LITHUANIAN QUARTERLY JOURNAL OF ARTS AND SCIENCES
Volume 39, No.3 - Fall 1993
Editor of this issue: Antanas Klimas, University of Rochester
Copyright © 1993 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.
THE LITHUANIAN ANGLE IN A HOLLYWOOD MOVIE: AN ANALYSIS OF 'ONCE AROUND'
"Once Around" is a comedy-drama that "keeps you constantly guessing where it's headed," according to a critic in Newsweek magazine, and a movie that is "unpredictable, warm-hearted, and wise," as judged by a Boston radio critic. "Once Around" is the story of a Lithuanian American who barges into a tightly knit middle class Italian American family, creating a social collision. Even so, he manages to marry one of the daughters. Richard Dreyfuss is Sam Sharpe, the Lithuanian, and Holly Hunter portrays the Italian, Renata Bella.1
Prepared early in 1990, the movie was filmed partly in the Boston area, with some scenes at Lake Winnepasaukee, New Hampshire. Most of the shooting took place in Durham, North Carolina.2 "Once Around" first previewed in Chicago and New York in December 1990 and spread to theaters around the country in early 1991. It became available in video rental outlets by the summer of the same year.
In view of the extraordinary events in Lithuania during the past few years, I asked Richard Dreyfuss if the text intentionally focused on a Lithuanian in order to draw more viewers. "No," he replied, "because the script was prepared several years ago [completed in 1986] before major changes began in Eastern Europe. Ifs a case of serendipity."3 For Lithuanians and Lithuanian Americans the movie likewise became an unexpected bonusindeed a genuine instance of serendipity.
It would have been difficult and extremely costly for Lithuanians using conventional public relations channels to gain such vast and diverse exposure that movie audiences provide.
It was my rare opportunity to make a cameo appearance, performing a Lithuanian Baptism in the movie. This participation enables me to add the dimension of personal experience to this analysis.
Let's begin with a basic question. How did screen writer Malia Scotch Marmo happen to attribute Lithuanian roots to the principal male character? To depict the Bella family, she was able to draw on her own Italian background. As for a contrasting male leading figure, she mused over someone like her Ukrainian brother-in-law, a man of lively ethnic pride and identity. Yes, someone of East European background would be suitable. Then Ms. Marmo remembered a Lithuanian American fellow student from college daysa young man who used to speak fervently of his ethnic heritage. He even occasionally quoted translated Lithuanian literature to coed Malia. Out of this reminiscence sprang the writer's decision to cast Sam Sharpe as a Lithuanian American.4
Late in 1989 the movie makers sought out Irena Sandavičius Merlino of New York City as a preliminary Lithuanian consultant. For further consultation in the Boston area, she recommended Gita Kupčinskas of Walpole, Massachusetts, and her "Sodauto" folklore ensemble. The latter's significant input is described later on.5
In January of 1990, three Catholic clergymen of the Boston archdioceses were recruited by Collinge-Pickman Casting Company of Cambridge, Massachusetts, to audition for the part of the priest who performs a Baptism in Lithuanian. As it turned out, the film company efficiently achieved six goals in dealing with just one selected priest. He not only performed the required role, tutored the lead in the male role on singing a Lithuanian folk song, served as advisor about the Baptism, was an additional Lithuanian consultant, but also supplied paraphernalia for the wardrobe and "prop" departments.
By way of background to the production of the movie, understand that Hollywood strives for authenticity, and accordingly hires consultants in various specialties of expertise. At the same time, the film officials use considerable license for dramatic and graphic effect. Consequently, elements of fiction often mingle with factual data and accuracy. "Once Around" proved no exception.
As soon as the Director, Lasse Hallstrom,6 made his selection of the priest, many phone calls began between one of the assistant directors, Alexandra Stone, and myself. The first need that arose was to choose a suitable Lithuanian folksong about motherhood for Sam Sharpe to sing at his wife's hospital bedside after she gives birth to a baby girl.
