A tale of two brothers…
An American ex-pat’s wife dies and he has to break it to his young children. Only telling his eldest son, both become lost in their own grief unable to connect with each other.
Gene Hackman in Misunderstood 1984 TV trailer, robatsea2009 and photos © MGM/UA Entertainment Co.
In Misunderstood (1984) in one of his most tender roles, Gene Hackman stars as Ned Rawley, an American ex-pat (and owner of a prestigious shipping company) whose wife dies suddenly. This left him alone to bring up their two young sons. This is a much-loved tear-jerker for all ages with child stars, Henry Thomas – Elliot from E.T. The Extra Terrestrial (1982) – and wee Huckleberry Fox – from Terms of Endearment (1983) – as his kids.
It’s unclear as to the kids’ actual ages in the movie, but Thomas – as Andrew – was aged 10 or 11 and Fox – as Miles – aged 7 or 8 at the time of filming. Both appear much younger in the movie with Miles still not attending school but having a governess at home. The movie released in 1984 but filmed in 1982 in Tunisia, where the story unfolds.
Misunderstood begins as Ned attends his wife Lilly’s funeral. During this scene, we see flashbacks of the family’s then idyllic life with her in Tunisia and this apparently happy couple with their two young boys. With an actress, Susan Anspach as Lilly. It’s noticeable his children are not at her funeral, yet his brother-in-law Will (Rip Torn) is there.
This absence of the children explained as Ned confides with Will that he hasn’t told them of her death. With Lilly dying suddenly after a short illness. Will stresses to Ned to tell the boys, with Ned relenting saying he will tell the older boy, Andrew. This as the other child, Miles is too young to understand.
The family lives in a large austere palatial home on a cliff near the sea with servants. Ned ventures from his office and goes to greet the children. He is noticeably more huggy and affectionate with wee Miles than the older boy Andrew who stands apart from the pair. Rawley introduces them to their new governess, Mrs Paley (June Brown) who the boys take an instant dislike to.
Ned then takes Andrew to his office where he starts to tell him about his mother’s death but he has trouble telling him he’s that heartbroken. He can’t find the words and the young boy guesses the truth. He’s asked not to tell Miles, and Andrew is angry with the truth of his mother’s demise was kept from him.
From this scene, Ned is seen and shown to be quite emotionally distant from Andrew. Not even a hug or emotional support is given. Ned seems almost business-like in their interactions. In comparison, Andrew is shown to be closer to his wee brother, who he seeks out after this and hugs.
In much of the remainder of the film, the gulf between father and son widens with heart-rending scenes. I won’t say too much about this. But I urge you to watch this film for yourself, but it’s evident, that Andrew and his father used to be much closer…
Andrew’s Theme the titular piano track is a tender, wistful and melancholy piece written by Michael Hoppe. It’s heartbreaking hearing this piece along with those all too few flashbacks showing the family with Lilly. Lilly showing a more warm and caring side to Ned. She also appeared to be strong support for Andrew. These flashbacks showing both Ned and Andrew’s close relationship with her. Ned appears to throw himself into his work isolating himself from his children.
His non-explanation to Miles on his mother’s death is seen with the wee boy’s constant questions to both him and Andrew about his mother. Ned learns from Andrew about the needs Miles has in daily activities showing he has much to learn in his role as a single parent. Ned says the affectionate, Miles reminds him of Lilly which may explain the different approach to him, or perhaps as he’s the youngest child.
This may account for his distance from Andrew, who he sees as a grown-up and Ned feels that he will be able to deal with his mother’s loss alone. It is only when Will reminds him Andrew is also a wee boy, lost in his loss of his mother that he makes an effort to spend time and listen to the older boy’s needs.
It was bizarre seeing June Brown in this cast. Brown appeared as Dot Cotton – mother of Nasty Nick Cotton – from 1985 to now in Eastenders (1985-). Here she seems almost in practice for that role as in both as a religious spouting woman who mollycoddled Nick (John Altman) in Eastenders here, with wee Miles in this film as his governess. I must admit her presence threw me, in this film with such a prolific American cast especially with this film just before her Eastenders debut.
This is a real tear-jerker of a film with Hackman fantastic as the emotionally distant father, his performance with only warmth shown to Miles. In contrast, it’s heartbreaking to watch his relationship with Andrew with his language and lack of rapport. On many occasions, I felt like shouting at the screen for Ned to just give Andrew a big hug.
When his brother-in-law told him of this behaviour, the contrast led to heartwarming scenes between the pair, and Andrew also more affectionate towards his father. These scenes and the flashbacks showing a lovely, affectionate and fun side to Ned.
In 1985, Fox was nominated for a Young Artist Award for Best Young Supporting Actor in a Motion Picture Musical, Comedy, Adventure or Drama. However, he lost to Jonathan Ke Quan as Short Round in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984).
He was a great if not irritating wee brother, usually resorting to crying to get his own way. He was also like his endearing wee character, Teddy in Terms of Endearment, often appearing quite wee and vulnerable. But also less angelic than that latter film.
Here his character was sometimes manipulative using his close relationship with his father to his advantage. Miles, however, seemed a perceptive wee boy too and knew intuitively he was his father’s favourite. Miles knew when to stir things up between him and Andrew, or when and how to stop Ned’s anger.
Although here Fox also got more comic lines than in that previous role. One of the best being where his father gives a long-winded explanation of how he made his fortune, he turns to the boys to ask if they are interested and Miles responds with a no.
Thomas was surprisingly overlooked for awards with his credible, touching portrayal of Andrew. It’s more his movie than Hackman’s, and more of his story with his family and life in Tunisia. His close rapport with Fox was sweet and supportive, and it was nice seeing him in a big brother role.
There are some delightful scenes of the pair playing together in a spy role play game which seems unrehearsed and more like the pair playing naturally. Their closeness may be also explained in an interview with Thomas saying the pair got pally as the only two kids on the set.
In a scene where he loses Miles in a crowd when they go to visit the Tunisian market, I initially felt his fears and anxieties. These with the young boy feeling he’d lost his closest friend in the world and his fears of his father’s response. This shown in a terrifying build-up of scenes where you feel the intensity of his panicky response. This was reflected in Thomas’ performance which was strongly empathetic and understanding of his character’s situation.
One of the saddest scenes is one where Andrew phones his father – who is away on business – and even says he’ll pay for the call he’s so desperate to talk to him. And it’s been reported the film at one time had an alternative ending. This film has a more upbeat movie version.
As much I love this film, I’m intrigued about this. The other version showing more scenes of Lilly and with more understanding of the breakdown of communication between father and son. But in either case, I’m sure I’d still be shouting Andrew’s case to Ned. For Andrew to be listened to, to be loved and to be understood.
Weeper Rating: 😦 😦 😦 😦 😦 😦 😦 😦 😦 😦 /10
Handsqueeze Rating: 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 /10
Hulk Rating: /10
Cinema Shame No 6 : July and The Love Goes on Blogathon 2020, No 10
This film review was added as my Cinema Shame post for July and for Movie Movie Blog Blog II‘s The Love Goes On Blogathon. Other reviews with this cast include Gene Hackman in Oscar Winning Best Actors in Superhero Films, Bonnie and Clyde and Superman. I also reviewed him in my fave of his film appearances HERE. Henry Thomas stars in my post on ET The Extra Terrestrial. Huckleberry Fox stars in my reviews of Terms of Endearment and in his particular contribution HERE. Rip Torn starred in Columbo and Susan Anspach in Murder She Wrote. Torn was also tributed HERE.