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To Gillian on Her 37th Birthday

1 rating: 3.0
A movie directed by Michael Pressman

Two years after the death of his wife Gillian (Michelle Pfeiffer) in a boating accident, grieving widower David (Peter Gallagher) discovers that his obsession with her has alienated his sensitive teenage daughter Rachel (Claire Danes) and caused him … see full wiki

Cast: Claire Danes
Director: Michael Pressman
Release Date: 1996
MPAA Rating: PG-13
1 review about To Gillian on Her 37th Birthday

Gillian on her 37th birthday – remembering lost loves

  • Nov 24, 2001
Pros: Gallagher, Baker and oh, yeah, that red thong bikini (grin)

Cons: none

The Bottom Line: This movie may offer more than what is shown on the surface

The Oracle says: Bruce Altman has a Bacon number of 2.

Bruce Altman was in Paper, The (1994) with Lynne Thigpen
Lynne Thigpen was in Novocaine (2001) with Kevin Bacon ***

At age 35, Gillian (Michelle Pfeiffer), had a tragic and fatal boating accident leaving behind a deeply grieving husband, Peter Gallagher, and a lonely 14 year old daughter, Claire Danes.

As had been the custom for years preceding her death, a lavish birthday bash was held at the beach house where they stayed. Sandcastle competitions were held, a huge dinner in full dress, a Karaoke party – an entire weekend devoted to Gillian and her family. Following her death, Gallagher practically becomes a recluse on the mostly deserted island, moving there full time and taking his heartbroken daughter with him.

Fearing he is near the end of his sanity, his sister-in-law, Gillians’ sister, Kathy Baker, wants to step in and take custody of the daughter. Being both removed and involved in the relationship, she can see the effect this relative isolation is having on her niece. Not only losing her mother, but also now losing her father as well, to his grief and pain.

However, adding a little mix to this soup is the fact that Gallagher believes he still sees Gillian, walking the beaches at night. He often spends hours, sometimes the entire night, walking at her side and holding in depth conversations with her. In effect, except for the physical relationship, for Gallagher the marriage has never ended because he still sees Gillian as much as ever. No one else can, naturally, so you can see the problem here (we can see her but we don’t count).

Finally, the weekend arrives once again, Gillian’s 37th birthday, and the proposed hoopla that accompanies this gala event. Baker and husband (Bruce Altman) arrive, bringing along a ‘lady friend’ for Gallagher. This is disastrous because the woman is not aware this is the fated anniversary and Gallagher just isn’t ready to step into the dating pool again because in his mind he is still married to the ghostly Gillian.

Things really get out of hand. Tempers are strained to the nth degree, sexual allure is running rampant. Daines is striving to gain attention by being with the wrong person (Freddie Prinze, Jr.), her best friend (Rachael Seidman-Lockamy) – a smarmy little tart that has wandering eyes for Altman does her best to entice him in a lucrative tete-a-tete and Gallagher confesses to everyone his ongoing relationship with the dear, departed Gillian.

Needless to say, if there were ever going to be a major blowup, this would be the time. But I’ll leave the balance of the trauma to your own viewing.

Loves found and loves lost
The movie didn’t receive the best response from the box office and even less from critics. I liked it, but then again, I’m strange.

Several things were brought up that I would like to cover. First, few saw the need for Kathy Baker’s role in the movie, and naturally did not care for her character which was basically an intrusive b!tch. So be it. I found her presence both needed and responsible throughout the movie. Without Baker’s and Altman’s interaction with Gallagher and Daines, we are simply stuck with another love sick person wasting their lives away on a deserted island.

By adding Baker and Altman to the story (Baker for the firmness and Altman for the comedy), we have the possibility of fleshing out both Pheiffers’ almost nonexistent role in the film and give her meat and personality, but also giving Gallagher someone to work his convoluted characterization out on. Do we want to be stuck with another Ryan O’Neal from Love Story, or another Robin Wright from Message in a Bottle? I think not. We want resolution, we want Gallagher to bury his ghosts, explore love again, discover his daughter again.

Secondly, many believed this was a lame assed story about a lovesick man. But grief is neither lame assed nor lovesick. It is real and it is powerful and it can be all consuming. Not only did Gallagher refuse to accept the death of his wife, but also refused to open himself up to those in his circle, eventually closing all the grief back into himself. Not healthy, not healthy in the least. Then again, no one really seemed to step forward to offer him support until it appeared he was at the breaking point. See, this is how death rules the living.

Those on the perimeter of death, friends and associates and even some family members, hesitate to intrude on your grief. What they don’t understand, intrusion is what is needed. You need someone to step forward and take control – no, not immediately, but later. After the casserole dishes are washed and returned. After the thank you cards are sent out. After the floral arrangements have been tossed away.

In other words, when the true grief begins.

When you wake up in the morning and don’t see the face in your life anymore, or when the Christmas card comes from someone that has been out of touch for a while and is addressed to the person that has passed. When you look into the mirror and only see empty eyes staring back at you. That is when you need the intrusion, the hand, the heart, the love. But by then others have moved on, they have ‘forgotten’, their lives have proceeded and all the while, yours has stopped.

Just a personal observation, but something I received from the movie that I guess few others bothered to investigate or even acknowledge.

Acting, directing and oh my golly, isn’t the beach beautiful?
Peter Gallagher is a tough nut to crack. I find few movies where I am even interested in the part he is playing since it is usually nondescript and bland. In this instance, however, I think he was a perfect choice. A good looking man, successful, at the top of his life – brought to destruction.

We want better for him, we want him to recover and succeed. Given the part to a Brad Pitt or Tom Cruise, we wouldn’t have the same reaction. Both are way too cute and full of themselves to make us feel this pain or desolation. Given to an older actor like Costner, Newman, Redford – we would feel they had already had a pretty complete life and had enjoyed the love they had. Not that this would diminish the pain any, but would give us, the viewer, an out.

So, in this instance, Gallagher was the perfect pick. In addition, I thought his delivery was good, he seemed to give a good deal to the role and overall gave me a feeling that he was personally immersed in the grief. He also had some comedic twists that I enjoyed and I guess I’ll have to look at other movies with him differently in the future.

Michelle Pfeiffer was her usual ethereal self, but really not more than a ghost in the movie. The concept of her part however, added dimension to the story line. Besides, who could look more like Claire Daines mother than Pfeiffer? Which brings us to Daines. Painful, needy and all teenage attitude. She is beautiful and accomplished and I believe she fit perfectly in her role. And she had that thong bikini – sigh

I had no problems with the directing, the acting or the basic story line of the movie. In fact, I find little to fault with the entire production. The setting made the movie – those glorious moonlit nights with the reflection on the ocean, shaded fog and flitting shadows.

If you have not had the opportunity to see this movie, try to add it to your list. If you have viewed it, think about giving it another shot. Shove aside the fluff and look into the interior of the characters and the movie. Perhaps you may be surprised and perhaps, just perhaps, you might come away with a different value about death and grieving than you had before. But that is just my opinion.

Academy Award Nominations: Zip.

Directed by Michael Pressman, writing credits to Michael Brady & David E. Kelley.


***Compliments of: Department of Computer Science
School of Engineering, University of Virginia


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