from The Lord of the Rings, Jack Kelly from Newsies, Han Solo from Star Wars (I love a man with a cheeky sense of humor), and – forever and always – Gilbert Blythe. But when two (or more) men get equal attention in a movie or a book, I often find myself falling for the sidekick.

Take the Pirates of the Caribbean films. Like everyone else, I adored Captain Jack Sparrow and howled with laughter at his antics. But I developed a crush on Will Turner: hard-working, dark-eyed, honorable. (At least in the first two movies. We won’t talk about what happened later.)

Or take a classic film I’ve loved for years: Singin’ in the Rain. Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly) is the ostensible hero, and he certainly charms Kathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds) with his smooth voice and dancing feet. But my favorite character has always been wisecracking, loyal Cosmo Brown (Donald O’Connor). He never misses a chance to make a wry quip, but he’s much more talented (and much less egotistical) than Don. Cosmo comes through for his friends when the chips are down – and his “Make ‘Em Laugh” comedy routine is one of the best scenes in the movie.

From the same era in Hollywood, see also: Phil Davis in White Christmas, played by Danny Kaye. Funny, kind, a gifted comedian and dancer, and considerably less conceited than Bing Crosby’s character. I could watch “The Best Things Happen While You’re Dancing” over and over.

In The Holiday, Eli Wallach’s character (a wise old Hollywood screenwriter) tells Kate Winslet’s character, “In the movies we have leading ladies and we have the best friend. You, I can tell, are a leading lady, but for some reason you’re behaving like the best friend.”

I know what he means by that: it’s time for Iris to step up, take control of her life, believe she’s worthy of being loved by a good man instead of that sleazy Jasper. But I think the best friends (Cosmo, Phil, Ron Weasley) sometimes get a bad rap.

In the best stories, the sidekicks are complex, wonderful characters in their own right. And sometimes, when the heroes hew too closely to type, it’s the sidekick who shakes things up, saves the day, or has more freedom to be an individual. (I’m thinking here of A.C. Gaughen’s recent Scarlet novels, a YA retelling of the Robin Hood myth. Scarlet herself is the center of the story, but I preferred Gaughen’s nuanced portrayals of two “merry men” – John Little and Much Miller – to her moody, troubled Robin Hood.)

Don’t get me wrong: I’ll always love Atticus Finch, Lord Peter Wimsey, Joe Willard (from the Betsy-Tacy books) and Rick Castle. But you can also find me swooning – just a little – over Legolas, Mr. Bingley and Sirius Black. And if I had to choose between the stars of Singin’ in the Rain? I’ll be backstage cracking jokes over the piano with Cosmo.

(Image from Well Did You Evah)

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Election season is upon us with a vengeance – a vengeance more bitter than most elections I can remember. I am planning to vote, because I believe in exercising my right to have a voice in my government, however small. (I am also mindful of the decades when women could not vote in this country, and of the millions of women around the world who still have no say in either their governments or their lives.)

But I spent a recent evening enjoying a different angle on politics. J and I watched The American President, the witty and romantic 1995 film in which Annette Bening plays a sharp-tongued, sparkling-eyed lobbyist who falls in love with Michael Douglas as he plays the sober, thoughtful and warmhearted President of the United States.

american president poster movie

(Image from imdb.com)

I watched this movie as a teenager, when some of the political commentary went over my head, but I loved the clever interplay between the President and his staff members, and the tender (if complicated) love story. Watching it as an adult, I’m struck by how not dated it is. The banter is still brilliant and utterly quotable; the power suits are still (mostly) the style in the halls of power; and the overarching concept that “politics is perception” has never been more relevant.

The movie is set in an election year, with the President trying to keep his job while sending two important bills to Congress (the issues at hand are gun control and the environment). A likable, urbane widower (with a teenage daughter whom he adores), he has been consistently popular, until he starts dating Sydney Ellen Wade, a lobbyist hired to help the environmental folks push their agenda on the Hill.

Despite his attempts to keep his personal life private, the President finds his ratings sliding, and as congressional votes on his bills also start slipping away, he must decide which issues to support. Sydney isn’t sleeping with him to get votes, but the pundits – and his opponent – pounce on the potential for scandal.

This President is an intelligent, well-informed man who carefully considers his decisions (the scene involving an attack on Libya under the guise of “proportional response” is one of the film’s best). He struggles, privately and deeply, with the power and influence accorded him as the leader of the free world. He listens to his staff’s advice (the supporting cast, including Martin Sheen and Michael J. Fox, is outstanding), but in the end he makes his decisions alone. And crucially, he has the courage to admit his mistakes.

The movie’s climax comes when the President finally steps up to address the White House press corps, refuting multiple accusations brought by his opponent, Senator Bob Rumson (Richard Dreyfuss). Whether or not you agree with the political statements herein, it is an incisive, rhetorically dazzling speech, and it begins with this statement:

For the last couple of months, Senator Rumson has suggested that being president of this country was, to a certain extent, about character. And although I have not been willing to engage in his attacks on me, I’ve been here three years and three days, and I can tell you without hesitation: Being president of this country is entirely about character.

