WHEN I heard the news the other day about Cliff Robertson’s passing, I was in the car — edging slowly forward in heavy traffic. Preoccupied, I half-listened to the details of the radio lede but when the engineer cued the clip from the film, “Charly,” before I knew it, just hearing Robertson’s struggling stammer, “I won’t forget…” I found myself in tears.
I hadn’t thought about the movie, nor the book it was based on, Flowers for Algernon, in decades. But immediately what pierced through is where I was when I read it and the effect that it had on me. I was in junior high school, sitting in the chaos of the cafeteria — flying food and squirting ketchup packets – trying to absorb the last few pages, which I was reading through heavy tears. I remember thinking in that moment, that it was very difficult to read and cry at the same time — not the same as a movie. I kept going, wiping them away. Not afraid that anyone might see. It was that sort of walled-off moment.
It was the first time a book had affected me quite that way. The film version of the book, “Charly” had been making the TV-movie rounds for years, but I had never watched it — and after the book, I was even more reluctant.
I’m not sure what finally edged me toward the film, but Cliff Robertson’s performance touched those old corners of feeling — the slipping away of what Charly, who would have been described in present-day terms as developmentally-disabled, had gained — in this grand experiment.
Hearing Robertson’s voice brought back those final pages in the book as language breaks down for Charly and he’s thrown back to his former self. I can’t help but to think the timing — junior high with its dramatic emotional spikes and valleys — had its own messy effect, I”m sure, but this story of glimpsing a life you *could* have and then having it slip away had such resonance. So few things can sit and occupy a space in your soul like a book found in a vulnerable moment.
(image via Wikipedia)