I watched the scene from "Duet for One" with mounting anger and frustration. The film, starring Julie Andrews as a prominent concert violinist stricken by multiple sclerosis, was one I had been eagerly awaiting. I have MS myself and already had seen the play, but what I was watching bore little resemblance to the play--or to reality:
Andrews and her husband (Alan Bates) are arguing in a parked car. Angrily, Bates gets out of the car and stomps away as Andrews continues to berate him. Finally, he turns and approachs her.
"You're just angry because you have to use that wheelchair, and I don't!" he yells. "You're going to die, and I'm not!"
Stricken by his words, Andrews sinks back against the seat of the car. "Yes," she says somberly. "I know I'm going to die and I miss you already."
The dialogue may not be exact (I wasn't taking notes or taping as I watched the televised clip), but the implication of the scene was pretty clear: Andrews was dying of MS.
That's obviously what the reviewers thought too.
Kevin Thomas' review for The Times compared the film to "TV movies about fatal maladies" and said that Andrews' character was "confronted with a life-threatening predicament."
A Daily News capsule review described the film as the "story of a concert violinist facing death from multiple sclerosis."
Jeffrey Lyons and Michael Medved of "Sneak Previews" engaged in a similar discussion, again referring to MS as a fatal illness.
Wrong, wrong, wrong!
Multiple sclerosis is a chronic, potentially crippling disease of the central nervous system, but it's seldom fatal.
The average person with MS lives out 90% or more of his or her expected life span. Apparently, though, the film makers preferred to ignore the facts, twisting the story into the familiar "dying star" mold while discounting the genuine drama inherent in living with this difficult and challenging neurological condition.
Picture yourself as the Julie Andrews character. You're a concert violinist. Music has been your life. Then, one day, you pick up the violin and you can't feel the strings. Your fingers are numb. Your symptoms worsen. Eventually you're told you have MS. You can no longer play the instrument that was once the centerpiece of your life and your sense of who you are. You aren't dying, but you have to redefine your life.
That is the story that "Duet for One" should have told. From what I've seen, it's not the story the audience gets. The phony idea that Andrews is dying necessarily distorts every scene, turning genuine MS problems like shaking hands and dropped objects into mere cliches of an overworked genre.
As a writer, I know how hard it can be to remain factually correct while meeting dramatic requirements. We're not talking about some minor error, however. The misrepresentation in "Duet for One" goes to the very heart of the story. Mistakes of that magnitude undermine the artistic integrity of a work.
But the misrepresentation here is more than an artistic issue. There's also a question of responsibility.
As a peer counselor for others with MS, I know how overwhelming the diagnosis can be. Some have never heard of the disease until they're diagnosed.
Typically, MS hits people in the prime of life--between the ages 20 and 40. The prognosis in any individual case is uncertain. Symptoms can range from mild, invisible ones through quadriplegia. There is no sure way to predict the course of the disease, and there is no cure. That's tough enough to handle without confronting the film's blatantly false premise that MS is a "fatal disease."
Of course, I confess that I have only reviews and short clips to judge the film by. I haven't seen the picture itself. For the time being, at least, I can't. It's playing exclusively at Laemmle's Music Hall Theater in Beverly Hills--a theater that's not fully accessible for the handicapped!
Oh, the Laemmle people may think it's accessible. The woman who answered the phone at the Music Hall assured me that it was. The conversation went something like this:
"Is your theater accessible for the handicapped?"
"Are there any stairs?" I persisted, realizing that many people don't really think about what accessibility entails.
"Yes," she said, "but we have a place in the back for a wheelchair."
"What about bathrooms?" I asked.
"Oh, there are bathrooms upstairs."
"Do you have a handicapped bathroom on the theater level?"
"No, just upstairs."
When I tried to point out the irony of the situation, the woman casually commented, "Well, I guess you'll just have to go to the bathroom before you come to the theater."
How many able-bodied people would patronize a theater with no bathroom? How many would simply accept the advice to "go to the bathroom before you come to the theater"? For some reason, this woman seemed to think such a situation was perfectly acceptable for someone with a disability.
When I first heard that Tom Kempinski's two-character play was being turned into a movie, I was delighted. While I had some problems with certain aspects of the play, it attempted to put a human face on MS, and I appreciated and respected the effort.
The early reports of Julie Andrews' performance in the film version made me even more eager to see it. Assuming it gets to an accessible theater, maybe I still will. Be that as it may, however, a careless disregard for the facts along with insensitivity in selecting a theater for exclusive exhibition rights have turned "Duet for One" into a tragedy of crass indifference. The moviegoing public--both handicapped and able-bodied--deserves better than that.