(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 – just one – modern romance be this good.
It doesn’t get much more “minor” Spielberg than Always, his first big screen love story (of only two), one that in its time was generally dismissed 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 – with loads of old fashioned charm and class (even in its blue collar, testosterone heavy setting) – that it makes you realize what an absolute wasteland of romantic movies we’ve been in during the modern century.
Perhaps the best thing about Always, and what even makes it a special gift, is that Spielberg shows us (maybe like only he can) that amping up sentiment isn’t always a bad thing. It doesn’t have to be cheap. It need not be crassly manipulative, or a filmmaker’s lazy fallback. (John Williams’ first music cue doesn’t even occur until well over twenty minutes into the picture, after several dramatic sequences and turns have already occurred.) It can resonate, authentically and deeply.
Sentimentality can be the sign of a film’s strength, not its weakness, especially when so-called sappy moments are heavily tinged with melancholy, even anguish. When sentiment is felt as a bittersweet consequence of selflessness, of sacrificing the very thing it pains you to give up, it can pack a wallop – and does here. Always could cause couples to confront and discuss some possibilities they’d rather not even think about, but in a way that draws the two closer.
A quintessential “they sure don’t make ‘em like that anymore” romance, one that puts a supernatural spin on the old “love triangle”, Always is Spielberg’s first remake. It modernizes the 1943 film A Guy Named Joe starring Spencer Tracy and Irene Dunne, which was a war picture, and swaps the context of fighter pilots in WWII to fire-fighting pilots of the western United States, battling massive blazes over forests and elsewhere from the sky.
Richard Dreyfuss (reteaming with Spielberg for the third time, and the first since their 1-2 punch of Jaws and Close Encounters) is the charismatically cocksure, risk-taking, best-of-the-best pilot Pete who constantly cheats death, and Holly Hunter is ground control operator Dorinda who’s unlucky enough to be head-over-heels in love with the guy (and he with her). The film begins at the point in their relationship where Pete’s life-threatening escapades are putting way too much stress on Dorinda, but to give it up Pete would be suppressing a big part of who he is (the part she’s in love with).
They have a potent chemistry right off the bat. As we see that expressed through the dangers of the job (like the thrilling opening aerial sequence), we’re instantly drawn into the personal stakes Pete and Dorinda are confronting. The passion between them is very real, and Spielberg weaves a story that shows us all sides of how that’s expressed between them, particularly in the downtime between missions: through humor, flirtations, magnetic repartee, and simple but swoon-worthy gestures. The job is a man’s world, but (in the best, sweetest way) Pete helps Dorinda feel like a woman in it.
“Their song” is even cleverly apropos, and an instant mood setter: The Platters’ 1958 hit “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes”.
The story’s big early hook is that Pete doesn’t make it. Dorinda’s worst fears are realized as 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, as close to an angel as a human gets, in her last role – to be an angel for the pilot who’s replaced him both on the job and as the man after Dorinda’s affection. And he must do it as an apparition that Dorinda cannot see.
If this starts to sound a little like Ghost it’s because it kind of is, except that this – which came out about 7 months prior – doesn’t peddle in that movie’s wish fulfillment. Dorinda isn’t given a Whoopi Goldberg “medium” go-between to help her know that Pete’s there. They can’t directly communicate; he can only influence, mystically, and must do it against his own understandable sense of “ownership” over Dorinda – a sense not born of selfishness, but of a love that didn’t die when he did.
That dynamic and restraint may be why this wasn’t the box office sensation that Ghost was, but it’s what makes it a much better movie. Yes, Always has a fantastical premise, but it requires very real things – and decisions – of its characters.
The script (a smart, sophisticated adaptation by Jerry Belson) doesn’t play out as a plot gimmick. It’s a sensitive, challenging character study with tests and struggles, unique for Pete in particular. He’s constantly tempted to compromise his angelic role because he holds on to that sense of ownership toward Dorinda that he can no longer rightfully hold, yet now has the supernatural power to selfishly manipulate if he so wishes. Even as a fantasy, Always wrestles with the very real and tragic necessity of “letting go” when your heart – whether in this life or the next – desperately wants to hang on. 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. We saw how tormented Dreyfuss could be with irreconcilable emotional voids in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (while adding humor to it, too), and Holly Hunter (who was just emerging after breakouts like Raising Arizona and Broadcast News) wears her heart on her sleeve – completely, totally, and unabashedly – with more conviction and authenticity than just about any actress I can think of. Her level of outpouring would be melodramatic for most, but for Hunter the well is deep and true.
John Goodman is a delightful highlight in an early kind of role he became familiar for; comic relief, playfully sarcastic, yet heartfelt and passionate when the dramatic moment called for it. Brad Johnson – who never became the leading man he had the looks for – has a nice awe shucks sincerity as “the other guy”, and shares a good 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 even love her now more than ever. He hasn’t suspended life by any means; he travels, is always out, active, socializing, even skydives. But he hasn’t “moved on”, in that sense, nor has any desire to. The love is too potent. He and his wife were simply too much a part of each other to feel otherwise. 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 absolutely beautiful thing. That’s the kind of heart that Always imagines being in, and captures.
- Audrey Hepburn was paid $1 million for her role, she donated her entire salary to UNICEF. She also expressed that she had wanted to work with Spielberg for a long time.
- The “John Wayne” impersonation scene was not in the script. Spielberg saw Hunter and Johnson doing that between takes and decided to create a scene in the movie for it.
- This marked the first time that Spielberg released a second movie within one calendar year. Always opened in December, after Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade had played in the summer.
- This was Spielberg’s return to his “home” at Universal Studios, following two films for Warner Bros. and a third for Paramount.
- This was Spielberg’s first collaboration with former Marine and Vietnam vet Dale Dye, who became an ongoing go-to consultant for Spielberg, serving as a military advisor along with other aspects related to teamwork, training, and so on. He also appeared in a small role here, as he has in other Spielberg films.