Variety's ""The Movie That Changed My Life""

120 Celebrities Pick the Films that Made a Difference (for Better or Worse)


By Robert Hofler

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In recent years, the editors of Variety have posed the same question to hundreds of famous personalities: “What is the movie that changed your life?” Gathered here for the first time are the responses of movie stars and comedians, politicians and war correspondents, athletes and business magnates, and many more.

We discover Candace Bushnell's appreciation of Annie Hall, which she refashioned into Sex and the City; Sen. John McCain's quote-laden adoration of Viva Zapata!; and journalists Tom Brokaw and Lawrence Wright's disparate inspirations, His Gal Friday and All the President's Men.

From Sarah Jessica Parker to Ralph Nader, Bill Maher to Jerry Rice, Donald Trump to Jesse Jackson, Danielle Steel to Gore Vidal, this fascinating and entertaining collection reveals the films that have left their mark on the individuals shaping our world.




120 Celebrities Pick the Films
That Made a Difference
(For Better or Worse)

By Robert Hofler

with additional profiles by
Anna Stewart, Stuart Levine,
Peter Debruge, and Andrew Barker

Sunset Boulevard

William Holden and Gloria Swanson, 1950

Notting Hill

Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant, 1999


In the Beginning, There Was the Picture

This book began as a collection of fifty profiles, first published in January 2007 in the pages of Variety. Our goal then was to ask famous people the question, “What is the movie that changed your life?” We editors purposefully did not include celebrities working in the entertainment business in our project. This collection would be devoted exclusively to “nonpros” (as Variety refers to those outside show business). For a young person to see Citizen Kane or Clerks and be inspired to become a film actor or director is one thing, but what happens when one sees, say, Rocky or Beyond Rangoon or Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and is so inspired that he or she decides to become an athlete or an environmentalist or a fashion editor? Since that first collection of profiles, Variety’s editors have put the question to other celebrities both in and outside Hollywood. At first glance, the question seems overloaded, even preposterous. But Variety, the Showbiz Bible, is the kind of place that takes movies very seriously. We depend on them for our livelihood. Surprisingly, as it turns out, so do many others.

Several of the 120 people profiled here answered the question without pause. Some needed a little prodding: “OK, so what is the movie that changed your life a little?” Others hesitated, then offered a disclaimer to the effect, “Well, no movie has that kind of power.” They invariably went on to describe a movie that had deeply influenced, if not their career, then a personal cause, sociopolitical outlook, or romantic sensibility that would appear to be central to their life. Those examples are as far-flung as Ralph Nader’s use of The China Syndrome to spark awareness of his anti-nuke crusade and Peggy Noonan’s intense identification with the Irish-American characters in Yankee Doodle Dandy.

Sometimes the movie’s effect on a life’s work is even more direct: Candace Bushnell’s appreciation of Annie Hall led her to cleverly refashion Woody Allen’s comedy into Sex and the City. Journalists as far-ranging as Tom Brokaw and Lawrence Wright found inspiration in movies as different but apposite as All the President’s Men and His Gal Friday. And among some actors, the link from movie to career is barely a stretch at all: a teenage Jack Nicholson left his New Jersey home and headed to Los Angeles to be an actor after seeing Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront. Sarah Jessica Parker saw Woody Allen in Sleeper and was hooked for life.

Most of the 120 individuals profiled here see the movies as a powerful medium, one that gets under the skin and goes straight to the soul to shape dreams, aspirations, and attitudes in a way that does change who we are. Certainly the movies change how we see ourselves.

The movies validate. When we don’t find characters who immediately reflect our ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, or cultural upbringing, our instinct might be to reject a movie outright. But often choices proved that idols can transcend these boundaries: Dr. Sanjay Gupta idolized Rocky’s very Italian Stallion Sylvester Stallone, while the young African-American model-to-be Tyson Beckford fashioned himself after James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause. Elsewhere, the transference carries the viewer across the sexual divide: At age sixteen Ellen Page identified intensely with Jean-Pierre Leaud in 400 Blows; for Harvey Fierstein, it wasn’t a male star he wanted to be but rather Bette Davis, Rosalind Russell, and Barbara Stanwyck in nearly everything those actresses ever made.

We all watch the same movie. None of us sees the same movie. Take 2001: A Space Odyssey, the movie most cited in this book of interviews. Authorities and personalities as diverse as EsaPekka Salonen, Frank Rich, Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson, and Larry King all hail Stanley Kubrick’s sci-fi masterpiece as one of the most influential movies ever made, and yet each cites a radically different reason why it affected him. Seeing Gone With the Wind could hardly have been more different for Civil War historian Doris Kearns Goodwin and right-wing commentator Phyllis Schlafly. Watching Imitation of Life, the Rev. Jesse Jackson saw a film about racial identity, while Isaac Mizrahi beheld nothing but “dresses, dresses, dresses.”

