Welcome to week four of MD at The Movies, where Dystrophy Dad and I have been reviewing movies featuring characters with Muscular Dystrophy. We’re one week away from our final post, which will be quite different too. You can read more about this at the end of the review.
This week we’re discussing A Time to Live, a TV Drama from 1985 starring Liza Minnelli as Mary-Lou and Corey Haim as her young son Peter, who is diagnosed with Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy.
Joe: This is by far the oldest of the films we’ve reviewed. It’s only a year younger than I am and it has all the hallmarks and the hair you’d expect from the mid-eighties.
Our two main characters are played by the legendary Liza Minnelli, whom I mostly know as the star of Cabaret and “producer” of Judy Garland, and Corey Haim, who is as synonymous with the 80’s as neon leg-warmers.
Let’s see how they do.
Emma: Whilst our last film Stuart: A Life Backwards was also a drama, there were flashes of humour throughout, a Time to Live is our first completely dramatic feature.
It’s also the oldest film Joe and I have reviewed in this series, so I was expecting an entertaining yet realistic portrayal of life with Muscular Dystrophy and how that affects a family.
Joe: I’ve never struggled to explain a plot as much as I have with this film because I feel there isn’t one. At the core, it’s the story of a mother and her son after the diagnosis of Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy and their experiences from then on in.
Duchenne is introduced within the first 3.5 minutes, explained in a robotic and rushed manner by a consultant. So rushed in fact I felt that the actress was scared of forgetting her lines.
“One doesn’t die of Muscular Dystrophy, one dies of Pneumonia,” says the soulless specialist. “He might live into his third decade’ – Other than the prophetic nature of Corey Haim’s death in his thirties, her words hold no gravity due to their delivery.
Liza plays her role either shell-shocked or manic, there’s no in-between. The scenario itself is sad, but the acting removes the punch, like a teacher at a school disco.
As Peter grows, Mary-Lou puts a brave face on things, playing the clown and refusing to show her hurt in front of him. Sadly I don’t feel we get enough of Peter’s story, he’s a sympathetic character but I’d like to know more about him – he’s often used as a plot device to force drama when the plot gets stale.
There are some unusual missteps including a scene involving Extra Sensory Perception, as creepy as a scene from Poltergeist and a metaphysical surgery performed on his “spirit body” by a faith healer in Paris.
It would be ignorant of me to overlook the marital troubles we see forming but they’re inconsistent, there are bursts of temper but no learning, no adapting. They just get annoyed at each other, then make up. There’s no depth.
Emma: Most of our time is spent with Mary-Lou and Peter, detailing the physical and emotional struggles that come with living with a muscle wasting disease, and how this affects a family.
It does it’s best to show Mary-Lou’s fear of loss, her guilt for “giving” her son Muscular Dystrophy and the overwhelming need she has to protect Peter.
Sadly, this comes across very much one-sided, with little attention paid to Peter’s experiences. There are many scenes between the two but there is little attention paid to Peter himself. I would have liked to have seen and heard more from him. What was he thinking? What was he feeling?
It was clear they both had a special mother-son bond, made stronger in some ways by Peter’s disability. Mary-Lou knew exactly what would make Peter happy whenever he was upset, by singing ‘awful songs” or letting him rock out to loud music while banging on drums, all the while concealing her own sorrow.
As one would expect from such a drama, there is a sad ending but it stops short of showing us the outcome of a life with Duchenne.
Joe: This is a rather weird route to go but I’d rather talk about Peter’s gran, Mangie (according to IMDB) who might be the realest character in the film. She is a curious breed that I’ve encountered in real life, that of a concerned relative who frets about the disabled child in their life without actually doing any research.
In an exchange with Mary-Lou, she labours on about a conversation with a doctor whom she spoke with about Peter’s Multiple Sclerosis. She explains that this Doctor, an optometrist no less, knows all about MS and told her children don’t tend to get it. Mary-Lou corrects her, smugly, that Peter has Muscular Dystrophy.
We then get a scene of Peter using his wheelchair for the first time. “Oh God!” she exclaims as she watches him, “spare me this.”
I’ve seen this so many times, a relative with so little difficulty in their own life that they feel the need to acquire attention from the challenges faced by others. It may be upsetting to you but I promise it’s far more difficult for the child.
Don’t be that person.
Emma: Liza Minnelli is an actress I’d heard of but I’ve honestly never seen one of her movies. This is a good thing, as it allowed me to watch the film without any preconceptions as I took in her performance as Mary-Lou.
When her youngest son Peter is a toddler, she learns from a doctor that he has Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy. The doctor gives a horrible prognosis, he may live into his 30’s but is likely to die of pneumonia.
The diagnosis brings her clear trauma. She is frozen, numbed as she processes these words and all at once wracked with guilt for her part in this – it was her genes, and in her mind, her fault.
Although devoted to the care of her son, she grows frustrated as she fights a losing battle against time, desperate seeking one form of treatment after another but deep down, she knows there’s nothing she can do to save him.
We witness this desperation as she attempts everything from wonder drugs to vitamin injections to hydrotherapy and most alarmingly – faith healing. The latter is shown in bizarre psychic surgery involving invisible medical equipment – I had to check I was still watching the same film!
Larry, Peter’s father is desperate in his own way, pleading for his wife to accept that they’ve tried their best and that holding onto false hope so firmly only sets her up for more hurt.
Despite this, Larry takes a backseat from the caregiving duties and leaves Mary-Lou on her own. It’s only when she breaks down at a friends house that he realises the effect of his inaction and the pressure Mary-Lou is under. This shows the true value in sharing our emotions and allows the two estranged family members to grow together and support their son as one.
Through this, she reconnects with her husband and they work together to support their son.
Final thoughts – Rating out of 5
Joe: I tried to give this film a pass for being one of the earlier movies about Muscular Dystrophy but there are so many weird decisions and Peter is mostly used as a distraction when things get too quiet. I feel that the film couldn’t decide what it wanted to be.
There was room to entertain and educate by telling a good story, with good performances but it falls flat on both counts.
Although the film is based on a true story, I feel they focused on all the wrong parts. There is a much more compelling narrative here, it’s just a shame the screenwriter couldn’t find it.
Emma: Overall, I found the film a bit of a letdown. I’d hoped for a heartfelt story that reflected the experiences of a family living with Muscular Dystrophy but I received a somewhat disjointed film, that takes us around the world but never actually goes anywhere memorable.
For super fans of Liza and Corey, you may find something you enjoy here, other than that, there isn’t much merit. Maybe the book is better?
Our final post will be hosted on both of our blogs on the 31st August and will be a little different in format. My thoughts will be hosted on Joe’s site Dystrophy Dad, and Joe’s will be hosted here, so make sure to get following us both and let us know what you think of the films we’ve covered. Please let us know in the comments below.
See you at the movies!