' ' Cinema Romantico: Going To See Donna Reed's Oscar

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Going To See Donna Reed's Oscar

A year ago, at the tail-end of a family vacation in Colorado that went awry when it happened to coincide with the state's terrible 100 Year Floods, we were eating across from our hotel at one of those restaurants that is intended to be a replica of a 50's drive-in diner but somehow feels even more modern than places specifically not trying to replicate a time gone-by that was too busy and too under-staffed and left our poor, poor waitress frazzled and out of her element and it was all simply awful and ridiculous and yet, simultaneously, an exquisitely symbolic capper to the entire sabbatical-turned-ordeal. Meanwhile my sister was moaning about how she was about to move from the Rocky Mountain State back home to Iowa and how Iowa had nothing good to which I quickly and simply replied: "Hey, Iowa has Donna Reed's Oscar." Which it totally did/does. The Oscar she won for playing Alma Burke in "From Here To Eternity", one of my ten favorite films of all time, is on display in her hometown of Denison, Iowa, and so in that very moment my sister and I made a pact to go see and pay homage to that Academy Award in 2014. This past June, we did. I wrote a little something about it.


While I would like to think it the work of the Divine, it was mere coincidence that the same day my sister and I pilgrimaged from Des Moines to Denison to see Donna Reed’s Academy Award, a thousand plus people gathered in Dyersville to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Field of Dreams with the film’s star, Kevin Costner. Chronicling an Iowa farmer building a baseball diamond in his cornfield as a cosmic means to summon the spirit of Shoeless Joe Jackson, it is the quintessential “Iowa movie”, embodying the state’s ethos of self-possessed stoicism by presenting a man journeying into the mystic on an even keel.

The trip from Small Town, America to Hollywood itself is a journey into the mystic and when Donna Reed made it in 1938 she maintained a stoicism befitting her Denison roots. Though she acted at Los Angeles Community College, she also demonstrated a Midwestern practicality by simultaneously studying to be a secretary just in case. She needn’t have worried, of course, but even as she became a legitimate movie star, she retained self-possession, evidenced by the pinup letters she received from G.I.'s during WWII which she refrained from mentioning to her children. She was made to work for her greatest role, that as Alma Burke in From Here To Eternity, repeatedly testing for it against other actresses and struggling to truly understand the part until - as recounted by Jay Fultz in his 1998 biography - she harnessed the determination instilled by her upbringing.

Upon winning the Oscar for that performance, she gave a humble fifty-two word speech, referencing the “long walk” from her seat to the stage, which alluded just as much to the long walk from the cornfields to the bright lights. She didn’t name check Iowa, but she didn’t have to, because she knew where came from, and is why upon her death she bequeathed the statue to her hometown.

It is on display at Denison’s W.A. McHenry House, a three-story Late Victorian model erected near the turn of the century, resting on a hill commanding a view of the town below, standing directly behind a Hy-Vee, a detail as evocatively Iowan as Field of Dreams. And rather than capping a grandiose tour, the statue, perched on a mantle above a fireplace in the parlor room, was the first item my sister and I glimpsed once inside, a sublimely unostentatious reveal befitting its recipient.

I had come four hundred and fifty miles to see it, all the way from Chicago where I have lived since leaving Des Moines ten years ago. I wished to pay tribute because I’m a film critic and because From Here To Eternity is one of my favorite films, but also because lately I’ve been deliberating whether I’m fulfilled as a happy transplant or if I’d prefer to officially re-connect as a proud native, and such a cinema-centric journey seemed potentially conducive to spiritual enlightenment.

Chicago, I have realized, is where I grew into myself while Iowa is and will always be the place that built the intrinsic values which informed and allowed for that growth; yet I wonder if claiming to be an Iowan in Chicago might be an oxymoron. Of course, Donna Reed's remains are in Los Angeles while the item which most exemplifies her Los Angeles life is now in Iowa, and I suspect it’s less a paradox than a delineation. She did not have to wind up where she began to remember where she came from.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Had a great time reading about your trip and thoughts on Donna Reed, Nick. Great post!