Think about these for movie concepts: introduce an energetic, driven black man to a white man from another culture who literally speaks another language. That’s one idea from Django Unchained from Quentin Tarantino.
Then take this idea: a budding teenage girl struggles to navigate adolescence, family conflict and economic troubles in a depressed era. That’s one idea from This is 40 from Judd Apatow.
Now, what if you smashed the two ideas together in one epic book that became a movie — with an amazing performance by an actor who, 45 years later, could win an Oscar nomination for his brilliant work in Argo?
The book and movie in question is The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, published in 1940 when author Carson McCullers was only 23 years old. It tells the story deaf-mute John Singer and his impact on people in a Southern mill town in the late 1930s. One of them is a black doctor, Dr. Benedict Copeland, who must deal with the impact of segregation and racial oppression. The book completely sweeps up the layers of cultures and social ferment of its time and greatly impressed me through its artistry and McCullers’ vision. It’s one book I’d nominate for the mythical Great American Novel.
In the Django comparison, Singer would be Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), the dentist-bounty hunter who frees and befriends Django (Jamie Foxx). Singer speaks in sign language and gestures; Schultz speaks German and English. Django’s opposite would be Dr. Copeland, who stayed with his own values in the book and movie. Suspicious of Singer at first, the men form a friendship.
Released in 1968, the movie version of Lonely Hunter had a stellar cast. Canadian actor Percy Rodriguez played Dr. Copeland with stubbornness and compassion. Alan Arkin, who in his mid-30s, played Singer and was nominated for an Oscar for Best Actor in a role where he did not speak a single word, yet delivered a deeply empathetic and varied performance. He didn’t win the Oscar, but he won for Best Supporting Actor for 2005’s Little Miss Sunshine. Now, four decades later, he has his fourth Oscar nomination for his turn as film mogul Lester Siegel in Argo.
Not to stretch the analogy too far, Lonely Hunter explored territory later picked up in Django, of men working together in a relentlessly hostile society.
This is 40 connects to the family and economic issues of Lonely Hunter. Teen Mick Kelly was played by Sondra Locke, who won a Best Supporting Actress nomination. She deals with a bitter mother and a disabled father, plus bratty younger brothers. She dreams of better things — culture, romance — but financial struggles drive her in another direction. The book is much grimmer than the movie, as I recall, on Mick’s prospects. Her opposite number in This is 40 would be Sadie, the 13-year-old daughter of the main characters, played by Maude Apatow.
Granted, the pampered life of Los Angeles is a long way from Georgia in the 1930s (1960s in the movie) but the dynamics of family discord and adolescent anger are similar. While the outside packaging changes, the present of life remains about the same from generation to generation. We’re all lonely hunters.