By Jill Morgan
It’s a scene that is less than two minutes long and one that’s not entirely clear to the audience until the movie’s conclusion. It’s the opening of the film – Richard Dreyfuss is parked at the side of a road with a newspaper propped on the passenger seat. The headline reads of an attorney who was fatally stabbed – and it’s news that has literally sidelined the character on that back rural road.
It’s a quiet opening, for sure. Dreyfuss’ character speaks no dialogue. There’s no action other than two boys pedaling by on their bikes as the man switches his gaze between that newspaper headline and their spinning tires. And yet, those first few moments reverberate in stereo throughout every scene that follows.
Director Rob Reiner’s “Stand By Me” had its 30th anniversary this past summer and, like many people, I count the film among my favorites. It’s a movie not just about friendship, grief, belonging and self-identity, but how time spins its blades on all of it – blends it up and produces something either bitter or sweet but almost always too thick.
In that opening scene, we see a man stunned by the concoction that time has produced, and so he begins to tell us his story, sip by sip. Guided by voice-over and flashback into his youth, we quickly learn that the deceased man was “the leader of our gang and my best friend.”
The adolescent bond that the two of them shared (along with a couple of other friends) is at the heart of a story that is simultaneously hilarious and devastating. And while I’ve seen the film too many times to count and believe nearly every scene to be iconic – a bullied, overweight kid gets his hilarious revenge, a junkyard dog has his myth reduced to dust, a train scene that rivals even the most recent, CGI-laced movies – it’s that quiet opening that is at the forefront of my mind when I think of the movie’s gravity.
Because when we realize why Dreyfuss’ character has that reaction in the car, we feel it, too. We understand: How certain people and relationships from our past can challenge the way time is logged and registered; how the traffic of our lives can be not only muted but halted with the mention of a name, a note of a song or a headline in the paper; how even the most driven and successful among us remain vulnerable to the boomerang of memory; and, most importantly, how the death of an old friend (or the anniversary of one) can bring us to our knees in an adulthood where we strive to stand as giants.
Dreyfuss plays all of this so beautifully and it makes me respect actors who are able to convey such inner complexity with simple glances, small movements and zero dialogue. Ben Affleck does the same thing in “Good Will Hunting” – standing on Matt Damon’s porch, desperately trying to wrap his head around the fact that his best friend is gone (at his insistence). Kate Hudson does so in “Almost Famous” – standing alone in what is, to most people, a dirty, empty concert hall but to her, serves as a cathedral.
And during Oscar weekend, where we often honor the flash, boom and sharp dialogue of the screen, I like to think of quiet scenes like these, instead, where we are reminded that some of the most powerful moments in our lives are often born in silence – where we try to connect the dots between who we were and who we are now, and reckon with the blur in between.
Stephen King begins the novella that would become “Stand By Me” with the line, “The most important words are the hardest to say.” Indeed, they are. But with the right actors, they’re perhaps not even needed.