For as long as I can remember I have been in love with the movies. Movies are magic come to life. They transport you and let you escape. They make you feel a range of emotions but mostly they can make you believe. Movies give you hope for better things in a world that is sometimes all too real. As I did my research for this blog, I came across this comment in the Cultures of Caregiving, “Films show us as we would like to be or as we hope to avoid becoming, and only rarely as we really are.”
I believe that what we really are is a nation of caregivers and this year’s selection of Academy Award-nominated films and stars supports my theory. Since I have spent the last decade as a writer and advocate on family caregiving, what better way to express my twin passions – movies and caregiving – than with my own version of the world-famous Oscars®.
Therefore, I present you with the Caregiving Club’s 1st Annual CARER Awards℠ – an observation of the films of 2011, some of which may not have garnered an Academy Award nomination but that capture the “reel life” caregiving situations in our lives. In addition, I give special recognition to the 2011 film stars who are among the nation’s 65 million “real life” caregivers. These films show us how Alzheimer’s and dementia, mental illness, cancer, Asperger’s disease and even sudden accidents that demonstrate the need for end-of-life wishes and the need for DNRs – are all part of the fabric of our lives.
The Help – In one of the most hilarious scenes of 2011 filmmaking, Sissy Spacek’s character (Missus Walters) suffers from dementia but has enough short-term memory to remember her daughter’s embarrassment over the infamous “pie” story. Bryce Dallas Howard as Hilly Holbrook brings one of the most insidiously evil characters of the Civil Rights movement to the screen but it is “the help” played by the wonderful Viola Davis (Aibileen) and Octavia Spencer (Minny) who steal the film. There is also a poignant moment when Skeeter’s (played by Emma Stone) mother (played by Allison Janney) shows the sad divide of not just racial intolerance but intolerance for an aging loved one when she is pressured to fire her long-time maid, Constantine, played by the iconic Cicely Tyson. Nominated for Best Picture and Best Actress and Supporting Actress for Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer respectively.
The Iron Lady – The incomparable Meryl Streep plays formidable British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher. The film opens with an aging Thatcher who is suffering from dementia and shows us the slow degeneration of a woman who led a nation and commanded the world stage. Her disease is all too poignantly wrought by Streep who shows us the steady decline of a fierce female political warrior in her heyday who spends the later part of her life having imaginary conversations with her dead husband and feeling just a bit irrelevant. Streep has the most Oscar nominations in Academy Award history – 17 – including Best Actress nomination for Iron Lady and she has won twice before.
Jane Eyre – One of the most romantic books and a popular book-to-film property (the Bronte sisters run a close second to Jane Austen in terms of moviemakers going back to the classic well for content), Mia Wasikowska plays our beloved Jane, while Michael Fassbender gives us a smoldering Mr. Rochester. Both Jane and Rochester are caregivers — Jane cares first for a childhood friend, Helen, who dies of consumption, and then for her dying aunt while Rochester cares for a mentally ill wife. Nominated for Best Costume Design.
50/50 – Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s character, Adam Lerner, receives a devastating diagnosis of rare cancer with a 50/50 survival rate. Angelica Houston plays Adam’s overbearing mother who wants to come live with her son to care for him even though she is also caring for her husband who has Alzheimer’s disease. Seth Rogen (who in real life is an Alzheimer’s Association champion and host of “Hilary for Charity” event) plays his best friend.
Rise of The Planet of the Apes stars James Franco as Will Rodman, a biotechnology researcher trying to find a cure for Alzheimer’s to help his father (played by John Lithgow). Nominated for a 2012 Academy Award for Best Visual Effects.
