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It’s been a while since America flocked to Terms of Endearment, a funny-sad story about family tragedy, but What They Had — a true-life heart-grabber about a Chicago clan rocked by Alzheimer’s disease that opens Oct. 19 — has a similar double emotional impact. The film stars Blythe Danner, Hilary Swank, Michael Shannon, Robert Forster and Taissa Farmiga. So at its AARP-sponsored Oct. 9 premiere at the iPic Westwood theater in Los Angeles, there was a lot of hope, joy and gratitude on the minds of its stars and filmmakers.
What They Had’s story brings to life what more and more families are facing. Swank plays Bridget, who gets news that her good-humored mom, Ruth (Danner), is starting to dizzily, dangerously wander into the snow at night. Screenwriter and director Elizabeth Chomko pulled such moments from her own grandmother’s long dementia battle. As their mother’s condition worsens, Bridget and her gruff brother (Shannon) discuss plans to ease Ruth into a nursing home, but their dad (Robert Forster) wants her to stay home under his loving care.
"I really wanted to show how Alzheimer's impacts the whole family,” said 37-year-old Chomko, whose stars, Swank and Danner, are featured in AARP The Magazine's current cover story about the film and AARP's resource guide for caregivers. “All the complications it brings up, how witnessing someone lose their memories can make you look at your own memories more deeply, and maybe bring up old wounds. People can get so blindsided by all of those complications, they lose the joy of the last years you have with your loved ones.” She hopes the movie’s key takeaway is: “Don’t be afraid to talk about, and plan, for life’s hurdles.”
To the young and “old”
“For me, the movie’s a reminder that you can do more to enjoy the moment, to enjoy life,” said Farmiga, who plays Danner’s grandchild, on the red carpet. “My biggest thing right now is to let the little things go and not stress.” What They Had’s script hit close to home for Farmiga (American Horror Story), the younger sister of Bates Motel star Vera Farmiga. Their own grandmother Nadia passed away at 88 from Alzheimer’s in 2014. “My aunt was one of the caretakers for my grandma, so I know she would completely connect and relate to the story. I think it’d be good for people to see those troubles up on the screen — it shows it’s OK to feel frustrated, sad and angry, and to not know if you’re taking care of someone the right way."
Forster, 77, is certainly getting the word out. “I just had my 60th high school reunion in Rochester, N.Y. [Madison High], and the following morning I screened the picture for my family and friends,” said the actor (nominated for an Oscar for 1997’s Jackie Brown and, like Danner and Swank, being buzzed about as a potential 2019 nominee). “Oh, sure, they cried. But I got a call from a guy back home just yesterday who said he was in the grocery store, and another friend came up to him to say he read about the movie and cannot wait to see it.”
Good things to remember
Swank, who took time out from stardom to spend three years as caregiver to her father, Stephen Swank, who survived a lung transplant and stood by her side in triumph at the AARP premiere, said if she is ever diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, “I’d hope I’d be surrounded by friends and family.” She added that she’s “of course” frustrated that a cure for the disease remains elusive. “They still don't know even what causes it. So all we can do is hope and keep fighting to find a way to stop it.”
Meanwhile, one of the film’s producers, Albert Berger, who also helped produce Little Miss Sunshine, expects What They Had will be cathartic for many. “As moving as Elizabeth’s movie is, it’s also very sweet and funny and healing.” Case in point: When Danner’s character, Ruth, is pressed to identify her husband, Burt, she responds with a lasting truth: “He’s my boyfriend.”
And Chomko, through misty eyes, reported that her family members have given her hugs for capturing her grandmother’s charms so well. “I was very nervous about how they would take it. But my uncles said, ‘You really couldn't have given us a better gift, this memory of someone who was so special for all of us.’ And that’s what I had set out to do from the beginning.”
What They Had is in select theaters Oct. 19 and nationwide Nov. 2.