Thursday, December 22, 2011

Talking Out of Turn #26: Ralph L.Thomas (1984)

From 1981 to 1989, I was assistant producer and co-host of the radio show, On the Arts, at CJRT-FM in Toronto. With the late Tom Fulton, who was the show's prime host and producer, we did a half-hour interview program where we talked to artists from all fields. In 1994, after I had gone to CBC, I had an idea to collate an interview anthology from some of the more interesting discussions I'd had with guests from that period. Since they all took place during the eighties, I thought I could edit the collection into an oral history of the decade from some of its most outspoken participants. The book was assembled from interview transcripts and organized thematically. I titled it Talking Out of Turn: Revisiting the '80s. With financial help from the Canada Council, I shaped the individual pieces into a number of pertinent themes relevant to the decade. By the time I began to contact publishers, though, the industry was starting to change. At one time, editorial controlled marketing. Now the reverse was taking place. Acquisition editors, who once responded to an interesting idea for a book, were soon following marketing divisions concerned with whether the person doing it was hot enough to sell it.

Tom Fulton of CJRT-FM's On the Arts
For a few years, I flogged the proposal to various publishers but many were worried that there were too many people from different backgrounds (i.e. Margaret Atwood sitting alongside Oliver Stone). Another publisher curiously chose to reject it because, to them, it appeared to be a book about me promoting my interviews (as if I was trying to be a low-rent Larry King) rather than seeing it as a commentary on the decade through the eyes of the guests. All told, the book soon faded away and I turned to other projects. However, when recently uncovering the original proposal and sample interviews, I felt that maybe some of them could find a new life on Critics at Large.

The concept of heroes and villains was greatly simplified in the eighties so I wanted a chapter in the book (Heroes and Villains) that featured artists who examined that idea with a little more complexity. One such individual, film director Ralph Thomas (Ticket to Heaven), had just tackled a Canadian icon: Terry Fox. It had been just three years since Fox, a young athlete who had lost a leg to cancer, decided in 1980 to run cross-Canada to raise money and awareness for cancer research. Tragically, the cancer soon spread and he had to abandon the run after 143 days where he had done 5,373 kilometres (or 3,339 miles). Within a year, he was dead, leading to the annual Terry Fox Run which is now held in over 60 countries each year as the world's largest fund-raiser for the disease.

In his movie, The Terry Fox Story (1983), where amputee actor Eric Fryer played Fox and Robert Duvall portrayed his trainer, Bill Vigars, Thomas certainly set out to capture what made Fox such a distinctly heroic figure, rather than building a momument to him. While the film, in retrospect, would have likely done better on television (as it resembled a TV movie in many ways and was released in the U.S. on Home Box Office), it was given a theatrical run in Canada and people simply didn't run to see it. Nevertheless, The Terry Fox Story went on to win six awards at the 1984 Genie Awards (the Canadian equivalent of the Academy Awards) including Best Picture.

We did the interview shortly before the awards ceremony.where Thomas was still searching for clues in understanding why his picture didn't strike the same popular chord that Fox himself had a few years earlier.

kc: Considering the heroic stature of Terry Fox in Canada now, are you surprised that more people hadn't turned out in the theatres to see The Terry Fox Story?

rt: The problem was that it opened in about 100 theatres and only three or four hundred thousand Canadians went to see it. This isn't bad, or even a sign that people rejected the film, but the distributor was expecting over a million Canadians to see it. Now the reason this didn't happen was that the film came out too soon after the event.

kc: How so?

rt: To a certain extent, I knew we were in trouble with the film when we were promoting it. I kept having members of the press coming up to me after screenings and saying things like they were glad they saw it, but it was a film they really didn't want to see right now. I said to the producer that there was a built in resistance to the film, which wasn't what we expected. Even friends of mine who'd seen everything I'd ever done came up to me and said that they weren't going to see my movie. When I asked them why not, they told me that they'd already seen it, they had lived through it, right up to the time when Terry Fox died. So what happened in this country was that people became very personally involved with Terry Fox in ways that they don't with even their own family members. To them, that experience was special and they were afraid my film might ruin that relationship for them.

Robert Duvall, Chris Makepeace, Eric Fryer & Michael Zelnicker
kc: The reaction must have been different when you released the picture in the United States.

rt: Of course. In the United States, you didn't have that personal connection with Terry Fox. For them, it was a whole new story. As a matter of fact, when we were auditioning actors for the film in Los Angeles, I kept asking people if they'd heard of Terry Fox. They said they had, but only in a vague sense. The person they knew more about, however, was this guy who was apparently dragging a cross across Canada. I've never heard of him! But it seems there was some guy who set out from Vancouver about the same time as Terry Fox hauling this cross. That apparently got more attention in the U.S. than Terry Fox. (ed. An Internet search I conducted for this man's identity came up empty. He doesn't seem to be remembered anymore.)  

Terry Fox
kc: However visible Terry Fox was in the public imagination, your portrait of Fox in this film is not the one we got from the newspapers and television.

rt: Definitely not. First of all, in the newspapers you only got a small slice of Terry's life, a small picture of really only what the press wanted to give you. You also only got what Terry and Bill Vigars and the people around him wanted you to see. In the movie, you see all sorts of things that Bill Vigars later didn't mind you seeing.

The Terry Fox statue in Ottawa
kc: What I saw in The Terry Fox Story was a portrait of a boy who in the beginning is very competitive, loses his leg to cancer, and then turns himself into a machine. He doesn't really become human again until he reaches Ontario. Ironically, by the time he starts to find his humanity, the press has started to define him as a human machine. Your film provides us with a hero who discovers his vulnerability just as the press becomes busy building an icon.

rt: What attracted me to Terry Fox was discovering just how human he really was. In the end, every hero is human. We tend to strip away their humanity and isolate them. One of the reasons we do that is that we want to say, "Oh yeah, but he's extraordinary. I could never do that." We want to relax into a comfort zone where we can look up to him as someone extraordinary, but Terry Fox was also human. I wanted to present him with all the angers, frustrations, and weaknesses and vulnerabilities that we all have. That was his true heroism. It was how he surmounted his own failings. The road became, in many ways, secondary to that. Maybe it's my fundamental Baptist background, but I really tend to see that he was working out his salvation in that sense. And towards the end, he finally achieves some peace.

kc: What do you think was the greatest thing Terry Fox gained from his journey?

rt: When he breaks down and cries towards the end – and I'm talking here about the real Terry Fox, as opposed to the one in my film – he was crying more at the failure of his own body than out of anger and frustration with anyone else. He had gone beyond the blaming. He starts as a blamer, you know, "Who is to blame for doing this to me?" I mean, the only answer you could come up with is God. That he found hard to deal with. Now I don't want to get too much into religion, but his story takes you into the Book of Job. The story of Terry Fox is a Job-like story   and like Job he confronts God. He argues with him for three thousand and three hundred miles across this country. And in the end, death prevails. But he has still achieved something. He has become something much greater by that point.

 – Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author (Artificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles' Utopian Dream). His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism. In January 2012, at the Miles Nidal Centre JCC in Toronto, Courrier will be doing a lecture series (film clips included) based on Reflections. Check their schedule in December. With John Corcelli, Courrier is currently working on another radio documentary for CBC Radio's Inside the Music called The Other Me: The Avant-Garde Music of Paul McCartney.

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