Contemporary Film Talk: ‘Heavy’ (1995)

Today we reminisce about

Heavy (1995)

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Directed by James Mangold

Starring: Pruitt Taylor-Vince, Shelley Winters, Liv Tyler, Deborah Harry

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* Published specifically for the The Shelley Winters Blogathon hosted by myself and Gill at Realweegiemidget Reviews *

Synopsis

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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The Modino homestead

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.

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Shelley Winters

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.

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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!”

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As Dolly is reminiscing over the story of how she met her husband, she just happens to mention this. It is clearly an in-joke of sorts since Shelley and Burt enjoyed a long romantic affair. Their break-up was hardly on good terms but they managed to end up being friends.

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.

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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. 🙂

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Little touches of Shelley were placed in the restaurant and in the Modino home, such as this photo of Shelley and an unidentified man that was taken during her heydey in Classic Hollywood. It sort of looks like Montgomery Clift from afar but perhaps it is one of her ex-husbands.

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17 thoughts on “Contemporary Film Talk: ‘Heavy’ (1995)

  1. I have not seen this film. I don’t believe I have even heard of it before reading your intriguing article. I shall certainly seek it out.

    – Caftan Woman

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You are always so kind, Paddy. Thank you! 😀
      I’m glad that you are curious about this film and hope that you can watch it sometime. It is online even though the quality isn’t great. 😉

      Like

  2. Thanks for this, Erica. I, like the previous commenter, had never heard of this film before. This sounds like a great cast. I considered Pruitt Taylor-Vince a fine character actor and am frankly surprised to learn he had a leading role.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You are so welcome, Michael, and thank you! 🙂
      The cast is just amazing and it’s incredible to think that two of the leads (Liv & Debbie) were not even professional actors. As for Pruitt, this was really a shining moment for him. He’s a really talented guy. I don’t watch television but I heard that he has been on some horror shows, with much acclaim received from viewers/fans. In fact, he was at the recent horror-related charity event and gave a great interview!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. One horror related role I thought Pruitt was great in was the troubled priest in Constantine. It isn’t a huge part and may get forgotten amid other great performances by Tilda Swinton and Peter Stormare but it is worth paying attention to.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Wow! Shelley, Liv, AND Debbie Harry?!?! How have I never heard of this film?! Great review and it’s going right to the top of my must see list. I love how Shelley was not afraid to be unglam.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, yes, and yes!! You would undoubtedly love this film just for those three ladies alone. Debbie’s role is also very unglam and she is just SO good in the film. I read that Mangold was a friend of Debbie who reassured him about Liv, who she had known since a very young age. (Those grand rock stars!!) Debbie ended up getting cast alongside Liv. It’s quite amazing. 😀
      My fingers are crossed so that you will get to see this film soon. It’s a film that has an enormous amount of merit but that has remained a sleeper all these years. Thanks to Shelley, it’s being rediscovered again, even if it is on a small scale. 😉 Thanks, Zoe!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Thanks for this film , like the others hadn’t heard of it but sounds an interesting cast. Thanks for being such a wonderful co-host, was lovely to “work” with you. Great topic choice to as this versatile actress so deserved a blogathon!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m so glad to see that this film is being revived somehow. I think Shelley did quite a few smaller, independent projects for which she was very proud. Some of them don’t even have informational pages like Wiki and IMDb. It is a fantastic film and I’m so glad that I was inspired to write about it after rewatching the film on a whim a few months ago. 😀
      Thank you so much, Gill, for initiating this project and for choosing to work with me. It seems like it was definitely Shelley’s moment!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Heavy sounds like the kind of film I went out of my way to watch in the 1990’s, but it somehow slipped past me!

    Thank you, Erica for introducing this film to me!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You are welcome, John! 😀
      I’m so glad you know about it now. I kind of miss the days when you would just peruse the video ailes and sometimes pick out random VHS’ just from the look of the covers. I’m surprised that this film did not receive more hype but I think that domestic Indie had a tough time in the face of the huge Miramax invastion during the 1990’s.

      Like

  6. Lovely post on a film I have yet to see. What a cast! Nice to see Miss Winters got some nice juicy roles toward the end of her career, too.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Christopher! 😀
      Indeed, the cast is amazing. I only realised a few days ago that the woman who plays the shopkeeper (and the possible love interest for Victor) is the sister of Aidan Quinn. It was a really prestigious Indie project that definitely deserves more love.
      I, too, am really glad that she had this last “hurrah” role and that she was also very appreciated by the cast & crew. 🙂

      Like

  7. I love this movie! It reminded me of Marty (1955), another great film about ordinary people. A sad but poignant tale with fantastic performances! BTW, I’m also a huge fan of Stealing Beauty… 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m so glad to hear it, Eric! Wow, you are so right in comparing it with ‘Marty’. Those kind of films are beautiful and sad at the same time, just as they draw you in yet slightly make you weary.
      ‘Stealing Beauty’ was the swan-like song of my youth. We’ll always have Tuscany. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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