Who else am I going to interview for Mother’s Day? My barber?
Mom was up for it, so here it is. Name: Jean Gallagher Phillips, born in Racine, Wisconsin, raised in Kenosha. Age: 90. Disposition: excellent. And “marbles,” as she likes to say: “mostly lucid.”
We saw a lot of films together growing up. Sometimes we saw things as a family, my brother, my father, my mother and me; sometimes we paired off when I wasn’t seeing stuff with friends, or occasionally alone, such as the sixth or seventh time I saw the 1974 re-release of the 1930 Marx Brothers film “Animal Crackers.” I know what you’re thinking: That was one cool kid, all right.
My mother was the one who, when I was 12, wrote a note (I put her up to it) requesting the manager of the Capitol Theatre in Racine let me in to see “The Long Goodbye,” my first R-rated film. She and I saw “The Godfather Part II” together, among many other movies. My dad and I saw things like “The Day of the Jackal” and “Marathon Man” and “Car Wash.” A few years later, when I was home from college one holiday season, my folks and I spent the night in Chicago for old times’ sake, as a nod to the trips we’d taken 10 or 15 years earlier. On that college trip, we caught a Fine Arts theater screening of Jerzy Skolimowski’s “Moonlighting,” on the recommendation of Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert.
We forget so much, yet we remember a lot, too.
My mother has a lovely view of the mountains from her balcony in Albuquerque, New Mexico, a few miles from my brother, my sister-in-law, and my nephew and niece and their partners. The following has been edited for clarity and length. Happy Mother’s Day to all who celebrate, and to all who should be celebrated.
Q: I remember you saying the first film you probably saw as a young adult, on your own, was in freshman year of college, 1951: “An American in Paris.” What do you remember of that night?
A: Oh, gosh. Well. This was at College of Saint Mary in Omaha, which is still there. A small Catholic women’s school. I was a senior, second semester (in Kenosha), when my mother said: “I think we can afford to send you there.” My brother, you see, was in pre-med and in those years, it was all about the guys going to college. Not so much the girls. There was no mention of college to me until suddenly I heard where I was going. My friend from high school, Bonnie Thom, was going there, too. I went there for two years, then finished at Marquette University, and taught a year in Milwaukee. And then I moved out to Colorado Springs.
Q: And you met Dad there.
A: That’s where we met.
Q: So you’re 18 or 19, and you’re in Omaha watching “An American in Paris” …
A: Oh, my gosh. It was heaven.
Q: Had you seen a lot of musicals before then?
A: Well, I didn’t go to many movies, really. My mother didn’t like it when I went to movies when I was younger. She thought they made me moody. That’s what she called it, “moody.” But I think I was just rehashing the movie in my mind when I got home. I was quiet, I suppose. I was thinking it over, you know. In my mind. You go to a movie, you don’t snap out of it just like that.
Q: I know! That certainly explains some of my moods.
A: (laughs) But I was always interested in dance in movies. Cyd Charisse? I wanted to be her. And Gene Kelly was so athletic. And handsome. And all that. There must’ve been a theater close to Saint Mary’s, and I was with a group of gals, you know. And after the movie we were dancing on the sidewalk. The last movie I saw was just yesterday. It was “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.” (pause) Didn’t like it. Well, I didn’t see the ending, so I don’t know how it ended.
Q: He gets younger, but he’s also 85 or whatever. And then he dies.
A: Well, yes. That’s the plot, after all (laughs). You want to know something? Even when I was in grade school I paid attention to guys’ voices. I remember liking certain people’s voices! Like, of course, Gregory Peck. And of course that naughty fellow … oh, you know, Elizabeth Taylor and … Richard Burton! Richard Burton’s voice was lovely. He was such a rascal. Oh, and Morgan Freeman. If you ever interview Morgan Freeman, you can tell him you have a 90-year-old mother who thinks he’s just swell.
And this one goes way back: Walter Pidgeon. I don’t know if I saw “Mrs. Miniver” when it came out (in 1942). I may have. Or a little later. But I loved his voice.
Q: I’m forever grateful to you and Dad for taking me up to Milwaukee and down to Chicago to see movies. When I was 7 I didn’t want to wait for “2001: A Space Odyssey” to come to Racine, and you were nice enough to take me up to Milwaukee to see it.
A: You know, I don’t remember that. I hope you enjoyed it!
Q: Well, it was a lot to take in, compared with “The Love Bug.” Do you remember the car ride home when I asked so many questions — What’s that metal thing? What happened at the end? — you just turned to me and said, “You know, Michael, I really don’t have a single answer for you.” Nice as could be. And all the times we came down, the four of us, from Racine to stay overnight in Chicago. We’d see one of the long, long G-rated musicals — “The Happiest Millionaire,” “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” — and then pile into a Checker Marathon taxi, the ones with the enormous cavern of space in the back seat. And we ate dinner at the Berghoff.
A: Your father liked the Berghoff. We all did.
Q: And one time, in 1969, we saw Woody Allen’s “Take the Money and Run,” but we came in halfway through and then stayed for the first half again. That one was rated M, which was a big deal, I remember. (The M rating became PG later that year.)
A: I think we were rather liberal with you and your movies (laughs). I got scolded once by a friend of mine for letting you see some movie or other, probably an R-rated film when you were a teenager. Oh, well!
Q: Along those lines … there was the time I convinced you to take me to a sketch comedy film called “The Groove Tube” when I was 13. Rated R, but really raunchy. Lots of nudity. I showed you the newspaper ads that had all the positive reviews from the critics who liked it. And you thought, well, OK, let’s go. I’m sure we both turned every shade of red.
A: I really was a very bad mother (laughs).
Q: But you just loved that great dance scene that ended the film, with the guy in the pink suit, Ken Shapiro, doing his thing to “Just You, Just Me.” That made up for the rest of it, wholesome-wise.
A: You have a good memory! I have to write everything down. Your Dad and I used to go to the movies every weekend. I remember one with Jack Nicholson, where he’s in the institution …
Q: “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”?
A: Yes, that’s it. It was so serious, I remember we didn’t stop for dessert afterward. Oh, I meant to tell you: You know what I remember? That time you and I went down to see (the touring production of) “Sleuth” in Chicago. We stayed at the Drake, and you sort of flung the windows open and said, “I love this city!” You were such fun. You and your brother both.
Q: So were you. Still are.
Michael Phillips is a Tribune critic.