What the movie business calls women's pictures get scant respect in Hollywood. The phrase signals dismissal and denigration, a way to casually brush off works that deal with emotions more than explosions, that think the complexity of personal relationships is the most compelling subject around.
But women's pictures, as "One True Thing" proves, are really human stories, accessible to anyone who is willing to feel. Based on Anna Quindlen's novel about a mother and daughter brought closer by the prospect of death, "One True Thing" demonstrates that the power of simple things, the transcendent nature of the ordinary, can make for riveting filmmaking.
It's satisfying somehow that Carl Franklin, working from a dependable script by Karen Croner, should be the director who makes this point so strongly. Though the success of his previous features, "One False Move" and "Devil in a Blue Dress," is grounded in their psychological acuity, they're best remembered for being dark, brooding pieces where physical violence is more of a threat than the emotional kind.
It's also appropriate that Meryl Streep, without question the outstanding American actress of her generation, should be the star here. Her role as Kate Gulden--mother, suburban house frau and faculty wife--is one of the least self-consciously dramatic and surface showy of her career, but Streep adds a level of honesty and reality that makes it one of her most moving.
Equally fitting is that "One True Thing," a film that illustrates the narrowness of gender and genre classification, should be about a daughter who comes to question, through the most painful experiences of her life, everything she believes about a woman whose lifestyle she can't consider without shuddering. "My mother was like dinner," novelist Quindlen has her protagonist say. "I needed her in order to live, but I did not pay much attention to what went into her."
Ellen Gulden (Renee Zellweger) grew up in suburban Langhorne, but she moved to Manhattan after graduating from Harvard. A journalist who writes for New York Magazine, she was proud of being someone, again in Quindlen's phrase, "who ate ambition for breakfast and anyone who got in her way for lunch."
Never close to her mother growing up, Ellen considered herself her father's daughter. George Gulden (William Hurt) is a charismatic professor of American literature and a National Book Award winner, and Ellen, embarrassed when her mother calls her "my brilliant daughter," wants nothing more than her father's faintest word of praise.
These family dynamics are visible at a surprise birthday party Kate throws for her husband, where Ellen, scornful and vaguely contemptuous of the choices her mother has made, first mocks this thoroughgoing homemaker for caring which knife is the right one for cutting bread and then clumsily cuts her finger with it. When someone says, "There's no place like home," Ellen immediately responds, "Thank God."
If it wasn't for her father's insistence, Ellen would never have moved back to Langhorne when Kate is diagnosed with cancer. She's got her off-and-on boyfriend in the city and a big story she's working on for the magazine about a senator with personal problems. But when her father turns censorious and says, "You've got a Harvard education, but where is your heart?," she inevitably gives in.
It's not only Ellen who's wary about the journey back, it's Kate as well. While Ellen mocks the Minnies, her mother's group of civic-minded housewives who do things like decorate the town's Christmas trees, Kate is horrified at the thought of anyone else being caring and nurturing around her house.
Much of the drama here involves a daughter who says, "The one thing I never wanted to do was live my mother's life," gradually and subtly realizing that she never understood this woman who is shrewd enough to nail Jane Austen on being condescending to conventional female characters. Ellen also comes to see that there are aspects to her adored father and her parents' marriage that she had no idea existed.
Summarized like this, "One True Thing" tends to sound schematic, and though the film has those elements to it, Franklin's intuitive restraint and sense of balance keep it honest. His direction brings both dignity and decency to what would have been overly obvious material in other hands; letting emotional situations degenerate into treacle is out of the question with him in charge.
Also benefiting from Franklin's steady, focused hand is Zellweger, whose effectiveness has fluctuated between the two poles of "Jerry Maguire" and "A Price Above Rubies." Zellweger's strength, which she gets to emphasize here, is how accessible and close to the surface her emotions are. As her mother's condition worsens, Ellen increasingly seethes with all kinds of resentments, and she feels free to act out what's troubling her in a way her mother never attempted.
As for Streep, this performance is the equal of her best work because she doesn't condescend to a character who is happy to be ordinary and self-effacing. Only gradually does Ellen's vision clear enough to give her and us a second sight into her mother's strength, spirit and purpose, and once that comes it makes the painful physical collapse Kate goes through that much more wrenching.
If there is an acting weakness in "One True Thing," it is William Hurt's performance as the father. While George Gulden is not supposed to be comfortable with ordinary emotions, the flat, irritating sourness that Hurt projects on screen makes him a more distant character than he should be and telegraphs the inevitability of Ellen's change of heart more than is necessary.
Screenwriter Kroner, most of whose work has been for television, has shrewdly put together a script that makes numerous minor departures from Quindlen's novel, including eliminating one of Ellen's brothers (the remaining one is played by Tom Everett Scott) and adding plot strands to beef up different aspects of Ellen's increasingly strained relationship with her dad.
The film's most interesting choice vis-a-vis its source is to downplay the original's melodrama. While the film delicately frames Ellen's story in discreet questioning by a district attorney investigating the possibility that her mother's death was a mercy killing, in Quindlen's novel the D.A.'s search becomes a major public event, involving jail time, newspaper headlines and large amounts of O.J.-type publicity.
It's fascinating that Franklin, whose films have tended toward storm and fury, was astute enough to see the importance of paring away even the suggestion of sensationalism the book offers. While films like "One True Thing" traditionally smother the viewer, Franklin's measured direction creates the space necessary for audiences to react fully, allowing us the freedom to step forward and embrace the emotion, making it completely our own.
* MPAA rating: R, for language. Times guidelines: a few graphic scenes of a cancer patient wasting away.
'One True Thing'
Meryl Streep: Kate Gulden
Renee Zellweger: Ellen Gulden
William Hurt: George Gulden
Tom Everett Scott: Brian Gulden
Lauren Graham: Jules
Nicky Katt: Jordan Belzer
A Monarch Pictures/Ufland production, released by Universal Pictures. Director Carl Franklin. Producers Harry Ufland, Jesse Beaton. Executive producers William W. Wilson III, Leslie Morgan. Screenplay Karen Croner, based on the novel by Anna Quindlen. Cinematographer Declan Quinn. Editor Carole Kravetz. Costumes Donna Zakowska. Music Cliff Eidelman. Production design Paul Peters. Art director Jefferson Sage. Set decorators Leslie A. Pope, Elaine O'Donnell. Running time: 2 hours, 4 minutes.
* In general release throughout Southern California.