Strangers: The Story of a Mother and Daughter (1979, TV-Movie)


A tough New England widow’s (Bette Davis) quiet life is disrupted when she gets an unannounced visit from her estranged daughter (Gena Rowlands, A Woman Under the Influence) who had left home twenty years before on bad terms.

Reaction & Thoughts:

“Is it such a terrible thing to love your mother?”

The title says it all. Strangers: The Story of a Mother and Daughter is a made-for-television chamber piece about a woman trying to mend her broken relationship with her elderly mother. It’s literate like a good play, but it never feels overwritten or overplayed, thanks to the skillful direction by Milton Katselas (Butterflies Are Free and 40 Carats) and the outstanding performances by its two leading actresses.

Novelist Thomas Wolfe once famously said that “you can’t never go home again.” Someone should have told Wolfe that sometimes you need to return home. Well, at least that’s the premise of this incisive, emotionally-changed drama. Strangers is about the importance of dealing with the ghosts of the past before you become a ghost yourself.

The film is essentially a collection of conversations between the two main characters, therefore it’s talky and slow. But Strangers is so well-written and acted that I didn’t mind the fact that the majority of the movie takes place in a few locations. All pivotal scenes pack the necessary punch, and the ending is touching without being mushy.

The acting by Bette Davis and Gena Rowlands is superb. Both ladies were nominated for an Emmy (Davis won). I’ve always been a huge admirer of both actresses, and I wasn’t  surprised to see them delve deep into their characters. It did surprise me that Davis and Rowlands were in perfect synch throughout the whole movie.

Rowlands’s manufactured spontaneity, perfectly displayed in hubby John Cassavetes’s gorgeously rambling masterworks, is the antithesis of Davis’s classical acting style. There is always a debate about which style is better, but as I was watching the two actresses intact, I realized that this is a rather silly argument — the end result is what matters. The chemistry between Davis and Rowlands is spectacular.

Conclusions & Final Thoughts:

Are you looking for a good movie for grown-ups? You need to look no further, Strangers: The Story of a Mother and Daughter deals with the problems of average adults in a meaningful way. As an added bonus, you get to see two of America’s finest actresses, Bette Davis and Gena Rowlands, together for the first time and only time in their long careers. The film is available on YouTube. Color, 90 minutes, Not Rated.


22 responses to “Strangers: The Story of a Mother and Daughter (1979, TV-Movie)

  1. I remember this one, for sure. Extremely enjoyable. There was a period when I was really into slow dramas anyway, ha, but I really like both of those actresses and was a little bit fascinated with Bette Davis and her life story. Nice line, btw: Strangers is about the importance of dealing with the ghosts of the past before you become a ghost yourself.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. No, I have not! SO MANY I haven’t seen….not enough time, lol
    But anything directed by Ingmar Bergman… gotta be bursting with atmosphere and pathos, right?

    Liked by 2 people

  3. The concept is interesting. Learning about ghosts before you become one. I am also amazed that Davis won an Oscar for this film.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Some old-school TV movies (particularly those that maintain a sort of theatrical sensibility) are absolute gems, featuring spectacular work from top-tier classic talent. I haven’t seen this one (yet 🙂), but I happened to rewatch (my favorite scenes from) another Bette vehicle just today, A Piano for Mrs. Cimino, from 1982. (It’s on YouTube.) It’s a little more overtly message / issue-oriented (about the hardships of senior adults – their care, independence, etc.), and it begins with Mrs. Cimino (Bette Davis) literally screeching as she’s having an episode and being forcibly removed from her home by paramedics, so I wouldn’t necessarily call it understated. Some it falls in that “movie of the week” trap where it sensationalizes reality rather than shines a light on it. However, there are a couple scenes with Keenan Wynn that are nothing short of perfection. They’re the best acting he’s ever done. Of course, Bette Davis is Bette Davis (always stellar), and I think she’s the reason he raises his game even higher than usual. ❤ I watch their arc just to enjoy it as its own, separate story. And all this awesomeness is hidden in an almost-forgotten, little network TV film. It’s amazing. Thank goodness for YouTube! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • I loved Mrs. Cimino! I read somewhere that Davis considered it one of her finest roles. Apparently, she hand-picked Wynn to co-star with her (they had worked together on Phone Call from a Stranger), and I agree with you that he is excellent!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Oh, wow! 😀 I’m so happy to know someone whose seen and appreciates this film, and I had no idea she hand-picked Keenan or that they’d worked together before. That makes it even better! ❤

        I found Phone Call from a Stranger on YouTube and look forward to watching it soon. 🙂 Thanks so much for mentioning it!

        Back to Mrs. Cimino, the scene where she tells him she’s leaving and the ending just get me. ❤ I’ve become a relatively-recent fan of both Keenan and Ed Wynn thanks to The Man in the Funny Suit (which is on YouTube) and Playhouse 90’s stellar Requiem for a Heavyweight (which, last I checked, unfortunately isn’t there anymore 😕) – so much so that I bought a used copy of Keenan’s memoir, Ed Wynn’s Son, and his son Ned’s book, We Will Always Live in Beverly Hills. (I recommend both.) And based on what I gathered from those sources, it seems poor Keenan was a man who was just destined to be left (sometimes due to circumstances he could’ve prevented and sometimes through no fault of his own). I’d say he had lots of personal experience to pull from to add such raw, natural emotion to those scenes. ❤

        Liked by 1 person

        • The Man in the Funny Suit sounds like a fascinating project — thanks for the recommendation! By the way, I didn’t know the Wynns were in the TV version of Requiem for a Heavyweight (I’ll try to look for it).

