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The Fisher King and Love

The Terry Gilliam film The Fisher King (1991) starring Jeff Bridges and Robin Williams is one of the finest movie treatments of what it means to love another person.

I've never cared for Love Story (1970) or its flippant "Love means never having to say you're sorry" tag line. That film is about sentiment, not love.

Love not only means having to say you're sorry, it means giving up the arrogance that would permit you to imagine that it's never necessary to say you're sorry.

In the Gilliam film, Jack Lucas (Jeff Bridges) is a successful, well-paid radio DJ whose trademark is heartless repartee. He's a character like television's House played by Hugh Laurie.

Jack is a self-centered jerk who feels superior to everyone else and thinks his activities and feelings are of more importance than those of the other people in his life.

His idea of a witty remark is one that will hurt or humiliate the person at whom it is directed. When a listener calls in to talk about his efforts to find love in an upscale New York restaurant, Jack ridicules him and stirs up his feelings of worthlessness and oppression. Instead of going to the restaurant to find romance, as he had intended, the caller takes a shotgun and kills seven of the diners before killing himself.

Jack possesses enough human feeling to be horrified by the result of his comments. He is unable to go on working and becomes dependent upon Anne Napolitano (Mercedes Ruehl), the owner of a video rental store. He falls into a state of unkempt self-pitying drunkenness. Anne, who loves him in spite of his unlovely behavior, does all she can to comfort him and help him through his depression.

Jack, however, is as self-centered in his penniless grief as he was in his well-to-do celebrity. He goes to the river to commit suicide, is nearly killed by thugs who prey on homeless people, and is rescued by Parry (Robin Williams), a former professor whose wife was killed by Jack's radio listener. Parry has lost his grip on reality, constantly reliving the horror of seeing his wife's head shattered by a shotgun blast.

The Fisher King is remarkably rich for a movie not based on a novel. The script, written by Richard LaGravenese, received an Academy Award nomination for Best Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen. It avoids sentimentality. It does make use of some fantastic elements--the red knight whom Parry chases through Central Park and who later drives him into a catatonic state; the visions of the carnage in the restaurant; the appearance of the shooter on the steps in the rich man's house--but the emotional content is realistic.

Jack's involvement with Parry passes through several stages--guilt, pity, and, finally, friendship. When he enables Parry to meet the woman he's been admiring from a distance, Jack feels that he has at last made amends. Feeling good about himself, he rejects commitment to Anne, goes back to work, and slips back into his old, self-centered life style.

When Parry relapses into a catatonic state, Jack finally realizes that nothing he can do will ever make up for the tragedy triggered by his words.

It is at this point that Jack lets go of his own ego and does something for Parry that is not motivated by a desire to make his own hurt go away.

Dressed in the same grotesque costume that Parry was wearing when they met by the river, Jack does the one thing that Parry asked him to do for him. He risks his life, his re-established career, and his freedom, to break into a rich man's house to steal the trophy that Parry imagines is the Holy Grail.

For the first time he does a thing purely for someone else and not to make himself feel better.

That's love. It's more than doing for the other person just those things that make us feel good about ourselves. Love is recognizing what the other person needs, whether it makes sense to us or not. By surrendering his ego, Jack not only brings Parry out of his nightmare, he enables himself to accept and return Anne's love. He is himself healed.

The Fisher King is a fairy tale. As with all good fairy tales, there's truth at the heart of it.





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