Sometimes I go to this very new age coffee shop to write and I truly try to tune out the discussions of chakras and reiki because the coffee is that good. I don’t believe crystals will help my energy and I have little faith that an etheric cord cutting will resolve bad feelings about ex-boyfriends. I say this because I don’t say things like “fate” or “meant to be” often. I roll my eyes at the people who talk about things like this because they are assigning meaning to their lives, they are making themselves feel important in a vast and terrifying world. You need to know all of this about me so you can understand how I felt on a Sunday afternoon watching Beginners and how I have felt since then, looking at my life weave itself into something I couldn’t have explained before I saw this movie.
I was six years old and at my first singing lesson. My instructor was named Hal and if you watch several films from 1950s-era Hollywood, you can see his name in the credits and hear every note he arranged, every warbly starlet whose voice he trained. Imagine my surprise at age eleven when he turned up on a certain sex symbol’s E! True Hollywood Story with his own account of their steamy tryst. Imagine my joy at spending summer afternoons with him playing the piano when his old friend, Jane Russell, came to visit for weeks at a time. I cannot explain how wonderful my childhood was at times.
However, at that first lesson, I sat between my parents as my mother explained how I sang all the time, how I played the piano by ear, how highly recommended he’d come from a family friend. Hal listened patiently from behind his piano and then looked at me.
“What do you want to sing?” He asked.
“She has a few things prepared,” my mother answered.
“I asked her,” he said firmly. “Now, what do you want to sing?”
No one had ever asked me what I wanted to sing before but I had the same answer I have to this day: “Stardust,” I chirped.
“You know that song?” His eyebrows waggled when he said this.
“Well, alright, let’s sing it.”
I stood up as he began to play it beautifully and I could feel my parents’ eyes on me as I began to sing, easing into the verse. I knew every word like I still do and I twisted my fingers behind me as I tried not to sway too much. When it was over, Hal looked at me for a while and grinned with his big white teeth.
“Do you want to come back and sing with me next week, Miss Escobar?”
I nodded and we did that every Monday until I was sixteen, singing countless songs over the years but always “Stardust”, every single lesson. When he was showing us to the door that first day, he stopped me.
“Why do you like that song so much?”
“I’m not sure.” I looked up at him as I shrugged. “There’s just something, you know?”
For those who don’t know, Beginners (2011) is the story of a thirty-something guy named Oliver (Ewan McGregor) who has, in just a few short years, lost both of his parents to cancer. Five years before the start of the film, Oliver’s mother has passed away and his father, Hal (Christopher Plummer), tells his son that he is gay and is now ready to live his life as a gay man after losing his wife.
Oliver is not surprised to find that his parents didn’t love each other romantically but he is shocked that they stayed married, if not together, despite his father’s sexual orientation. Hal is an older man but he jumps into his new life, his identity, wholeheartedly, putting out a personal ad, volunteering with his local LGBT group, and even trying out the club scene. With a whole marriage and different life behind him, Hal is ecstatic to feel like himself and isn’t troubled by rejection, embracing his new life, boyfriend and friends included.
Oliver watches his father come out of his shell and sees a side to his father he never knew. He is cautious but supportive, especially when it’s discovered that Hal has cancer. Oliver is the one to care for Hal as he gets sicker, watching over him as he continues to live in the fullest sense of the word. Hal’s charming and unstoppable to the end and then, the end. Oliver is left with Hal’s house and mail and things and most importantly, his dog, Arthur, the most charming dog ever captured on film. Oliver is left with all of the pieces of not only his father’s life but of his parents’ marriage. To say that Oliver is sad is unnecessary but he really is sad. He was his parents’ only one and now he was just one.
It’s strange how children can understand something so early, isn’t it? I can remember being acutely aware that my parents weren’t in love from the time I was little, not like other people. My grandparents had a big love, the epic kind of love that I assumed was from a different time, and my friends’ parents, some at least, still liked to be around each other; my parents circled one another with an eye on the other and an eye on the door.
Like Oliver, I was my parents’ only one. There’s a wall between child and parents that is shaky when there is just one kid and nonexistent when the parents aren’t a united front. As a result, you get to know them separately, having no concept of them as a unit. I became friends with my parents and I was always surprised when either one would act like a parent; it’s not what we did. I wonder now if my parents were lonely, unable to talk to each other, and so they turned to me. I had more fun with each of my parents as a child than you can imagine and while it makes you closer to them in a lot of ways, it also creates factions, islands out of people. Oliver’s mother tells him to go to his room and scream when he’s upset and so he learns to retreat. I told someone after I saw this movie that Beginners is a movie about only children but in hindsight, it might be about lonely ones, the ones who feel darkness early and aren’t sure what it means.
