Today we reminisce about
Directed by James Mangold
Starring: Pruitt Taylor-Vince, Shelley Winters, Liv Tyler, Deborah Harry
* Published specifically for the The Shelley Winters Blogathon hosted by myself and Gill at Realweegiemidget Reviews *
Highland is a sleepy town in upstate New York that runs along the Hudson River. Although it is not far from Poughkeepsie and its world-renowned elite university, in reality it seems light years away. Most of Highland seems forgotten and run-down. Pete and Dolly’s restaurant appears to be no different on the outside with its faded, chipped paint job and kitsch inner décor. However, the neon signs are lit and business is steady. The restaurant is a sort of tavern/roadhouse that serves liquor, has a billiards table and plays lively music until the wee hours of the morning. It is owned and run by Dolly Modino (Shelley Winters) and her adult son Victor (Pruitt Taylor-Vince) who specialises in making hand-tossed pizza.
Working for them is veteran waitress Delores (Deborah Harry) and a new hire, Callie (Liv Tyler), who is taking time off from Syracuse University to figure out what she wants to do in life. Callie is given a warm reception from Dolly who takes a shine to her but she is rebuffed by Delores who is jealous of her youthful innocence. Victor watches Callie from afar, admiring her beauty and looking forward to every exchange they can have, regardless of its context. The two play card games and he teaches her how to toss pizza dough. Dolly seems to understand and approve of the attraction that Victor feels towards Callie but does not push or mock him. Despite the fact that she has a boyfriend her own age, Callie seems curious about Victor and is naturally drawn towards him.
Victor is not someone who speaks very much on a general basis but he is always attentive and reactive. He takes care of his mother as only a dedicated son could, fixing her a buffet breakfast every morning and ensuring the upkeep of the household duties. Besides being a good person, Victor does not seem to have much going for him in this world. His mother enjoys calling the shots and makes all of the important decisions. In his early 30’s, Victor is overweight, has no formal education, and has no experience with women. When Dolly has a fatal heart attack, he must face the stark reality of being on his own and having to directly cope with the outside world.
Figuring out what do make of your life is heavy. Victor is heavy. Facing death is heavy. Moving on is heavy. But in the end, those weights can be lifted.
Thoughts and Discussion
Heavy was director James Mangold’s debut as a filmmaker and he earned much critical acclaim for his effort. The film debuted in January 1995 at the Sundance Film Festival and was also entered into competition at the Cannes Film Festival but was not considered fitting for mainstream theatrical release. This changed when Liv Tyler was recognised for her work in 1996’s Stealing Beauty, having been heavily promoted by the film’s director, Bernardo Bertolucci, who thought of her as his muse. Subsequently, Heavy was given a 5-month theatrical run on a very limited number of screens. Mangold would go on to direct such films as Cop Land, Girl, Interrupted, Walk the Line, and The Wolverine, amongst other ambitious projects.
In retrospect, I remember not really caring for this film the first time that I saw it in the mid ‘90s. At the time, I was completely in love with Liv’s performance in Stealing Beauty and found Heavy to be a shocking departure from the stunning Tuscan countryside. I also found the overall tone of the film too depressing, especially since I was stuck in my own version of Highland and desperately seeking a way to get out of it. Watching Heavy was too close to home and too reminiscent of what everyday life is for a large majority of people: monotonous and plain. It shares quite a few similarities with What’s Eating Gilbert Grape in that it focuses on ordinary, small town people who struggle with social ostracisation and gloomy existences. There is little notion of big-budget Hollywood in this film in terms of style and substance which I now realise is what makes it such a gem.
While the plot and setting might not seem very appealing on the surface, studying films like Heavy can be beneficial to human interest by simply observing human behaviour. It is a film that makes you think. Mangold purposefully limited the amount of dialogue and stressed long, silent takes in which you simply hear background noise. Much of the action is played out via facial expression and body language which in turn enhances the actors’ interpretations. Debbie Harry, best known as the lead singer of the rock band Blondie, is outstanding as Delores. Liv Tyler was a natural on-screen and it is almost unthinkable that this was only her second film role. Her family heritage may have allowed a certain amount of entitlement but she earned her wings as an actress. As for Pruitt Taylor-Vince, it was a delight to see him in a leading role and to take on the challenge of altering himself physically in order to completely encompass the character of Vincent.
Shelley had been making movies for 52 years when she was cast as Dolly Modino. James Mangold had wanted her for the role and after reading the script, Shelley did not hesitate in signing-on to the project. (It is not clear if Shelley was Mangold’s inspiration for the character while he was writing the script.) She shines in Heavy and is as much of a spark plug as she ever was with a great sense of humour and a “take no BS” attitude, showing that one can still be a diva well into their 70’s. Anyone who knows Shelley can attest that she loved to talk and could be very loud, sometimes getting her off on the wrong foot with people. However, she would always try to make amends by acknowledging her faults.
The role of Dolly was a very unglamorous one which required Shelley to go without make-up and to wear the most basic of clothes, usually with an apron tied over them. Dolly spends most of her time in the restaurant cooking food and overseeing operations. She stays up until the wee hours of the night, sometimes falling asleep at work in her faithful rocking chair, and sleeps-in at home late into the morning. These are tough hours to keep for a woman her age but such is the life of a service worker. Not much is shared about her personal life except for that she was married to a now-deceased man named Pete who rescued her from what would have been a fatal accident and that he once had a short-lived sexual affair with a much younger Delores. The two women are often in conflict with one another which would make one wonder why they chose to still work together after the events of the past. Theirs is a true story of love and hate, worthy of a separate film altogether.
“I swear to God he looked just like Burt Lancaster!”
Dolly is the most central character in the film because she links everyone to each other and is very much a matriarch, even to the customers. There is a regular named Leo who gets drunk every night and never fails to seek accommodation wherever he can. Feeling sorry for him, Dolly lets him sleep over at her house in the same room as Victor, almost as if they were teenage boys. In fact, seeing Victor’s room would suggest that he were still an adolescent. There is an infamous Farrah Fawcett poster on the wall, pennants stuck on the wall, and sports memorabilia galore. This decoration stays largely because Dolly still considers her son a dependent even though she herself depends on his care. Victor, being shy and withdrawn, accepts the situation as is because he knows no different. He does have a mounting dissatisfaction but does not have the courage to make changes. Even after his mother’s death, it takes him weeks before he can even clear the table of her last meal. We last see Dolly alive around the 42-minute mark when she is in her hospital bed. There is still an hour left in the film and although she is not physically present during this time, her spiritual presence is always there. The other characters seem somewhat lost without her as if they are missing their prompts. Delores has grown accustomed to her bickering, Callie seems to miss the advice she gives, and even the gas man must change his habitual routine.
Personally, I do not believe the role of Dolly would have been as memorable if Shelley had not played the part. (In her later years, she became the quintessential cool grandmother type which was reflected in her perfect casting as Roseanne Connor’s mother in the television series Roseanne.) This was her last great leading film appearance before she essentially retired from the screen in the late-90’s. It is likely that she knew that another part like this would not be offered to her. Already in the mid-80’s, Shelley would discuss this on her various talk show appearances, clearly frustrated that she still had the momentum to work but that roles were few and far between for older actresses. I hope that all of you reading this will take the opportunity to watch this film if you have not already. You may be pleasantly surprised. 🙂