Charlie and Martin Sheen

The Subject Was RosesThe Charlie Sheen meltdown is a sad spectacle, sad that the actor is self-destructing in public (and, based on my own experiences, I think addiction expert Dr. Drew Pinsky is right that Sheen is behaving as though he’s a danger to himself and to others, as he said on CNN), sad that the press is choosing to be complicit in hurting an entire family, sad that our culture eggs it on like a mob during a beating or a gang rape. I wouldn’t be surprised if Sheen’s claim to have received support from malcontent Mel Gibson is true. My thoughts are with Sheen’s family and friends and I think there’s nothing fundamentally funny here at all. His demise is sad and serious to any person who loves life.

A slice of life was recently on display with an early performance by Charlie Sheen’s father, Martin Sheen, a much better actor than Charlie, who has unfortunately turned his cynical hedonism into self-parody with a lousy sitcom, courtesy of CBS. Martin Sheen’s picture is The Subject Was Roses, a 1968 movie based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning play, in which he portrays a young soldier returning from service during World War 2 (I watched it during TCM’s 31 Days of Oscar). It’s an interesting character study, all naturalistic of course, and it is primarily remembered as the first picture featuring actress Patricia Neal (The Fountainhead, Hud) following her strokes. Miss Neal played Sheen’s character’s mother, and actor Jack Albertson won an Oscar for the role of the father. Nothing grand here, just good, solid acting in a small family story of a tense marriage jolted by the Sheen character’s becoming a man. But it is remarkably well done, if a bit stagy and showy, and Sheen is overheated as usual in certain scenes. The Subject Was Roses shifts perspective from a nagging, negative mother (Neal), who doesn’t remember that her son’s favorite breakfast is subject to change from waffles to bacon and eggs, and a kind, apologetic father who seems aware of his flaws, to a cruel, bigoted father and philandering husband and Neal as a lonely woman who once sought to have a career in law and loves to dance the polka. Sheen’s only child Timmy Cleary, trying to decide if he’s Catholic or agnostic and whether he wants to be a writer or a lawyer, is in the middle of these forces of nature, and a mystery (who is Willis?) hangs over their heads as an emotional climax draws closer. Sheen’s Timmy is a good-natured lad, easy to laugh and amazingly self-aware, and the roses he buys for his mother are at the core of the story. Timmy, in becoming Tim, must learn not to fake reality, and that means not always medicating life’s efforts and obstacles with too much alcohol and songs about Tipperary and the light of the silvery moon. He eventually learns his role in what ails his family and he learns to introspect about himself. So do they.

Along the way, there are some humorous lines, touching moments, and memorable performances from three outstanding actors. Among them was Martin Sheen, who would go on to play Hal Holbrook’s secret gay lover, the badlands’ mass murderer, Ava Gardner’s young stud, Linda Blair’s kidnapper and America’s president, as you’ve never seen him since. His Timmy Cleary puts the pieces of his past in place and emerges as an independent man who takes responsibility for his future.

Here’s hoping that Sheen’s son Charlie will choose to do the same.

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