Everyone, I imagine, has a favorite movie or movies—something you can watch over and over and over and always see something new, always be surprised at how certain scenes, performances or lines of dialogue can still delight or bring tears, no matter how many times you’ve seen it. These are the movies we turn to when we need to be cheered, have a good cry or when there’s just nothing else on any of the 974 cable stations. (After all, you can only watch so many episodes of “Save My Nail Salon”, and that mythical “Law and Order” rerun you’ve never seen does not, trust me, exist!) The Hollywood equivalent of comfort food.
My partner has his favorites, including “Steel Magnolias”, “Ghandi”, “The End of the Affair” and “The English Patient” (which I long ago started calling “The Endless Patient”) along with the first two seasons of “Ally McBeal”.
I have my list as well, and I thought it might be instructive to share them with you, write a little about them and see what, if anything, they have in common. “Just Tell Me What You Want”, with Alan King, Ali MacGraw and, of all people, Myrna Loy; “Color Me Kubrick” with John Malkovich; “Miss Firecracker” with Holly Hunter; and a little Australian gem called “Così”. As disparate as they seem, I’m willing to bet there’s some celluloid connective tissue tying them together. Let’s find out, shall we?
First up (and these are in no particular order) “Così” (1996). It’s based on a play by Louis Nowra and is basically the story of a nice, if aimless, young man, Lewis, who takes a job at a mental institution to do a little art therapy with some of the inmates. What he initially expects will be little more than a talent show turns into a full-blown production of nothing less than Mozart’s “Così fan Tutte”, into which he’s goaded by inmate Roy (a delightfully over-the-top performance by Barry Otto). The theme of love and jealousy in the opera is mirrored in Lewis’s personal life, as he suspects his friend – a full-of-himself Actor – is putting the moves on his girlfriend (Rachel Griffiths). There is a motley crew of other inmates involved in the production and, despite their individual disorders and quirks, somehow at the end it all comes together, to the delight of the powers that be at the institution and the government reps who have mandated the therapy. The show they put together – sets and costumes – is a fanciful hodgepodge of fabric and props and found objects that would do the Metropolitan proud.
The review in Variety called it “fast, funny and cleverly acted” with “hot femme stars Toni Collette and Rachel Griffiths…giving terrif performances” in a “putting-on-a-show rib-tickler”.
Well, “terrif performances” by “hot femme stars” notwithstanding, “Così” gets to me every time I see it. And I think I’d qualify it as more than a mere “rib tickler”. It is funny, yes, but never at the expense of the mental patients, each of whom has his or her own problem and each of whom you see, eventually, as just another human being trying to get through the day, and through to another person. Before “Così” I had never seen or heard of Barry Otto, but his Roy is a fanciful, yet grounded creation and, in my humble opinion at least, an object lesson for actors in how to take a flamboyant character almost too far, then put on the brakes to reveal the very real person underneath.
In addition to the laughs, there are some very poignant moments, thanks again to Otto, and to Toni Collette as one of the patients, whose husband has all but abandoned her, leaving her alone and frightened and suicidal in the institution. Wait until you hear how she drops a little Ben E. King into the midst of the Mozart.
Ultimately, though, I guess what gets to me every time is the aching humanity of these people, the inmates, all of whom are desperate to connect in spite of their illnesses and quirks; desperate to be seen, heard, acknowledged...loved. Their transformation during the actual performance of the opera (they lip sync) is wonderful to see: the wonder and surprise and the absolute joy in their eyes as they realize they had nothing to fear, and then throwing themselves into the performance. I suppose it’s a bit heavy-handed here and there, but “Così” makes me smile and laugh and cry and feel glad to be alive each time I see it. As the Brits say, “It’s lovely!” See what you think.