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Great Poetry Scenes

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Roses are red, violets are blue. Great poetry scenes? Here are a few.

BULL DURHAM (1988)

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Adding to the richness and fun of this bawdy baseball classic are some nice flourishes of poetry. My favorite is when Susan Sarandon tosses a William Blake line from “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell” at Kevin Costner and he replies, “William Blake?!” Beautiful.

MAGIC TOWN (1947)

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At the time, this satire about a pollster who found a town with perfect demographics was considered somewhat edgy. Today it’s decidedly on the hokey side. But there’s one scene that I love, where Jimmy Stewart and Jane Wyman are flirting with each other and give an impromptu, dual poetry recitation.

ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND (2004)

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Kirsten Dunst is a side character in this terrific movie about memories, love and pain, but she gets a nice poetry moment thanks to Alexander Pope’s “Elisa to Abelard.”

MILLION DOLLAR BABY (2004)

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In the excellent Clint Eastwood film “Million Dollar Baby,” old Clint uses lines from “The Lake Isle of Innisfree,” by W.B. Yeats, to convey a deep well of love and a sense of comfort to his tragic young boxing protegee, Hilary Swank.

THE OUTSIDERS (1983)

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Actor C. Thomas Howell, as Ponyboy, does right by Robert Frost’s “Nothing Gold Can Stay.” Totally appropriate for a bittersweet story of youth and the yearning to find your place in the world.

HANNAH AND HER SISTERS (1986)

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Painful and perfect use of poetry here, as married man Michael Caine attempts to woo his sister-in-law, Barbara Hershey, with the e.e. cummings poem, “somewhere i have never travelled, gladly beyond.”

EL DORADO (1966)

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Yes, even westerns can have poetry. James Caan made fine use of Edgar Allan Poe’s “El Dorado” in this one. Of course, John Wayne thought he was nuts.

BACK TO SCHOOL (1986)

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I doubt very much that Dylan Thomas, when he wrote “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night,” envisioned a day when it would be recited by comedian Rodney Dangerfield in the slob comedy, “Back to School.” Having said that, Rodney rocks.

APOCALYPSE NOW (1979)

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Like the rest of his performance in “Apocalypse Now,” Marlon Brando’s reading of “The Hollow Men,” by T.S. Eliot, is haunting, ominous and captivating.

DEAD POETS SOCIETY (1989)

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The liberating, soul-nourishing nature of poetry is part of the theme of “Dead Poets Society.” Robin Williams is an English teacher at a rigid Vermont boarding school who shows his students that poetry and literature help you see the world from a different perspective. If you read poetry while standing on your desk – Whitman’s “Oh Captain! My Captain,” for instance – it’s even better.

THE GATHERING (1977)

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Ed Asner belts out a fine rendition of “Christmas Day in the Workhouse,” in this old TV movie about a dying father trying to bring his family back together for one last holiday.

SKYFALL (2012)

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Here we have poetry being used to add gravitas to the proceedings. Judy Dench, in “Skyfall,” deals with some government bureaucrats in a hearing by reciting part of Tennyson’s “Ulysses.” It didn’t help her situation, let me say.

SOPHIE’S CHOICE (1982)

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At the end of the almost unbearably sad “Sophie’s Choice,” Stingo lets some words from Emily Dickinson try to make sense of the world’s senselessness. That sort of grace is a much appreciated counterpoint to the sudden, harsh choice that haunts the story.

JIMMY STEWART ON “THE TONIGHT SHOW” (1981)

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One night on Johnny Carson’s old “Tonight Show,” Jimmy Stewart pulled out a couple of pieces of paper and read a poem he’d composed about his late, beloved dog, Beau. It was sweet, incredibly corny and amazingly moving.

FOUR WEDDINGS AND A FUNERAL (1994)

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Hollywood & the Hereafter: Movie Visions of Heaven, Hell and Limbo

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One of the riskiest things a film can do is offer a vision of the hereafter. There’s no rulebook, no old photos or video footage to guide the director or set designer. All you can hope for is to create the proper mood for that particular story. These films did a much better job than most.

STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN (1946)

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Stunning visuals mark this story of a British airman (David Niven) fighting to return to Earth from the afterlife. There is a wonderful, extended court sequence involving historical figures and a great turn by Raymond Massey as an American prosecutor who has a grudge against the British because of the Revolutionary War. The film also plays around with color and black and white to great effect. And just look at that staircase!

THE DEVIL AND DANIEL WEBSTER (1941)

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This one shines every time we encounter the Devil, played by a cagey and charismatic Walter Huston. As things progress, he presides over a trial in which legendary orator Daniel Webster tries to free a man who sold his immortal soul for a few years of prosperity. Despite its age, this film has several moments of biting commentary about American history.

BEETLEJUICE (1988)

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How can you not love a movie that casts limbo as the craziest, slowest waiting room ever? Even witch doctors and people who have been sawed in half can’t keep it interesting, which is hilarious.

