The film that I chose to watch for this writing assignment was One True Thing. The story began with introducing a young woman with a busy life in New York. Ellen had a writing career that was beginning to look up that was, in a sense, stripped from her when she finds out from her father at his birthday party that her mother, Kate, is ill with cancer. Ellen finds this out from her father when he comes home from a routine appointment with his mother and sees that she is not with him when he walks in the door. Kate is about to have cancer surgery and her father expects her to drop her normal life and move back home to care for her mother. Her father feels as though she should be back in the home after the surgery has been complete and chemotherapy has been started. Ellen is at a loss for words when her father asks her this. At one point she asks why her brother could not stay home and tend to their mother. The father was not at all concerned with how Ellen felt and the fact that this could ruin her chances at moving up in her writing career.
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Ellen was immediately thrown into the housewife role with having to do her father’s laundry, having to cook for the family and guests, and also by having to figure out how to make the household run smoothly. As her mother begins to grow weaker and weaker, Ellen gets a glimpse into the life her mother has been living for so long. She finds that her mother is involved with the community on special occasions, cooks such wonderful meals, decorates and refinishes furniture, makes time to comfort friends that are facing challenges, and most important of all, she ensures that her husband’s life runs seamlessly. In the start of the film, we can see that Ellen is struggling to keep everything together. She is in no way used to this and has never seen herself as this kind of a woman that would run a household like this one. She had always grown up admiring her father and just wanted to grow up and be the incredible writer that he had always been. By this point, Ellen feels for her mother and realizes that she had so much that was always expected of her, but this also helps Ellen realize how much her mother needs her. With all of this going on, she soon also realizes how little her father does around the house. The viewers can see, as the movie progresses, that her father is not as self-centered as he comes off as and that he is just distraught about the idea of losing his wife; someone that does so much for him and who makes his life run the way that it does. He can’t imagine this life without her and does not want to sit around and watch his wife slowly slip away.
This whole idea that the father actually cared about the fact that his wife was slowly dying was not evident at the beginning of the film, it was actually seen as the complete opposite. Ellen watches as her father continues to have affairs late at night while he is supposed to be working. This enrages Ellen because how in the world could he do this to his wife and the mother of his children. Was the fact that she was doing everything for him not enough to satisfy him? Another event was when the family was supposed to have a Thanksgiving dinner with just the five of them. Her father thinks that it would be a wonderful idea to forget about the plan that the family had agreed on and invite two writers, which he admires, to the family dinner. He then has the balls to ask his wife to get off of the bed whip up some appetizers for his guests. Oblivious to the fact that she is in bed because she does not feel well. This is the time when Ellen finally found her voice and became confrontational with her father. Tensions flared in the household between the two and more things start to set Ellen off. Each night that her father calls, she can’t help but think that he is having an affair with the “other woman” he seems to care so much about. One night when her father had still not come home, Ellen’s mother asked her to go and fetch her father. She finds her father, at a diner, slumped over the table. She urges him that he needs to come home but I feel as though he is more ashamed by his appearance to his daughter and tells her to leave. This caused Ellen to become confrontational because at this point she is so frustrated with her father’s lack of compassion for his own wife and that fact that her condition is declining. He tells Ellen that she has done enough at this point and that she is more than welcome to return to her life back in the big city.
Following this, the mother’s condition declines greatly. The Chemotherapy is no longer benefiting her and her cancer has spread. Ellen fights with the doctor and believes that they should continue treatment because she is not ready yet. The only real option at this point is to make her comfortable while she lives out the rest of her days. Before she gets to the point of being bedridden, Kate makes sure that she has a discussion with both Ellen and her father. She wants to let Ellen know that she is well aware of what her husband has been doing over the years and that she still loves him. They have come to an understanding and she loves what she does have with him. Kate wanted, more than anything, to just be able to talk to someone about how she really felt. Maybe she had a fake smile on over the years and now she was able to express her concerns.
With Kate now being on morphine pills multiple times a day and her condition declining with each day, Ellen has a lot more responsibility. A nurse would come to help on some days during the week to make things go a little more smoothly, but one day Ellen had to help her mother out of the tub. This is when she finally saw the severity of her mother’s condition. Her head was slowly balding, and her body was turning into merely a skeleton. After settling her mother into a wheelchair, she is faced with a disheartening situation when her mother expresses that the way she was living was no way to live. In a sense she is asking for Ellen to end the pain. The end of the film is when the mother overdoses on morphine pills and passes away on her hospital bed in the living room. An investigation followed the death of Ellen’s mother and both Ellen and her father were suspects. Both were under the impression that the other had done it. They later happen to cross paths at Kate’s gravesite and they find out that neither of them was responsible for overdosing Kate. She had somehow managed to get out of bed and overdose herself because she knew that neither of them would be able to be strong enough to do it themselves.
