TCM Spotlight: Coming of Age

TCM Spotlight: Coming of Age

September 2023 | 7 Movies

The experience of growing up can be very serious and yet so funny, so simple and yet so complicated, all at the same time. It’s no wonder that this life experience has become a great source of material for some of the most popular and acclaimed stories in literature, theatre, and film. Comedies and dramas alike with a wide variety of characters in any number of settings and situations all have themes of self-discovery, identity, fun, and struggle which are all a part of growing up. This month TCM does a spotlight on some of the classic films that deal with the coming of age.  

One of the most impactful experiences in anyone’s life is the experience of first love and one of the most beloved films about this experience is Elia Kazan’s Splendor in the Grass (1961)In one of her best remembered performances, Natalie Wood plays Wilma “Deanie” Loomis, a young girl in 1920s Kansas who is having her first romance with a boy named Bud (Warren Beatty in an impressive screen debut). The young lovers are trying to repress their intense attraction for each other. Interference from each of their parents who have very different plans for their children adds to the tension and eventually leads to Deanie’s mental breakdown.

This story was quite groundbreaking in 1961 for dealing with subjects such as sexual repression and desire, violence and mental health. It marked the debut screenplay of playwright William Inge (his plays included “Picnic” and “Bus Stop”), who won an Oscar for his work. Both Inge and director Elia Kazan had worked with Warren Beatty in the New York theatre and campaigned for the actor to be cast in the lead role against the studio’s wishes. While Natalie Wood had always been Inge’s original choice for the female lead, Kazan tested a number of young actresses including Jane Fonda. Kazan was uncertain about how the Hollywood raised Wood could handle the complicated role of Deanie. He was tough on the actress, requesting she wear less makeup than in her previous films and even forcing her to face her notorious fear of water. Wood met all these challenges and earned her first Oscar Nomination for Best Actress. 

The transition from youth to adulthood was memorably depicted again in writer/director Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show (1971). Based on a semi-autobiographical novel by Texas writer Larry McMurtry, it tells the story of a group of teenagers graduating from high school in a dying Texas town in the 1950s. Sonny and Duane (Timothy Bottoms and Jeff Bridges) both pine for the richest girl in school, Jacy (Cybill Shepherd in her film debut). Their simple life of hanging out at the pool hall and watching movies at the soon to be closed cinema gives way to division as each experience sudden adult issues.  

This was only the second feature film by Peter Bogdanovich and his first for a major studio (Columbia Pictures). Up to this point, Bogdanovich was mostly known as a film critic and biographer who had written books on Howard Hawks and John Ford. The cinephile used many of his favorite master filmmakers’ techniques for this film. At the suggestion of his mentor Orson Welles, Bogdanovich shot the film in black and white and made heavy use of deep focus photography by classic Hollywood cinematographer Robert Surtees. The film also has no musical score and instead is accompanied by songs of the period, heard on jukeboxes and radios in various scenes. These techniques were a stark contrast to what was being seen in the new age films of the early 70s. 

The film was nominated for eight Oscars and won two for the supporting performances of Ben Johnson as the strict businessman who tries to keep the rebellious youths in line and for Cloris Leachman as the lonely housewife of the high school football coach who has an affair with Sonny. It remains Bogdanovich’s most praised film and made stars of the young cast. 

A decade later, Barry Levinson’s Diner (1982) looked at the coming of age of a group of college men in 1950s Baltimore. Steve Guttenberg heads the group as Eddie, an immature young man still living at home who is much more interested in football than in the woman he’s set to marry. Tim Daly, Paul Reiser, Daniel Stern, Mickey Rourke and Kevin Bacon are Eddie’s friends, each with issues and eccentricities of their own. Though he wrote the story himself and loosely based it on his own experiences as a young man in Baltimore, writer/director Barry Levinson encouraged his actors to improvise many of their scenes together. This sparked camaraderie and some healthy competition between the young comics and elevated the film’s humor. This marked Levinson’s directorial debut after he’d been encouraged to write and direct his own movies by Mel Brooks when he was serving as a writing assistant on Silent Movie (1976) and High Anxiety (1977). 

Diner was one of the first films of the 1980s which made that decade a golden age of films about troubled youth and the coming of age. Films like John Hughes’ The Breakfast Club (1985), Rob Reiner’s Stand By Me (1986), and Peter Weir’s Dead Poet’s Society (1989) all looked at troubled youths in a sympathetic light and portrayed the disconnection often felt between the young and their elders. 

Another major part of the coming of age is the people who help us do it. We have all had mentors and teachers who helped shape who we are. An inspiring true story about one such hero was MGM’s Boys Town (1938)Spencer Tracy plays a real-life priest, Father Edward Flanagan. In Nebraska in the 1910s, Father Flanagan founded a town for orphaned and impoverished young boys to live and be educated in. This film also stars Mickey Rooney as a rebellious youth who is whipped into shape by Father Flanagan’s firm hand. Tracy won the Academy Award for Best Actor and dedicated his award to the still living Father Flanagan. This marked Tracy’s second consecutive Oscar win and third consecutive nomination. His first win had been for Captain’s Courageous (1937) (also costarring Mickey Rooney) in which he again played the unlikely hero of a spoiled youth. Boys Town was a major success, ultimately becoming MGM’s highest grossing film of 1938. 

Some mentors not only educate but inspire us and expose us to the cultural things that shape who we are. In Giuseppe Tornatore’s Cinema Paradiso (1988), a young boy, Salvatore “Toto” (played by Salvatore Cascio as a boy and Marco Leonardi as a teenager), discovers the magic of movies at the local movie house of his small Sicilian town. Philippe Noiret is Alfredo, the lonely projectionist who shows Toto countless films and trains the boy in the art of showing movies. As Toto grows up, he is inspired to create movies of his own to the delight of the proud and now aging Alfredo. Though only a modest box office success upon initial release, Cinema Paradiso was critically praised and went on to win the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. It has since become one of the most beloved films of cinephiles, projectionists, and filmmakers for its nostalgic portrayal of the magic of cinema.

Nostalgia is what many of us feel about the subject of coming of age. That is likely why it applies to so many beloved holiday movies. In A Christmas Story (1983), 9-year-old Ralphie Parker (Peter Billingsley) tries to convince his parents that the perfect holiday gift would be a Red Ryder BB Gun. The movie hilariously portrays the experience of getting through the holidays through the eyes of a child. A sleeper hit, the movie is now a viewing staple every Christmas.

We all experience the coming of age, and we all have the happiest and sometimes saddest of memories about that experience. It is classic movies like these which illustrate these universal truths forever.