          Anyhow, Keenan could do almost anything. I particularly loved his performance in the musical Kiss Me Kate (1953) (he sings “Brush up your Shakespeare” with James Whitmore).

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          • It absolutely is, and what makes it even more fascinating to me is that, by all accounts, it really does seem to be TRUE. I very much enjoyed it when I first saw it, but I would have bet money there was some sensationalism and dramatic license involved to make the story more interesting. Well, once I started researching it, I couldn’t stop, because it turns out 99% of it is verifiable through books and interviews. (And the small bits I’ve yet to verify are all from Ed’s perspective, so I’d say it’s possible he shared some things with Ralph Nelson, who wrote and directed it, that he didn’t divulge anywhere else.) In fact, if anything, Nelson simplified the story rather than embellished upon it. 😀 It’s one of those instances where truth really is stranger (or more dramatic) than fiction, and I could geek out about it endlessly. 😉

            The TV version of Requiem may be my most favorite story of all time. ❤ It’s quite similar to the film, but different in one very important way. They’re like two sides of the same coin, or the examination of two different outlooks / possibilities. I prefer the TV take, and the fact that it was filmed live makes it even more awesome. 🙂 It’s available to rent through Amazon, but you may not want to do that. At any rate, if you find a way to access it, I highly recommend both it and Funny Suit. ❤

            And, YES! 😀 Brush Up Your Shakespeare is so charming – and my favorite part of that film. 🙂 Keenan was up for anything, and you’re right, could do almost anything. I particularly enjoy it when he gets the opportunity to turn on a dime and flex different skill sets in the same film. The Americanization of Emily is a good example of that, I think, where he starts out so funny and then things turn serious, and he shifts so believably with the change in tone. I also find his drunken rant in The Clock quite impressive, especially since I read someplace that Vincente Minnelli basically turned him loose and let him do whatever he wanted. 😀

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            • Keenan was a very versatile actor! BTW, Americanization of Emily is one of my favorite (black) comedies, and The Clock is a lovely wartime romance. Anyhow, I also loved Keenan in The Great Race (he plays Tony Curtis’s mechanic). Even in low-budget fare like The Devil’s Rain (1975) and Piranha (1978), Keenan delivered the goods. I also want to mention his short stint as Victoria Principal’s drunken dad in the TV show Dallas — I’ll always remember his poignant deathbed scene!

              Liked by 1 person

      • Update: I watched Phone Call From a Stranger! 😀 A bit melodramatic (of course, it may have struck me that way because I’m ultra-sensitive to watching people suffer), but I really enjoyed it – Bette & Keenan’s arc, in particular. ❤ The “hello, beautiful” and her little speech after…Ohhhh, my goodness. ❤ And her teary reaction was so real! It goes without saying that she’s a phenomenal actress, but I think she found it all to be genuinely moving. Interestingly, even though (of the two of them), you could call this his story, I think she had the shining moment – and the reverse is true for Mrs. Cimino. But that just works to make them an even more interesting pair. 🙂 In this one, I loved how you could see his shoes approaching in the hospital before you see him, and did you notice when David made the phone call, Eddie’s picture is on the nightstand near the phone – and the way he’s positioned, it looks like he’s watching him??? ❤ I had no idea this movie existed, so thanks so much for mentioning it! 🙂 I played my favorite scenes of Mrs. Cimino right after, and it was like they finally got their happy ending. 😉

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        • I’m glad to hear that you enjoyed Phone Call From a Stranger — it’s a nice little movie. I agree that Bette and Keenan’s story is by far the most interesting (it helps that they have great chemistry). Not only that, but I liked how the movie fools you. When you first meet Keenan, you think this a foolish, talkative and obnoxious guy. But he is in fact the best person in the whole movie! Anyhow, it’s cool that Bette remembered Keenan when the producers were looking for someone to play opposite her in Mrs. Cimino. They make a really cute couple. And kudos to Keenan for managing to suggest a much older man (I believe he was almost ten years younger than Bette).

          Liked by 1 person

          • So cool. 🙂 Yes, to have the type of chemistry where you can share one moment together – one line together, really – and make it mean something is pretty awesome. I totally believed they had a history. (Well, actually, that’s believable in both films.) ❤ I also liked how Eddie was the one who brought “the four musketeers” together. He talked a big game (which is obnoxious in itself), but he was a sweet guy. 🙂 Thinking about the move afterwards, it dawned on me that all three of them had a unique connection with Dave, something special that would make him want to visit their families: the doctor confided in him and retained him as his lawyer, he sort of took care of Binky, and Eddie was the one who bonded the group and made teaching out to the families possible in the first place. ❤ And you’re exactly right! I had to look it up. There’s an 8-year age difference between them. Wow! 😀

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