Butterflies are Free [50 New-Old Movies for the 51st Year #44]

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 #44.  Spoilers ahead.  

Butterflies are Free

Directed by Milton Katselas

Release Date:  July 6, 1972
My age then:  2 years old

What it is about:  Don Baker, a blind young man living on his own for the first time, meets and falls in love with his free-spirited neighbor Jill. However, when Don’s mother comes for an unexpected visit it throws their potential relationship into turmoil.

Starring Edward Albert as Don, Goldie Hawn as Jill, and Eileen Heckart as Mrs. Baker. Michael Glaser (better known as Paul Michael Glaser, who played the TV cop Detective Starksy on Starsky and Hutch) shows up as Ralph, a theatre producer who gets involved with Jill, and Mike Warren (better known as Michael Warren, who played TV cop Officer Hill on Hill Street Blues) makes an appearance as Roy, a shop owner.

My impressions of this movie before I watched it:  I didn’t know anything about this movie until the mid 1990’s, when I acted as Ralph in a community theatre version of the play. As a result, I was familiar with the basic story as I came into this, but owing to the differences in the production and the time that’s passed since the mid 1990’s, I didn’t really recall any of the details.

Reality: I didn’t intend this, but this is the second movie in a row that I’ve watched about somebody with a disability. And it’s the third movie in a row that is based on a play.

Going into Butterflies are Free, I expected to find an effort that was slight–well meaning but ultimately lacking in believability and depth. Maybe it was just because it starred Goldie Hawn, and for no particular reason that gave me the impression it was going to be insubstantial fluff whose good intentions were outdone by clumsy storytelling. But I was wrong–the movie is grounded and authentic, filled with nuance and moments of insight.

The movie is about three central character, building its drama almost entirely off of their interactions. Sitting in the middle of the trio is Don Baker, a young blind man who has only recent made it out from home and into his own apartment for the first time. Through him, we experience the philosophies of the two women in his life–his concerned and over-protective mother, Mrs. Baker, and his flighty new neighbor, a 19 year old divorcee with a zest for living but a fear of commitment.

Leonard Gershe’s script–based on his own play–contrives to put these figures together in Don’s San Francisco apartment, creating an effective greenhouse that allows for their relationships to flourish and whither and flourish again in an astoundingly short time, while remaining plausible. Thus Jill and Don can meet, become friends, have a fling, come under pressure from Don’s mother, split up, argue, and then come back together again…all in less than two days.

All three performances are detailed and strong. Goldie Hawn is obviously a big star, and she brings lots of charm and charisma to a character who could easily have just come off as selfish and immature (although the movie does call her to be standing around in her underwear a lot–I guess I should be grateful that the movie is not more recent as I’m sure it would have been much worse). And Eileen Heckart took home and Academy Award for her role as Mrs. Baker, taking somebody that one could assume was going to be the villain of the piece and filling her with empathy and thoughtfulness. And anchoring these two is Edward Albert, an actor I’m completely unfamiliar with except for his famous father (Eddie Albert). He maintains a compelling presence in the face of these two “flashier” characters, playing both Don’s disability and capability with confidence and ease.

No matter what combination of these three characters is on screen at a given moment, there is plenty to drama to be swept up in. The contrast in their personalities and their approaches to life means that there is literally never a dull moment in a film that is almost entirely talking. It’s fascinating, for example, to see Don push away his mother in order to assert himself, only to realize that it is because of her that he has got the strength to do that at all. Or to see Jill build Don up to the point where he is able to confront her for her selfishness. Or to watch Jill stand up to Mrs. Baker, and make her realize how smothering her behavior is.

So…when you get down to it, what did I think? With excellent performances navigating a meaningful script, all carefully held in balance via skillful directing, this movie comes a lot more highly recommended than I expected.

See here for the Master List.

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