Oliver is an artist and he keeps drawing the saddest things imaginable. We find out he hasn’t had many successful relationships. There’s a point where Oliver and his father discuss Oliver’s dating history and Hal wonders if Oliver isn’t too picky about finding happiness. Hal, after all, had a sort of happiness with his late wife and went on to find something new with his young lover, Andy (Goran Visnjic). Oliver tells him that he’s a lion holding out for another lion, someone just right. Hal wonders if he couldn’t be happy with a giraffe but Oliver is adamant about a lion, his lion. Is one more right than the other, does it matter when it comes to trying to be happy? I’m not sure.
Soon after his father’s death, Oliver meets an actress, Anna (Mélanie Laurent), at a costume party. They meet cute and they fall in love even cuter but then again, I’m a sucker for tacos and long walks. They are made of the same stuff, by which I mean, they are sad but they still believe in magic, they hope for it. Anna’s father looms over her life the way Oliver’s parents still do and you watch them try to negotiate the broken pieces of themselves into something resembling a relationship. They fall in love in Anna’s hotel room, neutral ground for both and an escape from their realities. They kiss and admit how they’ve left past relationships and how they couldn’t make it work. Despite this, they decide to move in together.
I sat watching as Oliver carried Anna’s things inside his still yet-to-be-entirely unpacked apartment and shows her everything. As soon as he turns his back, she begins to cry and I felt my throat close up in that theatre. It doesn’t work. Oliver cannot handle it, his heart’s so heavy, and she leaves. This was so familiar to me, so dear that I wiped my eyes at the scene. Not because I wanted her to go back but because I have been both of them. You leave because you’re not ready and you leave because it’s not right. You try to find a way to reconcile your past with timing and the fact that you found your lion; it doesn’t always work.
I took notes during Beginners, something I rarely do at movies. I always remember things and phrases clearly but I became suddenly terrified of not remembering the things I heard, things I have said myself:
“It’s easy to leave even when you stay in the same place.”
“I don’t really believe it’ll work and then I make sure it doesn’t.”
These are two things that Oliver says that struck me. I reached into my bag for a notebook and a pen, trying to keep the noise to a minimum. I wrote the words in the dark, feeling each letter form as the ink sometimes caught on the paper. It looked nothing like what I wrote when I looked at it later but the ideas were there.
Like Oliver, I have walked around for a long time with a heavy heart, heavier in recent months due to the death of a loved one. I have tried to make the romantic relationships I’ve had with men work only to leave when things got tough or when I knew, often before the other person, that it wasn’t right. I wanted a lion and I’d risk being alone to have that. You wonder for a long time if that’s even possible, if there’s someone with whom there’s built-in shorthand, if there’s a person who can understand your brand of loneliness and the things that brought you to the exact moment where you met him.
This is the part where I tell you that despite what you used to believe and how badly you hoped for them, there is that person and you never see them coming.
Oliver is the center of this movie, reconciling the past with his possible realities, but Hal, well, he’s the heart. Hal is brave in a way most people don’t understand, forced to hide a big part of his identity for decades and still buoyant after the fact. He is brave in a way that Oliver is not, in a way I definitely am not. He is brave enough to start over, to try. It sounds so simple but I will tell you that it can be terrifying. They grow so close in Hal’s last years, finally himself, he can be an active figure in his son’s life. The honesty and love that exists between them is warm and so palpable you could feel it radiate off the screen.
My parents divorced when I was fourteen and although it was inevitable, it was a permanent break to something that had limped along for almost twenty years. I saw my mother flounder and dwell on the past but I saw my dad grow in enormous ways. He built a life for himself, he took me sailing, he made me tacos, he found love again. I came to know a different version of him than I grew up with and watched as a man reconciled decades of dissatisfaction with the possibilities of trying again. He is braver than I could ever hope to be but I’m learning; I have time.
With Hal’s memory in mind, Oliver tries again with Anna. There’s a distinct moment where he decides to try to be happy. This movie doesn’t promise perfection or a happy ending in the way most people think of it, but it does offer a possibility. “Stardust” plays throughout the film, as we, with Oliver, navigate the lonely song you know with the love you find in your parents, in someone new.
What do you do with the past? Where do you put years of loneliness? How do you reconcile who your parents were with who they’ve become? I was looking back for so long that I had no idea what was coming. I’ve fallen in love and am trying to answer these questions every day. Every part of my life feels meant lately but I’m aware of the conscious choice I’m making to be happy and to be brave. Perhaps I was meant to get to this place and now it’s up to me.
I’m putting together the things I know. I know that for some reason I have always loved an old Hoagy Carmichael song and never been sure why. I know that my parents didn’t have a great love but they have that love for me. I know that you can begin again, that you can love again at 70ish for Hal, 50ish for my dad. I know that it is just as scary to start at 30ish for Oliver, 20ish for me, trusting yourself not to screw it up. I know that there is a lion and a wild love so true, so savage that you cannot help but have it in your life. I know that you can find this person and still be lonely sometimes. I know that you can be understood and you can be loved if you let it happen. I know that you can be brave and you can be happy because I am, or at least, I’m beginning to be.