Two important American Studies lessons from one of our quirkier, funnier, and more affecting late 20th century films.
Nobody’s Fool (1994), the Paul Newman starring vehicle based on the 1993 Richard Russo novel of the same name (which I will admit, in a very non-literature professor moment, to not having read), is a very funny movie. It’s funny in its script, which includes plenty of laugh-out-loud funny insults, retorts, and quips; Newman’s Sully gets the lion’s share, but perhaps the single funniest line is given to a judge who critiques a trigger-happy local policemen by noting, “You know my feelings on arming morons: you arm one, you’ve got to arm them all, otherwise it wouldn’t be good sport.” And it’s just as funny in its world, its creation of a cast of quirky and memorable characters (who, not coincidentally, are played by some of our most talented character actors, including Jessica Tandy in her final role). That those same characters are ultimately the source of a number of hugely moving moments is a testament to the film’s (and probably book’s) true greatness.
Unlike many of the other films I’ve discussed in this space—Lone Star and City of Hope, Gangs of New York, Jungle Fever and Mississippi Masala, and more—Nobody’s Fool is not explicitly engaged with significant American Studies issues. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t American Studies lessons to be learned from its subtle and wise perspectives on identity and community. For one thing, Sully’s most central culminating perspective (spoiler alert, here and in the next paragraph!) is a powerful and important vision of our interconnectedness to the many communities of which we’re a meaningful part: “I just found out I’m somebody’s grandfather. And somebody’s father. And maybe I’m somebody’s friend in the bargain,” Sully notes, rejecting a tempting but escapist future in favor of staying where he is; while he has ostensibly known about all these relationships for years, what he has realized through the film’s events is both how significant these roles are for his own identity and life, and how much his presence or absence in relation to them will in turn influence the people and communities around him.
If Sully has learned that specific, significant lesson by the film’s end, he has also, more simply yet perhaps even more crucially, done something else: recognized the possibility for change. Sully’s not a young man by the time we meet him, and it’s fair to say that he’s very set in his ways; one of his first lines of the film, in response to his landlady (Tandy) offering him tea, is “No. Not now, not ever,” and the exchange becomes a mantra of sorts for the film, shorthand for Sully’s routines (with every person in his life) and the fixity of his perspective and voice. So it’s particularly salient that the film ends with an extended and different version of this exchange: “No. How many times do I have to tell you?” Newman replies, and Tandy answers, “Other people change their minds occasionally. I keep thinking you might.” “You do? Huh,” are Newman’s final words in the film, and he delivers them with surprise and, it seems to me, a recognition, paired with the earlier epiphany about interconnections, that perhaps Tandy is right, and he has future shifts ahead of him that he can’t yet imagine. If the American future is going to be all that it might be, that’s going to depend on most—perhaps all—of us being open to change, most especially in our own identities and perspectives; Sully’s only begun that trajectory, but exemplifies its possibility, at any point in our lives and arcs, for sure.
Last in the series tomorrow,
PS. Any foolish but wise films you’d highlight?
4/5 Memory Day nominee: Booker T. Washington, the former slave turned political and social leader who is perhaps best known today for his moderate approach to racial equality (particularly when compared to a contemporary like Du Bois), but whose hugely significant legacies in the fields of education, government and policy, and life writing (among others) should never be forgotten.