I Can Always Make Her Smile

My mother loves movies, especially old ones.  She’s offended by curse words, love scenes, loud action, and bloody violence.  Bette Davis is just her speed.

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“That actress could do everything,” my mother says.  “She wasn’t afraid to look unattractive.  Just look at Whatever Happened to Baby Jane.”

“‘I’d kiss you, but I just washed my hair,'” I quoted.

“Yes, exactly.”

Mom spends lots of time watching TCM while she sews.  I’ve tried to expose her to modern classics.  In the ’70s, I took her to Annie Hall, which I had already seen in the theatre three times.  As you’ll recall, the movie starts off with Woody Allen’s narration.

“Ugh, is he going to talk all through the movie?” she said.

“Kind of.”

“I hate it when they talk through the movie.”

“It’s called narration, Mom.”

“I don’t like it when they talk even a little bit.”

Mom prefers old movies.  They address the era in which she was raised.  They talk her generational dialect.  She doesn’t worry as much as I do about credibility, naturalism, shooting on location, uninterrupted single shots, camera experiments, and other elements that have come into vogue since 1973.  She especially loves Gene Tierney, Joan Crawford, Burt Lancaster, Cary Grant, and Shirley Temple.

Donald took this photo of his new wife Sally on their honeymoon on Catalina island in 1951

My father took this photo of his new wife Sally on their honeymoon on Catalina island in 1951

My mother loathes a certain type of modern movie.  In 2012, her grandson was excited about Marvel’s The Avengers, and so when it hit the theatres, she took him to see it.

“It was too loud,” she complained.

A few months ago, I heard that the movie Ted was a delightful movie, so we took my mother to see that.  I’d heard it was about a grown man whose teddy bear is actually alive.  It sounded whimsical and delightful.  I had no idea that it would have so many cringe-inducing moments.  There was even a segment in which the teddy bear, who is portrayed as being alive, has teddy sex with a bleach-blonde floozy.  They show her bare high-heeled ankles and Ted’s face, and you hear the passionate grunting.  That was particularly embarrassing to see with your mother.

At some point, I undertook a quest to see movies with my mother that wouldn’t offend her.  It was difficult, because it got in the way of my own enjoyment.  Sitting there in a cinema with her, my experience of those movies changed.  It seemed that those movies went into my eyes, but before I enjoyed them, they were screened by a filter that asked the question: Is my mother going to like this?  This pre-screening spoiled the movie for me, and I tried to stop doing that.  But it was tough.  I love my mother.


Twenty years ago, my mother started collecting videotapes.  By five years ago, I looked at her collection and knew I could improve it.  So I came over to her house, put in three hours of work, and alphabetized the whole thing.

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“Why did you do that?” she said while I was doing it.

“I’m alphabetizing.”

“Don’t do that.”

“I don’t mind putting in the work.”

“But I don’t want to you do that.  I know where everything is.”

“Trust me, it’ll be easier this way.  They’re sorted alphabetically.”

A week after I finished, she finally articulated why she disliked what I had done.

“I had to rearrange the whole thing,” she said.  “I couldn’t find any of my movies.  I arrange them by actor.  Because if I’m in a Tom Hanks mood, I go straight to the Tom Hanks section.  If I’m in a Sandra Bullock mood, I go to the Sandra Bullock section.”

“Why didn’t you tell me that when I was alphabetizing it?”


My mother said she liked romantic comedies.  She liked light, whimsical movies that weren’t experimental in the least.  She liked Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, and Meg Ryan.

“But not that one movie where Meg Ryan took off her clothes,” she said, referring to In the Cut.  “I don’t like it when they get vulgar like that.  Why did she have to do that?  What did she have to prove?”

“So you like tasteful movies,” I said, helpfully.

“Yes, but it’s more than that.”

“What do you mean?”

“I like movies that I can fall asleep to.”

It took a while for that to sink in.  I looked at her, trying hard to comprehend.

“You see, I’ll watch a movie in the afternoon on the sofa,” she said.  “I’ll stretch out on the sofa and turn the movie on with the remote.  Then after a while, I’ll fall asleep and take a nap.  But some movies are too loud.  I can’t fall asleep to them.  Julia Roberts and Meg Ryan movies, though, I can fall asleep to.”

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“Why don’t you just put on a DVD of white noise?” I said.  “Or the rainforest?  I mean, really, Mom.”

We laughed a lot about that one.


Last night, we went to the multiplex and I bought tickets for Gravity 3D, which cost a pretty penny, believe me, $46 for three people.  I had been waiting weeks to take her to this one.  It seemed the perfect choice.  It starred Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, two of her favorites.  It wasn’t edgy or vulgar.  The reviews were stellar.

We sat down in the moviehouse, and when the movie was starting, I looked over at my mother and she had her eyes closed.  I shook her knee.  She opened her eyes.

“You must really like this movie,” I said.

“Why?” she said.

“You’re already falling asleep.”

She smiled.  I can’t always understand her, but I can always make her smile.

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10 thoughts on “I Can Always Make Her Smile

  1. Now that I’m retired, I can see a movie for $5 during the week. Or, wait until it comes to the “second run” theater for $3 ($2 on Tuesday).

    I remember the days when going to a movie meant a huge screen. No mulitiplexes. In the ’60s, there was a street in Manila (where I grew up) where a good 7-8 theaters were lined up. There were three seating sections: orchestra, lodge and balcony. The orchestra was the “cheap seats” for the locals and could seat probably 250-300. Each theater could seat a good 400-500.

  2. Love it, love movies! My writing mentor’s (Leonard Bishop) mom used to ask in reference to a good movie, “Will it make me cry?” He’d answer, “Buckets, Mom, buckets!” They’d go to see that one. Thank you for another fine piece of writing.

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