Last June, when my dad turned 100 years old, we threw a huge open house for him in his retirement home and, afterwards, had a family dinner to which we invited the pianist who had quietly and unobtrusively entertained all afternoon. I found myself sitting at one end of the table opposite my dad with the pianist and my younger brother on either side of me. Two weeks earlier when I had been down visiting, this brother, my dad, and I had lunched with another resident of the home. I started to relate to my brother and the pianist what had happened the following weekend here at home.
I was in the express line at my neighbourhood Metro when the man behind me in line started talking to a store employee about her mother who was about to become 100. I turned around and said, “Oh, my father is also turning 100”. The gentleman suggested that maybe they should get together but I said no, and mentioned the town my father was living in. Meanwhile, it became my turn with the cashier and I noticed the lady ahead of me had stayed behind and seemed to be waiting for me. “Where does your father live?” she asked. I repeated the name. “I have a brother in a retirement home there,” she said. “Which home is your dad in?” Her brother was the gentleman we had lunched with the previous Monday. The pianist, who had been listening intently to my story, turned to my brother and said, “Six degrees of separation!”
I knew the phrase. I’d seen the ending of the movie once on TV and been somewhat intrigued. all the more so because one of the stars was Stockard Channing (from the West Wing) who was nominated for an Academy award and won a Golden Globe for her performance in 6 Degrees. So when I saw the movie offered by our local Giant Tiger at what seemed a ridiculously low price, I picked it up to see the whole movie some night when I could enjoy the whole thing with no distractions.
Based on a true story which became a Pulitzer-nominated play by John Guare, the movie was released by MGM in 1993 and grossed over $6M. The idea of ‘six degrees of separation‘ was first introduced by Frigyes Karinthy in 1929 and holds that everyone on the planet earth is only six steps or less separated from everyone else on the planet by way of introduction. The movie (rated R for reasons that quickly become obvious) is based on the life of real-life con artist Paul Hampton and takes place in New York City. The central characters are Flan Kittredge (Donald Sutherland), Ouisa Kittredge (Stockard Channing), and Paul (played by a very young Will Smith). An upper crust family with a posh apartment overlooking Central Park, the Kittredges are not quite what they seem to be. Flan is an art dealer, working on the buying and selling of famous art, but at heart he is just a gambler operating on a huge scale. They have the lifestyle but it is often precarious at best.
One evening as they are entertaining a truly rich friend in the hopes of getting a loan to swing their latest art deal, a well-dressed, smooth-talking young man arrives at their door in disarray, bleeding, with a tale of being mugged in the park and friendship with their children from Harvard. They are compassionate, bring him in, treat his wounds, spend an entertaining evening together, enjoy a dinner he cooks for them, give him money and invite him to spend the night. He claims to be meeting his father the next day who will be in town to direct the play, Cats. Who is his father? “Sidney Poitier,” says Paul. The Kittredges are completely charmed. It isn’t until the next morning when Ouisa goes to wake him and finds him in bed with a hustler he has brought into their home during the night that they start to suspect his story.
They chase the two young men out of their apartment and go to the police station. But what can they charge him with? Being charming? Cooking them a meal? They share their story with friends who it turns out have an almost identical story, clearly with the same young man. Then they get a call from the police and are introduced to a doctor who has had a similar experience; again involving Paul. The movie goes back and forth as the Kittredges retell their accumulating tale in different friendly gatherings to incidents of Paul inveigling his way into various homes. Flan is not sympathetic but Ouisa realizes the young man needs help. Paul clearly has an aptitude for learning and an ability to engage people. He phones her and they chat and negotiate. He wants to learn the art business. The police are looking for him. She agrees to help him if he will turn himself in. He agrees if she will come and visit him and help him when he comes out. They misjudge their timing and he’s gone when Ouisa and Flan arrive. They can’t track him down because they don’t know his real name. He is NOT Paul Poitier.
Flan’s attitude angers Ouisa. She doesn’t want the story of Paul being turned into a cocktail party anecdote; he was a real person who came into her life and showed her what was of value in it and what was less than it should or could be. Like the double-sided Kandinsky painting in the Kittredge’s living room, Paul’s life, as well as their own, is a constant flipping between chaos and calm. This is a very touching story with many surprises and excellent acting. Worthwhile watching despite the R rating. * * * *