The Man in the Moon (1991)

Director: Robert Mulligan

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

I enjoy family films. I particularly like anything that smacks of a Hallmark Hall of Fame presentation. There is something so warm and fuzzy about the simple, even lyrical dramas Hallmark chooses to sponsor, particularly during the holiday season; in an earlier era, I remember such homespun pleasures presented by Kraft, interrupted infrequently by recipe commercials using Philadelphia Brand Cream Cheese and “Cheezoid.” Just so you know—I’m hardwired to accept sentimental, commercial dramas that promote family values.

This week it was revealed that Reese Witherspoon is now Hollywood’s highest-paid actress. Although her brittle, obsessed performance in Election had some of us fooled that she might spend her time making challenging indie features, her roots and current career trajectory—now well established by her asking price—are mainstream all the way. The best evidence for that fact can be found in her film debut, The Man in the Moon. While it’s a bit risqué for early evening television, this is the kind of film parents should be happy to watch with their tweens and teens, hoping all the while that the kind of romantic/sexual awakenings on the screen represent the kinds of choices their children are up against in this toddling new 21st century. Nonetheless, I believe there is reason to hope that innocence hasn’t really gone completely out of fashion.

manmoon4.jpgThe story, set in 1957 small-town Louisiana, centers on the Trant family. Mama Abby (eternally rural Tess Harper), pregnant with her fourth child; Papa Matthew (Sam Waterston), a stalwart sort; 17-year-old Maureen (Emily Warfield); and 14-year-old Dani (Witherspoon) live in the kind of large, faux-antebellum house with a wraparound, screened porch we all imagine we’d want to grow up in. It’s summer, and the girls beat the heat by sleeping on the porch. Dani, just starting to awaken to the opposite sex, has a crush on Elvis Presley. She lounges on her cot spinning a single of his “Loving You” as Maureen undresses nearby, revealing her curves and filled-up bra. Maureen is considered a beauty and is much sought after by the boys in town. Dani, plain and still railing against wearing skirts, wonders if she will ever attract a suitor. Maureen cautions her not to hurry. Growing up is confusing, and Maureen is often in despair about ever knowing what she really wants and, worse, ever getting it.

One Sunday, Dani races out of her church clothes and runs to a waterhole on the neighboring Foster farm, now long unoccupied. She goes skinny dipping, unaware that a boy is making his way to the hole. He jumps in, startling her as she quickly covers her breast buds. Both accuse the other of trespassing until the young man, 17-year-old Court Foster (Jason London), says his family owns the property. They’ve just moved back to town.

Court is a handsome boy, and Dani develops a crush on him, signaled, of course, by being as nasty to him as possible until he tells her that he likes her spunk. Then she gets some instruction from manmoon3.jpgMaureen on how to kiss and behave around boys. She tries to get Jason to kiss her in the waterhole, but he rejects her brusquely with the suggestive line, “Well you just almost got yourself more than kissed, little girl.” Eventually, she persuades him to be the first boy to kiss her. But her further ambitions toward him are thwarted when he meets Maureen.

This film has the feel of a play to me in the way the dialogue is written and delivered. The actors seem to declaim more than emote, presenting a classic formula for sentimentality. There are some violent and disturbing moments in the film, but aside from a whipping Matt delivers to Dani, they are the stuff of melodrama. For example, a storm suddenly kicks up after Court rejects Dani at the waterhole, setting up a potential tragedy in the Trant family. When the sisters share a mutual loss and then reconcile their rift over Court, it isn’t deeply felt. A possible love triangle between Matt, Abby, and Court’s mother Marie (Gail Strickland), a widow who dated Matt first, is considered by the screenwriter and dropped. Abby got him, and that’s that. The story demands family harmony no matter what.

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And perhaps that’s the beauty of The Man in the Moon to me. Yes, it romanticizes family bonds, first love, and bygone values even as it allows fear, estrangement, and death to bite around the edges. Children need to know that they are safe while they explore some of the complexities of life yet to come, from disappointment in love to predatory adults and raging hormones. When Dani forgives her father for beating her, “I know you feel bad about taking the strap to me … You were scared, I know that,” we understand that Dani is starting to see her father as a person, not the omnipotent figurehead at the top of the family pyramid. When she runs to him after witnessing a terrible accident near the end of the film, young viewers can rest assured that Matt’s earlier show of weakness and Dani’s recognition of it will not affect his ability to continue to provide her with protection and reassurance.

The Man in the Moon has lessons to teach, but they come out of the experiences of the characters, particularly Dani, and therefore provide young viewers role models with whom they can identify. It is important to introduce children to life in ways that will neither scare them to death nor bore them to tears. Perhaps some teens will be too sophisticated for The Man in the Moon, but many of them won’t. And adults like me with a corny streak as wide as Iowa will enjoy the simple nostalgia, likeable characters, and loving families lovingly presented in this film. l

  • Michele spoke:
    24th/07/2009 to 9:53 am

    The man in the moon has been one of my favorite all time movies.The story is so beatifully written and Reese Withersppon was great. I just love this movie. I only wished there had been a sequel with Maureen finding out that she was pregant by Court.

  • Kathleen Ritz spoke:
    15th/09/2009 to 10:23 am

    I watched this movie last night. It got my attention from the beginning. A sweet story without any vulgarity or nudity but teaches several good lessons to young people.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    15th/09/2009 to 10:34 am

    It really is a fine family film. Glad you enjoyed it and stopped by here to say so. Thanks!

  • PHIL DEVOS spoke:
    5th/10/2009 to 3:43 pm

    Years ago I saw Man in the Moon, not then knowing what a star Reese Whitherspoon would be. To me she was the little girl she played so masterfully. You just wanted to wrap her up in your arms, she was so disarmingly sweet! As far as Tess Harper, she seems to end up with the “dutiful” wife (or other female co-star: “TENDER MERCIES”) type role, which she plays beautifully, with under-acting.
    Is Man in the Moon another “Aussie” film?

