One True Thing by Stephanie Carlisi, Fall 1998

If there is one true thing about Carl Franklin’s One True Thing it is that this movie will bring its audience to tears in a manner that is reminiscent of academy award winning Terms of Endearment. Although a heart-wrenching tale, One True Thing has the perfect balance of humor to make this movie-going experience a satisfying one, even though its depiction is painful and true in its harsh dealings with death.

This film examines an estranged mother/daughter relationship in which mother, Kate Gulden, (Meryl Streep) struggles to teach her hardened daughter, Ellen Gulden, (Renee Zellweger) to open her heart and allow it to love. Ellen is a motivated Manhattan journalist, who has always followed in the footsteps of her father, a gifted English teacher, as she has made her way through Harvard and developed into a writer. She is forced to abruptly move home, when she learns that her mother is fighting a losing battle with cancer.

At first she is inclined to wallow in the guilt that has been laid by her father, George Gulden, (William Hurt) as well as her own feelings of resentment about being torn from her career. Subsequently, she is given the first real opportunity to return some of the infinite sacrifice that is inherent in the life of a mother for her children. She learns some lessons more valuable than a college education can provide as she nurses her dying mother.

This movie is packed with imagery as it takes the Gulden family through Kate’s last holidays. In a painfully poetic Christmas scene, sparkling in red, gold and green, new meaning is given to the song Silent Night’s, “ round young virgin, mother and child,” as the child lies her face against the cheek of her beautiful, dying mother. Ellen learns more from her mother, in their limited, last days together, than ever before. After 25 years of thinking that her mother was the woman behind the man, she discovers that being a mother and a wife and creating a happy home is one of life’s most difficult jobs. Realizing the amazing strength in her mother, Ellen sees, for the first time, the utter weakness of her philandering father, and the sacrifice her mother has made to make the marriage work and to make a love survive.

The fiery chemistry between the characters in this movie is ever-present and augmented beautifully by a vivid setting and subtle, yet stinging, underlying messages about the sheer fragility of life. Meryl Streep’s character, Kate, is to be adored from the second she appears on screen, in what is quite possibly her most dramatic performance yet, when compared to her comedic role in Death Becomes Her, or her heroic role in The River Wild. Feelings for this character undoubtedly transform from adoration to love as she approaches death and motivates the transformation of her daughter. Streep remains beautiful, inwardly and outwardly, all the way to her death, as actress and character. Her character is a woman who is willing to sacrifice all selfishness for her family. Her family is her one true thing, and it takes a terminal illness for them to realize that she is theirs.

Renee Zellweger, (Jerry Maguire) captivates with energy, evolution, and introspection as she successfully bares the insides of her tortured character, Ellen. Her performance is worth a plentitude of praise, and is sure to take her to the next stage of her acting career. William Hurt’s paternal role as George Gulden perfectly personifies the often unseen or unmentioned boy inside of every man, and draws a nexus between the boundaries of the male and female genders. His role may be the final, irking factor that grounds this film in the stereotypical genre “chick flick,” as he comes home with his tail between his legs to his dying wife, night after night, after midnight or not at all.

Brother Brian Gulden, Tom Everett Scott, while having a relatively small part in comparison to the other main characters, may very well contribute the funniest and saddest seconds captured in this movie as he smiles and cries when it’s least expected but most needed. One True Thing is a must see movie for anybody that likes to cry in a movie theater. This movie will make you want to call your mother, and may change your view of her forever.


One True Thing: Genre: Drama Rating: R for language Release Schedule: September 18, 1998 Cast and Crdeits: Starring Meryl Streep, Renee Zellweger, William Hurt, Tom Everett Scott, Luuren Graham Directed by Carl Franklin. Distributed by Universal. Produced by Jesse Beaton. Written by Karen Croner.