Off-screen, Valerie Harper has been an inspiration to many following her optimistic defiance to her well-publicized life-threatening medical diagnosis in 2013. The star of the hit '70s TV series "Rhoda" now brings her indomitable spirit to the big screen to hearten families dealing with Alzheimer's disease.
Harper stars in Susie Singer Carter's short film "My Mom and the Girl," which will be screening at film festivals in Edmonton, Alberta; Columbus, Georgia; and Carmel, California, through October (see www.mymomandthegirl.com). The film has also Oscar qualified in the Short Film category, a preliminary step toward the shortlisting of 10 films from which five eventual nominees will be selected.
Based on Singer Carter's own mother's battle with Alzheimer's, the writer, director and co-producer wanted Harper to play her mother, Norma Holzer.
"I was giving a live reading of the script at the WGA (Writers Guild of America) and was asked who I could see playing my mother if I had to cast it immediately," said Singer Carter from Los Angeles. "I said, Valerie Harper. We didn't know each other, but she's such a good role model in real life and turned out to be perfect in this role."
Harper, too, saw the part as an opportunity.
"As soon as I read the script I thought it was wonderfully written," said Harper from L.A. "Susie's script was unusual because it introduced humor. Not actual jokes, but comedic moments that could be used to soften a real life tragedy."
Singer Carter said she can't take all the credit for the humor thread throughout the film.
"My mother lived with me for a year, and there were terrible times when she wouldn't recognize me or accused me of horrible things. But between those difficult moments, she could be a treasure-trove of humor fodder. I wanted to get that on film so families embarking on this journey can know there are two sides to this disease, and not every day will be a dark one."
"When humor is grounded in reality, it can stir up a lot of emotion," Harper said. "That's when comedy is at its finest."
While some dramatic scenes of the 20-minute film are drawn from the year mother and daughter lived together, Singer Carter crafted the story around one incident when her mother, followed by her caregiver (played by Liz Torres), impetuously left home late one evening. As she roamed the streets of L.A., an encounter with "The Girl" (played by Harmony Santana) led to an interesting evening where the lives of the unlikely trio briefly intersect.
"This absolutely happened to my mother," noted Singer Carter. "Alzheimer's was slowly stealing away her memory, but when she met this stranger crying on the street, it pulled her 'mommy cord' and she continued to be who she was, despite the illness."
Harper can certainly identify with the film, and the relationship between patient and caregiver.
"My husband has been my wonderful caregiver for five years now, although I was only given 3-6 months," she said, referring to her rare brain cancer diagnosis. "My thing is called leptomeningeal carcinomatosis and it affects the meninges (membranes surrounding the brain). It's been difficult, but I've found the best way to get over your own tragedies is to focus on helping and supporting others."
"That's why I wanted Val in this film," said Singer Carter. "I remember seeing her interviewed three months after her diagnosis and saying something like 'I'm not going to my funeral before I have to.' I thought what a spirit, just like my mom."
"My Mom and the Girl" is already a multi-award winner at film festivals across the U.S. and overseas. And Harper and Singer Carter said they're gratified their film found its way onto this year's highly competitive Oscar qualifying list.
"Awards are nice," Harper said. "But any light we can shine on Alzheimer's - or any other devastating disease - is a win for us."
Nick Thomas teaches at Auburn University at Montgomery, Alabama, and has written features, columns and interviews for more than 650 newspapers and magazines. See www.tinseltowntalks.com