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Praise for Paradise

Paradise-movie-cover-artI have dozens of DVDs in my personal at-home collection. On rainy or wintry weekend, I’ve watched my favorites over and over and over again. One of my movie marathons might feature some of my favorite actors – Pierce Brosnan, Diane Keaton, Amy Adams or Harrison Ford. I could begin with Working Girl, Sabrina and Indiana Jones and end the film fest up with Frantic and Air Force One. Both Brosnan and Adams star in musicals (Mamma Mia and Enchanted, respectively) which might be on my playlist, mixed in, of course, with their films of more serious work (The Thomas Crown Affair and Julia and Julia.)

My husband doesn’t understand my peculiar habit of re-watching the same videos. Viewing a movie once is enough for him (and sometimes once is too much.)
He’s not a movie buff, although I do usually manage to get him to accompany me to most of the Academy Award best picture nominees every year. However, the last way he will spend a weekend afternoon is watching LaLa Land for the umpteenth time, as much as he liked it the first (and only) time.

My movie routine began when my daughters were young and with the advent of VHS. We cheerily sang along with all Disney musicals during their childhood. The practice continued through high school when my daughters and I would movie marathon a Sunday away with American President, Grease and Steel Magnolias. Those films either had us swooning (over Michael Douglas), singing (with Olivia Newton John) or sobbing (after Sally Field lost daughter Julia Roberts).

My daughters’ favorites – the VHS versions of the Star Wars films and Grease, and others from their childhood, have been recycled and not replaced. I brought bags of tapes to my Friends of the Library book sales in the early to mid-2000s. However, DVD-format movies in my current collection are those that replaced the worn-out VHS of my old favorites from the 80s and early 90s – Sleepless in Seattle, Big, Four Weddings and a Funeral and countless others.

Last weekend I thought about a long-ago movie I adored and hadn’t watched in some years because I’d never replaced the VHS tape of Paradise. It’s a bit of a sleeper of a movie starring (then married) Melanie Griffith and Don Johnson, released in 1991. It’s one of those romantic dramas that you love … or not. In fact, I’ve yet to find anyone else who has actually seen the film. It also stars a soon-to-be-famous child actor, Elijah Wood who was only 10 years old when Paradise was produced. Eight years later, an eighteen-year old Elijah was cast as Frodo in the Lord of the Rings.

Alongside Elijah is his summer friend, nine-year old actress Thora Birch. Although Birch is not as well-known today as Elijah Wood, she is recognizable in her roles in Hocus Pokus, Monkey Trouble and Now and Then. She’s also known for playing Jack Ryan’s young daughter in Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger.

Paradise’s star Melanie Griffith has had a long and prolific career since infancy through her 50s to the present day. She is the daughter of actress Tippi Hedren, who we remember from Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds and Marnie. Having Hollywood parents, Griffith was cast in commercials as early as nine months and was cast as an extra when she was 12 and 16. At 18, she won serious speaking roles in the Drowning Pool (with Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward) and Night Moves (with Gene Hackman). By 27 she had been married to and divorced from Don Johnson and was nominated for several Best Actresses performances for Body Double, winning the award from the National Society of Film Critics.

John and Griffith were married briefly while she was still in her teens (he was eight years older); that marriage was annulled in 1976 after only six months. In 1989, when Johnson had proved himself on screen (the television hit Miami Vice starred Johnson for four years), he and Griffith reconciled and married again. Griffith had just starred in the smash hit Working Girl with Harrison Ford, Alec Baldwin and Joan Cusack.

In 1991, Griffith and Johnson worked together in Paradise.  The film did not do well with critics or the box office. In fact, several critics gave it horrible reviews and Rotten Tomatoes has rated it only 36 tomatoes! I’ve found, however, that some of my favorite movies are never loved by critics. The film is actually a remake of Le Grand Chemin, a French film that received awards and audiences alike. Paradise follows the same story line, but apparently with a less powerful message to American audiences.

Griffith and Johnson play husband and wife, who having lost their only child, are well on the way to irreconcilable differences because of it. Griffith suffers unbearable grief and guilt. Johnson feels lost and unloved, suffering from the same unspeakable loss of their son. Bits and pieces of this story are revealed out throughout the film.

Elijah Wood is the young son of a friend who has dropped him off for part of the summer with her desperately unhappy friends, Griffith and Johnson. Thora Birch is their wild and precocious next-door neighbor. Through misdeeds and older-than-her-years insight, Birch helps Elijah deal with his own feelings of loss. In turn, Elijah is the catalyst for helping his older summer caretakers, Griffith and Johnson, heal.

I loved this story because it is raw and simple and set in small-town America. Watching a preventable tragedy (the end of a marriage), I’m always swept up in the story’s angst AND the charm of the easy solution. I want to yell at both the adults and care for and love the younger ones.

Johnson and Griffith, the real-life actors, ended up divorcing for the second time just five years after this film was released. Their daughter, Dakota Johnson (born in 1989 and now 28-years old) is, of course, a film star herself.

Not one of the Minuteman Libraries had a copy of Paradise when I searched to re-watch it last weekend. Fortunately, the Morrill Memorial Library has now purchased one. I hope you’ll take a chance and perhaps you’ll prove the critics wrong about Paradise. If not, it’s still a short afternoon or evening spent back in small-town America with a family desperate to heal their pain.

Charlotte Canelli is the library director of the Morrill Memorial Library in Norwood, Massachusetts. Read Charlotte’s column in the November 16, 2017 edition of the Norwood Transcript and Bulletin.

Lydia Sampson

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