A favourite phrase in our house right now is “I Want”. It’s what my 2.5yo son Oscar says more often than just about anything else. It’s quite annoying. Every sentence starts with “I want”. Sometimes (often) that’s the full sentence. We’re told it’s a phase. A stage. His age. Well, just the other day I was changing him and he started in with an “I want” and then changed gears and then back to another “I want”. It was on the tip of my tongue to cut him off and say “well, want in one hand, shit in the other, see which gets full first”. I didn’t. Because he’s only two. And because I will never say that to him. And because the position we were in at that time it was far more likely that it would be my hand getting full first.
It was a reminder to me that the movie This Boy’s Life is one of the most quotable films in my lifetime; I’ve seen it a bunch of times. Haven’t seen it for ages. Due another watch anytime soon. I love that film.
It was the first film to feature Leonard DiCarprio in a starring role, an immediate showcase of his talent. It was one of the last films to really show Robert De Niro’s talent.
Released in 1993, based on Tobias Wolff’s memoir of the same name This Boy’s Life has been swimming in my head for years. Most recently because the song Ain’t Got No Home by Clarence “Frogman” Henry is, apropos of nothing, one of Oscar’s favourite songs. He calls it “ew” because of the “oooh oooh oooh oooo” chorus. But he sings along with the “ain’t got no home/I’m a lonely boy” lyrics. Usually from his bedroom. Sometimes, now, under headphones. Often we drive around town listening to it. And he, of course, has not a care in the world. But as I’ve been hearing this song – more and more – I think of this movie. The music from the soundtrack. That style. Those sorts of songs. The songs that appear also in so many other movies, like Forrest Gump, as one example. And then, anyway, I think about what a great film This Boy’s Life was, and is and then specifically of the nasty story at the heart of it; the revolting and brutal and sad and cowardly figure that Robert De Niro portrays.
Oh I loved all his “great” film roles, Godfather II, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Cape Fear, Mean Streets, New York New York – so many. But there’s something about how frightening, illogical, mean-spirited, stubborn and laughably cruel he is as Dwight Hansen.
“You shut your pie-hole”.
That was a phrase that was said around our house a lot after I returned home from university to show the film to my parents. By then I’d seen it a bunch of times. A firm favourite. We all loved the Dwight character. He was revolting but you couldn’t not laugh. You’re laughing at the incredulity, or out of incredulity; you’re laughing too at the astonishingly believable performance. My favourite scene – or moment – that sums up the stubbornness and sadness of Dwight is when he’s trying to listen to a record and bothered by the noise all around him he crosses the room to his record player and drags the needle back and forth across his record, ruining the platter. He does this until there is silence. To prove his point he sabotages the thing he was trying to listen to; he destroys his own calm – or what was supposed to be the soundtrack to his calm.
I’ve had some times looking after Oscar where, for a fleeting second, I’ve possibly wanted to scratch the record. Or to tell him to shut his pie-hole.
My dad no doubt had plenty of those times with me.
I reckon it’s okay to feel that as a parent, to feel like that. It’s human. To act on it – to do it – that’s what separates the good guys from the bad.
This Boy’s Life is one of those films that taught me a whole heap of lessons, right from first viewing. They’re with me always. And it’s only in those short little stolen moments – when I think about the film for a second or two – that I realise its impact.
I finish changing Oscar and he’s still rolling out the list of what he wants. I think about how one day I’ll show him this film. And until then I’ll do my best to give him most of what he wants and certainly everything he needs.
Click here to watch the full movie.