It’s January, 1981, I’m 15 years-old, and my mom and dad and I are watching a very sweaty William Hurt having very sweaty sex with a very sweaty Blair Brown.
“Pass the popcorn,” I say to my dad, but he doesn’t seem to hear me.
On the big screen, William Hurt is grinding away, vigorously, and he’s ranting about how he tends to see “God, Jesus, crucifixions” when he’s sexually aroused, and I’m thinking…this movie is wild!
“Altered States,” in which our hero (played by a young Mr. Hurt) drops acid, floats in a sensory-deprivation tank, turns into a monkey and has (what this 15 year-old found to be extremely instructive) sex with a young Ms. Brown, is not the first age-inappropriate movie I’ll see with my parents. And it won’t be the last.
Now, in all fairness to mom and dad, I no doubt badgered them relentlessly to take me to this R-rated movie, which they never would have gone to see on their own in a million years. I’m sure I told them it was just a cool new sci-fi movie filmed in Boston, which it was — but I may have left out the part about the sex and the drugs and…all that sweat.
In any case, we’ve all had those awkward moments growing up and watching (“as a family”) the HBO movie or the VHS tape rented from Blockbuster that everyone assumed would be family-friendly-ish — and then the sex scene comes on, or the youngest kid in the room suddenly understands all the filthy double-entendres and gasps out loud. You know you’ve been there, and you’re probably cringing at the memory right now. Which movie was it?
I’m the youngest of seven kids, and I was 12 years-old when “Grease” opened in theaters in 1978. I must have seen that movie 20 times that summer, with friends. When my siblings and I watched “Grease” on VHS with mom and dad at home in 1982, I was old enough to finally understand the lyrics to “Greased Lightning.” (Yes, they sing about the car being a “real pussy wagon.”) “Grease” is positively filthy, brimming with several “up-skirt” scenes and clever dialogue about masturbation, oral sex, and broken condoms. Still, the tunes are wicked catchy, right? And you can sing along with mom and dad on family movie night! (“Tell me more, tell me more, did she put up a fight?”)
Throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s, some permutation or combination of my siblings and parents would regularly gather for family movie night, wherever the heck we were living at the time. We sought simple entertainment via the shelves of the Blockbuster video store, but we often found ourselves surprised and embarrassed by the questionable content on screen. “Saturday Night Fever?” A classic. The music! The dancing! The back-seat rape, and the suicide! Talk about “night fever!”
There were many other cringe-worthy movie nights, I’m sure, but therapy has helped me forget.
Now, all of this isn’t to say that my mom and dad were bad parents. They weren’t. In fact, they were very good parents, and they actually exposed me to plenty of age-appropriate movies. Dad took me to see “My Bodyguard” at the Sack Beacon Hill in Boston in 1980, which meant a lot to me because the plot was similar to my personal story that year — the kid in the movie was living in a swanky hotel that his dad managed, I was living a fancy downtown high-rise with doormen, and both of us were being bullied at school. Mom and dad took me to see “The Right Stuff” in 1983 just when my interest in NASA was peaking. They inspired me to start cycling seriously after taking me to see “Breaking Away” in 1979. And together, we really believed Christopher Reeve could fly in the first “Superman” movie in 1978, which we saw on the big screen at the Sack 57 in Boston.
Age-appropriate bliss at the movies with mom and dad, and often.
In fact, mom was frequently such a good movie mom that she got tickets for me and her to see “The Empire Strikes Back” the week it opened in 1980 at the Sack Charles theater in Boston’s West End; we had seen the first “Star Wars” movie together in 1977 at the Westgate Cinema in Brockton when I was 11. A good mom, indeed. She even took me and my oldest sister to see “Star Wars, Episode 1, the Phantom Menace” in 1999 when I was 33 years-old!
But mom and dad’s overall track record for matching movies to the age-appropriateness of the rest of the family was not exactly perfect. And it went in both directions. Enchanted by Kermit the Frog’s “Rainbow Connection” song, which was getting big airplay on AM radio in 1979, mom made all seven of us kids see the “Muppet Movie” together. Most of my siblings were of legal drinking age in Massachusetts that year, diving into the Boston club scene just as disco was colliding with punk…so you can imagine how excited they were for a suburban Saturday family movie night with Kermit and Miss Piggy.
But the most telling example of my mom’s sometimes questionable judgement about when to take the kids to the movies happened in 1972.
Yes, mom took 6-year old me to see “The Godfather.”
Today, nearly 50 years later, my mom still insists she was certain I would sleep while she enjoyed a matinee-showing of Francis Ford Coppola’s mafia classic at the Westgate Cinema in Brockton. I didn’t sleep, not a wink. But six-year-old me did see Sonny Corleone get shot at least 100 times in the infamous toll-booth ambush scene. And when that one character in the movie wakes up screaming in bed, with a freshly-severed horse head bleeding all over his white satin sheets, let’s just say it left an impression.
So, later in life when I became a dad, I promised myself I would do better when it came to keeping my children away from questionable content on family movie night. But it wasn’t always easy. My wife and I held our breath hoping the kids wouldn’t get upset by the looming Nazi threat while we sang along with the von Trapp family during “The Sound of Music” on DVD. We huddled together as a little family unit to watch “Mary Poppins” on cable, confident the kids were too young to recognize Mary’s problematic love of “rum punch” and how the previous nanny was always so “solemn and cross” due to a “liver complaint.”
Yes, I’d do better than my parents on my family movie nights, I told myself.
And then, knowing my son liked animation, I rented a little movie for the two of us to watch together, called “South Park.” Those little cartoon kids looked so cute on the cover of the VHS tape box!
Watch the clip below, and I’m sure you’ll agree I was exercising some very sound parental judgement. Some real “father of the year” material here.