WHAT DREAMS MAY COME (1998)

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This movie actually revels in its rich, expansive visions of both heaven and hell. The overly sentimental plot has Robin Williams opting to give up his pastel painting heaven in order to retrieve his beloved wife from hell. The journey is breathtaking. This is not everyone’s cup of tea, but I loved it.

DEFENDING YOUR LIFE (1991)

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Like so much of Albert Brooks’ work, “Defending Your Life” is a real gem. So clever and adroit. Brooks envisions the afterlife as an American resort city, not unlike Las Vegas. The deceased prepare legal arguments to prove they’re ready to move on to the next sphere of existence. Everyone wears white robes, eats delicious food without gaining weight and takes in a couple of shows. Nice. Also, excellent work by the great Meryl Streep and Rip Torn, who set the tone here for his “Larry Sanders” and “Men in Black” roles.

HEAVEN CAN WAIT (1943)

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Don’t be fooled by the title. “Heaven Can Wait” actually starts in hell, which apparently looks like a swanky gentlemen’s club. An old man (Don Ameche) has come to explain to the Devil why his worthless life merits admittance. From here, we flash back to the story of this man’s years as a rich playboy and philandering husband. Check it out and see if you come to the same conclusion as the Master of Hades.

HEAVEN CAN WAIT (1978)

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Warren Beatty had a big hit with this smart, nostalgic, beautifully filmed romantic comedy. Beatty plays a pro quarterback who finds himself taken from Earth up to heaven by mistake, due to a clerical error by a guardian angel (co-director Buck Henry). It is left to the angel’s supervisor, Mr. Jordan (a perfectly cast James Mason), to find a new body for Beatty to inhabit and resume his life. Heaven is pictured as a vast expanse of fluffy clouds. Or fog. Your call. The movie is filled with excellent supporting performances, including Charles Grodin, Julie Christie and the great Jack Warden. This plot doesn’t sound much like 1943’s “Heaven Can Wait,” does it? That’s because it’s not. In reality, it’s a remake of …

HERE COMES MR. JORDAN (1941)

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You know the drill. Only this time, it’s Robert Montgomery in the starring role, and he’s a boxer looking for a new body with which to win a title bout. Claude Rains is very good as Mr. Jordan, and the film has a nice, breezy vibe. Like Beatty’s version, this one has a fluffy, limitless heaven. But because it’s in black and white with some interesting lighting choices, it looks particularly otherworldly.

CONSTANTINE (2005)

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“Constantine” goes all-out in its depiction of a frantic hell full of demons and devourers. Keanu Reeves plays a chain smoking detective who has been to hell and back already. It’s quite jarring when the movie shifts to hell, but I guess that was the intention.

LILIOM (1934)

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Here is a long forgotten film that modern audiences have been able to see only thanks to video and DVD. It’s in French and directed by the legendary Fritz Lang. The subject matter is bracing and complex. A violent man with a criminal past (Charles Boyer) kills himself rather than go to jail. He is taken to Judgement in heaven, which is amazingly similar to a police precinct house. He spends the next 16 years in limbo, then gets the chance to visit his daughter back on Earth, who now is a teenager. His actions during the visit will determine whether he goes to heaven or hell. The special effects are glorious for their era, and the ending is more complicated than you’d think.

DECONSTRUCTING HARRY (1997)

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Woody Allen goes for a standard issue hell in “Deconstructing Harry” – fire, brimstone, darkness. What makes it funny is that the Devil is the guy who stole Woody’s girl. Billy Crystal plays him in a very casual, cocktail party sort of way. It’s a Woody Allen movie that doesn’t get a lot of love, but should.

OUR TOWN (1940)

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“Our Town,” Thornton Wilder’s stage play about rural life in Grover’s Corners, N.H., is an American masterpiece. It has been filmed several times, including a 1940 version with William Holden and Martha Scott. In “Our Town,” the hereafter isn’t a place; it’s a perspective. It’s the idea that none of us has the capacity to fully understand our own mortality and hold in our heads the heartbreaking, transient nature of the world around us.

That makes a dozen, which is probably enough heaven and hell for one sitting. But by all means, feel free to add your own favorites.

On the Couch: Memorable TV & Movie Therapists

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Pop culture and therapy are an amazingly good match. First of all, most worthy comedies and dramas are populated with people facing sizable problems. Secondly, introducing a psychiatrist, psychologist or social worker cuts to the heart of the matter without special effects or car chases. It also makes for insightful writing and acting.

LORRAINE BRACCO IN “THE SOPRANOS”

Lorraine Bracco was as crucial to the success of “The Sopranos” as the sex and violence that punctuated the show. Dr. Melfi’s sessions with Tony brought clarity to the proceedings and had an electrifying intimacy separate from everything else.

BOB NEWHART IN “THE BOB NEWHART SHOW”

I have a feeling Newhart’s portrayal of psychologist Robert Hartley was more accurate than most TV and movie therapists. He used jargon, he rarely raised his voice and he kept incredibly regular office hours. Thank goodness he also treated the occasional clown.

ROBIN WILLIAMS IN “GOOD WILL HUNTING”

Not everyone is a fan of Williams as the feisty therapist helping Matt Damon in “Good Will Hunting.” I liked his performance; I thought it had tons of heart and soul. How do you like them apples?

