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  • Post last modified:September 19, 2020

World According to Garp: In the Shadow of Mother


In 1978, John Irving had written three novels but was unhappy with his publisher, Random House. He had just finished ”The World According to Garp” and went to Dutton, a publishing company that no longer exists, hoping that they could promote his novel better. They did, and it was a huge hit, winning awards and making Irving independently wealthy. ”Garp” was a breakthrough for Irving. As for the film adaptation, it was made by a veteran director and an Oscar-winning screenwriter… but the cast did have two eye-opening performances from actors at the start of their movie careers.

Raping a soldier
In 1944, Jenny Fields (Glenn Close) is a nurse who comes across a dying soldier and decides to make use of him for selfish reasons: she wants a child, straddles him and succeeds in making him ejaculate. Some time later, she tells her horrified, wealthy parents (Hume Cronyn, Jessica Tandy) about the rape and her pregnancy. Jenny names her boy T.S. Garp after his father (Technical Sergeant Garp, first name unknown). Garp grows up with his mother and shows an interest in wrestling, writing stories and girls. Jenny isn’t thrilled; the wrestling is fine, but she doesn’t like being included in his stories and she definitely doesn’t want him having sex with girls. In her view, lust is a source of evil.

Still, she does have a strong interest in women’s rights and writes a book of her own that becomes a sensation and inspires a feminist cult following. At the same time, her son struggles with his own writing and his marriage to Helen (Mary Beth Hurt)…

Robin Williams’s first dramatic effort
The movie is as much of a page-turner as Irving’s novel. The casting of Robin Williams and Glenn Close is worth highlighting. This was Close’s first feature film; Williams was a well-known comedian who had a TV hit behind him, Mork & Mindy (1978-1982), as well as the generally derided Robert Altman comedy Popeye (1980), but The World According to Garp became his first dramatic effort. Not that there isn’t a sense of humor in the film, Williams even has a few lines that feels like something he might have improvised on set. But on the whole, this is a serious performance where he’s believable as the frustrated young man who needs to stand on his own two legs and accomplish something quite different from what his mother believes in, even if their talents are similar.

Close is also fine in her performance as a feminist one might initially be tempted to describe as a frigid cliché, but she’s more of an absurdly rational woman with a big heart. One of the people Jenny embraces at her newly founded center for troubled women is Roberta, a trans woman who used to be a promising football player; she becomes Garp’s best friend and Lithgow is terrific in one of his earliest, great performances.

Themes that dominate this sprawling, frequently engrossing film are adultery (which turns into the most challenging issue for both Garp and Helen in their marriage) and extremism, as the characters often encounter men and women who take drastic, violent measures, sometimes in ways that seem uniquely American. Thoroughly unpredictable, the movie has many eyebrow-raising moments, including the most horrifying and heartbreaking blow job in the history of cinema.

Perhaps not all dots are connected in this sensational and unsentimental story, but it is nevertheless touching at times, framed by memorable shots of a baby being lifted in the air to the tunes of The Beatles’s ”When I’m Sixty Four”, underlining the fact that this really is a love story that takes the long perspective.

The World According to Garp 1982-U.S. 136 min. Color. Produced by Robert L. Crawford, George Roy Hill. Directed by George Roy Hill. Screenplay: Steve Tesich. Novel: John Irving. Cinematography: Miroslav Ondricek. Cast: Robin Williams (T.S. Garp), Mary Beth Hurt (Helen Holm), Glenn Close (Jenny Fields), John Lithgow, Hume Cronyn, Jessica Tandy… Amanda Plummer.

Trivia: Christopher Reeve and Jeff Daniels were reportedly considered for the lead role. Hill plays the pilot who crashes into Garp and Helen’s house; Irving a wrestling referee. 

Last word: “I think ‘Garp’ is a wonderful film. It may have lacked a certain madness onscreen, but it had a great core. It had a wonderful sense of family. Maybe if I had known more about children at the time, I could have done more with it. I would love to take now what I know about my son and the powerful feeling of parenthood and play Garp again.” (Williams in 1988, Rolling Stone)



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