Where was I in 1997...?
Oh, yeah, I was at the tail end of my original Hollywood TRIP. My life was kind of falling apart. I may have been in the midst of an actual "nervous breakdown." However, I did not have the luxury of committing myself to a mental hospital as A) I could not afford a mental hospital B) I still needed to pay rent and eat food C) I was pretty much over Los Angeles and would not have wanted to commit myself to a mental institution there; even if it was in Beverly Hills, Bel Air or even Pasadena. Canoga Park even. I needed a reset. I sold my belongings, got in my Tercel and headed back to The Bay State. Danvers State Mental Hospital was mere minutes from my parent's house. I made a mental note.
I looked back at a list of everything that was released in 1997 and I, an avid movie goer, had gone to see next to nothing at actual movie theaters. Why? I'm not really sure. Titanic and The Full Monty were among the few. So, when Good Will Hunting was released in early December of that year, I did not see it. I was very much aware of it, working at So and So Productions and having all the trades at my disposal. All those "For Your Consideration" ads and the ones trumpeting the grosses. How the hell did Good Will Hunting manage to pull in 226 million dollars? Robin Williams maybe? Maybe. Good word of mouth is more likely.
In a way, I was as effed up as Will Hunting...I'll get to him later. The reason I'm revisiting (visiting) Good Will Hunting is because it is my niece Kasey's favorite movie. When she found out I had never seen it, she was in shock and more or less demanded that I watch it. She wants to know my opinion of the film (she was/is certain I would love it; for how could I not? If you're from the Boston area, it's required by law. It's a condition to retain state residency).
So, I'll say up front, I did in fact admire/enjoy/very much like Good Will Hunting. It was an excellent film. I did have a few problems with it though; and in the interest of fair and balanced reporting, I will share those problems with you. But first, the good parts.
The direction was exquisite. Gus Van Sant was an inspired choice. He's gay, you know!
Was Robin Williams gay? No, right? I mean he was married to three women and had three kids. I never heard a single rumor that he might have liked dudes or experimented in college (and his roommate in college was Christopher Reeve...can you imagine? I would've paid to see that!). Maybe he was a gay man trapped in a straight man's body; because everything about Robin was gay. The sensitivity. The gentleness. The razor sharp wit. The burning intelligence. The outre outlook. The fashion choices. When he was on stage he was literally light in his loafers. Robin was wearing the rainbow flag before there even was a rainbow flag!
So, casting Robin in GWH as the surrogate father figure was brilliant; and I think Gus Van Sant knew that. I mean, it won Robin an Oscar. But Van Sant was also subliminally layering in an almost(?) homoerotic element between Matt Damon and Robin Williams. Not in a creepy way. But I don't think we can deny that one element of the movie is a literal love story between Will and his therapist. I mean, they have not one but two extended embraces. The dialogue even acknowledges the sexual frisson when Robin tells Matt not to grab his ass. But what these scenes embrace metaphorically is love between men in an honest way; something the movies almost never do. American men can only seem to express their love for other men by getting drunk and mumbling "I love you man!" Men are so terrified of this. But GWH deals with it. I think it's one of the reasons the movie resonates with so many people. It certainly resonates with my niece. She was born the year it came out. So, obviously she didn't see it at the cinema. She was a month old! The other "love" element in the film (besides the boy/girl one) is the fraternal love between the four Southie boys. Classic ride or die male friendship; but again, this "love" too has an almost romantic element. The entire film could be thought of as a romance: even the relationship between the camera (read: the director) and the star. It's like the lens can't get enough of young Matt Damon. And boy was he young! It was one of the first things that struck me when the movie began. He was twenty-six at the time playing twenty; but he really could have passed for sixteen. Okay, eighteen. Let's not make this creepy.
