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Meet the Writers: Sheila O'Malley

Sheila O'Malley

Editor's note: To give you a chance to get to know our writers better, we've asked them to respond to some questions. In coming weeks, we'll be posting their responses, which will always be available as a link from their contributor biography page. First up is Sheila O'Malley.

The Movie Love Questionnaire

Where did you grow up, and what was it like?

I grew up in Rhode Island, surrounded by turf farms on one side and ocean on the other. Rhode Island is a beautiful state.

Do you do any other jobs besides this one, and if so, what if anything did doing those jobs contribute to your sensibility as a moviegoer?

I do web production on a freelance basis. It helps pay the bills, not much else. I started out as an actress, so acting has always been my "way in" to movies. I am drawn to performance, above all else, and can forgive much if the acting is good.

Was anyone else in your family into movies? If so, what effect did they have on your moviegoing tastes?

My whole family is into movies. My parents let me and my brother stay up late on a school night when we were kids only twice, once to see "The Sting" and once to see "What's Up, Doc?" They both remain favorites. I also have a vivid memory of watching "Sounder" on television with my parents, and looking over at my mother during that phenomenal last scene, and seeing my mother crying. It made a huge impression on me. I felt, in my childish soul, that that was a very emotional scene, and seeing my mother crying confirmed it for me.

What's the first movie you remember seeing, and what impression did it make on you?

Probably some Disney movie, although I can't remember. Seeing "Oliver!" when I was 9 or 10 launched an obsession that was all-consuming. I loved movies about orphans, scrappy kids living by their wits.

What's the first movie that made you think, "Hey, some people made this. It didn't just exist. There's a human personality behind it."

"East of Eden." I was twelve. It blew my mind, mostly because of James Dean's performance (which I found revelatory at the time). In researching James Dean (I took out "The Mutant King" from our local library), I came across the name "Elia Kazan". I had to know more about him, who this man was who created those scenes that made such an impression. It was "East of Eden" that led me to seek out more works by Elia Kazan, and although much of it went way over my head, he was the first director I took an interest in.

What's the first movie you ever walked out of?

None that I can recall.

What's the funniest film you've ever seen?

"What's Up, Doc?" is up there, although "His Girl Friday", "My Man Godfrey", and "Bringing Up Baby" have got to be on the list. I also think "Manhattan Murder Mystery" is hilarious.

What's the saddest film you've ever seen?

"The Heiress" is devastating. Ralph Richardson's protection of his daughter is well-meaning (and also correct: Montgomery Clift IS a fortune hunter), but the scene where Olivia de Havilland realizes that her father has contempt for her is still painful for me to watch, even after so many viewings.

What's the scariest film you've ever seen?

"The Exorcist" ruined my childhood.

What's the most romantic film you've ever seen?

Cocteau's "Beauty and the Beast." Nancy Savoca's "Dogfight."

What's the first television show you ever saw that made you think television could be more than entertainment?

This pre-dates my own memory, but I'm sure it was "Sesame Street." There's a picture of me sitting in my little rocking chair watching "Sesame Street," and I am lost to the world. That wasn't entertainment, it was enchantment.

What book do you think about or revisit the most?

It's a toss-up between "Catch 22" by Joseph Heller, "Franny and Zooey" by J.D. Salinger and "Hopeful Monsters" by Nicholas Mosley. Those books express the questions (and not the answers) that I find most interesting and urgent.

What album or recording artist have you listened to the most, and why?

At the present moment, Elvis Presley. I like all the different Elvises: the jumpsuit Elvis, the raw Sun Records Elvis, the sleek smooth RCA Elvis, the gospel Elvis, the country Elvis. I love the movie Elvis, too. One of the simplest things I can say about him is that if I'm having a stressed-out day where I feel overwhelmed, or caught up with the small stuff, if one of his songs comes up on iPod shuffle, his voice re-arranges that stress a little bit, giving me a sense of space, peace.

