Dec 20

“Mr. Holland’s Opus”: For Your Holiday Consideration

I wouldn’t be surprised if you’ve seen It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) over and over again—but have you ever seen Mr. Holland’s Opus (1995)? Because the two films have a lot in common.

First, the plot in brief: Holland (Richard Dreyfuss) would rather be a musician than the teacher he is. Or, as put by Jack Mathews, Los Angeles Times: “…the tale of a man compelled to give up his dream of writing a world-class symphony to become instead a world-class high school music teacher. A case of opus interruptus.”

Holland’s wife Iris is played by Glenne Headly. One of their significant challenges as a couple begins when their toddler son, Cole, is found to be 90% deaf.

And now, some of the comparisons made by film critics to It’s a Wonderful Life:

Owen Gleiberman, Entertainment Weekly: “Directed by Stephen Herek, Mr. Holland’s Opus is a big, patchy, episodic weeper set against the postwar rise and fall of America’s secondary-school music programs. The movie spans some 30 years and is patterned after It’s a Wonderful Life. Holland, like James Stewart’s George Bailey, has to give up his pipe dreams and see that humanity is his work, that it always has been.”

Emanuel Levy, Variety: “Borrowing heavily from ‘It’s a Wonderful Life,’ Patrick Sheane Duncan’s script stresses the pleasures and rewards in life that are unplanned and unanticipated. Initially, Holland accepts his school job as a ‘backup’ position that will give him free time to compose, never imagining that his next 30 years would be spent in the classroom. But forced to redefine his dream, Holland ultimately realizes that he is not a failure, that his legacy as an inspirational teacher is just as important as his longed-for opus.”

Common Sense Media: “Less Stand and Deliver, more It’s a Wonderful LifeMr. Holland’s Opus offers a poignant (albeit sappy) look at personal sacrifice, responsibility, and the impact teachers can have on students beyond the classroom. Richard Dreyfuss gives the performance of his career as the wily, often frustrated Glenn Holland, breathing life into a character that could easily have fallen into caricature territory.”

This role earned Dreyfuss major award nominations and was a career comeback for him after experiencing some serious life problems. Besides battling addiction, he’d also been diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

Dreyfuss told Barbara Peters Smith, Herald-Tribune, that his shrink provided him great relief by telling him, “Richard, somewhere in your head is a faucet that is dripping either too quickly or too slowly, and we can help you.”

Now regularly speaking openly about his diagnosis and treatment, Dreyfuss is committed to trying to end mental health stigma for others.

If you don’t want a spoiler ending for Mr. Holland’s Opus, stop reading now. Here are the words of former student Gertrude Lang (Joanna Gleason), now a governor, who addresses Holland and a large crowd of supporters:

Mr. Holland had a profound influence on my life and on a lot of lives I know. But I have a feeling that he considers a great part of his own life misspent. Rumor had it he was always working on this symphony of his. And this was going to make him famous, rich, probably both. But Mr. Holland isn’t rich and he isn’t famous, at least not outside of our little town. So it might be easy for him to think himself a failure. But he would be wrong, because I think that he’s achieved a success far beyond riches and fame. Look around you. There is not a life in this room that you have not touched, and each of us is a better person because of you. We are your symphony Mr. Holland. We are the melodies and the notes of your opus. We are the music of your life.

Jan 06

“What About Bob?”: The Need to Take Baby Steps

Rita Kempley, The Washington Post, once stated that the now-classic comedy What About Bob? (1991) “…addresses the way many a patient feels when his psychiatrist has the nerve to go away without giving a thought to his problems.”

What About Bob? also been called “…a revenge fantasy for anyone who’s ever resented hypocritical exploitative shrinks” (Jonathan RosenbaumChicago Reader)

The movie begins with another psychiatrist sending the challenging patient Bob (Bill Murray), a highly dependent man with lots of fears, to egotistical Dr. Leo Marvin (Richard Dreyfuss). In the initial session, Dr. Marvin gives Bob a copy of his brand new book called Baby Steps (a book, incidentally, that many wish actually existed).

Marvin: It means setting small, reasonable goals for yourself. One day at a time, one tiny step at a time—do-able, accomplishable goals.

Bob: Baby steps.

Marvin: When you leave this office, don’t think about everything you have to do to get out of the building, just deal with getting out of the room. When you reach the hall, just deal with the hall. And so forth. Baby steps.

In spite of its presence in what’s otherwise an unrealistic and zany dark comedy, this simple concept of “baby steps” has proven meaningful to many who see it. “Baby steps” cuts right to the heart of the process of achieving desired changes in one’s life.

Incidentally, one real-life well-reviewed book about taking baby steps is called One Small Step Can Change Your Life: The Kaizen Way (2004), by Robert Maurer, who teaches a Japanese technique that involves working toward “continuous improvement.”

One baby step at a time.

Oct 21

Therapist Boundaries (Violence): “Good Will Hunting,” “What About Bob?”

Do a Google search about therapist boundaries, specifically therapists and violence, and you’ll find plenty about clients attending therapy for being violent. From Psychotherapynotes.com:

…Psychotherapists can and do intervene to prevent hundreds if not thousands of acts of violence every day. We talk clients down from fits of rage, we help suicidal clients to find hope (or at least to understand what hurting themselves would do to their loved ones), we coordinate care with physicians to make sure those who need to be on medication stay on it, and when we assess imminent danger, we hospitalize or coordinate with law enforcement. The violence we prevent doesn’t make the news, but it saves many, many lives.

But can you find any reliable info about therapists being violent? Against their clients? No? Do we have to (misguidedly) look to the movies for such things?

Will (Matt Damon) in the movie Good Will Hunting (1997) is one character who has to attend therapy after an episode of violence. Finding the right shrink for Will, who trusts no one who tries to help him, turns out to be no easy feat. Well, maybe the less traditional, more directive kind of therapist we eventually find in Sean Maguire (Robin Williams) will fill the bill.

But before Will gets anywhere close to the meaningful catharsis the film wants him to have, he has to put Maguire through the usual hoops, in one instance meanly and provocatively maligning Maguire’s dead wife. What follows is this disturbing scene involving terrible therapist boundaries:

Lesson #1 (You Wouldn’t Pick Up From The Movies): It’s never okay to choke a client. (Or harm a client in any way.) (Unless, of course, in self-defense.) Even if the client then backs off and actually moves on to have one particular wowie-zowie life-changing therapy session.

Next up, there’s actually worse things a shrink can do. In the film What About Bob? (1991), the psychiatrist played by Richard Dreyfuss goes nuts himself dealing with Bob (Bill Murray), his dependent client who follows him, uninvited of course, on vacation.

Lesson #2 (You Might Not Pick Up From the Movies): Even unsuccessful attempts at killing one’s (annoying) clients are not allowed.