In my own mind, I questioned the authenticity of a Lithuanian man singing a folk song about motherhood. So I did a bit of consulting on my own with a phone call to our leading folklorist, Jonas Balys in Silver Spring, Maryland. He verified my impression that in Lithuanian culture, it is a daughter or daughter-in-law who sings motherhood tunes. A man is more likely to sing about his steed or a visit to his sweetheart, but not about motherhood. Nevertheless, Jonas Balys did not consider the male in this role as a notably objectionable cultural departure. In fact, by a strange coincidence, given the thousands of folksongs and other melodies from which to choose, he suggested Stasys Šimkus' "Oi Močiut, motinėle" for the movie. It was the very folk song I had been asked to approve.7
On a snowy February 24, 1990, I had the opportunity to teach Academy award winner Richard Dreyfuss8 how to pronounce and sing the selected melody. The coaching session took place at the Charles Hotel in Cambridge, Massachusettssite of the movie production office during the Boston area filming. Interesting to note, he told me he was rather certain that one of his grandmothers came from Lithuania.
Be aware that every second of time in a film is carefully pondered and counted. The song, "Oi močiut, motinėle," was one example of partial cutting. In the finished version, Sam Sharpe sings only two verses of the three that he had prepared.9 Nor does he repeat the third and fourth lines, a style that Lithuanian folk songs generally require. The actor's pronunciation gave a touch of authenticity. It is common knowledge that not every Lithuanian American speaks flawless, polished Lithuanian.
Early in the film, the viewer learns of Sam Sharpe's Lithuanian roots. One hears him boast that "I am descended from a long line of Lithuanian generals." In a later scene, he tells Renata that "when I was eight years old, I used to stare at the photo of my grandfather who was a general in the Lithuanian army." The movie script called for a few Lithuanian phrases in the dialogue, and as the filming progressed, a few more words were added. For the birthday party of his future father-in-law, Sam Sharpe has arranged for a surprise appearance of a belly dancer. As she is leaving, Sam exclaims: "Labai gerai. Labai gerai atlikai." [You performed very well, very well.] Then stuffing some paper money into her halter, he adds: "Čia dovanėlė vaikams." [Here's a little gift for your children.] She replies: "Atrodo kaip puiki šeima. Pasveikink tą žmogelį linksmu gimtadieniu." [They look like a fine family. Wish the gentleman a Happy Birthday.] Sam then hurries back to the family, shouting: "Did you hear that, Joe? She said, 'Happy birthday' to you in Lithuanian!"
Here too we have an example of considerable poetic liberty. When I prepared the translations of the English fragments given to me, I pointed out the anomaly of a belly dancer speaking Lithuanian. Such an entertainer is unknown in Lithuanian culture. Even so, the incongruous sequence stayed in place because of the importance of the scene. Here one might give a mild interpretation by surmising that the dancer is not an ethnic Lithuanian, but rather a gypsy with Lithuanian forebears.
The script of a movie is considerably fluid. Changes are made at any time during the filming, according to the inspiration of the moment. Here are two examples. Consider the scene about the belly dancer. On March 24,1990,1 received a surprise call from my contact person, by then in Durham, North Carolina. For a brief moment, an idea was entertained about having Sam invite the entertainer to stay for the birthday meal. "Would you like to join us?" was the sentence I was asked to translate into Lithuanian. Nevertheless, this development of the plot was dropped. The day when the Baptismal scene was filmed, described later in this paper, I was given a few pages of script as souvenirs. When I examined them, I found to my surprise that what we were doing was quite different from the earlier intended text.
Later in the film, Sam makes a surprise announcement of his engagement to Renata. On the occasion he draws on the vast store of Lithuanian folklore by saying: "There is an old Lithuanian proverb that goes: 'Šuo paguldytas guli; žmogus turi savo ateitį sukurti.'" He correctly explains further: "Roughly translated that means: 'Dogs can't make their dreams come true; so people have to.'"
