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Flashback: on 1989’s Always

Steven Spielberg has directed 30 feature films in his career, and as of June, I had seen all of them (catching up with “The BFG” soon, which officially hit U.S. screens in July)…except for one. Somehow, I just kept missing “Always”. I know I watched a full hour of it once…but I believe I fell asleep. Every now and then, I’d catch a scene, or two, if it was running on a cable channel. But never the entire thing. Until now. I take Mr. Spielberg to task quite a bit. Best Picture nomination be damned, I found “Bridge of Spies” to be the nadir of his career. Also, “The Adventures of Tintin” was lacking in charm, and “Indy 4” raises ire amongst even his biggest fans. I’m not a hater, I just find him past his expiration date. Plus, he blows a lot of his endings. And he too often relies on “children in peril” scenarios. That being said, he possesses unmistakable talent. And his decade-long stretch from 1975 to 1985 contains, at least, four masterpieces (out of eight total films, including one short). So, attention must be paid. Always. How’s that for a segue?

Anyway, “Always” certainly gives “Bridge of Spies” a run for its money, at times. An updated remake, of 1943’s “A Guy Named Joe” (starring Spencer Tracy), it’s a movie that contains some of the good stuff from Spielberg’s “bag of tricks”. But plenty of the worst too. Even now, I cringe when I recall the scene of a bunch of guys gawking at the female lead, after they see her in a dress for the first time. The fact that the star is Holly Hunter, in her pre-“The Piano”, consistently adorable phase–helps a little. Another issue is the over-the-top performance of John Goodman, in his pre-“Barton Fink”, perpetually goofy ( but lovable!) best friend period. The revelation here is the work from the “star”. Richard Dreyfuss is not only totally engaging, but incredibly charming as the doomed Pete. And I’m not talking “The Goodbye Girl”-“don’t leave your panties drying on the rod”-charming. I mean, Humphrey Bogart, Cary Grant, and (yes) Spencer Tracy charming. I never saw it coming. For one thing, let’s face it, the reputation of working on-set with Dreyfus is that he’s a bit of a prick. Terrific actor though, and he nails this characterization.

This feature was a bit of a departure for Spielberg. Because after years of big Big BIG, “Always” is decidedly small. Oh, there are some sizable set pieces, and a few of the aerial special effects are pretty cool. But the story of a team of forest firefighting pilots, in which one loses his life, yet reaches from the “beyond”, to guide his intended to a new love, ain’t exactly killer sharks, mountainous flying saucers, WW II-era invasions, or whip-toting archeologists. It’s an old Hollywood remake, it’s a romance, and it contains the final screen performance of the legendary Audrey Hepburn. I don’t know why she’s in it, taking the role of some sort of otherworldly spirit, for a couple of brief scenes. But, there she is, all the more poignant because we’d lose her too soon just a couple of years later. Hey, I’m a completest. So, I’m fulfilled that I finally watched “Always”. It features the employment of some of Steven Spielberg’s absolute worst sentimental and cutesy instincts. But it also has a sizable amount of heart, a well-timed and “executed” death scene, and an utterly marvelous star turn from Mr. Dreyfuss. So, “Bridge of Spies” is still worse.

Grade:  C



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