I’ve always been fascinated by the unique long-term collaborations and special working relationships between famous actors and great directors. For instance, between 1939-1966, John Wayne made 14 films with director John Ford, including two of Wayne’s greatest performances in “The Quiet Man” and “The Searchers.” Katherine Hepburn made ten films with director George Cukor between 1932-1979, including her first film in “Bill of Divorcement”, “The Philadelphia Story,” and two classic comedies with Spencer Tracy.
And need I forget, Alfred Hitchcock made four suspenseful films with Cary Grant, including “Notorious” and “North by Northwest” and four starring James Stewart, including the tension-filled classics, “Rear Window” and “Vertigo.” In more modern times Robert De Niro has appeared in nine feature films since 1973, directed by his buddy Martin Scorsese, including outstanding films like, “Taxi Driver” and “Raging Bull,” to last year’s “The Irishman.”
This week’s Hidden Gem “The Accidental Tourist” (1988) marked the third collaboration in the 1980s between Oscar-winning actor William Hurt and director Lawrence Kasdan. Their two previous collaborations were “Body Heat” and “The Big Chill.” This adaptation of Anne Tyler’s 1985 best-selling novel was scripted by Kasdan and Chicago’s Steppenwolf and Goodman Theatres’ Frank Galati. This heartwarming melodrama received four Oscar nominations, including best picture, adapted screenplay, musical sound score by John Williams and Geena Davis for best supporting actress, which she won. Kasdan’s wonderful cinematographer, John Bailey, captures so many quaint Baltimore locales in this film.
“The Accidental Tourist” is an interesting blend of melancholy, deep sadness and joy, a tale of one man’s great loss and eventual redemption. Macon Leary (Hurt) is a well-known writer of business travel guidebooks, whose 12-year-old son Ethan is killed leaving his life horribly fragmented and his wife, Sarah, feeling all alone. When Macon returns from a trip to Atlanta, Sarah (Kathleen Turner) suddenly reveals she moving on, “You know I love you. I can’t live with you anymore—I want a divorce.” She tells him he leads a muffled life and thinks he hides in the writing of his silly books.
So, Macon begins life on his own, with only Edward, his pet corgi to keep him company. Macon’s occasional voice-over narration provides bits of whimsical humor and helpful advice about travel destinations, hotel suggestions in various international cities, and general advice for the reluctant business traveler.
Before an extended overseas business trip, Macon realizes a need to seek a new place to board Edward and he stumbles on to a new boarding service on a nearby road to work. Here he meets the company’s proprietor and animal trainer, Muriel Pritchard (Geena Davis), who takes an immediate liking to Edward and a unique interest in Macon.
When Macon falls in a basement accident breaking his right leg, he spends weeks recuperating at his sister’s house with his two eccentric adult brothers, who all live there together. Amy Wright plays his sister Rose; Ed Begley Jr. is brother Charles and David Ogden Stiers is Porter. Soon the charming Ms. Pritchard hunts down Macon for more than one reason and offers to give obedience lessons to Edward. Dog lovers will thoroughly enjoy the expressive nature of Edward as he responds to tongue clicks for his praise and cowers at hissing sounds of reprimands. It’s some of the best animal acting this side of any live-action Disney film.
Before long Macon is mending his life, finding new joys living with Muriel and becoming a surrogate father to her young son Alexander.
At the center of the film is the remarkable chemistry between Hurt’s Macon and Davis’ Muriel. Hurt acts in a similar subdued manner that generations before made actors like Spencer Tracy and Gregory Peck so effective. With his pensive eyes, Hurt invites us into his character’s inner turmoil. Never explosive or angry, with a voice in a lower register that is sometimes slightly above a mumbling whisper, Hurt is ever so effective as a melancholy guy trying to start life anew. Davis has a uniquely kooky demeanor, expressive smile, and her quirky colorful attire is usually topped with a bright bow in her hair. Her lightly comedic spirit is also tainted with divorce and a rather sickly seven-year-old son, who suffers from many allergies.
Eventually, Macon’s wife Sarah works her way back into his life after they meet at his sister Rose’s wedding. They try a reconciliation, but Macon realizes things aren’t right. He tells Sarah, “I’m beginning to think that maybe it’s not just how much you love someone. Maybe what matters is who you are when you’re with them.” Muriel has given him another chance to decide who he is.
“The Accidental Tourist” is such an outstanding tale, it was called by Roger Ebert one of the best films of 1988. I think it’s also an ideal time for younger viewers to experience the diverse talents of William Hurt, an actor they may only know as Secretary of State Thaddeus Rose from several recent Marvel films.