Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Introducing "Harvey"'s fairy tale character: Elwood P Dowd

Spotted this on IMDB - a review I wrote three years ago. I actually found it fascinating to read given the time between now and then has left me with no real recollection of writing this nor which angle I chose to present in the commentary. Funny how fickle the brainbox can be.

This is a delightful film. Jimmy Stewart's Elwood is a timeless character. When we live in a world which is constantly looking forward or backwards, Elwood P Dowd is a character who reminds us how perfect our lives would be if could live in the now, enjoying the singular moment. It is Dowd's ideology as much as his "imaginary" friend that makes "Harvey" so captivating.

Of course, Elwood Dowd could be far less perfect than we imagine. The back story seems to imply he undertook some sort of personality shift seven years back (he says he took life seriously for thirty five years, he is now forty two as I recall). From the events he describes on his first encounter with "Harvey", his recalled dialogue infers this event was after his character transformation. Considering how his big sister, Veta seems to feel their mother should have warned her about Harvey when she moved in, it seems unlikely it was his mother's death that caused any sort of dramatic character alteration.

So Dowd's character - for some reason - shifted from normal to unique. His life now is simplistic yet to himself, very busy. He spends a lot of times hanging around in bars meeting people. To him, that's a vocation, and with life itself being such a rich tapestry of character and history, who is one to argue? His approach to each day is structured on much repetition. His dialogue and mannerisms are very uniform and repetitive. His approach to all people remains equal. Elwood does initially give the audience the impression of someone who has had suffered breakdown, as someone who probably isn't quite normal. But as the film reminds us, when "normal" is actually quite nasty and stressful, would those "normal" people see being so very nice as a mental deficiency? The film doesn't dwell on the question as to whether or not Dowd suffers from mental illness. It could be character just was hit by some amazing epiphany seven years earlier. Unlike more contemporary offerings, it's not interested in what makes us who we are; it is more interested in what we are at present.

While it's clear that Elwood was never always as simple and gracious as he is now. The film doesn't concern itself with any catalyst for this change; in fact, it seems to deliberately avoid talking about it. The beauty in "Harvey" is that Elwood is as much a fantasy character as the mischievous "imaginary" Pooka Harvey himself and in my opinion, just as fascinating.

The timeless character of Elwood is solidified by the play/films disinterest in creating a resolution for his identity, even if all the unhappy people attempt the contrary. I prefer to see the change in Elwood as being an epiphany rather than a breakdown. It just seems to suit his almost fairy tale perfection. He doesn't see the bad in others. All behaviour has its reasons and all actions can be dealt with positively. Even when confronted with selfish concerns, he sees the lighter side. While the film doesn't leave any doubt to whether Harvey exists or not, it does leave the audience to make up it's mind on Elwood. That to me is the beauty of this film. The actual fairy tale character is definitive, but Elwood isn't. Is he a drunk? Again, personally, I don't feel he is. He never shows any behaviour indicative to a drunk. He goes and has a drink when he meets people as part of a ritualistic pattern, but the alcohol never pertains importance to him beyond that. Again, if we take Elwood's almost fantasy built persona - something we would all want to aspire to - to be able to socially drink very regularly without dependence seems quite fitting. That's my opinion, but really it's up to you to decide.

So I think, deep down, we would all want to be Elwood Dowd. Not so much for the Pooka invisible friend, but simply because his existence shows us how life ought to be taken. This is of course, an impossibility given the responsibility of today's lifestyle. Life is too complicated for an existence firmly entrenched in the present and while we have to accept that we can't be like Elwood, it would be nice to think we can try.

For me Mary Chase's "Harvey" presents a dream existence made manifest, and that is very much thanks to Stewart's beautifully performed Elwood Dowd.