Willie Morris’ Best Friend
A slice of Norman Rockwell America about a boy and a dog that makes you laugh and cry at the same time, My Dog Skip takes the joy and pain of small-town adolescence into higher dimensions of artistry and intelligence. The new century is so new we’ve scarcely had time to coordinate our watches, set our clocks and check our calendars, but this heartfelt film of restraint, subtlety and sweetness is already the first triumph of the year 2000.
My Dog Skip is a nostalgic memory piece about growing up smart, sensitive and middle class during the confusing and turbulent years of World War II in Yazoo City, Miss., and is based on the thin but memorable autobiographical childhood memoir by Willie Morris, an only child in a town of large families who was always just a little bit different from the other kids. Willie’s father, Jack (played by Kevin Bacon in one of the most mature and fully fleshed-out performances of a career that never fails to surprise and satisfy me), was a cynical, pragmatic war veteran who lost a leg in the Spanish Civil War. While his stern, overprotective nurturing of his son only makes Willie more removed from the other boys, it is Willie’s mother, Ellen (a marvelous, womanly performance by lovely Diane Lane), who provides most of the warmth and intimacy a lonely boy needs.
In 1942, on Willie’s ninth birthday, Ellen overrides Jack’s objections and presents their son with a feisty, four-legged companion that will change all their lives forever. Finally, this puny, friendless 9-year-old adolescent who prefers books to football finds an affectionate, loyal best buddy who loves him unconditionally, and Willie and Skip become the screen’s most beloved twosome since Jody and his fawn in The Yearling .
Skip is no heroic Lassie or finger-licking Benji, but he is capable of stealing scenes in his own inimitable way. In a segregated town, this feisty, independent little runt is colorblind, befriending everyone who gives him a friendly pat. The film catalogues the slender reminiscences in Mr. Morris’ book with slavish dedication as boy and dog grow up together and Skip is the catalyst for Willie’s character development and consciousness-raising in trying times. During their encounters with deer hunters, racists and moonshiners, and a brave night spent in a cemetery locked inside a crypt, Skip is by Willie’s side all the way, teaching him to be a man. Occasionally, Skip takes on Herculean tasks even Mr. Morris never envisioned. He plays football, protects Willie from bullies, cadges slices of rationed bologna from the bemused butcher and even tries to enlist in the Army.
But each time the film threatens to careen dangerously in the direction of Rin Tin Tin incredulity, the wise direction by Jay Russell and the refreshingly honest screenplay by Gail Gilchriest returns to higher ground, litter-free of clichés and plot contrivances. Mr. Russell, a distinguished documentary filmmaker from Arkansas and Ms. Gilchriest, a former reporter and columnist for the Houston Post , are qualified experts who know how to bring the South to life with humor and dignity. They also know when a slender memoir of childhood vignettes needs some expansion to make a full-length feature.
Skip, originally an English fox terrier, is now played by a 3-year-old Jack Russell named Enzo and several stand-ins. And Willie now has a handsome, tortured hero who lives next door-a high school football star named Dink (Luke Wilson) who ships off to Uncle Sam’s Army and returns from the war disgraced by cowardice. In his innocence and confusion, Willie takes out his disappointment in his idol on Skip, who runs away from home, causing everyone sleepless nights, including Willie’s father. By the time resolution arrives, we learn some valuable lessons in life, love and the ties that bind father and son, boy and dog, movie and audience.
What might have drowned in sentimental bathos literally shimmers with confrontation, growth and redemption in a film rooted in truth. Like To Kill a Mockingbird , bigger themes are seen and experienced through young and innocent eyes, and the movie wisely teaches viewers young and old that all living things have significance. The acting is first-cabin all the way, and that includes the narration by Harry Connick Jr. as the grown-up Willie Morris, but special attention must be paid to Frankie Muniz, a small actor with a big talent whose pinched little face is a road map of questions unasked and detours untaken. (TV fans already know him from the new hit series Malcolm in the Middle , but it doesn’t give him the range he demonstrates here.)
Morris was an extraordinary Southern writer who put words together in a special way, even in the days when I used to see him holding court in New York at Elaine’s. He was often drunk, but always eloquent. This movie prunes away the clutter in much the same way. Skip wouldn’t live to see Willie become the youngest editor of Harper’s at age 32, just as the real Willie, who died last August at age 64, would never live to see this fine film of his acclaimed book. Too bad. I think they would both lead the applause so deserved by this rich, rewarding movie.
Stritch on Stage, Twice a Week
Musically versatile pianist-singer-arranger Billy Stritch is the man of the hour. Still taking bows for arranging much of the music and all of the vocals for Minnelli on Minnelli on Broadway and currently supervising Liza’s cast-recording CD for Angel Records, he has also found time to knock them dead every Thursday and Friday night through Jan. 21 at the Firebird Cafe with an eclectic pop-jazz fusion called “Songs From the Last Century.”
The theme is as good an excuse as any for dusting off the great songs by everyone from the Gershwins to Sondheim-which is to say, the same kind of impeccable show he always does. The challenge is to find at least a couple of classics to illustrate each decade of the past millennium. He passes the test with banners waving. A highlight is “They Didn’t Believe Me,” the second song ever published by Jerome Kern, as mesmerizing and relevant today as it was back in 1914. Mr. Stritch embellishes it with clean chords, jazzy changes and a ballad arrangement that trembles with improvised sensitivity. Even and smooth, he sings with a mixture of boyish enthusiasm and charming savvy and plays with polished sophistication. (On a beautifully interpolated instrumental of “Autumn in New York” you can close your eyes and swear you’re listening to André Previn.)
Every arrangement becomes his own distinctly original spin, even on such overworked material as “Shine On, Harvest Moon” from the early 1900′s, which he turns into a blues-tinged jazz shuffle. “For You, for Me, Forevermore,” a posthumous George Gershwin song with lyrics added by his brother Ira for Betty Grable and Dick Haymes in the 1947 movie musical The Shocking Miss Pilgrim , is infused with a more driving up-tempo passion than is usually associated with the song, while “Red Sails in the Sunset” (from the 1930′s) is a perfect intro to set the mood for “Sails,” a ruminative bossa nova from the 1970′s by the great Brazilian composer Ivan Lins, with lyrics by jazz singer Mark Murphy.
For the 1950′s he finds an amusing way of segueing from the Frank Sinatra staple “Learnin’ the Blues” to Hank Williams’ country lament, “Your Cheatin’ Heart” without losing face, but it’s quite a stretch, quality-wise. Since there’s practically nothing worth repeating from the 1990′s, he resorts to an appealing original pop composition of his own, proving there are still a few good songs around, even if you have to write them yourself. Clearly, he’s more at home when the welcome mat is out for Gershwin, Arlen and Irving Berlin. One of the most innovative forays in the set is a clever juxtaposition of melodies when he blends the lyrics of Stephen Sondheim’s “We Had a Good Thing Going” (1974) with Irving Berlin’s “What’ll I Do?” (1924), and vice versa. There’s even a song for the next millennium, “Evolution,” in which he invites our old friend Tyrannosaurus rex to “grab a club and join the chorus.” Maybe we can get it right this time.
Accompanied only by the throbbing bass lines of David Finck, Mr. Stritch eschews the usual noisy, cluttered arrangements that plague most contemporary cabaret acts, and finds new strength in his talents as both singer and keyboard wizard. The result is an act that not only finds its way around a cumbersome title theme, but transcends it at the same time. Mr. Stritch is a swell way to warm up a cold and blustery January and usher in a mellow cabaret New Year.