To Gillian on Her 37th Birthday [50 New-Old Movies for the 51st Year #39]

Mid-last year, I turned 50 years old!  And to add to all the real life goals and challenges that that brings, I’ve created at least one as it relates to movies and this blog–watch a film I’ve never seen before which came out in each year of my life (thus the “Old-New” terminology), and then write a bit about it.  This is Post #39.  Spoilers ahead.  

To Gillian on Her 37th Birthday

Directed by Michael Pressman

Release Date:  October 18, 1996
My age then:  26 years old

What it is about:  Every night, David Lewis walks out on the beach and has elaborate imaginary conversations with his beautiful but dead wife Gillian. On the second anniversary of her death (which is also her birthday), a family get together erupts into a volcano of tension. Gillian’s sister Esther is deeply concerned about David’s teenaged daughter Rachel and considering taking legal action to gain custody. Things continue to break down in David’s life until he realizes he can start living his life again, being present for his daughter while still remembering his wife.

Starring Peter Gallagher as David Lewis, Claire Danes as Rachel Lewis, Kathy Baker as Esther Wheeler, Bruce Altman as Esther’s husband Paul, Wendy Crewson as the woman that the Wheeler’s bring to the weekend to try to set David up with, Laurie Fortier as Rachel’s friend Cindy, and Michelle Pfeiffer as Gillian Lewis.

My impressions of this movie before I watched it:  I was aware of this movie mainly because Michelle Pfeiffer was in it, but my impression has always been that it was a pretty sappy drama that I wouldn’t actually like very much (and that Pfeiffer was not actually in all that much).

Reality: Hopefully, this is the worst movie left on my list.

Full disclosure, I was a huge Michelle Pfeiffer fan back in the day. I was massively enamored with her throughout the late 80’s and into at least halfway through the 90’s. But when the second half of the 90’s hit, she began to be in all these films that either I didn’t like or that I wasn’t interested in–things like Deep End of the Ocean or Up Close and Personal, or this one…To Gillian on Her 37th Birthday.

Pfeiffer plays Gillian, a loving wife and mother who died because of her own recklessness while out boating (she decided to climb up the mast of a sailboat for no reason but to have fun, and ended up falling). It’s now two years later and David, her husband, has not been able to move on, to the great concern of his extended family. And so our story picks up as various parties come together for a memorial weekend on Gillian’s birthday / the anniversary of her death.

Well, it’s the memorial weekend, but it’s also just supposed to be a vacation, complete with a town-wide contest to build the best sandcastle. And it’s also an opportunity for Gillian’s sister Esther to try to set David up with her attractive friend, feeling as she does that it’s time for David to move on. And it’s also a time for Rachel (David’s daughter) to be talked into wearing a super-sexy bikini by her provocative friend Cindy, helping her get the attention of a local boy played by a young Freddie Prinze Jr. In fact, there’s very little “memorializing” taking place–it just seems like all these things are just sort of randomly coming together on Gillian’s birthday / deathday, in order to provoke the most agitation out of everyone.

And so the movie becomes largely a series of extended sequences of people trying to talk each other and becoming cringe-worthily awkward in the process. All that is as hard to watch as one would imagine. Kathy Baker’s Esther is the worst–she’s so determined to not be subtle about her busybody “worrying” about Rachel and whether David is a fit father because he hasn’t pulled himself together yet, it’s almost unbearable. The scenes where David gets away from everyone to process his feelings with Gillian’s “ghost” end up being some of the more pleasant aspects of the film simply because it puts everyone else off the screen, and allows David to just sort of be himself.

The movie is trying, one assumes, to establish that David isn’t just sad, but actually self-destructive–but it fails to bring us there. We get some of the information, like the fact that David once tried to commit suicide or that David isn’t working at the moment, but it’s all just backstory and fails to make any sort of impact. And there is one bit where David actively avoids facing the depth of his daughter’s pain, which the script implies, but fails to show, is a pattern for him. Thus a lot of what we are seeing comes across as melodramatic and emotionally shallow at best, and a bit mean-spirited at worst (as David’s grief seems completely justified).

Claire Danes plays Rachel and received a lot of critical praise for her performance. I can understand why that is as in general she is quite good.

She also gets the movie’s best moment–David laments Gillian’s absence and calls her their “center”. Rachel objects and says that it’s he who was the center, as Gillian was the one who pushed the limits–like foolishly climbing the mast which led to her death. This is a feeling I had from the very beginning of the movie, when we saw how Gillian’s accident took place. We learn then that her death was completely stupid and avoidable if only she hadn’t been so foolish–I’m glad the script acknowledged that as well. David’s memories of Gillian are highly idealized, and it’s ultimately helpful for him to come back to earth a bit about her at the end.

All that makes the movie sound better than it is–one should not be misled into thinking To Gillian on Her 37th Birthday is a good movie, because it isn’t. It’s stilted and forced and manipulative. And it’s highly uncomfortable at times–there is notable bit where Cindy sexually teases Esther’s husband Paul just because she can tell he’s attracted to her. It does eventually allow us to make a small connection to its lead characters, but it takes almost the entire film to do so, by which point we’ve long lost all our patience and sympathy for its story.

So…when you get down to it, what did I think? There are some nice ideas buried in To Gillian on Her 37th Birthday, but it never explores any of them in a meaningful way. The cast put in a game effort but the script lacks the depth that the ideas require, and the cinematic handling of the material all leans toward schmaltz and melodrama rather than anything emotionally authentic.

See here for the Master List.

2 thoughts on “To Gillian on Her 37th Birthday [50 New-Old Movies for the 51st Year #39]

  1. I had this film on DVD for a few years and could never finish it. Like you I was a huge fan of Michelle Pfeiffer up until Wolf. I always felt she was wasted in most of her films in the late 90s. This one was no exception.

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