The ceremonial dance at the wedding reception of Sam and Renata is another striking instance of authenticity combined with poetic freedom. Here is the background. The episode was filmed at an exquisite tourist attractionthe Executive Governor's Mansionin Durham, North Carolina. Twenty members of the semi-professional Mandala dancers of Greater Boston spent two full days in filming their brief role. For dress, they rented Lithuanian folk costumes from the "Samburys" ensemble of the Boston area.10
The original text called for a frenzied dance performed solely by men, swirling around a ten-foot pole, atop of which was a loaf of bread, surrounded by suspended eggs. The intended choreography in presto tempo would have been utterly out of keeping with Lithuanian folk culture. Consultant Gita Kupčinskas disabused director Lasse Hallstrom about the insertion of such a dance. It was advice that he would appreciate as a native of Sweden, not far from the Lithuanian coast. As a substitution, his consultant recommended the braiding dance, called "Razginėlė," with its graceful use of flowing woven bands. Happily, the director implemented Gita Kupčinskas' counsel, at least in part. A viewer does see the "Razginėlė" dance authentically performed, though the bread and egg pole remain in the scene, supposedly symbolizing a "fertility rite."
In one case, license turned into total fiction. Joe Bella and his family have gathered in a restaurant for a meal in memory of his deceased mother. Sam disrupts the solemn mood by grabbing the microphone, hoping in vain to sing a Lithuanian melody. He remarks: "I'm going to sing a Lithuanian song about motherhood. It's about a mother who is completely devoted to her son who is going on a journey. Everything she doesthe cooking and cleaning is done for her son." In fact, his description of the folk song is totally different from the actual text that he later does sing. In any case, Renata's mother, Marilyn Bella, angrily gets him to sit down.
The next day in the hospital maternity section, Sam comes prepared to sing his tune, "Oi močiut, motinėlė," at his wife's bedside. To back up Sam's singing, three male Mandala dancers appear with mandolin, flute, and accordion, two of whom provide support by singing lightly. The episode is one of the most charming of all scenes. In free translation, the words are as follows:
1. O Mother, Mother dear, dear gray-haired Mother, So tired and fatigued until you finished rearing me.
2. Until you finished rearing me, until you finished raising me, You wrinkled your white hands, until you finished rearing me.
3. By day you held me in your arms, and nightly vigil you did keep. You wearied your bright eyes in keeping watch o'er me.
The story line moves on to the principal family conflict over the pending Baptism for the newborn of the Catholic couple, Sam and Renata. Here one encounters the second invention, concocted to provide grounds for the dispute that arises. Renata's brother. Tonythe chosen godfatherand his wife are leaving for a vacation on a particular Sunday. The Baptismal date nevertheless cannot be changed. Why not? Sam points out that his parents would not understand about their grandchild "not being baptized on a preordained date that has been followed in Lithuanian tradition for all their lives." As readers surmise, there is no such custom. Tony fires back skeptically: "But your parents are dead." Sam's mention of his parents correctly implies his Catholic belief in life after death. His provocative remark further implies an interesting theological speculation that God enlightens those who have died with knowledge about their loved ones here on earth.
The turning point of "Once Around" comes in the next scenethe Baptismwhich was filmed March 5,1990, at the old majestic Redemptorists' church11 in the Roxbury section of Boston. A bit more license surfaces here too. After the family squabble that momentarily alienates Sam and Renata from the family and the chosen godparents, only the newborn's parents are present at the beginning of the christening. In real life, of course, a priest would arrange for substitute godparents.
In any case, during the fleeting darkness between scenes, one already hears the words: "Priimk Kristaus šviesą"i.,e., "Receive the light of Christ" as the viewer begins to see the priest hand a lighted candle to the infant's mother. This candle rite regularly occurs after the pouring of the Baptismal water. Renata is upset, however, because of the absence of her family. To show her nervousness at the start of the scene, she needs to drop the lighted candle. Thus, the candle part of the ritual was taken out of sequence and placed at the beginning. Nevertheless since its use is authentic, I made no objection as religious consultant.
