“The Thorn Birds” (1983) is the blockbuster mini-series of my generation. Based upon the Colleen McCullough novel of the same title, it was the rage when I was in high school, providing me and my friends material to supplement Sigmund Freud. Meggie Cleary (Rachel Ward) is slave to a girlhood crush on Father Ralph de Bricassart (Richard Chamberlain) that turns into a ravening love as she grows into womanhood. Their saga unfolds amid splendid settings that range from the Australian outback with its stalks that oscillate in the breeze to the Vatican, from the turquoise seas of a Greek isle to London’s West End. It spans three generations and survives devastations unleashed by a dowager’s (Barbara Stanwick) scheming as well as events that include a forest fire and personal trials on a biblical scale. A brother (John Friedrich) conceived out of wedlock is sentenced to life imprisonment. A bastard son (Philip Anglim) drowns. Meggie clashes with her mother (Jean Simmons) just as her daughter (Mare Winningham) later does with her, the cause being favoritism towards a sibling and whatever else it is that turned Kane into an embittered seed.
By the end of the four-part spectacle, my mother was in tears. Everybody’s mother was. So were we. The phenomenal thing about “The Thorn Birds” is that before it premiered, none of us at school had announced its advent. Twitter and facebook didn’t exist, and whatever publicity the media generated on the program’s behalf accounted for little; I have no memories of trailers. “The Thorn Birds” landed upon us like a UFO in our backyard. Suddenly, it was there, a stellar presence that transported us to another galaxy from which we have never fully returned. The day after the first episode, conversations at school prefaced with “Did you watch…?” and over 30 years later, we remember Rachel Ward because of “The Thorn Birds” and “The Thorn Birds” because of Rachel Ward.
To cast a gorgeous unknown in the lead as bait for a smash is a standard Hollywood ploy. A countenance that’s not only easy on the eyes, but also that reflects our innermost complexities is indispensable to the camera. A star is born. Her vehicle is assured a place in entertainment history. Sample these: Greta Garbo in “Flesh and the Devil” (1927) (http://www.rafsy.com/films-1920s-1950s/flesh-and-the-devil-the-sound-of-an-original/); Audrey Hepburn in “Roman Holiday” (1953); Nastassja Kinski in “Tess” (1979) (http://www.rafsy.com/actors-models-directors/nastassja-kinski-the-eternal-tess/); Cate Blanchett in “Elizabeth” (1998). Every aeon gifts us with its Aphrodite. She embodies men’s fantasies and women’s dreams. She is the ideal that we aspire to either be or to possess. She speaks to our mothers of a past when their own passions flared to a lover’s touch upon the twinkle of the first evening star.
Nevertheless, the project is a gamble. No amount of marketing can predict the impact of a film, least of all the force with which it lodges itself into our psyche and remains inextricable long after the hype has metamorphosed into myth. “The Thorn Birds” is TV, snobs deride; art is the big screen. Such snobbery has pitted Shakespeare against Spielberg (http://www.rafsy.com/films-1960s-1990s/jaws-the-force-of-family/), Milton against Mitchell. (http://www.rafsy.com/films-1920s-1950s/gone-with-the-wind-another-day-another-chance/) Ridiculous, this disdain of pop culture. That works born from modern storytellers should achieve mass appeal is a nod to the masters, not an affront, an homage to the continuity of creativity. They relay in today’s parlance, to an ever proliferating world population, the virtues immanent in us humans that have allowed us to prosper through the millennium. One of those virtues is our propensity to care for another, unconditionally and fearlessly. This is why we are susceptive to a love story… the more dramatic, the more riveting… hence, “The Thorn Birds.”
Meggie Cleary represents youthful yearning. She can’t speak of her feelings. The object of her pining is a priest. Damnation is her penalty, if not in hell then on earth – a stake to the heart all the way through to her winter years. I can tell you a few things about Meggie’s crucifixion. When I was working in fundraising at San Francisco AIDS Foundation, my department received a contribution along with a note on which the donor, a man in his eighties, had written, “Nothing is sadder than being gay, old, and alone.” A couple of colleagues mocked the note. “What about dying of AIDS alone?” one said. “He’s probably just lonely,” said the other. I didn’t say a thing because both had a point. But so did the donor. The silence that gnaws at Meggie had marked his formative years. The gay and lesbian liberation movement would not happen for at least another two decades. Until then, medical journals attributed homosexuality to mental illness, while the law condemned it.
To this day, I wish I had defended the donor. Given the stride the LGBTQ community has taken towards acceptance, we blink at our right to hold in public the hand of the person we love and to walk free of harassment on a street. Now we are champions of marriage equality. All that we have achieved obscures the threat of a lobotomy to which the donor must have cowered during every moment of his youth. If his mother had ever attempted to console him and dispel his fears, I can only guess, only hope. Sad, indeed, to be in his eighties and to sit on the last Sunday of June at his window, hidden in shadows as the Pride parade passes him by.
And so I believe that someone for me is out there somewhere, whatever the barriers between us, be they incurred or outside forces thrust upon me. I owe my optimism to the Stonewall pioneers as well as to timeless tales such as “The Thorn Birds.” And to motherly wisdom. Meggie is testament that love conquers all. Her adoration for Father de Bricassart is no fleeting fancy. It grows more fervent as she matures, stoking her will to fight the forces that rip her apart from the sole person with whom she is meant to be. Neither social retribution nor God is too formidable a foe.
Those in the first throes of passion wage wars every day in the name of love. “A boy like that, you should know better… She isn’t right for you… What you’re feeling isn’t real… Be careful”… instead of assurance, figures of authority from Dr. Phil to our mothers squawk doubt, put on airs of wisdom that we at the tender age are determined to silence. Talk show hosts are dismissible. They throw blanket judgments at a camera. Our mothers, however, might be on to something to which we are blind. For we forget that they were once young, too, we are quick to assume that middle age has mired them in disillusionment. So why is it a number of them remain faithful to our fathers? Perhaps the reason is this: they have survived enough trials to learn that love is not a honeymoon as much as it is a test of resolve.
And so our shared tears with our mothers when Meggie, gray and wrinkled, lays her head on Father de Bricassart’s lap as he strokes her hair and breaths his last. For making it through half of Meggie’s journey, our mothers deserve an ending equally as beautiful. They are the true winners.