The farmer in the dell,
The farmer in the dell,
Hi-ho, the derry-o,
The farmer in the dell,
The picture begins as a group of small children is playing and singing, “The Farmer in the Dell.”
The largest group of children forms a circle, several form a second group within the circle, and a third set of one stands alone in the middle of the circle. Through time elapse photography, we see the circle gradually widen, until one blonde-haired boy stands all alone in the middle.
The cheese stands alone,
The cheese stands alone,
Hi-ho, the derry-o,
The cheese stands alone.
Stalking my neighborhood video store the other day, on the back wall with the recent releases, I saw a familiar face on a DVD with a distinctly unfamiliar name: Robert MacNaughton of E.T. (he played the older brother) is riding a bike on an empty road. But MacNaughton, who has to be closing in on 40, still looks like he’s about 15 years old. That incongruity is due to I am the Cheese, whose theatrical release was in 1983, being first released only twenty years later on DVD.
I am the Cheese is a disturbing movie that heaps sadness upon sadness and deception upon deception.
The picture works on at least half a dozen different levels. It’s a road movie, a coming-of-age story, and a labyrinth of mysteries.
Jonathan Tunick’s deceptively simple score begins with a single clarinet, before branching on to other instruments. And so it is with the story line of I am the Cheese. The movie starts as a road story, following its 15-year-old protagonist, Adam Farmer (MacNaughton), as he begins a long journey to visit his father, riding a rusty, old bicycle, carrying a package wrapped in brown paper, about whose contents we know nothing. The story is told through flashbacks that occur to Adam as he pedals along, on lonely, wet, New England back roads. Soon enough, the viewer is immersed, along with Adam, in mysteries in which nothing is as it seems.
Those mysteries may all be expressed as questions that may sound pretentiously metaphysical, but which in fact all have concrete answers. Who is Adam Farmer? To what degree are his perceptions accurate or fantastic? What mysterious event occurred when he was a young child? What second, mysterious event occurred more recently? Who are the other people whom we – and Adam – encounter in the story?
And yet, for all of its psychological puzzles, I am the Cheese is, ultimately, a story about good and evil.
The screenplay was adapted by David Lange (who also produced the movie) and director Robert Jiras from Robert Cormier’s famous, eponymous 1977 novel for teenagers, which I have yet to read. (Cormier also plays a small role as the father of Cynthia Nixon’s character). My ignorance notwithstanding, the screenplay and direction, through which Adam and the viewer slowly figure things out, are taut, intelligent, and poignant. But this movie is not for young children, and will probably bore teenagers.
The acting, by Robert MacNaughton as Adam, and Hope Lange and Don Murray as his parents, is uniformly excellent. Robert Wagner is impressive as Adam’s psychiatrist. And a luminous, wry, Cynthia Nixon, then a 15-year-old unknown, is irresistible as the girl who enters Adam’s life.
I am deliberately being as vague as possible about the story, since anything more that I say will detract from your viewing experience. (Other reviews are full of spoilers.) What I can say is that as the trip continues, Jiras and Lange inexorably, brilliantly tie up all of the story’s loose ends.
In adapting or writing this story, either David Lange or Robert Cormier (or both) clearly was powerfully influenced by a legendary TV show which had a glorious if brief run a few years before Cormier’s novel was published. (Naming the show would give away the picture’s entire plot structure.)
Cast & Crew
The making of I am the Cheese is a case of Six Degrees of Hope Lange, who deserved a producer credit, and surely could have had one, had she wanted it.
Sadly, Lange, born Hope Elise Ross Lange, according to her imdb.com biography, died in 2003, at 70 or 72 years of age, depending on the source, her death caused by an ischemic colitis infection. She left behind two grown children, Christopher and Patricia (both of whom she had had with Don Murray; Christopher appears in Cheese in a bit role), and her third husband, theatrical producer Charles Hollerith Jr. (Her second ex, producer-director-screenwriter Alan J. Pakula, had died in 1998 in a freak automobile accident, when a steel beam on a truck bed got loose, and went flying through his windshield, decapitating him.)
