Viewer Guide: Stand By Me and Bless Me, Ultima

September 27, 2019 | Richard Peña
Stand By Me

Stand By Me (1986)


This week’s classic is Stand By Me, the 1986 coming of age comedy-drama directed by Rob Reiner.

Adapted from Stephen King’s autobiographically inspired novella “The Body,” Stand By Me begins its tale of a childhood summer adventure from the nostalgic vantage point of an adult perspective. Opening in September 1985, the film introduces us to the grown-up incarnation of Gordie Lachance, a successful writer played by Richard Dreyfuss, lost in his thoughts about a newspaper story reporting on the recent death of Chris Chambers. The significance of Chris in Gordie’s life soon emerges as Gordie reflects back to when he was 12 years old in 1959, growing up in a small Oregon town. As played by Wil Wheaton, Gordie’s circle of friends is a small group of misfit boys who are all coping as best they can with damaged family situations. For Gordie, he’s been living too long in the shadow of his parent’s grief over the death of an older brother. Trash-talking Teddy Duchamp, played by Corey Feldman, covers the abuse from his shell-shocked veteran father with a hot-headed bravado, while the chubby Vern Tessio, played by Jerry O’Connell, struggles with bullying from an older brother and his delinquent buddies. And Gordie’s best friend Chris Chambers is a boy from the wrong side of the tracks, the sort of kid who “everyone just knows will turn out bad”—including Chris himself—played in a breakthrough performance by the young River Phoenix.

On the cusp of the momentous changes of adolescence, the boys are whiling away the late summer doldrums when Vern breathlessly reports on an overheard conversation between his older brother Billy and a friend: while absconding with a stolen car, the older teens happened upon the body of a boy gone missing for three days, presumably killed after being hit by a train. Afraid of being caught with the hot car, Billy and his cronies have decided to let their sighting go unreported. But for Gordie and his pals, dreams of glory—and a morbid fascination to actually see a dead body—inspire them to hatch a plan to “discover” the body for themselves, then humbly accept the heroic accolades that will doubtless be showered upon them. And with that, Gordie, Chris, Teddy and Vern set off on what they’re convinced will be a life-changing expedition—which it certainly turns out to be, although maybe not quite in the ways they first expect.

Also featured in an early film role is a young Kiefer Sutherland as a menacing ne’er-do-well and John Cusack in a cameo appearance as Gordie’s late brother.

The son of film and television comedy pioneer Carl Reiner, Stand By Me director Rob Reiner had not only grown up with a famous father, but had enjoyed the most high profile role of his acting career as Archie Bunker’s beleaguered son-in-law on the iconic sitcom All in the Family. So perhaps Reiner’s own life experience is what made him so especially suited to guide Stand By Me’s young cast, with each boy’s character wrestling with the emergence of his personal identity. Launching his film directing career in 1984 with the cult favorite “mockumentary” This is Spinal Tap, Reiner got the job to direct Stand By Me after Fatal Attraction director Adrian Lyne withdrew from the project. But when the film was threatened with cancellation, it was Reiner’s old boss Norman Lear who committed $7.5 million dollars of his own money to keep the project afloat. Taking care to cast young actors whose personalities closely matched the characters they were playing, Reiner took the boys on a two-week rehearsal retreat to the Oregon woods, giving them the time to develop the authentic rapport that registers so strongly in the finished film. Although the boys’ frequent use of blunt and objectionable language raised some eyebrows—as well as the film’s MPAA rating to an R—the movie’s demographic was clearly aimed at an audience the age of the adult Gordie, grownups who would appreciate all the nostalgic details as well as the jukebox soundtrack. Responding to Columbia Pictures’ concerns about Stephen King’s original title “The Body,” which Columbia thought sounded too much like a horror movie, Reiner suggested Ben E. King’s 1961 hit as a replacement, with the song’s soundtrack re-release reaching #9 on Billboard’s Hot 100. Among the top box office money makers of 1986, the film’s most prized accolade came from Stephen King himself, who was visibly moved after an early preview screening, later commenting it was the best film adaptation of any of his books up to that time.

Bless Me, Ultima

Bless Me, Ultima (2013)


This week’s indie is Bless Me, Ultima, a 2013 drama directed by Carl Franklin.

Adapted from Rudolfo Anaya’s acclaimed autobiographical coming-of-age novel, Bless Me, Ultima has become one of the most beloved and best-selling books of Chicano literature since its publication in 1972. Using an episodic style, the film adaptation recounts the early life of Antonio Marez, played by Luke Ganalon, a questioning seven year-old who finds himself pondering the religious and moral contradictions of life that begin to trouble him growing up in 1944 New Mexico. Narrated by Alfred Molina as the adult Antonio reflecting back on his childhood, the story opens with the arrival of Ultima, an elderly woman without family who is taken in by Antonio’s parents. As portrayed by the magnificent Míriam Colón, Ultima is a curandera—a healer-shaman in Chicano culture who also served as midwife at Antonio’s birth. While his sisters whisper their fearful suspicions that Ultima is really a bruja or witch, Antonio immediately feels a mystical bond with her—and the mysterious, watchful owl that accompanies her. Often on his own while his older brothers are away fighting in World War 2, Antonio joins Ultima in finding the herbs and plants that she uses in her healing remedies, and listens to her spiritual philosophies. But while they are on a mission to treat an uncle allegedly under a witch’s spell, Ultima and Antonio cross paths with a vengeful saloon owner named Tenorio who proves to be a nemesis to them both. As the threats from Tenorio steadily escalate, Antonio copes as best he can with the confusing and sometimes conflicting realities of family, school and church.

The first book in a trilogy by author Rudolfo Anaya, Bless Me, Ultima is largely a directly autobiographical account of Anaya’s young life growing up in rural New Mexico. Despite earning graduate degrees in English and literature from the University of New Mexico, it took time for Anaya to find his writer’s voice, with very little in the way of Chicano literature in existence at the time he was writing to offer him inspiration and guidance. In the spirit of his novel’s mystical dimensions, Anaya reported that late one night as he was grappling with his manuscript he experienced a vision of an old woman dressed in black who asked him what he was doing. When he explained his difficulty in getting a handle on his novel, she replied, “Well, you will never get it right until you put me in it.” And thus Ultima entered the narrative, with Anaya regarding her as the subconscious inspiration he needed to unlock his way into his Chicano life experience. Among the novel’s legion of fans was Walmart heiress Christy Walton, who teamed up with producer Sarah DiLeo to finally secure the rights to adapt the 1972 book for the movies. Finding the right actress to embody the critical title role of Ultima was essential, but groundbreaking Puerto Rican star Míriam Colón offered the perfect fit. In addition to her various pioneering film and television roles in pre-diversity era Hollywood, Colón was co-founder of the trailblazing Puerto Rican Traveling Theater in New York City.

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