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Connection: year of release (1987)
Good Morning, Vietnam (1987)
Directed by Barry Levinson
Written by Mitch Markowitz
Starring Robin Williams, Forest Whitaker, Bruno Kirby, J. T. Walsh, Robert Wuhl, Noble Willingham, and Tung Thanh Tran
121 minutes, Rated R
You are in more dire need of a blowjob than any white man in history.
That was it.
One line of dialogue spawned only one question, but that was one more question than my mother was able to handle. One question that my mother never in a million years ever dreamed she would be answering on Family Movie Night.
It’s near the end of the film. Adrian Cronauer (played by Robin Williams), after a severe reprimand, says it to Sergeant Major Dickerson (played by J. T. Walsh). You are in more dire need of a blowjob than any white man in history. My mother audibly gasped.
It was my brother who asked. He was 8 or 9 at the time. “Mom, what does ‘blowjob’ mean?”
At first, my mother just sort of pretended that she didn’t hear him ask. But then General Taylor (played by Noble Willingham) actually repeats the line a few minutes later, so my brother asked again. This time, my mother sort of pretended there was a phone call she had to make and headed off into the kitchen. A mighty good job of acting she pulled off, making us believe she was on the phone.
My mother never answered him. We finished the movie without ever finding out what it meant. But we knew, by Mom’s reaction, that it must have been something really, really bad.
Her evasion didn’t matter, though. My older sister, six years my senior, was already pretty well schooled in how to handle these sorts of questions from her younger brothers.
It started with Purple Rain.
Flashback three years prior. 1984. Right after I had turned 8 years old, my parents got divorced, a separation that moved the family from the small towns of rural Illinois to the by-comparison large urban area of Champaign, Illinois. My sister was just starting high school the year we moved, and she had made fast friends with a group of people who were obsessed with Prince. He was fronting The Revolution at the time and had just released his masterpiece with them (Purple Rain, the soundtrack album to his partly-autobiographical film). One of these friends she had made had loaned a vinyl record of this recording to her. We listened to it often. As long as my mother wasn’t around.
My upbringing was strangely tyrannical when it came to music. My father abhorred secular music of any kind, making strict rules about what his children could or could not listen to. He liked country music, and he liked gospel music. If it wasn’t one or the other, it wasn’t allowed in the house. We weren’t even allowed to listen to the radio because, you know, popular music is full of sex and filth and Satan. He actually went on record as telling me, years after the divorce, that if I had lived with him all that time, I would not be listening to the music I listen to. He wouldn’t have allowed it.
My mother, on the other hand was (and is) a great lover of music of any stripe. She was a fan of The Beatles. A fan of The Animals. A fan of Conway Twitty and his “dirty little ditties.” She liked 1950s doo-wop and the soundtracks to musicals. How she tolerated my father’s music dictatorship I’ll never know. I imagined her turning the radio up and dancing to old Journey songs whenever my father left the house. It seems like a strange way to put it, but once they were divorced, my mother broke out the good records, and she actively encouraged my desire to go out into the world and experience the music available to me.
There were rules in this regard. Mom didn’t seem to care too much about what we listened to. Genre was irrelevant. But she was careful to ensure that we weren’t listening to music full of foul language and deviant behavior. Bon Jovi was all right. Guns ‘N Roses was not.
Naturally, Prince would have been out. In the 1980s, Prince very proudly wore his sexuality on his sleeve. His lyrics were full of dirty sex talk and four-letter words. Mom would not have denied his prowess as a songwriter and musician, but she would not have approved of You’re just too much to take/I can’t stop, I ain’t got no brakes/Girl, you got to take me for a little ride/Up and down/In and out, around your lake/I’m delirious. Those lyrics are lewd even if they are between the lines.
“Between the lines” was key. My sister loved Prince and wasn’t about to stop listening to him just because my mother would not have approved. She also didn’t have the same feelings about protecting us, and figured, I think, that we wouldn’t have any clue what her darling Prince was talking about anyway. And we didn’t. To a certain degree. I mean, yes, we knew what all the swear words meant, but we were fairly oblivious to the references therein about a myriad of lewd sex acts. So whenever my mother was not around, we listened to Prince. We listened to him often, surreptitiously hiding vinyl records between the box spring and mattress in my sister’s bedroom before my mother got home from her evening job.
I became enamored of a song named “Darling Nikki.” I liked the rhythm of it. The beat. The way the song would speed up and slow down. The way Prince would defiantly scream on just the right word. The way the guitars would kick in with that absolutely recognizable back-up melody as a segueway between the verses. But I didn’t understand all of the lyrics. And I certainly didn’t understand that the lyrics were filthy.
I asked my sister, point blank, what “masturbating with a magazine” meant. I had snuck a look at the album’s lyric sheet because I was unclear as to what Prince was singing at that particular point. Now that I knew what he was singing, I was just as unclear as to what it meant. So I asked. Innocently. Unaware that the answer to my question was not something you want to be talking to your sister about.
I still recall the look on her face. It was a look of horrified amusement. She knew she had two choices in this manner: 1) She could make something up or 2) she could tell me the truth. Unfortunately for her, she isn’t creative enough to make something up on such short notice, so she told me what it meant. Being eight and somewhat uneducated in regards to these issues, I didn’t understand. So my sister, bless her heart, brought a book home from school, a book that explained more than just the question of what this enigmatic lyric meant. The book explained the whole process from beginning to end.