Hope Lange had a successful stage, movie, and TV career, getting nominated for a best supporting actress Oscar for 1957’s Peyton Place, winning consecutive Emmys as best lead actress in a comedy, during the 1968-1970 run of the fantasy, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (based on the 1947 movie directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, and starring Rex Harrison and Gene Tierney), and getting nominated for an Emmy as best lead dramatic actress as the jilted wife in the 1972 gay male coming-out TV movie, That Certain Summer. She also co-starred from 1971-74 with Dick Van Dyke as his wife on The New Dick Van Dyke Show. She and Van Dyke quit the show when CBS executives refused to permit them to suggest in a scene that their characters had just made love.
Lange cared little for fame and fortune. While making her first picture, Bus Stop (1956), she met co-star Don Murray (whose first movie it also was) and married him the year the film opened. She and Murray immediately plowed the money they had made from the picture into HELP, the Homeless European Land Program, which they co-founded, and which resettled Eastern European refugees from communism on the Italian island of Sardinia. According to Murray, the couple had no money left for furniture. “She put all her money into the refugee project because that is the kind of person she was.” The British Guardian newspaper quoted Murray as saying, upon Lange’s death, that she “was considered a great beauty, and a serious and dedicated actor who didn’t pay attention to being glamorous.”
According to their son, Christopher Murray, HELP inspired Pres. Kennedy to found the Peace Corps. Lange and Murray divorced in 1961.
“Sustainability” guru Belden Paulson, who claims to have “developed” HELP, has since revised the purpose of the program, so that it had nothing to do with helping refugees from communism. According to Paulson, the refugees were Neapolitans!
Lange’s son, Christopher Murray, tells a different story.
Her generosity was as boundless as her affection. Early in her career, in the Playhouse 90 days, she co-founded H.E.L.P., the Homeless European Land Program, with my father Don Murray, seeking to relocate Iron Curtain refugees from their squalid Internment Camps to land of their own. They purchased land together in Sardinia and moved the residents from a camp in Naples to it, transforming barren, unwanted real estate into a landscape dotted with fruit trees and livestock, a viable community which remains to this day.
In Christopher Murray’s loving obituary for his mother, he wrote,
I grew up in a home full of warmth and celebrity, a parade of Hollywood’s Best and Brightest with my mother, Hope Lange, in her favorite role as Grand Marshal. It was an age when Stars made fun for themselves, rather than the tabloids, and Hope was known as a gracious hostess and wonderful cook, happy to make room for more at her hearth (as long as they had a sense of humor).
Robert Wagner co-starred opposite Lange in two films early in their respective careers, The True Story of Jesse James (1957) and In Love and War (1958). Like her, he enjoyed more success on TV than in pictures, starring in It Takes a Thief (inspired by the 1955 Alfred Hitchcock-Cary Grant movie, To Catch a Thief) and Hart to Hart. At the time Wagner made Cheese, he was grieving for his two-time wife, actress Natalie Wood, who had died in a boating accident on November 29, 1981.
David Lange was Hope Lange’s younger brother. At imdb.com, I am the Cheese is his only listed screen credit. And yet, if journalist Carol Felsenrath is correct, this cannot be true.
According to Felsenrath, in her long, exhaustively researched essay, “The World of Kup,” on the life and death of legendary Chicago Sun-Times gossip columnist Irv “Kup” Kupcinet (1912-2003), David Lange was suspected in the 1963 murder of Kup’s daughter, Karyn Kupcinet. (Felsenrath reports that the main suspect was actor Andrew Prine.)
The other prime suspect was David Lange, then 27, the younger brother of the actress Hope Lange. At the time he was struggling to break into the movie business, and he would later work for the director Alan Pakula, who had married his sister in 1963. Shortly after the murder, Lange told a friend he did it, then said he was just kidding. “Oh, God, the police kept bringing that up,” says Lange today. “Within a week or so of this murder, we were all so crazed with it that people would be going around saying, ‘I’m the . . . Strangler.’”
