Feb 14th: “Stealing Home” (1988)
Celebrating 28 days of underrated 80s cinematic treasures.
Today’s essay was never intended to be dropped on Valentine’s Day, in fact, I planned to have this one closer to the beginning, but then… we couldn’t have Southern Comfort on here for Feb 14th could we? But is this film really about romance, or is it about positive thinking?
Stealing Home was one of those adventures in second hand video stores that couldn’t have anticipated. It turned out to be a fascinating drama that says more on repeat viewings. In fact, this film told me what to expect as a teenager about young love. It’s never what it seems to be.
Jodie Foster always represented a type of person who I would be drawn to. A strong independent, feisty and creative soul, but that’s mainly what comes through in the movies. What we do as kids is we often design through a patchwork gathering of encounters. From that design, we create a blueprint of expectations of what we think we want, and project that onto others. I see Stealing Home as a perfect example of personalised projection, and how remembering old blue prints and beliefs can often be a sobering experience. But you go back to remember the innocence, because it truly was a beautiful way of thinking.
In “Stealing Home” a baseball term blends into an actual return to home, as Billy Wyatt (played by Mark Harmon) discovers that his childhood sweetheart, Katie Chandler (played by Jodie Foster) had committed suicide.
Happy Valentines Day!
Katie was Billy’s first experience in the way of love, life and the idea of living deliberately. Although, that alone doesn’t solve everything. It’s a part of the construct that cannot simply exist as a whole.
Billy is a flunk of a baseball player who’s down on his luck in most of his life. All of a sudden, everything stops cold as he finds out that Katie’s final wish involved him directly. She wanted him to be the one who would scatter her ashes. Only he, out of all the people that she knew, would know what to do with them.
Billy returns to his hometown and reminisces about his past, which forces him to reckon with his present. It’s a journey, and there’s a great sense of gentleness within this picture that is honest and touching throughout.
Now, I wish I could say that, when this movie came out in August of 1988, that everybody ran to see it, and they saw it for what it was: a touching drama, and a romantic love story, but not one where the girl and boy are together in the final scene. Once Billy knows where Katie’s ashes would be scattered, he lets her go.
In truth, it did miserably at the box office, and critics killed the buzz with their words of negativity. No-one was more appalled by this film than Chicago Sun-Times critic, Roger Ebert. Love stories don’t always do well unless there is something dramatically compelling to stir things up. Usually it’s the external forces, or circumstances beyond lovers in a love story that get in the way of things. There are exceptions, with Terms of Endearment achieving great acclaim, and since then, the internal drama has found its place. But in this case, it’s a story of somebody who needs to fix his life, and by doing so, finds the greatest challenge in his life to date: to find out where Katie Chandler would want her own ashes to be scattered. Perhaps that premise reached the audience cold. Maybe the premise was just too far removed from our experience.
Perhaps, the timing wasn’t all that great either. The summer had been tepid with Mac and Me, Clean and Sober and the ambitious, risk taker, The Last Temptation of Christ gracing the silver screen in the lead-up to Stealing Home’s late August release. Having come late in the summer, children were already back in school. Audiences had already had their early fix of Die Hard, Short Circuit 2, Big and Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Dynamic, exciting moving pictures, and perhaps Stealing Home, like several films on this list, were better for the tv-movie of the week audience. This just didn’t seem to be the kind of film that would have been escapism for the theatrical setting. But what do I know. Surely the studio had its own way of recognising that, sometimes they can’t just bank on well known stars in order to sell tickets. They can’t always expect well written stories to be receptive enough to spread like wildfire. Sometimes, good films just don’t get what they deserve, and that’s just the way it is.
Stealing Home did find its audience eventually on the rental market and with home video. That’s where I found it. I might not be in the I love Mark Harmon, fan club, but I do recall being somewhat enamoured by Jodie Foster’s portrayal of Katie. When she performs here, she brings so much energy and vitality to the role. Her Katie is loud, and fun. She does crazy things like swim to the bottom of a swimming pool, just to touch the bottom of it. She dances, and she swoops in like nobody that we’ve ever met before. She made an impression on all of us, just as she had done for Billy Wyatt. For a brief moment, we believe that Katie really could fly if she really wanted to.
At the time, Mark Harmon, Jodie Foster, and the rest of the cast felt very strongly about the material. It was a solid script with a lot of heart, and the cast have often reminisced that they had a positive time while making it. Even though it’s remembered for its romantic subject matter, it managed to have moments of comedy too, thanks to including Harold Ramis as Billy’s old childhood friend, Alan Appleby who was left behind, often disappointed, whenever it came to girls. Or more the case, when it came to Billy getting in the way of his crushes.
Rarely do I find romantic movies all that interesting, but this one struck a chord. It leaves questions as to why such an appealing rebel, such as Katie, with such a lust for life wish to end things short?
We can’t take anything for granted.
Many of life’s philosophers, role models and inspirations deal with lives of great struggle, trauma and adversity. At least Katie had it in her to give Billy a reason to get back on track. It’s a shame that the voice of reason would come in the form of memories from lessons that he could have learnt without her having died. But with many a literary tragedy, it’s the sacrifice itself that ends up bringing about the biggest change.
This film, if you let it in, can affect you.
But only if you allow it.
Written by: Stephen Radford