Thursday, February 11, 2010

The Thorn Birds

In the early days of cable TV, stations like TBS, TNT, A&E and their ilk would buy the rights to lesser known but entertaining shows and miniseries. There was a stretch where Shogun, Wild Wild West, and Star Trek could entertain people instead of really bad original programming. There was a chick flick, soap opera classic in that crowd: The Thorn Birds. The Thorn Birds was produced and aired in 1980 & starred Richard Chamberlain, Rachel Ward and Barbara Stanwyck. It is a terribly cliche love story that is too ridiculous to ever be passable.

1. A Catholic priest falls in love with a child... and the child is female.
2. He doesn't touch her until she is of age.
3. The rich, manipulative and still attractive elderly woman somehow doesn't get what she wants. Rich people lose? What????
4. Every priest/Catholic authority figure is dashingly handsome: Christopher Plummer and Richard Chamberlain.
5. People still maintain their infatuation fueled 'love' of people outside of their marriage fordecades.

My mom and aunts were nuts over this miniseries. It was huge. Key to it all was Richard Chamberlain. The man was TNT level explosive. When they even aired the Lost Years miniseries, my mom watched. The series was tapping into that love across oceans of time fantasy. I caved and watched the original with my mom. You can't swing a cat without hitting a cardboard cutout character. I will at least give the original writer credit for having Chamberlain's character, Father Ralph, choosing his ambition over love at every turn. As a kid, I kept thinking "What's up with being a Cardinal over true love?" Even as a kid, Rachel Ward's earthly sights would divert me from an otherworldly paradise. His faith and commitment to God seemed more an excuse to ever truly love Meggie. Father Ralph could idolize her from afar, freeze her in a perfect, unattainable mode, and never truly deal with the woman she was. What happens after the haze of adoration is the truly important phase of love. It was entertaining, and one of those "loves that can never be" stories that seem to do well or so I am told. Only to be topped by unrequited love stories, but wait Thorn Birds had that, too.

The really interesting character is Mary Carson played by Barbara Stanwyck. I loved her in Double Indemnity, which is the greatest insurance movie of all time. She played complicated and strong females. In Big Valley (Diet Bonanza), she was a strong matriarch in charge of the ranch. She seemed to ooze confidence. She managed to play the manipulative and confident Mary Carson in Thorn Birds at age 72 and come off as a bit sexy. Her attitude and behavior are powerful and she uses her walk and body posture effectively. It is powerful to hear her discuss sex, desire and age. Note in the scene above that she checks his package out while rubbing his shoulders. A powerful, sexually charged scene between a 72 yr old woman & a gay man. Now that is acting! Her final farewell to Father Ralph is incredibly sad. One criticism is she should have said "kiss me on my lips" instead of "mouth". Mouth sounds weird vs. lips. In the glorification of youth culture and looking young, we treat the elderly in a horrible fashion and growing old like a terrible affliction (read Brave New World and note how they react to old looking people). The truth within her cry about her body letting her spirit down is depressing and incredibly powerful since it will affect us all; there is no escaping it.

The Thorn Birds miniseries uses unrequited love, everlasting love, commitments and breaking those very commitments as a way to tug at heart strings and capture viewers. Throw in some beautiful actors, a dramatic score and retro storyline and it can remain timeless for new waves of viewers. I'm an action-adventure-sci fi movie guy, but if this cheesey romantic miniseries were on, I'd keep it on if Stanwyck was onscreen peppering Chamberlain.

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