The older I get, the more nostalgic I am about coming-of-age movies, especially ones like THE WORLD OF HENRY ORIENT (1964).
Adolescent girls rule in this World of Henry, so it’s a pity that the title is so misleading. I fear far too many young females (and their parents) of both the past and present have missed this gem, which was directed by George Roy Hill of BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID, THE STING, and many, many more.
Peter Sellers and his annoying Henry Orient character may have top billing, but this film is all about Val (Tippy Walker) and Gil (Merrie Spaeth) — two private school girls growing their friendship, exploring their world, and learning how to trust each other. They’ve learned that adults don’t always provide the best example in that department.
Val and Gil are sunny versions of Sally Draper from television’s Mad Men. In spite of, or because of, their family challenges and emotional armor, these girls are wiser than their years, independent, courageous, and growing up fast. They wear glamorous vintage fur while struggling with the rubber bands for the braces on their teeth.
Gil lives with her divorced mom in an apartment they share with fellow-divorcée gal pal Boothy. A non-traditional family, to be sure, grounded by love…and a strong reality check that “happily ever after” isn’t quite the promise that it’s made out to be.
Val’s parents, on the other hand, have basically farmed out their daughter to be raised by someone else. The school of hard knocks shows up alive and well with lines like, “Don’t worry, dear, unwanted children soon learn how to take care of themselves.” In fact, Val’s mother (Angela Lansbury) disdains and rejects her maternal role. In the end, Val’s estranged father (Tom Bosley) is the parent who finds redemption.
As disheartening as their backstories are, the girls remain optimistic and ready for adventure. One of the great scenes captures Gil and Val in a joyful city romp à la the field scene in A HARD DAY’S NIGHT, which is from the same year. New York looks lovely in this movie, and for a little bit of realism, the streets are littered with just the right amount of trash.
As the girls’ relationship evolves, so does their journey toward adulthood. Val turns out to be a budding groupie. She develops a celebrity crush on Sellers — concert pianist, womanizer, and con man — and the fantasizing and stalking begin. Gil, in the role of a true friend, becomes her partner in stalking. Sellers is such an unlikely object of affection for a young girl that it’s comically weird and safe at the same time. When Sellers is on screen (far more often than he needs to be), the movie deflates, except when he’s trying to seduce a hilarious Paula Prentiss.
The girls disappear on Christmas night, and the parents don’t even fret. In fact, Val’s mother (Lansbury) takes the time to have an affair with the object of her daughter’s desire before she even thinks — or any of the parents think, for that matter — that it might be wise to report that their children are missing and roaming around alone in New York City.
I recently saw this summer’s coming-of-age feature, THE WAY, WAY BACK, which showcases a collection of the same kind of inept, checked-out adults that we see in ORIENT. Because of today’s parenting rules of conduct, I found it completely improbable that the moms and dads in THE WAY, WAY BACK don’t freak out, frantically dial their cell phones, call the cops, or file an alert when their kids totally disappear one night, especially when one of their sons has been seen hanging out with an older man. In ORIENT, the parents’ behavior seems feasible — reckless, of course, but feasible.
Nonetheless, in both movies, the kids are resilient. They survive, learn their lessons, and move on, ready to forge their own better paths…in spite of the disappointments, dishonesty, and discontent they see going on in Adult World.
Long live the true spirit of adolescence.
If only we could hold on to it.