In the recent years, death has started to become more mainstream. I am saying this because pro-suicide, pro-euthanasia attitudes are being more openly expressed. This could also just be that people are finally allowing themselves to talk about the topic and that it actually has been around for a good amount of time. When it comes to the films that use this as a topic in their films, it is usually not the primary issue that is broadcasted throughout the film. In One True Thing does not focus primarily on this issue, but at the end of the film, there is a sense of pro-death attitude slipped into the background. The main part of this film is devoted to the relationship shared between a mother and daughter. The mother is deathly ill and the father has enlisted the help of the daughter to drop everything in her life to come home and tend to any of her mother’s needs.
The movie played out more like a flashback from the viewpoint of the daughter Ellen and I think that was a big part that I left out of the summary. She was speaking with an attorney regarding the morphine overdose of her mother and how the events led up to it. In a sense, the audience is left guessing about how the mother will die throughout the film; will it be natural causes, the cancer taking her life, but we as the audience would never be able to guess that she died of an overdose. At some point we are left questioning whether it was a mercy killing executed by either her husband or daughter. This move implies that all of these means of dying are morally accepted, but none of the relevant issues are explored in any depth. Instead, the situation is used as a whodunit device to spin up an otherwise straightforward issue.
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With Ellen having such a strong belief about how her life should run and her attitudes regarding her career and family were formed primarily by contemporary feminism. She was a Harvard graduate in her late 20’s and scored a job with a high-profile New York magazine, so she could be seen as not being the typical woman one would think of in 1988. Ellen defines her life and herself according to her professional success and her personal relationships, whether family or intimate, are taking a spot on the sidelines. She is a strong and successful woman that is believes that woman are just as qualified to compete at the same level as men. Her mother, on the other hand, is what one would call a pre-feminist housewife. Her life revolves around the wellbeing of her husband and children, while her own needs stand off to the side. This is why, I believe, the cancer was allowed to progress to the point that it did because she would just shrug off the symptoms. Kate was also a great help in the local charities and was, at that time, the perfect housewife. The difference between Ellen and Kate becomes an issue when Ellen’s father tells her that she needs to drop everything and come back home to live in the family home and take care of her mother. He assumes that every woman should be capable and happy to complete the same housewife tasks that most women take on. Ellen made it a point in the film to say that she never wanted this life for herself. She never wanted to become the housewife and she looked up to her father’s lifestyle and believed that that was what she wanted to strive for.
In the beginning of the film, when George and Ellen are sitting on the porch, Ellen asks her father how he feels about her recent piece that she wrote for the magazine. At first, he just gave a basic answer and said that it was good but that was not good enough of an answer for Ellen. When she asked a second time, she finally received the criticism she had been asking for. George said that her paper too emotional and that she needed to add a more masculine hint to her work. This sounds to me as though he wants her to hide who she really is and act as though a man is writing the article. He makes the comment that “Less is more”, a comment that was heard a little too often in the film. George seems to want to hold his daughter back in a way. Maybe he wanted to see his son reach her level and become a great writer like him, because back in that time, I would feel as though recognition for a son would be more beneficial than recognition for a daughter.
Kate was a woman that only saw the positives during her battle with cancer. She strived to complete all of the daily tasks that she was used to doing until she no longer could manage. She can be seen as a very powerful woman, but I think she was struggling most with the idea of being sick and not being able to tend to her family. When she was told about how George told Ellen that “less is more” she counteracted and told Ellen that “more is more”. She is someone that wanted Ellen to hold onto all of her strong traits and stay the woman that she had become. In the film, the viewer can see that most of the men are portrayed to be weak and terrible people. This is more of the feminism coming into play. George is depicted as being self-centered, out of touch with his feelings, and a philanderer. Ellen’s brother flunked out of Harvard, while she excelled in the program, and he was then too afraid to tell his parents because of the idea of being a failure and the criticism that he would face from mainly his father. This is one of those examples of when men were thought to have been treated as better and more powerful people than women.
Ending the movie, we are faced again with the morphine overdose that took the life of Kate. It wasn’t until the last scene that we find out that she managed to do it herself and commit suicide and escape the pain she was in. This can easily be seen as the most harmful message in the film because its suggestion that the willingness to commit suicide, or to assist a loved one in the act is somehow proof of psychological strength and maturity when it is indeed the complete opposite. This twist at the end leaves the view in a kind of awe. We were initially left to think that the father crushed the pills and put them into Kate’s food, because Ellen had backed out. At the gravesite is when the truth was finally figured out because both Ellen and George thought that the other was guilty for assisted in Kate’s death.
One True Thing. Dir. Carl Franklin. By Karen Croner. Perf. Meryl Streep, Renee Zellweger, and William Hurt. Universal Pictures, 1998. HBO GO.
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