Fast forward to 1987, three years later. Movies are still a big part of the familial bonding, just as they always had been. My mother worked several jobs back then, and rare family time was spent in movie theaters (the Urbana Cinema showed second run movies for a dollar) or watching videos at the house. My love for movies as it is now, borderline obsessive to some, stems from those evenings spent with Mom.
If I’m remembering correctly, Mom had been told by a coworker that Good Morning, Vietnam was okay for her children to watch. The R rating was for language. Language that we had certainly heard before. In fact, during acts of no-teacher-around schoolyard defiance, both of us, my brother and I, had been saying these words for years.
But “blowjob” was a new one. None of the talks with our sister ever touched on this issue. None of the books she had given me had ever mentioned this subject. This word was enigmatic, and I can’t really, in retrospect, blame my mother for not wanting to explain to her sons what it meant. If my own children asked me today what “blowjob” meant, I’m certain that I would pretend to be choking.
I eventually did what I had done three years ago and asked my sister. She laughed at me. Hysterically. This was my first hint that she was lying when she claimed to have no idea what the word meant either. It occurs to me now that prior conversations about such matters had been about things a little more “natural”. I think she was hesitant to educate me any more than necessary.
But I was undeterred. I asked an older friend what the word meant. From him, I got an answer that I was wholly unprepared for, via visual aids stolen from his older high-school-aged brother. Whoa, mama. I saw pictures that day that were unlike anything I had ever seen before. I started that day fully prepared to come home and explain to my younger brother what this elusive word meant, and instead, I ended it a big, fat liar. Like my sister and mother. There was just no way that I was explaining to my brother what this word meant.
Good Morning, Vietnam still stands, more than three decades later, as one of the funniest movies I’ve ever seen. My friend Paul and I became mildly obsessed with it at the time. I seem to recall losing the video we had rented in a back-and-forth pass between homes and my mother eventually had to pay the video store for our copy. Recently, while helping my mother do some housecleaning after the death of her husband, I discovered that my mother still had that copy of the VHS tape, complete with little orange sticker that said “Be Kind, Rewind.”
The irony of my continual watching of this film is that I was not a huge fan of Robin Williams until I saw this movie. Yes, I found his stand-up funny. Yes, I was often flabbergasted as to how quickly his brain seemed to come up with the next funny line. But I know quite a bit about acting myself, and my background is in improv. I have been trained to understand that pure improvisational acting doesn’t look or feel like it’s been improvised. It should look and feel natural, scripted, planned. A good portion of Robin’s film performances to this point didn’t feel like any of these things to me. Robin was clearly making most of this stuff up as he went along.
I blame directors. Directors who don’t know how to contain a talent like Robin Williams. Directors who know that Robin is funny, who know that the public at large finds Robin funny, so they let Robin do his thing, oblivious to how out of the screenplay’s element his antics seem to be. To my young mind, Williams’ films didn’t seem to be written so much as filled in. Filled in around whatever Robin had decided to make up. So he irritated me. He seemed, in most cases, to be out of place. To me, a good portion of his body of work were good movies that could have been great if someone would have put a rein on the improvisational antics of a man who didn’t know when to stop improvising.
Until Good Morning, Vietnam.
There is a moment in this film that, even through numerous repeat viewings, continually blows me away. A moment where Robin has been reeled in. Controlled. Restrained. In this moment, Adrian Cronauer, returns to the studio after witnessing a bombing at his favorite Vietnamese bar. The bombing isn’t official news, though, so he’s not allowed to mention it on the air. He accepts this decision, but then talks about the incident anyway, announcing that there was an unofficial bombing where an unrecalled right now number of people “unofficially died.” His superiors eventually shut off his microphone, leaving him to mutter to himself about this “unofficial event.” It’s a nice moment that ranks up there for me as one of my favorite acting moments in any film I’ve ever seen. In that moment, you can see Adrian Cronauer learning how to control himself. He wants to scream. He wants to yell. He possesses the desire to explode into an improvised riff on the injustice of a broadcasting system that doesn’t treat real news like it ever happened at all, but he doesn’t have the means any longer to do so. In that one moment, we get a complete character arc. Adrian Cronauer is forever jaded by this one five-minute scene.
Robin Williams is utterly mesmerizing in this film. Finally, a good director puts a leash on him. Finally, someone chips away the exterior to find an incredible actor underneath. Few directors had been able to do this effectively before Good Morning, Vietnam.
This film made a fan of Robin Williams out of me. Once I saw what he could do, I began to actively see what he was going to do next. Awakenings, Dead Poets Society, One-Hour Photo, and The Fisher King are only a small handful of his performances that I have really grown to admire. His performance as Adrian Cronauer, though, for me, is still his best. It’s a shame that Robin Williams’ eventual Oscar acceptance speech was for a performance that doesn’t even compare to this one.
Good Morning, Vietnam is many things to me. It’s my favorite Robin Williams performance. It’s one of my favorite comedies. It’s an excellent case study on subtle intensity. And it’s a film that I fondly remember because of the circumstances that surround ever having seen it in the first place. I call these “nostalgia films”, movies that I love because of who I was with when I saw them, what I was doing, or where I was. I have a lot of those films, movies that get stored in my mind on a shelf separate from the others. Not all of those films are any good, and almost none of them would stand up as well on their own as Good Morning, Vietnam does.
Be warned, parents, should you choose to revisit this film as I did recently. Don’t let your children watch this movie if you don’t want to have to explain. Because you will have to explain. Because they will ask. Children are inquisitive like that. And they might not think to ask until you’re in the grocery store or at church.