Lange, who today lives in Connecticut, says Karyn “wasn’t really a friend.” He had seen her at a couple of parties with Prine. She helped Lange rent the apartment directly above hers. He had lived there just a couple of days, and they had talked about getting together. The next time he saw her, “she was getting carried out of the courtyard building in a body bag.”
Oddly enough, it isn’t even clear whether Karyn Kupcinet was murdered or committed suicide. She had a broken hyoid bone in her throat, but also had a belly full of pills. True crime writer James Ellroy speculated in 1998 that she had been dancing in the nude, as per the suggestions in a book found a few feet away from her naked corpse, and in her diminished state, may have fallen and broken the bone on a coffee table in front of the couch on which she was found lying on her back, but Ellroy admits that the case may never be solved.
Karyn Kupcinet had gone to Hollywood to become an actress, but instead developed an eating disorder, and briefly dated up-and-coming actor Andrew Prine. When Prine broke up with her, she became obsessed with him, and stalked him.
If Carol Felsenrath is correct, David Lange’s early work may have been variously uncredited and/or pseudonymous, due to the notoriety he had earned himself, and the wrath of Karyn Kupcinet’s well-connected parents. IMDB.com is the best source for finding uncredited and pseudonymous work by creative people in Hollywood, but it is far from perfect, even for finding work someone has done under his professional name. (That includes Hope Lange, who gave a moving performance on a late 1970s anthology show that is not listed among her credits.)
Don Murray (1929-) has had a long stage, TV, and movie career. His career started off like gangbusters on the stage and then the big screen, co-starring in his first movie, Bus Stop (1956), with Marilyn Monroe, but soon petered off. Apparently, he was more interested in politics. (Leonard Maltin wrote that Murray saw his artistic work as a form of “community service.” Maltin may be right about that, but I am fairly sure that he is wrong in claiming that Lange and Murray married in 1961, shortly before divorcing, as opposed to 1956.) He’s done some excellent work over the years, but after the early 1960s, tended to work mostly on TV, and beginning in the 1970s, worked often in forgettable productions. Cheese, as well as Lange and Murray’s mid-1970s turn co-starring on Broadway in Same Time, Next Year were exceptions to that downward spiral. In Cheese, Murray employs subtle nuances of speech and manner to express his character’s ethnic background.
Hope Lange and Don Murray may have divorced 42 years before her death, yet their names will always be entwined.
Emmy, Oscar, and Tony Award-winner Jonathan Tunick is best known for his work on Broadway, where he is one of the top arrangers working on the musical stage, and is indelibly associated with productions of Stephen Sondheim’s works. Tunick had previously worked with Murray on Endless Love (1981).
If you’ve never heard of Robert Jiras (1922-2000), it’s probably because this is the only film he ever directed. Jiras worked as a makeup man on some of the most important movies of some of the biggest directors in the business – Elia Kazan, Robert Wise, Robert Rossen, Otto Preminger, Arthur Penn and Robert Altman – and occasionally as a producer (The Boys in the Band and The Parallax View, the latter of which was produced by Alan J. Pakula). This movie was clearly a labor of love for the mom-and-pop production team that made it – but it was not a vanity production.
I read somewhere that Sam Peckinpah felt that anytime he managed to create something of value, he had beaten the modern system of studio “suits” seemingly dedicated to the promotion of schlock. To spend one’s career as a makeup man on quality pictures, is already more than can be said for the typical Hollywood careerist. But for once in Robert Jiras’ life, he got behind the camera, and when he did, he created something of value.
After Cheese, Robert MacNaughton, now 38 years old, did only three TV movies and a guest gig on Newhart, ending his TV and movie acting career in 1987. I hope that he found a field that he was as good at as he was at acting, and which has given him joy.