The Hero by Bob Ritzema

The Hero by Bob Ritzema

Not many movies have a 72-year-old as their main character. Thus it was refreshing to see the recent film “The Hero,” starring Sam Elliott as aging actor Lee Hayden. Lee had success early in his career but has been marking time ever since then. He tells Charlotte (Laura Prepon), a woman half his age who becomes his love interest, that as a young man he starred in a movie that he is proud of. Since then he’s kept busy but hasn’t accomplished much. The opening scene shows what he has been doing; he records take after take of a commercial for barbecue sauce, “The perfect partner for your chicken.”

Lee checks with his agent regularly, hoping to be offered a movie script that will allow him one more chance at success. Unfortunately none is forthcoming. In his sleep, he often dreams of being back in the movie for he was famous (also named “The Hero”), though now as an old man. He’s divorced and has a strained relationship with Lucy, his daughter. He’s bungled things with Lucy; he’s been absent and inattentive. He feels badly about where things stand with her, but apparently not badly enough to act differently. He devotes his time and energies not to others but to smoking pot, often with Jeremy (Nick Offerman), a former acting buddy who is now his dealer.

Lee is stuck. However, two things happen that have the potential to change his life. First, he is diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Whatever he is going to do with his life, he won’t have much time to do it. Second, he and Charlotte begin seeing each other. It’s not that the attentions of a woman can solve his problems, but the woman in this case has a somewhat different take on life than he does, and that opens him to new possibilities. One interaction between them goes something like this:

Lee: It’s kind of weird to be remembered for one part forty years ago.

Charlotte: Yeah, but it’s as close to immortality as most of us will get.

You’ve done better than you think, Charlotte seems to be saying. Don’t worry so much about your legacy. Live in the present rather than in the past or the future. Her advice is useful for any of us who are overly concerned with how we’ll be remembered.

Here’s a conversation Lee and Charlotte have about their relationship, but also apparently about living one’s life:

Charlotte: So what do you want?

Lee: (uncomfortably) I don’t know.

Charlotte: Don’t think so hard about it, man.

Charlotte may give too little thought to what she’s doing with her life, living impulsively, profligately. Still, she’s a good corrective for Lee, who is trapped in his thoughts.

Why is the film called “The Hero?” Mary McCarthy once wrote “We all live in suspense, from day to day, from hour to hour; in other words, we are the hero of our own story,” Ironically, Lee, the man called “The Hero,” has for decades avoided being the hero in his own life. He has evaded self-knowledge and meaningful commitment to others. His cancer diagnosis and Charlotte’s provocations are invitations for him to undertake the hero’s journey (I’m thinking of Joseph Campbell’s description of the mythological hero who is called to adventure, resists, accepts the call, enters an unfamiliar world, undergoes an ordeal, and returns home with a reward).

Lee is beckoned to the hero’s journey not only by cancer and Charlotte but by his own psyche. The dreamscape that he enters when asleep has two recurring scenes. In the first, he is a cowboy who encounters a man hanging from a tree. In the second, he stands on the ocean shore, looking out toward the horizon. I take the first of these to be an intimation of his mortality. One approach to dream interpretation is to see everything in the dream as representing a part of the dreamer; in this case, the lynched man would represent him. The second scene, with the vastness of the ocean and the force of its waves, might represent all that is greater than Lee–the infinite, the eternal, the divine. Like Lee, we are prone to live selfish, constricted lives until we are confronted either by suffering and death or by that immensity that makes us feel tiny by comparison. Will we try to hide from what we’ve seen, or will we accept the invitation to venture out into it? Lee’s challenge here is the challenge that each of us faces.

Lee reacts poorly at first. He can’t even manage to tell anyone he has cancer, though he tries. He avoids setting an appointment with the oncologist, not wanting to face his dire medical condition. During the last third of the film, he makes some progress, though I won’t give details here. Suffice it to say that, having for decades avoided being the hero of his own life, there’s only so much he can accomplish in the few days covered in the film. By the end, he seems to have accepted the call to take the hero’s journey, but he hasn’t gotten very far along the road he’s following.

One thing I appreciate about the film is that Lee’s circumstances don’t change dramatically, but by the end he seems to have a different attitude toward the ordinary, unspectacular things of daily life. Rather than being dismissive of the prosaic, he seems bemused by it, and maybe appreciative. As I age, I hope I can become more and more at home in the ordinary, just glad each day to be alive. “The Hero” is at least in part a movie about finding contentment.

That’s something we all could use.

By Bob Ritzema

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