Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Leave Yesterday Behind (1978)

          Tempting as it is to romanticize Carrie Fisher’s career in the wake of her shocking death at age 60, the truth is that outside of Star Wars movies, she was far more successful as a writer than she was as an actress. In fact, she didn’t properly lead the cast of a feature film until the obscure 1989 indie She’s Back, and most of her major screen credits are secondary roles as best friends and love interests. Acknowledging that drug problems and typecasting contributed to Fisher’s marginalization, it’s interesting to look at one of her first significant performances after the release of Star Wars (1977) to examine the question of whether Hollywood failed to understand her gifts or whether her gifts simply took time to mature. (Lest we forget, Fisher was only 19 when she first ventured to a galaxy far, far away.) In the respectable romantic telefilm Leave Yesterday Behind, Fisher plays a woman whose devotion helps a young man conquer emotional difficulties following an accident that leaves him paralyzed from the waist down.
          Occupying the leading role is the versatile John Ritter, then riding high on the success of his dopey sitcom Three’s Company and undoubtedly eager to display his dramatic chops. Within the film’s predictable and sentimental rhythms, he comes off quite well, conveying anguish and rage and vulnerability in a number of convincing moments. Fisher isn’t given nearly as much room to shine, since most of her repetitive scenes involve expressing sympathy, and she doesn’t elevate the material the way Ritter does. So while it’s likely Hollywood didn’t know what to do with the precocious starlet whom audiences first encountered in Shampoo (1975), it also seems fair to say Fisher hadn’t yet found the right balance between her innate qualities of humor and toughness. In Leave Yesterday Behind, she’s appealing and formidable in some moments, forgettable and shrill in others. As for the movie itself, it’s watchable as far as this sort of thing goes.
          Directed without much passion or style by Richard Michaels, the picture overcomes a choppy opening sequence to settle into a straightforward pattern of vignettes displaying the leading character encountering—and occasionally surmounting—obstacles. After losing the use of his legs because of a fall during a polo match, Paul Stallings (Ritter) becomes depressed and embittered, wreaking domestic havoc on his grandfather, Doc (Buddy Ebsen), whose sprawling farm provides a quiet sanctuary while Paul adjusts to life in a wheelchair. Marnie (Fisher) practices with her horse on the farm, so eventually she has a meet-cute with Paul. Discarding her boyfriend, David (Robert Urich), Marnie spends lots of time with Paul, quickly escalating from friendship to romance until Paul pumps the brakes out of fear he won’t be able to perform sexually. Meanwhile, Doc gives no-bullshit life lessons that force Paul to overcome self-pity so he can explore his potential. This stuff isn’t anywhere near as saccharine as it sounds, but it’s not profound, either. Still, alongside a minor role in the 1977 made-for-TV adaptation of William Inge’s play Come Back, Little Sheba, this humble telefilm is, by dint of her scant credits during this period, Fisher’s most substantial ’70s performance beyond her first appearance as Princess Leia. So there’s that.

Leave Yesterday Behind: FUNKY

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