  • Marilyn spoke:
    5th/10/2009 to 5:16 pm

    No, this is not an Aussie film. This is an MGM film.
    Thanks for stopping by.

  • Lacey Howard spoke:
    21st/03/2010 to 4:27 pm

    At first, I didn’t change the channel simply because I recognized Reece. But, very quickly I connected with Reece’s character. It broke my heart. I cried so much. It was bitter sweet, watching this film. After the first tragedy I was hooked. I have yet to see a movie that captivated me more.

  • Marie spoke:
    5th/10/2010 to 11:15 am

    I passed over this movie so many times and then decided to watch it the other night and am so glad I did. I really didn’t know Reese Witherspoon was in it and she was just remarkable! She was so touching, and convincing, that my heart broke for her situation. I too, cried, especally when she is getting rejected by Court. This is one of the best films I have ever watched; I was mesmerized by it!!!!!!

  • Marilyn spoke:
    5th/10/2010 to 1:19 pm

    It looks like the film is slowly but surely building a fan base for today. That’s good. Thanks, all, for commenting.

  • Adam Zanzie spoke:
    1st/12/2010 to 9:32 pm

    This is an exquisite film in every sense of the word: sumptuous cinematography by Freddie Francis; a lovely James Newton Howard score; an insightful script by Jenny Wingfield; and top-notch performances all around by Waterston, Harper, Warfield and London. I was particularly surprised by how good Reese Witherspoon is in the movie. I’ve never exactly been a fan of her acting since she mostly does commercial work, as you’ve written. But she was different here. It’s a natural performance.

    What a fitting final project, too, for Robert Mulligan. I swear that every new movie I’ve seen of his makes me gain more appreciation for his old-fashioned, slow-burning style. I consider him one of my top 5 favorite American filmmakers: the opening scene of this movie, with the camera tracking down from the moon and over to the front porch while set to Elvis music, is a typical Mulligan shot. The work of an undiscovered auteur, I would add. I can’t believe nobody’s written a book about his filmography yet.

    Why he decided not to make a film after this is a mystery to me. I am wondering if perhaps his outrage over the film’s censorship on airlines had something to do with it; back when The Man in the Moon was released and began showing on airplanes, it was censored so ridiculously that Mulligan even went so far as to take his name off of the cut. According to Mulligan, these were the details:

    “They said none of the kids in the film could say ‘hell’ or ‘damn’…they wanted to cut a moment at the top of the film when the family is going to church and one of the girls says, ‘I hate church.’ They cut all of the so-called nudity, which consisted of the younger kid skinny-dipping by herself in a country pond, where you saw no nudity but a bare bottom, from a distance. A completely innocent scene. They cut anything that resembled nudity of any kind, even two young people in a very masked situation making love in middle of woods.”

    I gotta say: those ARE pretty ridiculous censors. I’m curious if Mulligan must have gotten blacklisted by the studio system after making these comments, since he never did make another movie. Or perhaps he had gotten cynical of Hollywood by that point since they had been reducing him to directing a bunch of tarpit product like Clara’s Heart (which, to be sure, I haven’t seen, but I’ve heard awful things). Whatever the case, I’m at least happy that he went out with a bang.

    What I love about this movie is that it’s at once touching, nostalgic and disturbing. I wasn’t prepared at all for that grisly ending; I’m glad I didn’t watch the theatrical trailer first, since it gives it away. It takes the movie into an entirely different direction. It reminded me of similar kinds of grisly deaths in Mulligan’s other movies–like Boo Radley stabbing Bob Ewell with the kitchen knife in To Kill A Mockingbird. Or “Piggy” falling on the concealed pitchfork in The Other. For an old-fashioned director, Mulligan sure wasn’t afraid to get visceral when he had to. But Court’s death in The Man in the Moon really hurts, and the effect it has on Danny’s relationship with her sister is devastating.

    The way Mulligan analyzes parenting in this film, specifically the father, kind of reminded me of Karl Malden’s controlling father in Fear Strikes Out. But, I must confess, I very nearly wept during the scene where Danny and her father reconcile and hug; it’s sentimental for sure, but man, it works. And that part at the end where Danny is screaming and running into her father’s arms reminded me of Scout running into Atticus Finch’s arms after being attacked in the forrest. Again, typical Mulligan!

    Ebert writes in his review that he considers it Mulligan’s most “perfect” film. I wouldn’t quite go that far, since the movie is not without flaws; as you’ve written here, it’s ironic how the love triangle between the parents is only considered in passing. Although I liked the final scene where Danny and Maureen join hands in mourning over the death of Court. While the resoration of their sisterhood isn’t fully explored, I guess I was content with Maureen laying her head on Danny’s lap, since, by that point, the movie had me completely. Though it’s not my #1 favorite Mulligan (that would probably be Summer of ’42), it is truly a masterful piece of work and a remarkable swan song for such an innovative, overlooked filmmaker.

  • SK Cole spoke:
    20th/04/2012 to 8:52 pm

    I have watched this so many times, that every time I’m at a flea market or similar place and find the vhs I have to buy it cause I’ve wore out so many. This movie has got the greatest story line, the best scenery, and my the cast looked as if they truely were a family, great resemblences… I love these movies with a set of the 50′ s era and especially Louisiana.. this is and will always be my favorite movie. Everyone played their role magnificently…Great, great movie…

  • Mo spoke:
    24th/04/2012 to 7:45 am

    I’ve seen this many times and am watching it now. It is just a very enjoyable film.

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