Sunday, November 22, 2015

Mr. Holland’s Opus (1995)

Director: Stephen Herek                                Writer: Patrick Sheane Duncan
Film Score: Michael Kamen                           Cinematography: Oliver Wood
Starring: Richard Dreyfuss, Glenne Headly, Jay Thomas and Olympia Dukakas

Mr. Holland’s Opus is a marvel, simultaneously funny and serious, tragic and uplifting, it is sometimes corny but never disingenuous. It’s a very powerful picture, deceptively at times, and not always in those moments when it strives for greatness. While primarily about public school teaching it touches on issues of economic hardship, physical disabilities, wartime loss of life, the generation gap, frustrated artistry, and enduring friendship. The film was written by Patrick Sheane Duncan, who is primarily know for writing military stories, and in terms of his overall career this is easily his best work, receiving a Golden Globe nomination for the screenplay. The director is Stephen Herek who peaked with this film as well, and gradually settled into television work after making a few more features. For the most part the direction is good, with some nice transitions using stock footage to indicate the passing of years. The film score was written by the late Michael Kamen, a second-tier composer who seemed to prefer tonal washes of sound rather than true melodies. But he had worked with Herek both before and after this film, and would provide the music for a documentary that Dreyfuss hosted for the History Channel about the monuments in Washington D.C., in addition to starting a foundation named after the film to provide musical instruments to disadvantaged students and school districts for their band programs.

The film begins in the late fifties in Portland, Oregon. Richard Dreyfuss is a struggling composer who wants to get financially ahead so that he can take some time off for composition. His wife, Glenne Headly, is a struggling photographer and the two of them decide that the best way to make some money is for Dreyfuss to teach high school music for a couple of years. While this is just a fallback position for him, initially, principal Olympia Dukakas makes it clear that the students are to be his first priority. He’s helped in his first year by the inadvertent friendship he develops with P.E. teacher Jay Thomas. One of his first discoveries as a teacher is in his music appreciation class, in which he learns that the students appreciate music much more than their textbook. He also tutors hapless clarinet player Alicia Witt and learns how to be a better teacher in the process. But while he began teaching to allow him to compose music, life intervenes to keep him in the classroom. Headly becomes pregnant and wants a house for her family, so Dreyfuss teaches driver’s ed. in the summer. Soon the early sixties become the late sixties and he finds himself running the marching band and putting on musical productions in the spring. But the most crushing blow comes one afternoon after the city parade, when Headly discovers that their young son is deaf. Not only will more money be needed for special schools and training, but his son will never be able to share in his passion for music.

The emotional gap that began in childhood soon widens the older his son gets, and grows between Dreyfuss and Headly as well, as he is slow to pick up sign language with all of his time absorbed in school responsibilities. One of those is Terrence Howard in an early role, as a disadvantaged athlete that Thomas wants Dreyfuss to put in his band to get his grades up. But the success he has with Howard is dashed a few years later when he dies in the Vietnam War. And tragedy continues to dog Dreyfuss as John Lennon dies a decade later, and he grows ever more estranged from his family. At the same time, budget cuts are affecting the district, Dukakas is replaced by vice principal William H. Macy, who has never liked Dreyfuss, and a young singer, Jean Louisa Kelly, falls in love with him. The transformation of the lead characters as they age is well done--though the younger years strain credulity--and the film becomes a look at a lifetime in teaching rather than a moment. And it is the moments of teaching that are the best part of the film. Dreyfuss is confronted endlessly with challenges that he wants to avoid, but instead his meeting them makes him a better man in addition to a better teacher. And the friendship that he shares with Jay Thomas is as moving as the one he shares with his wife. The struggle he goes through with his deaf son, however, is the real heart of the film and what elevates it to the realm of greatness.

Unlike other actors, Richard Dreyfuss seems to be best at playing regular people. Though his short-lived television series, The Education of Max Bickford lasted only one season, this is the kind of role in which he excels. Dreyfuss received an Oscar nomination for his performance, the only nomination for the film that year, and how Nicholas Cage beat him out is just one of the many travesties of the awards. Glenne Headly and Jay Thomas are very good in their supporting roles, and deserving of nominations themselves, while Olympia Dukakas and William H. Macy are a little more stereotyped as characters. The students in the film are also very good, though. Terrence Howard, Alicia Witt, and Jean Louisa Kelly are all terrific in their roles and add immeasurably to the appeal of the film. The role of Dreyfuss’s deaf son was played by multiple actors, all of them deaf, and both Dreyfuss and Headly had to learn sign language. In addition, Dreyfuss had to put in extra work learning to fake the piano and conducting. The end of the film, while striving to be uplifting, must be conceded as the ultimate failure of our society to support the arts, part of an overall trend of diminishing value placed on art and culture that seems to have no chance of being arrested. Nevertheless, Mr. Holland’s Opus makes a profound statement about the qualities of life that truly matter, all within the context of a wonderfully entertaining film.

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