(for action violence, adult themes, some language, and some sensuality)
Released: December 22, 1989
Runtime: 122 minutes
Director: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Richard Dreyfuss, Holly Hunter, John Goodman, Brad Johnson, Audrey Hepburn, Marg Helgenberger
Would that one modern romance — just one — be this good.
It doesn’t get much more “minor” Spielberg than Always, his first big screen love story (of only two), one that was generally dismissed in its time as a sweet but insubstantial effort from a major director.
And yet watching it today (a gorgeously shot classic piece of filmmaking; often sumptuous, lush with colors and soft golden hues), it delivers such power through a mature, adult story. Old fashioned class and charm are in its soul (even with its blue collar, testosterone-heavy setting), so much so that it makes you realize what an absolute wasteland of romantic movies we’ve been left with in the new millennium.
The best thing about Always, and perhaps what makes it so special , is that Spielberg shows us something like only he can: amping up sentiment isn’t always a bad thing.
It doesn’t have to be cheap. It doesn’t need to be manipulative. It can be something much richer than a filmmaker’s lazy fallback. Indeed, Spielberg actually delays his most likely crutch: John Williams’ music. The score’s first cue doesn’t show up until well over twenty minutes into the picture, after which several sequences and dramatic turns have already occurred.
Sentimentality can be the sign of a film’s strength, not its weakness. It can resonate, authentically and deeply, especially when so-called sappy moments are heavily tinged with melancholy, even anguish.
When sentiment is felt as a bittersweet consequence of selflessness — as a result of sacrificing the very thing that it pains you to give up — it can pack a wallop. It sure does here. In doing so, Always could actually help couples broach and discuss issues that they’d rather avoid, but in a way that draws the two closer.
Always is a quintessential “they sure don’t make ‘em like that anymore” romance, one that puts a supernatural spin on the old Love Triangle. It’s Spielberg’s first remake, and it modernizes the 1943 war picture A Guy Named Joe, which starred Spencer Tracy and Irene Dunne. Here, Spielberg modifies the premise of WWII fighter pilots into one that follows modern-day fire-fighting aviators. Set in the western United States, their battle is with massive forest blazes rather than Axis powers.
Richard Dreyfuss (who re-teams with Spielberg for a third time, and the first since their late-70s 1-2 punch of Jaws and Close Encounters) plays Pete, a charismatic, cocksure, best-of-the-best pilot who constantly cheats death. Holly Hunter is Dorinda, the ground control operator who’s head-over-heels in love with Pete (and he with her), despite the fact that his risk-taking exploits cause her daily anxiety.
You can feel their chemistry from the start. It doesn’t need to be established or grounded in exposition, it’s there, manifest, and palpable. The film’s opening aerial sequence (which is absolutely thrilling) instantly draws us in to the personal stakes that Pete and Dorinda are confronting, showing how the job’s dangers are pushing Dorinda’s fears to the limit.
The passion between them is very real, too, much more than some workplace fling. Spielberg weaves a story that shows us all sides of how deep that love is, not just in crisis situations but also (and perhaps even more so) in the downtime between missions. It’s there in the daily flirtations, their magnetic repartee, their humor, and in simple but swoon-worthy gestures. Dorinda is working in a man’s world, but in the best, sweetest ways, Pete helps Dorinda still feel like a woman while in it.
“Their song” instantly sets the mood, and is cleverly apropos: The Platters’ 1958 hit “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes”.
The big, early hook of the story: Pete doesn’t make it. Dorinda’s worst fears are realized when Pete suffers a fatal accident during a courageous act.
And that’s when the romance gets really interesting.
Pete is sent on a whole new mission by an angel (played by Audrey Hepburn, in her last role, who was as close to an angel as a human can get). His task? To be an angel for the pilot who has replaced him, not just on the job but also as the man who wins Dorinda’s affection. Pete must fulfill this mission as an apparition that Dorinda cannot see.
If this starts to sound a little like the movie Ghost it’s because it kind of is, except that this one — which came out about 7 months prior — doesn’t peddle in that film’s wish fulfillment.
Dorinda isn’t given a Whoopi Goldberg go-between “medium” to help her know that Pete is there. The two can’t communicate; he can only influence, mystically. Compounding that cosmic complication, Pete must do all of this against his own sense of “ownership” over Dorinda, a feeling not born of selfishness but of a deep, genuine, abiding love that didn’t die when he did.
That dynamic (and its built-in restraint) may be why this wasn’t the box office sensation that Ghost was, but it’s exactly what makes Always a much better movie. Yes, it has a fantastical premise, but it requires its characters to face very real challenges — and decisions.
The script — a smart, sophisticated adaptation by Jerry Belson — doesn’t play out as a plot gimmick. It’s a sensitive, challenging character study the shifts and evolves through its unique tests and struggles. It’s particularly difficult for Pete who is constantly tempted to abuse his angelic role. He now wields a supernatural power that he could use selfishly, to manipulate Dorinda and Ted (his replacement) rather than guide them.
That impulse is hard to resist, given the sense of “ownership” that Pete still feels toward Dorinda, but that impulse is also his test. It is in that test that the film finds its moral and emotional substance.
Even as a fantasy, Always wrestles with the real, tragic necessity of “letting go,” of needing to do that when your heart so desperately wants to hang on (whether in this life or the next).
Lord, I’m a sap, but I’m getting choked up just thinking about it. That’s because Dreyfuss and Hunter make that desperation so real.
Irreconcilable, existential torment is nothing new for Dreyfuss; we saw it from him, powerfully, in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Holly Hunter (who was just emerging in 1989 after breakout turns in Raising Arizona and Broadcast News) wears her heart on her sleeve – completely, totally, and unabashedly – with more authentic conviction and than just about any actress I can think of. Her level of raw, unchecked emotion would be melodramatic for most, but for Hunter that tender well is deep and true.
John Goodman is a delightful highlight in the kind of comic relief supporting role he became known for; playfully sarcastic, yet heartfelt and passionate when the dramatic moment called for it. Brad Johnson – who never became the leading man that he had the looks for – has a nice awe shucks sincerity as Ted, a.k.a. The Other Guy, and shares an effective chemistry with Hunter as well.
I have a friend who lost his wife a few years ago. His love for her is still a powerful, daily, ever-present reality. He may love her even more now than ever before. He hasn’t suspended living life by any means; he travels, he’s active, he’s social; heck, he even skydives.
But he hasn’t “moved on,” nor does he have any desire to. The love he has is too potent. He and his wife were simply too much a part of each other to feel otherwise. And in a very real sense, they still are.
Just imaging myself in his shoes, in his heart, is a heavy thing. But it’s also the most beautiful thing. It’s the kind of heart that Always also imagines, and captures.
- Audrey Hepburn, who had long expressed wanting to work with Spielberg, was paid $1 million for her small but important role. She donated her entire salary to UNICEF.
- The “John Wayne” impersonation scene with Hunter and Johnson was not in the script. Spielberg saw the two doing that between takes, was charmed by it, and decided to create a scene for it in the movie.
- 1989 was the first time that Spielberg released two movies within the same calendar year. Always opened in December, after Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade had played in the summer.
- Following two films for Warner Bros. and a third for Paramount, Always marked Spielberg’s return to his “home” of Universal Studios.
- Always was Spielberg’s first collaboration with former Marine Dale Dye, a Vietnam vet who became one of Spielberg’s go-to consultants. Dye served as a military expert on several films as well as an adviser with scenarios related to teamwork, training, and so on. Dye appeared in a small role here, and has in other Spielberg films as well.