Is there a movie that you think is great, or powerful, or perfect, but that you never especially want to see again, and why?

"Mr. and Mrs. Bridge." I found it unbearably sad, so much so that I almost blocked it out as I was watching it. The acting was so superb, unblinkingly so. I still think of that final moment from time to time. It haunts me. But I don't need to put myself through that again.

What movie have you seen more times than any other?

It is either "Only Angels Have Wings" or "G.I. Jane," which makes no sense, but I have to be honest. "Only Angels Have Wings" is one of those magical movies that works—the way good show business works—every single time. Every single time I get caught up in that world, those guys, that bar, the airfield, the mountain pass, the drinking. And "G.I. Jane." What can I say. I won't make a case for it being a great film, but I think it's a lot of fun, with some surprisingly effective performances (from Anne Bancroft and Viggo Mortensen in particular).

What was your first R-rated movie, and did you like it?

"Dog Day Afternoon," which I saw on late-night television while I was babysitting, age 12. I could feel at the time that it was too grown-up for me to be watching and much of it (like the sex change) went over my head. But I can say without too much exaggeration that that film changed how I looked at life, and certainly changed how I looked at the art of movies and acting. I was so rocked by the film that I actually considered writing a letter to the real "Sonny," in prison. I remember the father of the kid I was babysitting driving me home that night, and I was already plotting and scheming in my head how I could find out what prison "Sonny" was in so I could write him a letter of support. That's how much that film got under my skin. I've never forgotten what it was like to see it for the first time.

What's the most visually beautiful film you've ever seen?

Probably Terrence Malick's "Days of Heaven." "Beauty and the Beast," again. Lots of John Ford. "The Master" is so beautiful it sometimes hurts my eyes.

Who are your favorite leading men, past and present?

Cary Grant. John Wayne. Jeff Bridges. Jack Nicholson. Marlon Brando.

Who are your favorite leading ladies, past and present?

Bette Davis. Joan Crawford. Barbara Stanwyck. Carole Lombard. Diane Keaton.

Who's your favorite modern filmmaker?

Paul Thomas Anderson. Roman Polanski. Wes Anderson. Martin Scorsese.

What film do you love that most people seem to hate?

I believe "G.I. Jane" would probably be the most appropriate answer!

What film do you hate that most people love?

"Forrest Gump." I hated it on sight, and a friend of mine was so baffled by my response that she made me watch it again. I hated it even more the second time. I'm not a big one for hating movies. I usually can find something to love. But that one made me angry.

Tell me about a moviegoing experience you will never forget—not just because of the movie, but because of the circumstances in which you saw it.

Seeing "The Empire Strikes Back" at a drive-in with my cousins when I was a kid. My father and uncle took us there in a station wagon with a "way back," and we were all in our pajamas, 6 or 7 of us. I miss drive-ins. I think back to that night and don't remember the film so much as the feeling of what it was to be a kid, to be a kid in the summer, no school, no summer job yet, hanging out with my cousins, having popcorn, and being out in public in our pajamas. The freedom of it!

What aspect of modern theatrical moviegoing do you like least?

The glow of people's cell phones throughout the theatre.

What aspect of moviegoing during your childhood do you miss the most?

Everything. Moviegoing was magical, a way to enter into another world, a fantasy world. I still try to recapture that feeling when I go to the movies now. I love it all: the previews, the concession, the people talking, the sense of humanity in the darkness. I love being part of an audience.

Have you ever damaged a friendship, or thought twice about a relationship, because you disagreed about whether a movie was good or bad?

Never, although the opposite has been true: "If so-and-so likes this film, then we probably will have a lot to talk about." But human relationships are more important than anything else and there are so many ways we connect. I would never damage a friendship based on an artistic opinion.

What movies have you dreamed about?

Not specifically, although I have a lot of dreams about the world being destroyed by water, so I suppose "Waterworld" has entered my subconscious.

What concession stand item can you not live without?

Sour Patch Kids.

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