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Career > > 1998 > One True Thing

One True Thing

September 18, 1998 | Universal Pictures | 127 minutes
Directed by: Carl Franklin | Written by: Karen Croner | Literature: Anna Quindlen | Cinematography: Declan Quinn | Editing: Carole Kravetz Aykanian | Costume Design: Donna Zakowska | Production Design: Paul Peters | Music: Cliff Eidelman
Ellen (Renee Zellweger), a young career-driven journalist in New York, is needed at home after her mother Kate (Meryl Streep) has been diagnosed with cancer. Once Ellen arrives back home, she's dismayed to find herself caught in the web of her mother's activities, although she fears that this might be the final Thanksgiving with all family members present. Tensions erupt as Ellen gets to know different sides of her parents and long-buried family secrets emerge, such as her father's (William Hurt) long-time infidelity with his students and her mother's silence about it.
Cast: Meryl Streep (Kate Gulden), Renée Zellweger (Ellen Gulden), William Hurt (George Gulden), Tom Everett Scott (Brian Gulden), Lauren Graham (Jules), Nicky Katt (Jordan Belzer), James Eckhouse (District Attorney), Patrick Breen (Mr. Tweedy), Gerritt Graham (Oliver Most)

“One True Thing” is based on Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Anna Quindlen’s 1995 novel of the same name. For director Carl Franklin, the story presented an opportunity to tackle a film unlike any he has directed. Best known for the acclaimed independent feature “One False Move”, Franklin might have been an unlikely choice for “One True Thing”, except that his passion for the project was unsinkable. The story was clearly in keeping with one of his foremost concerns: the importance of family and community in diverse American lives. Kate Gulden fascinated Streep not only with her deep maternal qualities, but with her hidden complexities – especially her complicated and undying love for her difficult husband George. “One of things that interested me about this story is how if you look at anybody else’s marriage, especially your parent’s marriage, it is completely inscrutable. You just can’t understand it. As a child, you look at your parents and you make your decisions about them: which one’s the bad guy and which one’s the good guy, and who they really are. And often you get it completely wrong. Ellen has gotten Kate completely wrong and now she’s learning who her mother really is. It’s a powerful thing to attempt.

I was talking to Anna Quindlen the other day, and she said, ‘I couldn’t get over how nice you were to my kid on the set the day you were about to go up to the bedroom and do the pivotal emotional scene.’ But I was so glad she brought her kid on the set, I was so glad I had something else to think about, because these feelings are so dangerous. As an actor, sometimes you do everything you can to push a feeling away from you, because you don’t have to work for it. It’s too accessible, it’s all right there, and you’d better damn well do your best to think about lunch or complain about your wardrobe. It was like the choice scene in ‘Sophie’s Choice’. I read that scene once when they gave me the script. I didn’t ever want to look at it. I knew what that was going to be. I didn’t have to practice. You don’t want to make any connections to your own life – just don’t go there. (Meryl Streep, Entertainment Weekly, 2000)

Adds Carl Franklin: “I think what makes Kate so interesting is that she is never judgmental. It’s part of her nurturing quality to let her family members have the freedom to be who they are. Meanwhile, Ellen is operating under a lot of preconceived pressures and expectations that have been imparted to her by her father and Kate sees that and wants her to break that chain.” He continues: “It was very exciting to have Meryl in this role. Her emotional commitment to the character and what she represents was so strong. You know, there’s a magic with actors like Meryl Streep and William Hurt in that they just mysteriously get to the heart of their characters. You can’t really even see their process. It just happens.”

“One True Thing” is a brave character study of a family whose lives are changed and influenced by their mother’s suffering of cancer. In of of her many 1990’s mother roles, Meryl’s Kate Gulden is a highly annoying mom. She comes off candy-coded, over emtional, shriek and perfect about everything – from a birthday cake to her mosaic table to the Christmas tree decoration. We get to understand that Ellen, the ambitious journalist, has always liked her father more, who seems more down to earth and with a job to look up to, over her mother’s “housewife life”. And Meryl Streep does a magnificent job as the most annoying mother you could imagine. But as her disease progresses, we get to know the person behind the “mother”. She’s the one who’s keeps the family together, who’s there for others, who needs her activities to make room in her head for thoughts other than her husband’s infidelity. We also see the times when she’s losing her temper, throwing dishes and wanting to be healthy again. The most emotional scenes are between Meryl and Renée Zellweger in the latter half of the film when it becomes apparent that this is not a temporary nurse job but a farewell. The film is beautifully acted and very moving. I had reminded it of being more television-style until I recently re-watched it, it’s deeper and more thoughtful than I remembered. Recommended!

☆   Academy Award – Best Actress in a Leading Role
☆   Screen Actors Guild Award – Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Leading Role
☆   Golden Globe Award – Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture (Drama)
☆   Blockbuster Entertainment Award – Favorite Actress (Drama)
☆   Golden Satellite Award – Best Actress in a Motion Picture (Drama)

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