The ceremony then proceeds with the words: "Brangieji tėvai ir krikšto tėvai...." that is, "Dear parents and godparents..." In the midst of this prayer, the estranged family arrives in the church, providing a welcome interruption in the Baptismal rite. At this point during the shooting, the director asked me if the godparents could remain behind in the pew. In the Catholic ritual of Baptism, however, the sponsors stand next to the parents and actively participate. In my consultant's role, I explained the correct position of the godparents, and the director complied.
The ceremony then jumps to the essential pouring of the water with the accompanying words: "Aš tave krikštiju, vardan Dievo Tėvo ir Sūnaus ir Šventosios Dvasios," that is, "I baptize you in the name of God the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit."12 Some weeks prior to the filming, I asked my contact person about the name to be used in the Baptism. She quickly checked the script, only to find that no name was indicated. Therefore, the day I arrived on the set, I was careful to ask again what name had been chosen. To my delight, I was told to insert any name I wished. The choice was easy because among Catholics the holy Mother Mary is the most beloved of all women. In addition, since a middle name is usually given in Baptism, I seized the opportunity to add a distinct ethnic flavor with the popular "Birutė." (Recall that she was the wife of Grand Duke Kęstutis and mother of Grand Duke Vytautas.) Thus in the movie, the words introductory to the water pouring are: "Marija, Birute, as tave krikstiju..." [Marija Birute, I baptize you...]
When the casting company first telephoned me about seeking the priest's role, the agent explained: "Bring a Lithuanian prayerbook that you use in baptizing, and be prepared to read a few sections." Since, as a musician, I always sing at all my services, I inquired: "May I sing, too?" "Yes, yes, the casting official replied." Consequently, at the close of the brief tryout, I intoned the best known Marian hymn, "Marija, Marija." To my immense delight, director Lasse Hallstrom preserved a few lines in the finished product. In the course of abbreviating the Baptismal scene, the hymn did suffer some splicing. Still, only a keen listener would discern the discrepancy. The first three lines are followed by a repetition of the second line and part of the third line when an unexpected interruption takes place.
Sam Sharpe proves to be a somewhat shadowy figure "of unexplained origin," as one critic observes.13 The viewer does discover a great deal about the Bella family of Renata, but learns little about Sharpe's background and family. The script does indicate that his parents are deceased, and one surmises that he is an only child. Otherwise, there is little information, a gap that leaves his character development open to criticism.
Nevertheless, the author testifies that she deliberately depicted Sam Sharpe in this way, inviting the audience to judge him in the character he remains throughout the film, "honest, open, and expressive of his mind." It is true that at first glance he emerges as a shallow braggart who alienates and provokes. Yet he is not meant to be an evil "con artist." Instead he endures in the only brand of sincerity that he knows. "He is the only figure in the movie who doesn't change." Throughout the characterization, writer Ms. Marmo is Satisfied that the film company held close to her original script. As one critic observed: "What's remarkable is that Marmo's script did get filmed without losing the simplicity that made it special."14
The film is sprinkled with some dozen uncouth four-letter words, mostly on the lips of Renata, her sister, and her father. Interestingly, the author spares Lithuanian Sam from such crudity, despite his own brand of vulgarity. His self-assurance needs no lapses into obscenity. The film did begin as "family-rated" according to Dreyfuss. Evidently as the preparation proceeded, some sexual innuendo along with the obscene terms were added to bring the film to an "R" rating. This effort was a needless exercise in the view of many, while some have remarked that "Once Around" hardly deserved its "R" rating, compared to most such films, and accordingly was misleading to potential patrons. Meanwhile, the national watchdog organization, Morality in Media, frowns on such films and urges avoidance of them.15
Apart from the script writer Malia Marmo's intentions for her fictional Lithuanian American, he is variously perceived by film critics. Sam Sharpe is a "pushy, rich businessman," a "dirty-talking self-satisfied sharpie" who is the "flamboyant" suitor, "a hurricane of a man" who "manages to be both obnoxious and charismatic," "an overbearing blowhard," "irrepressibly insensitive," a character that is "love-him-even-though-you-can't-stand him," "an exuberant extrovert with a penchant to please regardless of the cost," a "huckster" and a "gland-handing phony," "simultaneously admirable and appalling."16
Reviewer Bruce Williams of New Woman magazine gave "Once Around" one of the most favorable reviews. In his maximum four-star rating, he called the script a "refreshingly original screenplay," and "a poignant, perceptive emotional high," in the midst of which is a "freewheeling Lithuanian salesman," who is "marvelously played by Dreyfuss." Critic Richard Duckett of the major daily in Worcester, Massachusetts, concludes his comments by labeling "Once Around" as "a crowd pleaser that many people are likely to want to see twice."17
This last comment needs to be taken seriously. For instance, there is a symbolism in the movie that disappointingly escaped almost all the experts themselves. None of the critics consulted remarked about the ubiquitous "circle" that appears throughout the film, including its title. Yet this sign of unity, harmony, friendship, and love, repeatedly surfaces.18 These virtues blend well with the Lithuanian spirit depicted by Sam Sharpe. On first viewing, "Once Around" may seem scarcely little more than a superficial plot that showcases some big-name Hollywood stars. Yet in a sense, the film is a morality play with sober nuances and intimations.
