by Frank Calvillo
Leonardo DiCaprio’s wilderness epic The Revenant is finally being given its wide release so that audiences everywhere can marvel at what is one of the most intense portrayals of the wilderness ever put to film. At the center of it is DiCaprio, whose manic-like commitment to the role is almost as incredible as the challenges his character must face.
The Revenant serves as a reminder of just how with each project he takes on, the actor is more than willing to lose himself completely inside his character and is never worried about coming off likeable or heroic so long as his work feels real.
My personal favorite example of this remains DiCaprio’s pre-superstar work alongside Meryl Streep, Diane Keaton, and Robert Deniro in the still-unheralded drama Marvin’s Room.
Based on the successful play, Marvin’s Room tells the story of two estranged sisters. Older sister Bessie (Diane Keaton) has spent most of her adult life taking care of her bedridden father Marvin (Hume Cronyn) and her ailing Aunt Ruth (Gwen Verdon) in Florida, while younger sister Lee (Meryl Streep) has her hands full in Ohio raising 13-year-old Charlie (Hal Scardino) and 17-year-old Hank (DiCaprio), a delinquent who is serving a stint in a mental hospital after burning down his family’s home. When it is discovered that Bessie has leukemia, her physician Dr. Wally (DeNiro) encourages her to contact her family in the hopes of finding a match for a bone marrow transplant. The reunion between the two sisters instantly brings forth a wealth of memories and resentment as the once-distant family tries to repair itself.
The heart of Marvin’s Room is a tale of two sisters whose lives took completely opposite turns. While Lee escaped home and ended up in a bad marriage, resulting in raising two kids on her own, Bessie sacrificed her hopes, dreams, and desires in order to take care of her father and aunt. Its interesting to see the way in which both sisters coped with and resigned themselves to the lives they chose. While Lee revels in the bitterness that has resulted from having to be everything to her children (one of whom she has an incredibly compromised and volatile relationship with) Bessie works hard to combat any sadness and regret through optimism. However there’s a sense of slight jealousy that’s evident between Bessie and Lee, with the former envious of the fact Lee has two remarkable sons and the latter a bit resentful that her sister manages to be happy and content living the life she herself tried so hard to run away from.
And yet, as far apart as they are physically and emotionally, there’s never any question that the familial bond rings true, such as when Dr. Wally lays out for Lee the possibilities of what might happen to Bessie. The scene works, as does the scene in which Bessie removes her wig for Lee to style, revealing for the first time, her balding head. In both instances, the revelatory look on Lee’s face rings so true because it signifies Bessie’s mortality, what she’s missed while being away how much she actually loves her sister.
As heavy as the content within Marvin’s Room can be, the film manages some welcome and well-timed comedic moments, with most of the laughs coming from the foibles and intricacies of its characters. Every laugh each character earns comes courtesy of playwright Scott McPherson’s screenplay, making the most seemingly laugh-free situations hilarious. The scene when Bessie describes their father’s condition to the recently-arrived Lee, she explains, “Dad’s dying. He’s been doing it for about 20 years so I don’t miss anything.” Equally funny is the scene where Lee, about to graduate with a degree in cosmetology, brags to Bessie about already having gotten her first job. “I did hair for a T.V. commercial. It was local, but guess how much they paid me,” Lee states excitedly, to which Bessie disinterestedly replies: “I don’t feel like guessing.” When Lee persists by repeating she guess, Bessie halfheartedly asks: “300 dollars?” Lee takes a puff from her cigarette and flatly says, “That’s right.” The beauty of mixing the comedy and drama in Marvin’s Room is that they both manage to work in a way that mirrors the comedy and drama of real life.
The problem that typically arises with most stage to screen adaptations, particularly one centered around a family, is that its incredibly difficult to make the finished product feel like anything but a filmed version of a play. While there’s a small feeling of staginess present during some of Marvin’s Room’s extended home scenes, there’s more than enough action and locations throughout to ensure that the story never feels closed in, while at the same time adding to the material. As a result, Marvin’s Room always retains that intimate feeling while managing to be extremely cinematic at the same time. The best example of this has to be the scene between Hank and Bessie sitting in a parked car on the beach where they engage in a conversation about the past, culminating with Hank speeding along the shore as water splashes all around them while the two laugh with delight.
Its difficult to put down into words the magic that happens when Streep and Keaton are on screen together. Every scene the two share is filled with a powerhouse of emotions as well as flawless comedic timing in what may be one of the greatest on-screen pairings of all time. It;s a testament to the two actresses and their commitment to their respective roles, that watching the two play sisters always rings true.
As Hank, Dicaprio successfully achieved his most dramatically complex role to date, playing a character who is not only perpetually angry, but also doesn’t fully understand WHY he’s angry, living with a maddening angst and resentment toward all he meets. The fact that the young actor was able to pull such a tricky feat off while holding his own alongside the legends that are Streep and Keaton is nothing short of mesmerizing to watch.
Falling squarely into the category of films destined to be loved by critics, but not so much audiences, Marvin’s Room received large amounts of critical acclaim upon its release while failing to make back its modestly-sized budget. Meanwhile Streep earned a Golden Globe nomination and Keaton was nominated as Best Actress at the Oscars as a result of their flawless work.
Even the teaming of two of modern cinema’s most acclaimed and beloved actresses alongside one of Hollywood’s then-burgeoning talents wasn’t enough to secure Marvin’s Room as a future classic. Yet, the film’s powerful comment on the strength of family and the profound effects of the life paths people choose to follow, rings true to anyone lucky enough to discover it.