Friends with Benefits – Justin Timberlake’s character, Dylan, has a father (played by Richard Jenkins) with progressive dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. Jenna Elfman plays Timberlake’s big sister and primary caregiver to their dad. What I loved about this movie was the showcase for understanding a difficult disease such as Alzheimer’s. At first, Dylan is embarrassed by his father’s lack of memory, tendancy to not wear pants and irritation in the first of two restaurant scenes. But, his best friend/lover, Jamie, played by Mila Kunis, helps him to see that he needs to realize his dad lives in another reality now. In a hilarious scene of love and acceptance both Dylan and his father take off their pants in an airport restaurant and proceed to eat their dinner. On the DVD commentary with the film’s stars, both Timberlake and Kunis talk about how both their families have been touched by loved ones with Alzheimer’s.
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close – In one of the most incredible performances by a young actor, made even more incredible because this is his first acting job, newcomer Thomas Horn plays Oskar Schell, a child with Asperger’s syndrome who is trying to cope with loss of his father, played by Tom Hanks, in the 9/11 tragedy. In a 10-tissue tear-jerking ending, his mother (played by Sandra Bullock) demonstrates a unique understanding of the specialness of her child. Nominated for Best Picture.
J. Edgar – Although shut-out from a Best Actor nod, Leonardo DiCaprio plays the title character of long-running FBI Director, J. Edgar Hoover who cares for his aging mother (played by Judi Dench) until her death. He also cares for his right hand man at the bureau, best friend and partner, Clyde Tolson, who suffers a stroke later in life but whom Hoover continues to care for until Hoover’s death.
The Descendants – Although not a caregiving situation, this movie has an important lesson about health care directives and DNRs. George Clooney’s character, Matt King, finds his wife in a vegetative state after a speed boat accident and must guide his daughters and his father-in-law on letting go of her based on her legal wishes to not be kept on life support. Along the way, he establishes a much stronger bond with his two daughters. Nominated for Best Picture and Best Actor for Clooney.
New Year’s Eve – An estranged daughter (played by Oscar winner Hilary Swank) helps her father (played by Oscar winner Robert De Niro) with his end-of-life wish to watch the ball drop in Times Square on New Year’s Eve from the rooftop of the hospital.
One Day – While the main plot of this movie is the story between two college friends, Dex and Em, who are truly soul mates (played by Jim Sturgess and Anne Hathaway) – the emotional subplot is when Dex, a self-centered, insensitive young man realizes what true love is as he cares for his mother, played by Patricia Clarkson, who is dying from cancer.
Beginners – A cancer-stricken father, Hal, played by the fabulous Christopher Plummer, reveals a long-kept secret of his homosexuality to his son, Oliver, played by Ewan MacGregor. Through his caregiving journey for his dad, Oliver comes to appreciate the true meaning of love.
“Just a Little Heart Attack” is a short 3-minute film starring Elizabeth Banks (star of 2011’s My Idiot Brother and 2012’s Hunger Games) coupled with Colin Egglefield (star of 2011’s Something Borrowed) created for the American Heart Association’s campaign to educate women about heart disease.
Glenn Close – Albert Nobbs – Glenn Close is a real-life supporter and caregiver to her sister, Jessie, who has bi-polar disorder. Jessie’s son and Glenn’s nephew, has schizo-affective disorder. Glenn created the non-profit organization, BringChange2Mind, and filmed a public service announcement (PSA) to help destigmatize mental illness. Glenn is nominated for a Best Actress Award for Albert Nobbs.
Bradley Cooper – Limitless, Hangover Part II – Cooper, named People Magazine’s 2011 “Sexiest Man Alive,” lost his father after a long illness last year. Cooper is also an Alzheimer’s Association Champion.
Hal Holbrook – Water for Elephants – Hal Holbrook plays the older version of Robert Pattinson’s character in the visually sumptuous Water for Elephants. In real life, the 87-year-old Holbrook was caregiver to his wife, Dixie Carter (of TV’s Designing Women fame) who passed away in 2010 from endometrial cancer.
Seth Rogen – 50/50, Kung Fu Panda 2 – As previously noted, Rogen is a champion for the Alzheimer’s Association based on his co-caregiving role to his wife’s mother who suffers from the disease.
While they all may not win an Oscar statuette come February 26 – these films and stars are winners in my caregiving book!