Monday, September 20, 2021

Starring Tom Skerritt

It opens on September 24th. The new film, EAST OF THE MOUNTAINS, stars Tom Skerritt in the lead role. The veteran actor is now in his 80s and he can still bring it. He was quite properly annoying as the overbearing, bigoted father to Tom Hanks character in 2016's A HOLOGRAM FOR THE KING. He was lively and thoughtful in a strong scene with Harry Dean Stanton in 2017's LUCKY. The two actors were crewmates on the starship Nostromo in 1979's ALIEN. I'm a longtime Tom Skerritt fan. My appreciation of him goes back to 1977's THE TURNING POINT in which he and Shirley MacLaine played a married pair of former ballet dancers. That film did very well come Oscar nomination time. It also did very well at the box office. Skerritt and MacLaine reunited as cast members in 1989's STEEL MAGNOLIAS.

 EAST OF THE MOUNTAINS has Tom Skerritt in peak form. I hope his performance ignites buzz for a Best Actor Oscar nomination. The story is based on a novel of the same name. Skerritt plays Ben Givens. As the film opens, we see him having breakfast alone. Tea and toast. He's casually well-dressed. His home is immaculate. Nothing out of place. No clutter. However, the colors of the scene and his dwelling are gray and off-white. No bright colors. This visual gives his home the sterility of a hospital room. That's fitting as Ben was a cardiac surgeon for a long time in Seattle. He lives alone in the Pacific Northwest. In the pan around the room the camera gives us, we see a framed photo of a young bride and groom. If we assume that Ben is a widower, we are correct.

After breakfast, he pets his dog, goes upstairs to a bedroom, sits on the bed and puts  rifle to his mouth. After a few intense seconds, he decides against committing suicide. Instead, he has dinner with his loving daughter at a nice restaurant -- and hurts her feelings -- and then goes on a road trip to the mountains. Just his senior citizen self, the dog and the rifle. Ben plans to do some bird-hunting and visit a site or two from his youth. Something dangerous happens at night. It's a good thing he has his rifle. However, his vehicle is disabled and he's forced to accept the kindness of strangers.

Road movies are not about sightseeing. They're about the things learned along the way. Ben, the heart surgeon, needs to work on his own heart. He pushes loved ones away. He doesn't respond to those who try to keep in touch. Then he blames them for why the relationships are frayed. One of the people he meets along the way is a veterinarian. She, like he, is a military vet. Ben has a great economy with words but her kindness draws him out. He continues his journey. There will be more intense situations with guns. Here's a trailer.

Skerritt's character is not frail but he is ailing. He's guarded with his words -- not saying too much, probably to keep an emotional distance. The themes of EAST OF THE MOUNTAINS are life, death and love. We will come to see the power of such simple statements as "I'm so glad to see you" and "I'm so sorry." Mira Sorvino plays Ben's daughter. Annie Gonzalez hits just the right note as the Iraq/Afghanistan vet veterinarian. This compact, moving drama was directed by SJ Chiro. She did a mighty fine job. The film runs about 90 minutes. Tom Skerritt is excellent as the retired heart surgeon who must learn to open his broken heart.

Tom Skerritt was in Robert Altman's 1970 hit military comedy, M*A*S*H*. He played one of the GIs in the Korean War. In EAST OF THE MOUNTAINS, he's a veteran Marine who served in the Korean War.

In 1985, I had the supreme joy of interviewing Tom Skerritt when I was new to New York and working on WPIX TV/Channel 11. In our studio interview, he laughed when I mentioned that I'd heard he'd been offered points -- a certain percentage of the box office profits -- in two movies he'd made: THE TURNING POINT and ALIENS. I'd also heard he decided to take a flat fee and did not have points in those two box office winners. I didn't ask him to confirm this as I didn't want to put him on the spot. So I said, "If you were offered points in the movie you just wrapped, I hope you took them. What's the name of the movie?"

He giggled and replied, "TOP GUN."

At the end of the interview, he gave me a big, warm, wonderful bear hug. 

In EAST OF THE MOUNTAINS, one character looks at Ben and says "You're one ugly old man."

Hardly. What I would not give for another Tom Skerritt bear hug.

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