Wednesday, February 10, 2016

TCM is running its "31 Days of Oscar" again. This year, they showed a lot of films from the 1980s, including Running On Empty. This is a 1988 film directed by Sidney Lumet and written by Naomi Foner. It starred Judd Hirsch, Christine Lahti, River Phoenix, and Martha Plimpton.

Foner was the then-wife of leftist historian Philip Foner, and the sister-in-law of far-left historian Eric Foner. She'd been a producer on The Electric Company from 1971 to 1973, before writing for television again in 1977, 1978, and 1981. Her first feature film screenplay was for 1987's Violets Are Blue. (She divorced Foner and married director Stephen Gyllenhaal. She's the mother of actors Maggie Gyllenhaal and Jake Gyllenhaal.)

Her left-wing connections helped inspire the screenplay. It's about Arthur and Annie Pope, a man and wife (Hirsch and Lahti) who bombed a military research center on a college campus during the Vietnam War. A security guard, who wasn't supposed to be in the building, was blinded and wounded. The two have been on the run ever since. Their oldest son, 18-year-old Danny (Phoenix), is a handsome and atheltically talented young man who is a piano prodigy. Their other son, Harry (played by Jonas Abry), was born "on the run" and is just ten years old. The story was inspired by the true story of Weather Underground leaders Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn, who were on the run from the FBI and living underground from 1970 to 1980.

The film begins with the FBI closing in on the Popes again, forcing them to relocate. In their new town and home, the family struggles to survive. Danny deeply impresses his high school music teacher with his piano playing, and falls in love with the teacher's slightly rebellious and intellectual daughter, Lorna. Danny tells Lorna who he really is, and his music teacher convinces him to audition for the Julliard School of Music. Focusing on the children helps keep the Popes' marriage intact. When Annie learns of Danny's successful audition, she wants to let him resurface and have a normal life. But Arthur won't hear of it. So Annie arranges a meeting with her wealthy industrialist father, Donald Patterson (played by Steven Hill), who tells her that he will care for their children if she and Arthur choose to let them go. The FBI begins closing in again on the Popes, and they instantly make plans to leave town. As they do, Arthur learns that a a fellow radical has been shot and killed. At last, he realizes that life on the run could endanger his children's lives. As Danny arrives at the meeting site to flee with his parents, Arthur tells him to stay behind, turn himself in, contact his grandfather, and go to Julliard.

River Phoenix was nominated for an Academy Award as Best Supporting Actor. Naomi Foner was nominated for Best Original Screenplay.

Phoenix was 18 years old when he made this film. Midway through the picture, he's shown laying on his upper bunk bed, shirtless, wearing only a pair of blue jeans. His powerful, muscular body is on display simply for purposes of exciting the audience.

I was certainly excited.

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