Okay, maybe you kind of can't not make this part creepy. Or should we say "creeper." Gus Van Sant specializes in "chicken." What is "chicken" you ask? Well, "chicken" in the gay world, generally refers to a young gay man who is the object of affection of an older man. Gus' debut feature was about this very thing. Even To Die For was about this very thing, except in that case the chicken was the target of a hetero woman. Like I said, Gus specializes in it. So, hiring him as the director, although a great choice, is also kind of a suspect one. What was the pitch in the Miramax conference room? "Hey, let's get Gus Van Sant! He's great with young guys!" Whatever the case, it turned out to be inspired. Gus took what, in the hands of say, someone like Clint Eastwood, might've turned out to be a thudding, cliche-ridden screed on adolescent male bonding and turned it into a sort of fairy tale. Or myth. More on that later.
But back to Matt. He glows in the camera lens, appearing as nothing less than some Earthbound Eros. Cupid with an attitude; who left his wings down in Southie.
"The Girl" in the movie is another fantastic choice. Minnie Driver is not the traditional beauty. Like, this role would've usually been played by someone like, say, Gwyneth Paltrow or Denise Richards (would we have believed Denise could've gotten into Harvard, though?). You might even say that Minnie is a tad on the masculine side; or at least androgynous. Hmmmmmm. Interesting. But what she is, is funny and a funny girl is just the sort a guy like Will would be attracted to. Casting her instead of some prosaic pretty girl was, again, inspired.
And here are some of the things, that watching it several decades removed, were not so great.
Okay, I gotta say it. When I was watching the movie unfold, listening to the dialogue, observing the elegant story structure, I said to myself: "There's no way those two boys wrote this script by themselves. There's just no way."
So, I did a little research. I mean, Matt & Ben's Oscar win for Best Screenplay for GWH is now legendary, right? But when I was researching, I had no idea that people were questioning the authorship of the movie from the day it came out. Apparently, a lot of people had that same initial thought of "no way." And further research revealed more doubts. As recently as 2018, a gentleman named Bernard Cohen claims the entire idea was stolen from him by Mr. Damon. I will reserve comment on that. William Goldman, perhaps the finest screenwriter in the history of Hollywood, claimed that he wrote the entire movie from scratch (he then reneged on this claim; so why did he say it?).
Nothing against Matt and Ben. I can't say whether or not they stole it and or wrote/it. But I'd bet money there was a script doctah somewhere in Beantown that summah.
Speakin' of Bawstin accents. I do think that they laid that on with, if not a trowel, a heavy-duty spatula. I just came across this hilarious and on the nose SNL* clip:
The film starts to fall apart when you start asking questions about the character of Will and his background. So, he's an "orphan," right? He was severely abused by his foster father. He now lives alone on the first floor of a Southie triple-decker. He commutes to Cambridge from Southie. So, how is he affording the rent on his apahtment? On a janitor's salary? Boston rents have never been cheap, not even in Southie in the late 90's. If his foster father beat him with a wrench, why didn't wise-guy Will pick up a phone and drop a dime on the guy. Foster parents have to answer to Child Services. Will could've at least run away. The dude wasn't his real father. And where was his foster mother during this? Or his foster siblings? He has no relatives? How and why is he an orphan? The movie avoids all of these questions. Ignores them. Is that a bad thing? Yes and no. By making Will a sort of foundling prince, the movie turns him into a Myth. Movies excel at mythmaking. I would argue this tact is another of the movie's strengths. But it takes the film out of the realm of the "gritty" reality it's supposedly trying to portray. But, I guess the movie manages to have it both ways.
Will tells his therapist, who teaches at Bunker Hill Community College, that the commute from Southie to Charlestown is killing him. But the commute to MIT is no shorter. In fact, Will would just have to change trains from the Red Line to The Orange Line at Downtown Crossing.
Also, Will is shown on the Red Line train, always in a car by himself. Apparently the entire train to himself. Every time he's on the train. Now, I realize this is poetic license on the part of the director: Will is all by himself in the world. But this has never happened in the history of Boston area public transport, especially in either the morning or at dusk, when Will is seen glowing in the light of the magic hour on said train.
Another scene that didn't sit right with me was the Southie Boys trip to Cambridge to go to a Harvard bar. Scriptwise, this was to get them into conflict with the snotty Harvard students and a classic meet-cute between Matt and Minnie. I mean, yeah, maybe they were "reverse slumming," but I thought the dynamics of getting them there were clunky. It would've made much more sense if the Harvard kids were slumming in Southie, and it went down there. Or at a dance club on Landsdowne Street or a beer joint after Fenway lets out or whatever.