Somewhat puzzlingly, movie critics largely ignored the Lithuanian ethnic dimension of this film.19 Meanwhile, to Lithuanians and Lithuanian Americans, "Once Around" has been a highly unusual and welcome experience. Raimundas Lapas of Chicago, film historian and author of Ten, Ekrane SužibusIt happened on the Silver Screen (Chicago, 1983), confirms the fact that "Once Around" is the first major Hollywood film to feature a leading character of Lithuanian roots. In that case, what do Lithuanian critics have to say?
Stasys Santvaras in the Chicago-based Lithuanian daily newspaper Draugas wrote' about what was precious to Lithuanians ("kas lietuviams miela"), as he cataloged the ethnic aspects. "The spoken words in Lithuanian (albeit with a peculiar accent), and the love of one's forebears' tradition bring joy to the viewer." At the same time, several puzzling elements caught Santvaras' discerning eye. His closing paragraph observes: "Nevertheless, to the critical film viewer, the hero's un-Lithuanian type proves evasive as does his eccentric behavior." Santvaras adds: "The joyous tossing of the baby into the air while the priest is singing "Marija, Marija" is also open to criticism."20
The Canadian weekly, Tėviškės Žiburiai [Homeland Lights], published a feature story by another critic, Algirdas Gustaitis, who waxes eloquently. To him, Sam Sharpe reveals "a strong Lithuanian character," who "sings to everybody in Lithuanian," at whose wedding reception dancers in Lithuanian costumes perform a Lithuanian dance. Furthermore, Sam arranges to have a Lithuanian priest perform the Baptism in Lithuanian for the baby daughter. Gustaitis happily concludes that "there is so much of a Lithuanian mood in the film that it stirs everyone who is Lithuanian or of Lithuanian descent." Gustaitis expresses his perceptions further, especially in one of his interview questions put to Richard Dreyfuss. Gustaitis first candidly observed: "The start of the film is slow and uninteresting. When you appear, the tempo picks up. Everything, as it were, brightens up; it becomes interesting. Is it because you depict a Lithuanian, a splendid Lithuanian?" The critic further probes: "You succeeded in credibly portraying a person of different ethnicity [Dreyfuss is Jewish], like a genuine Lithuanian, perhaps even better."21
Critics and viewers have expressed themselves in a variety of opinions about "Once Around," as happens to most movies. Nevertheless, one can be certain of unanimity in thispeople of Lithuanian heritage would welcome other films that would more fully explore Lithuanian themes. This small ethnic group has much to offer out of its rich store of history and culture.
1 D. Ansen, Newsweek, Feb. 11,1991; Joyce Kulhawik, WBZ radio (Boston), aired Feb. 6,1991. Seasoned actors Danny Aiello and Gena Rowlands play
the role of Renata's parents.