MARIAH CAREY IN “PRECIOUS: BASED ON THE NOVEL ‘PUSH’ BY SAPPHIRE”

It’s easy to lose sight of just how good Carey is as the social worker in “Precious.” She’s as tough as she needs to be in a film about hope in the face of brutal reality. Is there anything in this world more courageous than standing up for an abused kid? An amazing job.

JUDD HIRSCH IN “ORDINARY PEOPLE”

This fine performance is central to the effectiveness of 1980’s Oscar-winning “Ordinary People.” Hirsch’s scenes with a young Timothy Hutton have a real urgency to them, while noting the limitations and boundaries of the doctor-patient relationship.

LISA KUDROW IN “WEB THERAPY”

Lisa Kudrow is a master at delivering the disarming remark. She did it to perfection on “Friends” and she continues it on “Web Therapy.” As highly-flawed Dr. Fiona Wallice, Kudrow levels her snark on everyone, including herself.

STEVE CARELL IN “HOPE SPRINGS”

For such a skilled comic actor, it’s surprising how good Carell is at playing a subdued character. This is a great quality for his therapist in “Hope Springs.” He’s patient, probing and decent, without being boring.

ALLAN ARBUS IN “M*A*S*H”

Allan Arbus was always a welcome sight on “M*A*S*H,” as psychiatrist Sidney Freedman. Funny and fatigued as that character was, his appearances never failed to remind viewers of the insanity of war.

JOANNE WOODWARD IN “SYBIL”

Joanne Woodward brought a wonderful sense of authority and humanity to her part in “Sybil.” Sally Field, as a woman with multiple personalities, had the showier role, but Woodward had to give the whole thing plausibility.

KELSEY GRAMMER IN “FRASIER”

I doubt that any actual therapist has as soothing a voice as Kelsey Grammer. On “Frasier,” he offered a tour de force of comical compassion, without hiding the quirky side of the people giving the treatment.

HELEN HUNT IN “THE SESSIONS”

Helen Hunt is her usual, decent-but-intense self in “The Sessions.” She plays a sex therapist here, and much has been made of her willingness to bare everything onscreen. I thought her most revealing scene was in a car in a motel parking lot, fully clothed.

RICHARD BURTON IN “EQUUS”

In “Equus,” Burton is a doctor treating a very disturbed young man who has blinded several horses. What unfolds during their sessions is a deep well of guilt, trauma, religion and sex. As you’d expect, Burton brings heaps of dramatic heft to the part, for which he earned an Oscar nomination.

DYLAN McDERMOTT IN “AMERICAN HORROR STORY”

Worst. Therapist. Ever. I don’t know where this joker went to school, but I’m pretty sure they tell you on the very first day, “Don’t have sex with patients who are ghosts.”

JANE LYNCH IN “TWO AND A HALF MEN”

As Charlie Sheen’s therapist on TV’s “Two and a Half Men,” Lynch was able to talk tough, but also be sympathetic. It was a clever way to reveal Sheen’s – I mean the character’s – insecurities and motivations.

BILLY CRYSTAL IN “ANALYZE THIS”

Light fare, to be sure, but Crystal generated very solid laughs as a shrink forced to work with a mobster in “Analyze This.” He clearly loved being in a film with Robert DeNiro, who was in full self-parody mode.

J.K. SIMMONS IN “LAW AND ORDER”

What a superb job Simmons did with this small, occasional role as a psychiatrist who sometimes testifies in court cases on the various “Law and Order” shows. He was calm, yet razor-sharp in his scenes evaluating suspects and victims; he could seem jaded and cynical, yet also honest and hardworking.

ANNA KENDRICK IN “50/50”

Therapists have to start somewhere, right? It was brilliant to have Anna Kendrick as the inexperienced caregiver to cancer patient Joseph Gordon-Levitt. It flipped the normal power dynamic and felt much more real.

RICHARD DREYFUSS IN “WHAT ABOUT BOB?”

This movie about a therapist (Dreyfuss) who can’t get away from a patient (Bill Murray) has many devoted fans. Dreyfuss gamely gives in to the rising exasperation the part calls for, which is why it works so well.

BRUCE WILLIS IN “THE SIXTH SENSE”

What I often like about Bruce Willis is his ability to be very still. It comes in quite handy in “The Sixth Sense,” where he’s trying to help Haley Joel Osment deal with a … tricky situation. Willis listens with a thoughtful intensity.

GABRIEL BYRNE IN “IN TREATMENT”

“In Treatment” isn’t simply a great TV show about therapy; I think it’s one of the best shows ever. Byrne plays Dr. Paul Weston, whose patients range from a cancer patient and a troubled businessman to a little boy caught in the middle of his parents’ divorce. Each season, the show tracked the progress of several patients, session by session. Byrne is astonishing, as is the delicate-yet-powerful writing.

But I see our time is up. I didn’t even get to the therapists in “Annie Hall,” “Mad Men” or “The Prince of Tides.” Which are your favorites?