When I think about Big (1988), I think about the dichotomy between childhood and adulthood. It is a film that blissfully captures the youthful spirit, or “inner child”, we all are struggling to maintain, but it also captures something a little bit more universally tragic – a child’s perpetual desire to be an adult and an adult’s perpetual desire to return to childhood. This desire to be older than we are is normally our first encounter with wanting to be something other than we are and thus becomes our first experience with feeling inadequate. What makes this even more profoundly troublesome is that as soon as we turn eighteen and become an “adult”, we start to feel the exact opposite. As soon as we feel the first pangs of responsibility, we instantly want to cast off our “adult” label and return to the time when we could simply drop everything, ride our bikes to the park, and spend all day on the swings with our friends. The simple inadequacy we felt as children because we weren’t old enough to do something is quickly replaced with the more profound fear and sense of inadequacy that we might not be cut out for this adult world after all. I’ve always found this never-ending desire to be a different version of ourselves one of the more tragic aspects of our human nature and Penny Marshall’s Big (1988) captures this aspect beautifully and then, just as beautifully, celebrates our acceptance of ourselves and the joy that comes with living our lives unabashedly as ourselves because, ultimately, the lesson that Josh learns is not that adulthood is no fun, but that being one’s self and taking the time to fully enjoy all of the moments in one’s present is much preferable to rushing towards that next stage of your life.
Big was the first film directed by a woman to gross over $100 million at the box office and there is no surprise why. It truly is a delightful film with a lot of heart. It is a story of funny, kind, generous people who are only out to get as much joy as possible out of life. The main character is a twelve-year old boy, Josh Baskin, who gets to live out his fantasy of being an adult. While he is exploring the adult world, his only goal is to have as much fun as possible and both Penny Marshall and Tom Hanks, who plays adult Josh, worked extremely hard at capturing the wonder and youthful energy of childhood during filming. One example of which is that Marshall filmed all of the “adult” scenes with David Moscow, the actor who plays Josh at age 12, and then shared them with Tom Hanks, who then proceeded to imitate Moscow’s performance in the various situations. The result is a seamless performance by Hanks imbued with both a natural youthful energy and wide-eyed wonder.
Everything Hanks does as Josh is colored by a sense of fun. One of the most famous examples of this is the famed walking keyboard scene. The inspiration for this scene came from the real Walking Keyboard at F.A.O Schwartz. The filmmakers saw the keyboard and felt it would serve as a good illustration of how both Josh and his boss approach life. The only problem with using the real walking keyboard was that it was built to accommodate children, not two grown men. Further, because of its size, there weren’t enough notes to successful play “Heart and Soul”, the song Penny Marshall wanted Tom Hanks and Robert Loggia to play in the scene. To overcome these impediments, Marshall contacted Remo Saraceni, the creator of the original Walking Keyboard and asked him to design another keyboard that would be large enough to both accommodate all of the notes needed to play the song and large enough to allow both Hanks and Loggia to play the keyboard at the same time. The result was one of the most delightful and energetic scenes in motion picture history.
Ultimately, Big (1988) is a film that not only captures the youthful spirit in all of us, but also explores the profound process of ageing in the most delightful way possible – with humor and heart. It also gets at one universal truth we should all pay attention to more often – it’s much more fun and much more fulfilling to just be yourself.
Come out to the Alamo Theatre on Sunday, October 16 at 6pm and have fun with us as we practice our Walking Keyboard skills. Doors open at 5:30. $5 and FREE to Members and Century Donors. Tickets are available at the door.