2 The home of the Bella family in the movie was a white colonial residence, rented from Durham banker. Lee Williams, and his retailer wife, Pam Williams, in the Forest Hills section of Durham, North Carolina. Mrs. Williams was amusingly dismayed when her house was painted yellow. "You just couldn't believe how ugly it was," she exclaimed! The News and Observer, Raleigh, N.C. Jan 22, 1991: The Herald Sun [Durham, N.C], Feb. 1, 1991.
3 Conversation between Richard Dreyfuss and this writer, 24 Feb. 1990, Hotel Charles, Cambridge, Mass.
4 Telephone interview with the script writer, Oct. 30,1991. The college was Bunker Hill Community College in the Charlestown section of Boston. Mass. Marlo went on to complete Boston University and study at the Columbia University graduate school of film. Since "Once Around," her first script, she wrote the text for "Hook" (1991) and coauthored "Jurassic Park" (1993).
5 Irene Merlino's husband is a clothing importer who sometimes supplies men's wardrobes for movies, as happened in this instance. When film officials began wondering aloud about a Lithuanian consultant, Merlino directed them to his wife of Lithuanian descent for advice. By an oversight the credits at the end of the movie fail to mention Gita Kupčinskas.
6 "Once Around" is Hallstrom's first English-language movie. Previously he directed the Swedish film, "My Life As a Dog."
7 Gita Kupčinskas hummed and sang the folk song for me so I could write out the music and lyrics.
8 The snowstorm provided an off-day for the cast, since the outdoor filming in progress did not permit a snow-covered ground. Richard Dreyfuss won the coveted Academy award for his lead role in "Goodbye Girl" in 1977.
Oi močiut, motinėle
Gana pailsai, gana pavargai,
kol mane išauginai.
Kol mane užauginai,
kol mane išauklėjai,
tu prarymojei baltas rankeles,
kol mane užauginai.
Dienelę ant rankelių,
naktelę ant akelių.
Tu pražiūrėjai šviesias akeles,
Kol mane užauginai.
10 Anna Ivaškas or Ona Ivaškienė (1910-1991) foundress and director, started this folk ensemble in 1937, one of the oldest such groups in the United States. In recent years, several others assumed leadership.
11 The Basilica of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, popularly known as the "Mission Church," made famous through a hall century of preaching by Father Joseph Manton, C.SS.R.
12 The Lithuanian religious custom is unique by its inclusion of the word "God" in the blessing, an addition not found in the Western Liturgy.
13 David Brudnoy, Tab [Boston newspaper], Feb. 26, 1991.
14 Telephone interview, Oct. 30, 1991; Peter Travers, Rolling Stone, Feb. 7, 1991.
15 The [Boston] Pilot, Dec. 6, 1991, letter-to-the-editor from Robert E. Ward, Vice-President, Morality in Media of Massachusetts.
16 David Brudnoy, The [Boston] Tab, Feb. 26, 1991; Malcolm L. Johnson, The Hartford [Connecticut[ Courant, Feb. 1, 1991; Joyce Kulawik, WBZ radio, aired Feb.. 6, 1991; Gem Pare, Catholic News Service, distributed to subscribers for weekend of Jan. 19-20.1991; Bob Strauss, Boston Globe, Jan. 20, 1991; Richard Duckett, Telegram & Gazette [Worcester, Massachusetts], Feb. 1, 1991; D. Ansen, News-week, Feb. 11, 1991.
17 Bruce Williamson, New Woman, March 1991. Richard Duckett, Telegram 6 Gazette [Worcester, Massachusetts], Feb. 1,1991. For a negative review, see Gerri Pare, Catholic News Service, and for a severely negative view, see Stanley Kauffman, The New Republic, Feb. 4, 1991.
18 The circle can also represent the brevity of life as reflected in the popular saying: "You live only once," and as echoed in the Scriptural passage: "Son, remember your last end and you shall not sin."
19 Even the movie's advertising company in New York City spurned this writer's repeated offers to provide gratis aid in reaching the Lithuanian community.
20 Draugas, Feb. 16, 1991. For Santvaras, it appears that Sam is being disrespectful by playing catch with the baby, instead of listening attentively to the hymn.
21 Teviškės Žiburiai, April 2, 1991.