Spoiler alert: unavoidably I have to talk about the way some films end because that’s central to this discussion. If you don’t want me to reveal how 50/50 ends please stop reading…Anyone still there?
Having seen Dani Girl, a provocative musical being presented in Toronto about a child with cancer, I decided to watch 50 / 50, a film about a young man with cancer. Although I’d meant to see 50/50 somehow I missed it. I think I may have been afraid of it, and so conveniently let it come and go. I knew I’d eventually catch up to it on the small screen, where I watched it last night.
Linda and Michael Hutcheon have written extensively concerning the way disease and death are represented in opera. Their book Opera: Desire, Disease, Death (1996) looks at several topics; one section compares the way tuberculosis is portrayed in Verdi’s La Traviata and Puccini’s La bohème, suggesting that we can learn something about a culture from the changing ways a disease is represented in art. I am mindful of their readings of different versions of TB as I ponder Dani Girl, 50/50, and think of other films that include cancer. I don’t propose to offer comparable analyses in this small space, but I am simply remembering that Hollywood doesn’t undertake big subjects lightly. If we notice any trends they are probably meaningful, and possible signals of important cultural shifts.
There have been films about cancer for a long time; perhaps there are several genres we can identify.
Dark Victory (1934) is an example of the malignant storyline, where a tragic outcome is more or less a foregone conclusion reflecting the usual perception that cancer is incurable. Wit (2001) is another example of the same powerful plotline.
There are gentler ways to tell these tales. My Life (1993) and Life as a House (2001) frame that same dark journey in terms of the impact on family and the romantic attempt to find meaning in the struggle. These are uplifting films that make one feel better about the outcome even if cancer is still presented as invincible.
Cancer can figure prominently in the background of a film. Terms of Endearment(1983) resembles Wit and Dark Victory in some respects, yet is largely framed by a relationship between the mother and her sick daughter, and not solely concerned with the daughter’s death. In both Stepmom (1998) and Erin Brockovitch (2000) cancer is also key element in the struggle of the protagonist; but in all of these films, the key message is that in spite of cancer & death, “life goes on”.
I think 50 /50 is a signal of something new. I will do everything I can to avoid being a spoiler (giving away the ending). In 50/50 I believe we get a very realistic portrayal. Cancer doesn’t suddenly throw a monkey wrench into an otherwise successful life, as it seems to do in Dark Victory, Terms of Endearment and Wit. The main character in 50/50 is Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a young man who’s in an unhappy relationship with an artist who’s taking advantage of him, and has a terrible relationship with his mother Diane (Angelica Huston, in the least glamorous role I’ve ever seen her undertake). Diane is watching her husband fade away due to Alzheimers, and so hangs on to Adam a bit harder than she might otherwise, a mom whose offers of help are almost completely unwelcome.
The catalyst for much of the dialogue in the film is Adam’s friend Kyle (Seth Rogen), offering his usual assortment of embarrassing adolescent behaviours. Kyle is more than a confidant for Adam, as he seems to function as the voice in his ear as if he were a kind of goofy macho superego, reminding Adam of what a normal male does or does not do. Instead of having to see Adam struggle with manhood issues, Kyle is a wonderful plot contrivance to externalize the more extreme responses that Adam –passive and ill—is largely unable to verbalize. Similarly we watch Adam’s awkward scenes with his therapist Katherine (Anna Kendrick), opportunities for us to find out what he’s feeling as he copes with the different stages of his illness and confronts the possibilities of death.
Written by Will Reiser, directed by Jonathan Levine, 50/50 gives us a version of cancer that’s not nearly so daunting even if death is still front and centre in this film. The title refers to the odds Adam faces with his particular kind of cancer. Rogen & Gordon-Levitt are an intriguing team together. I am not sure I believe that these two would really be friends, yet I’ve seen odder things in real life.
One film can’t really be understood as a trend, but a dose of 50/50 after seeing Dani Girl suggests that cancer is no longer quite the terrifying bogeyman, its invincibility now open to question.
I’m looking forward to seeing both the film and the musical again.