When was the last time you saw 1982’s The World According to Garp? It is still quite extraordinary and odd (available On Demand at Comcast). Robin Williams plays the son of Jenny Fields (Glenn Close’s superb film debut), an unconventional nurse who becomes a feminist icon. Robin’s speedy humor is toned down, but his Garp – Jenny’s son – is resplendent in physical awkwardness and squishy face. The film is based on a John Irving novel that itself is a peculiar mixture of insight and tone-deafness. Irving “got” a lot about violence against women and male sexuality, but really didn’t understand much about feminism or the forms it was taking. Adulation of a leader by huge crowds of compliant admirers, for example, was the opposite of the leaderless structures feminism developed (and which, even recently, the Occupy movement picked up on).
Jenny does not care for men or their lust (about which she is forever judgmental) and certainly doesn’t want to live with them, so she basically rapes a dying patient in order to get pregnant. She herself is half eccentric independent woman, half prude, but conducts herself with unshakeable composure and fearlessness, rescuing children and women with aplomb. Garp is horny and neurotic. He decides to be a writer, but despite the critical acclaim for his first novel, his mother’s feminist manifesto overshadows his book. She becomes rich and famous. He remains tortured and jealous.
John Lithgow gives us a staggeringly warm, engaging portrayal of Roberta Muldoon, a transwoman who becomes a part of the family. Swoosie Kurtz does a great job as a prostitute-turned-disciple. Mary Beth Hurt, as Garp’s wife, is suitably bland as the key to Garp’s desperation to have a “normal” nuclear family as an antidote to his unusual childhood. Jenny uses her wealth to create a women-only retreat for women in distress – but here Irving’s imagination fails him. The self-mutilating cult of fragile, terrified women he places at Jenny’s home are an unconvincing flaw in the author’s conception.
Nonetheless, the film is extraordinary and while it struggles to condense Irving’s novel, it loses none of the eccentricity and quirkiness that make the story captivating. It’s better than most films and holds up remarkably well over three decades later.
Here's the trailer: