The Parent Rap
When I was a child, maybe 5 years old, I went to see the first movie I ever recall seeing in a theater. My grandmother, my mother’s mother, took me to see Annie, which came out in 1982. The occasion felt like well, an occasion. As I recall, I dressed up. It was raining and the movie I saw enraptured me. We emerged from the film — probably a matinee — and I was surprised to see that it was still daytime. Before, I’d clung to “Sesame Street” and Mickey Mouse; now, I had Annie. It was my first step, tenuous as it was, towards thinking like an adult.
This was, of course, mostly before you could watch movies on demand at home, so instead of seeing the movie a thousand times, I was reduced to playing, over and over, the recording of the soundtrack. To me, more than anything, Annie has always remained mostly about the songs. I also had a book of stills from the movie that I pored over, learning the names of the orphans and the other minor characters.
Annie the film was based on a Broadway play of the same name which debuted the year that I was born, 1977. I didn’t know this, nor did I know that the play in turn was based on a comic strip, Little Orphan Annie, from 1924, the year that my grandmother was born. I didn’t know any of this. I didn’t know that the film was directed by John Huston, who directed some other movies which would later in life be favorites of mine: The Maltese Falcon, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The Misfits.
I grew up thinking that Albert Finney was always bald, and that he was Daddy Warbucks; when, in high school, I discovered The Rocky Horror Picture Show, I screamed, “that’s Rooster!” when I saw the sweet transvestite roll onto the screen. Bernadette Peters and Carol Burnett and Ann Reinking were to me, not accomplished Broadway performers and comediennes, but Lily St. Regis, Miss Hannigan, and Grace Farrell. They always will be.
So it was with some excitement that, several months ago, I decided to try showing Annie to my three-year-old daughter, Zelda. She’s a bit of a song and dance person, I said to myself, I bet she will like this. And she did.
She took to Annie in a way I could not have predicted. She became obsessed with the songs, she knows the dance routine from “It’s A Hard Knock Life,” carrying buckets and rags around, flopping on the floor, gesticulating wildly. Some days, we wonder what we have invited into our home. She insists, sometimes, that we refer to her as Annie. She renamed our dog Penny: she now answers to ‘Sandy.’ Occasionally, I answer to “Miss Hannigan.”
And even though Zelda can watch the movie any time she wishes, because times have changed and we have Netflix now, Annie is mostly the songs. But watching the film with her — and she is agnostic, she will watch any version, though the 1982 one owns her truest affection — I see it now with different eyes. It is, I must admit, the one thing I allow her to watch which is probably a bit above her age demographic.
I didn’t know until recently that the movie itself is often considered by critics to be “not good.” To me, it is perfect. The songs are brilliant, the choreography lovely, the casting is genius. I admit that I see all of this not with the eyes of a critic but through the thick glasses of nostalgia, and yet, I know that this movie has real artistry to it.
It’s also not really, when you watch it, a movie that is by our standards today very child-friendly. It’s easier, actually, to see Annie as part of a longer history of children’s stories where, inevitably, adults are sort of uniformly complicated, unwieldy, and often bad. Annie is pretty unapologetic about that: the kids are smarter than the adults, who are often menacing drunks. Miss Hannigan is a pathetic drunk government employee, her brother Rooster and his girlfriend Lily are criminals; Daddy Warbucks is a Republican, a self-made billionaire without any formal education. He’s a capitalist, but one who hangs out with FDR. Annie almost dies in the movie, saved by Warbucks’s body man, Punjab, played by the insanely awesome Geoffrey Holder, who I knew as a kid as a spokesman for 7Up. What Zelda makes of all of this — of the menacing adult world punctuated by scruffy, know-it-all kids, I can’t be sure. She’s only three, after all.
I was a little older than her when I first encountered Annie, and I distinctly recall wanting deeply to be an orphan. I didn’t have any problem with my home life (not yet) but the possibility of being a single being, alone in the world, was deeply fascinating to me. Annie, the protagonist of the film, makes hard decisions several times in the movie. She’s the moral center of a film that is deeply, complicatedly female driven. She is offered the wealth and comfort of Warbucks’ mansion when Grace — who is, of course, in love with Oliver Warbucks — convinces him to try adopting Annie, but she rejects it in favor of trying to find her real parents, whom she wrongly believes to still be alive. Children often reject safety for what they really want and, though that comes to seem foolish to us as we move towards adulthood, the nobility of it is apparent in a film like Annie. Annie’s righteousness (which yeah, can sometimes be a little grating) is most evident in her conversation with Franklin Roosevelt and Warbucks, as she tries to convince her adoptive father to get on board with the New Deal. Ridiculous? Yes.
But what’s most ridiculous, in 2017, that a Depression-era movie resonates with a little girl born in 2014. And it does. Even the more complicated themes are not lost on her. To hear her belt out “who cares what they’re wearing on Main Street or Savile Row,” is a true joy but it is also weirdly affecting to have her question me, to accept harsh realities she has never heard before. “Some babies don’t have a mommy or a daddy, that’s called a orphan,” she declared one night before bed. Another morning she said simply, “I’m glad I have parents.”
We both love Annie: I’m just glad that, unlike her mother, she doesn’t yet want to be orphaned. When I was in college, I worked for several years waiting tables in a restaurant. It was a fancy place, and though I liked all my co-workers, I kept mostly to myself. One night, I let the owner of the place, a big guy with a big personality, know that my father and a group of people were coming in. “You don’t have to do anything special, just say hi if you can,” I said meekly.
“You have parents?!” he said. “I always took you for an orphan, I guess.”
The Parent Rap is an endearing column about the fucked up and cruel world of parenting.