I also had a real problem with this scene, which almost destroys the entire movie:
His license should be revoked and it seems to me that Will is just the sort who would get some payback by reporting him to The American Psychiatric Association. But he doesn't. Are we to take this scene as one of a bonding moment through psychotic male toxicity? And then later in the film, when they do bond over having been abused (by their fathers); are we meant to think back on this scene and say: "Oh, it was a therapeutic tactic. Wow, that doctor is effective! Unorthdox, certainly, but effective!" I don't know. And I gotta say this too...the scene has a certain kinky under-current. Erotic asphyxiation anyone?
Speaking of slumming, and I can only see this element of the movie by reverse osmosis; I sense a certain amount of entitled superiority in the attitudes towards education, particularly on the part of Mr. Damon, who we know attended Harvard: the institution he is herein mocking. Or is he?
Jimmy Sullivan: Hey Tommy, I heard you applied to B.C., B.U., and Northeastern!
Tommy Murphy: Yeah Jim, I did. Tufts too.
Jimmy Sullivan: So'd ya get in any of 'em?
Tommy Murphy: No. Two-hundred fahkin' dollahs down the toilet.
Jimmy Sullivan: Don't worry Tom, there's always Bunkah Hill Community (laughs, slaps Tommy on the back).
Not to deride the school; but that's simply the attitude kids have about it. It's kind of a Masshole in-joke. And you can't get more Massholey than Matt & Ben. So this "joke" is front and center in the movie. It underscores how far the Robin William's character has fallen (even though he manages to have an office the size of a classroom). There's even a scene set in a class Williams is teaching, played for laughs. Complete with dunder-headed students twirling their hair, chewing gum and delivering underwhelming responses. It's kind of mean spirited. Meanwhile, Will, who has already pointed up the arrogance and entitlement of students who go to Harvard, starts hanging out there. The school is reverentially represented in the visuals, as Harvard usually is. Something strikes me as hypocritical about this attitude. It seems to me that Matt Damon, who went to Harvard, is looking down his nose at schools like BHCC and the people that teach and matriculate there. Will is a snob then. He works at MIT. He couldn't have gotten a janitorial job, closer to home, like at U. Mass Boston? He could've walked to work.
So, it's "cultural appropriation", is it not? The Irish must be the most culturally appropriated people on the planet.
Now, don't get me wrong. I love Matt. I love Ben. Not so much as I love Matt though. I mean, I went to see We Bought A Zoo at the movies. I saw The Great Wall at the movies. I am one of the few people on the planet who can say that. I saw The Last Duel at the movies (Matt & Ben, together again!). One of the few Earthlings who did. After The Last Duel which I enjoyed, I was discussing the film with my husband. "Isn't it great," I asked, "that Matt and Ben are at it again...acting, writing, bromancing the stone?" "Sure..." he replied. "And didn't you love Ben's performance?" "It was something!" "I know, right? He actually tried some new things. I'd daresay he was camping it up!" Of course, Ben was nominated for a Razzie. I'm a really bad judge of some things. I don't know what would be worse. Being nominated for a Razzie; or not winning the Razzie you were nominated for. Come on Hollywood, what are you waiting for? Why are you people not flocking to the Razzies? Do you know how many people would tune into the Razzies? A lot. It could be the comedy event of the season. Mark my words: it will be a THING. Sandy Bullock knows it! One day people will vie for the Razzie.
As long as we're talking about Matt and Ben, I have a word for Matt. Stop. Stop working with this company immediately!
P.S. I have story ideas galore for this! Call me at 540-520-1974.
Kasey, even though I had issues with your favorite movie, I truly liked it. You were right. One of my gauges for deciding what I think is a good movie is pretty simple. Would I ever watch it again? Pretty straightforward. In the case of Good Will Hunting I would say "yes." Yes, I would watch it again. And I would be at that sequel on opening night!
*(SNL? Late Night With Seth Meyers? Same diff)
**(Actual Clairol slogan from the 1960's)