It's My Party
A cable channel I watched frequently in the mid-nineties — I don't remember which one; probably HBO — got the rights to It's My Party, and the repellent promos, in which a woman simpered "it's muh par-teeee" over a montage of Eric Roberts smiling bravely through imminent tears, turned me off the film for years.
It didn't enjoy positive contemporary press, either; Roger Ebert liked it, but few of the other reviews gave the movie much credit, and that only grudgingly. Marjorie Baumgarten, writing for the Austin Chronicle, seemed surprised to have liked it at all: "Despite the movie's frequently lame dialogue, ill-developed characters, cheap melodramatics, and avoidance of any difficult right-to-die issues, there is still something compellingly real about It's My Party."
I felt the same way. The acting is all over the place, by turns amateurish (Olivia Newton-John), cartoonish (Bronson Pinchot), and clashing with the material (George Segal). Eric Roberts, cast against type, is unexpectedly outstanding, but his performance is undermined by Gregory Harrison's silent-film deer-in-headlightsing in the ex-lover role; every emotion he expresses, or tries to, is overlaid with a veneer of the terror he so obviously feels at the prospect of the future scene in which he and Roberts will have to french.
The writing doesn't help him, in fairness. Almost everyone has a lot of heavy dialogue…heavy in the way that wet toilet paper is heavy. The idea has a lot of potential, but its specifics — a man who has entered a terminal stage of AIDS decides to throw himself a goodbye party, then kill himself at the end — lead to strings of unmediated clankers like "I wonder which is braver: taking a life, or not taking it." There is no discussion, no reference, that is not hopelessly on the nose.
But the nose does have its uses. Among the tedious histrionics, the movie has positioned a few sweetly awful moments that get you thinking about what this party is like to attend in real life (and the film is evidently autobiographical). I have gone to a man's house for the last time, knowing that I won't see him alive again; we all have made a variation on that visit. It's the longest driveway of your life, and you dread the first step. At times, the movie gets that right, the not wanting to turn your back, the running out of "see you later"s. During those moments, I thought to myself that it's just as well the rest of the movie is not so great, even laughable (the Lon Chaney makeup on Christopher Atkins in his character's death scene is so crude, it's almost offensive). You can't stand at the top of that driveway for 98 minutes. It's too much to take.
It's My Party is also instructive as a period piece of sorts, and I don't mean the shoulder pads on everyone. As Nick reviews his cross-shaped art installation, fashioned from pictures of his many friends who have died of AIDS, I remembered how we thought about AIDS then. The movie came out in 1996, which seems like the time that the diagnosis stopped signifying an absolute, non-negotiable, short-date death sentence; the transition had begun, I think, into considering it a manageable chronic condition. Nick isn't ending his life because of the diagnosis itself — he has lesions on his brain that may kill him within the week, and will certainly render him non compos mentis — but I for one forget sometimes the way it terrified us. Terrorized us, really. Laid waste to people, literally and figuratively.
"Should" the movie have dug deeper into right-to-die issues? I suppose. But in 1996, in a movie written by a man who attended that very party hosted by his dying partner, maybe it seemed to go without saying — which is just as well, because a script that thinks "When you got sick, I guess I got scared" makes up for Brandon kicking an ailing Nick out of the house they shared and keeping the dog is likely not up to the task.
…I know. A lot of the movie is…that, but then it gives you the goodbye scene between Roberts and Pinchot, which is so clanky and odd that it feels true, so it's worth checking out.
Tags: Bronson Pinchot Christopher Atkins Eric Roberts George Segal Gregory Harrison Marjorie Baumgarten movies Olivia Newton-John Roger Ebert