 

I am more weary than I can say of the mudslinging, name-calling, pandering, dodging and mean-spirited comments that pervade the political ads, debates and social media sites in this country. I am not suggesting that a romantic comedy holds the solution to these problems, nor am I suggesting that it is quite that simple.

But I do believe we would all benefit by remembering that this country can be best led by people of character, whatever their political affiliation or stance on certain issues. And I also believe we ought to act as people of character toward our friends, coworkers and fellow Americans, even (or especially) when their political views don’t agree with ours.

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kramerbooks interior washington dc

Kramerbooks in D.C., which I recently visited

Paris in Love, Eloisa James
This memoir of a year in Paris sparkles with delightful anecdotes and wry commentary. It’s no easy feat to move your family across the Atlantic, and James and her Italian husband managed it rather well. (Their 11-year-old daughter, Anna, is particularly hilarious.) James admits that living in Paris has its challenges, but she loves this city and it’s such fun to walk with her through it. Utterly charming, and the bite-size bon mot format is addictive.

Gods Like Us: On Movie Stardom and Modern Fame, Ty Burr
Burr, the film critic for the Boston Globe, examines our culture of stardom in the U.S., from early silent actors to the talkies, all the way up to the Internet and our current obsessive celebrity culture. His anecdotes about stars past and present (Chaplin, Wayne, Stanwyck and many more) are fascinating, and his questions about why we have stars – why we need stars – are insightful, timely and rather unsettling. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Sept. 18).

A Pocket Full of Rye, Agatha Christie
When a wealthy financier is poisoned, police inspectors are surprised to find cereal in his pockets. Then his wife and the maid are also killed, with each death containing a link to the “Sing a song of sixpence” rhyme. Enter Miss Marple, who (of course) befriends nearly everyone in the household, picks up bits of useful information, and helps Inspector Neele connect the dots. This is classic Christie, clever and fun, with a fair dose of coincidence and a tidy wrap-up at the end.

The Secret Adversary, Agatha Christie
I loved this first novel in Christie’s Tommy and Tuppence series, featuring two young adventurers in post-World War I London. They set up a detective agency and quickly find themselves drawn into a web of political intrigue. This era fascinates me, and the easy banter between Tommy and Tuppence reminds me of Castle. Lots of red herrings, as usual, with a chilling twist near the end. (Bought during my D.C. indie bookstore crawl.)

Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy, Gary D. Schmidt
Turner Buckminster, minister’s son and new transplant to Maine, has a tough time fitting in – but then he meets Lizzie Bright Griffin, who lives on a nearby island. Lizzie teaches Turner to dig clams and hit a Maine baseball, but their friendship is threatened by the town’s elders, who are trying to evict Lizzie and her fellow African-Americans from their island. Based on a true story and told in Schmidt’s skilled prose, this was a moving story and a gorgeous evocation of the New England landscape.

So Far Away, Meg Mitchell Moore
I enjoyed Meg’s debut, The Arrivals, but I loved So Far Away. (I couldn’t put it down even when watching Olympics diving – I had to know what happened.) Thirteen-year-old Natalie Gallagher, who is dealing with her parents’ divorce and cyberbullying at school, is a proud, strong, confused, completely authentic teenager. And archivist Kathleen Lynch, who helps Natalie decipher an old diary she unearthed in her basement, is also a great character. So much heartbreak – Kathleen’s runaway daughter, Natalie’s mom’s depression, and the struggles mentioned above – but also hope. (And it’s set in and near Boston, which I enjoyed.)

Whew. So many books in July. I’m slowing the pace a bit in August, but still digging into the to-read stacks with enthusiasm. What are you reading these days?

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Dear Friend,

I like to start my notes to you as if we’re already in the middle of a conversation. I pretend we’re the oldest and dearest friends, instead of what we actually are: an essayist-novelist-screenwriter-director who became a cultural icon, and one of her many adoring fans.

I remember the day we met: I was 15, and I went to see You’ve Got Mail with my sister, her boyfriend, and my (male) best friend. My sister’s boyfriend, predictably, rolled his eyes, but the rest of us were instantly smitten – with Kathleen Kelly, the Shop Around the Corner, and New York in the fall (and the spring). When I finally visited New York as a twentysomething, I made a pilgrimage to Cafe Lalo, and pictured you and Kathleen walking beside me as I wandered streets overhung with blossoming trees.

cafe lalo new york city

My family has watched You’ve Got Mail so many times that its phrases – and its wisdom – are part of our vernacular. We all know that eucalyptus candles make an apartment smell mossy, that newly sharpened pencils are the perfect bouquet to celebrate fall, and that when you read a book as a child, it becomes part of your identity in a way that no other reading in your whole life does. (Actually, we already knew that, but you gave us the words to express it.) And you pointed out what should have been perfectly obvious all along: daisies are the friendliest flower.

Thank you for making movies that made us believe in the sparkling potential of ordinary days. Thank you for giving us characters who have become friends, lines we can repeat back to ourselves and to our loved ones, stories we can crawl into when life gets a little drab or ho-hum or cruel. Thank you for your wit, your class, your charm, your refusal to take yourself – or anyone – too seriously. But most of all, thank you for the stories you gave us, which affirm the worth of our small but valuable lives, and help make them bigger and richer and more lovely.

With much love, and lots of daisies,
Katie

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