Looking back at Joel Schumacher’s Dying Young

Our look back at the work of Mr Joel Schumacher hits a rocky patch. It's the Julia Roberts vehicle Dying Young...

I told Estelle you have a terminal disease – Assholeitis.” – Hilary

The Recap

After hitting the ground running with the widely successful Flatliners, Joel Schumacher’s next project would again focus on the balance between life and death, but this time from the point of view of a couple facing death square on.

Hilary O’Neil (Julia Roberts) has been unlucky in love for as long as she can remember. After finding out her latest boyfriend has been cheating on her, she leaves him and moves back home with her mother (Ellen Burstyn).

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Determined to get her life back on track, Hilary applies for a job as a nurse for a well off family in a posh suburb in San Francisco. Although having no experience and totally out of her element, she decides to push ahead anyway.

She is interviewed by head of the house Richard Geddes (David Selby) and his butler Malachi (George Martin) but is soon dismissed as totally unacceptable. Having overheard the interview taking place, Richard’s son Victor (Campbell Scott), who has been diagnosed and living with leukaemia for ten years and who now requires a nurse to help him through his next batch of chemotherapy, wants her to be brought back.

As Hilary storms out angry and upset, she is called back by Malachi and meets with Victor, who offers her the job.

Moving into such a different environment seems alien to Hilary at first and Victor does not make her life easy, coming across as rude, arrogant and feeling he is better than her, which she resents and soon tells him so.

After getting through this initial bump in the road, the two become closer and as Hilary supports Victor throughout his gruelling treatment. He, in turn, shares with her his love of writing about art, the works of great figures of literature and his favourite classical music. She, in return, shows him her lifestyle, and the two grow closer and begin to fall in love.

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When Victor declares his treatment over, the two leave on a vacation to California’s wine country with their friends Estelle (Colleen Dewhurst) and Gordon (Vincent D’Onofrio), but Hilary soon discovers that Vincent is far from the healthy person he is assuming to be.

With his life still in the balance, the two decide to stay together, hoping that love will be enough to conquer all.

Thoughts & Reaction

There is a certain type of movie in this world that is made with the pure and simple intention to make you cry and Dying Young is one of those movies, and even though the plot can be contrived and the situations totally unbelievable, you might still be reaching for the Kleenex.

Based on the book of the same name by Marti Leimbach, the plot for Dying Young really could be renamed ‘let’s watch these people fall in love but then always remind you at critical points he is going to die and she will be alone and heartbroken again’.

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As you may have gathered from the above two points, I am not a huge fan of this genre of film. In fairness, I much prefer a good romantic comedy, but at the same time, I can’t take away from this film as it is a good example of how to balance the elements up right.

Yes, it is tragic and sad, but at the same time it had enough warmth and even a bit of hope, so you are not completely depressed when the final credits roll.

As with his previous directorial efforts, Schumacher’s style is the signature of this film and his panoramas of California are beautiful and could in all be used to advertise the state. It seems strange now looking at how beautiful it looks on film that the town the movie is set in, Mendocino, was, in fact, first used as a stand-in for New England, where the movie was meant to be set. But budget cuts soon meant it was cheaper to film on the West Coast and the story was relocated.

With the story focusing so intently on its two leads, Schumacher really needed to cast two people who could be totally believable and likeable at the same time and he managed to hit the nail on the head with Julia Roberts and Campbell Scott.

Roberts, who was still on top of the Hollywood tree with her success in Pretty Woman, plays the role of the girl from the wrong side of the tracks down to a tee and even harks back to one of her first performances in the wonderful Mystic Pizza. She also manages to keep that tragic yet beautiful look going throughout the entire movie, which must be a feat in itself.

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Scott’s performance was more internal and it was his actions and, indeed, the looks he gave that really broke your hear as opposed to any of the words he used. He really did begin to look and act like these were his last moments on Earth, but even this fact couldn’t stop him from trying to be happy and that really is the heart of the film.

The one thing that is totally striking about movie, however, is the soundtrack. With a romantic sweeping score created by James Newton-Howard, just the first few notes can bring tears to your eyes. Mixed in with this is work from Kenny G, Jeffery Osborne and King Curtis woven in. It is truly wonderful to listen to and, although a bit on the schmaltz side, it works wonderfully with the film.

Although not setting the critics or, in fact, the box office alight, Dying Young did well enough to ensure Julia Roberts’ star kept climbing, and it didn’t knock its director off his run of successes either.

Schumacher’s next project would be a world away from this and, indeed, anything he had done before. Next time I will be looking at the hard hitting Falling Down.

Dying Young Key Info:

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Released: 21st June 1991 (US) / 30th August 1991 (UK)Distributed By: 20th Century FoxBudget: $25-$30,000,000Box Office Gross: $33,669,000Best DVD Edition: Dying Young DVD