Liberals in the vein of Howard Dean, Gloria Allred, and Robert F. Kennedy Jr. mention To Kill a Mockingbird as a seminal film, citing the character of attorney Atticus Finch as a major influence. Conservatives, in contrast, tend to enjoy heavy doses of celluloid war. Both Sen. John McCain and former speaker of the House Newt Gingrich mention Sands of Iwo Jima along with a very long list of other combat fare. Then again, such political opponents as the pro-life McCain and NOW’s Kim Gandy both speak of being traumatized as children in the same way by the same film, Disney’s animated classic Bambi.

Although Disney’s fawn feature is deservedly regarded as a classic, many of the movies that have the potential to change lives are truly mediocre, if not downright awful. Trader Horn, The Wiz, McLintock!, The Mummy, and Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein are just a few titles that continue to hold special significance for some of Variety’s notables, including such heavy hitters as Gore Vidal and Dr. Leonard Susskind.

Herewith are not the greatest films ever unspooled but rather the most influential, depending on your point of view.



E.T. is about a commitment of taking care of the person you love. You feel like a better person after watching that film.”

—Javier Bardem

Reese Witherspoon Actress

She fell in love with Johnny Cash in Walk the Line and won her Oscar. But at the movies, Reese Witherspoon only has eyes for another actress.

“I love Natalie Wood! Splendor in the Grass is my favorite movie,” Witherspoon says of the 1961 romance that has Wood falling madly, passionately in love with Warren Beatty both on camera and off. “The end of that movie gets me every time,” she admits, “the way Natalie Wood comes wearing that white dress and the white gloves and the white hat to the farmhouse at the end of the movie.”

Witherspoon is impressed, and frankly, so was the film’s director, Elia Kazan, who called the last reel of Splendor in the Grass “absolutely perfect,” if he said so himself.

Here’s the scene that psyched both Kazan and Witherspoon: Natalie Wood’s Deanie Loomis, decked out in that aforementioned all-white outfit, comes back to her Kansas hometown after a few months in a loony bin to see her first love, Bud Stamper— played by Warren Beauty—who is now married to Zohra Lam-pert,who is pregnant with their second child. For a moment, Natalie holds the couple’s mud-stained little son in her all-white arms and realizes that what might have been will never be, because you can’t go back, and we hear her trembling but steadfast voice intone the Wordsworth poetry, “Though nothing can bring back the hour / Of splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower / We will grieve not, rather find / Strength in what remains behind.”

Splendor in the Grass
Natalie Wood and Warren Beatty, 1961

“Deanie Loomis. Tragic Deanie,” whispers Witherspoon, as if she’s channeling Wood, who died in a boating mishap off Catalina Island in 1981. Witherspoon then launches into an amazing reenactment of the scene where Deanie’s mom, played by Audrey Christie, asks her daughter if she has “gone too far,” and Natalie Wood plunges her entire naked body under the water of the bathtub and reemerges to scream like a crazy tween, “No, Momma, I’ve been a good little girl, Momma! I’m a good little, good little, good little girl!”

Witherspoon shakes her head at the memory of Natalie Wood. “Oh, she was so great!”

And then a moment later, Witherspoon jumps to that absolutely perfect final reel, and adds poignantly, “And that moment where the wife [Lampert] is in the housecoat and she’s pregnant and she looks at the front of her dress, like, ‘I’m in a housecoat,’ and she’s embarrassed. And Bud’s out there with Deanie. And they just know they’ll never be together, but . . . I don’t know. There’s something so personal and real about it. Movies don’t always have happy endings, and maybe that is a happy ending? It’s reality. It’s just touching.”

Hugh Hefner Founder-Publisher, Playboy

He’s the man who calls the Hollywood sign “our Eiffel Tower,” and spearheaded the drive to save it, and for good reason: Playboy’s Hugh Hefner credits a repressive Depression-era childhood with pushing him into the much better world of the “drama and fantasies” of the movies.

“It was the musicals of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers and Alice Faye and Betty Grable and Busby Berkeley that fueled my romantic dreams,” says Hefner. And for good reason, he believes. “You could say things in a song that you couldn’t say in straight dialogue,” he explains. “There was an escapist wonder to them.”

Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman, 1942

But his favorite music is not from a tuner. It comes when Ingrid Bergman asks Dooley Wilson to sing “As Time Goes By,” much to the dismay of Humphrey Bogart, in Casablanca. “The film has everything: unrequited love, alienation, patriotism, humor, friendships, and one of the best scripts and scores. It’s a real movie movie,” says Hefner.

Michael Curtiz’s 1942 Oscar winner rates so high with Hefner that he calls every Friday and Saturday night at the Playboy mansion “Casablanca Night,” and unspools classics from the 1930s and 1940s. “The America that the rest of the world cares about comes from the movies,” Hefner believes. “It certainly doesn’t come from Washington, D.C. It is an immigrant dream about a quest for personal and political freedom.”

On that score, the politically liberal Hefner may not have seen eye to eye with the politically conservative Jimmy Stewart, but he certainly likes Stewart’s movies. Hefner lists Mr. Smith Goes to Washington from 1939 as a political favorite; and in case any of his friends missed it over the Christmas holiday on TV, Frank Capra’s 1946 follow-up, It’s a Wonderful Life, also plays often at the Beverly Hills manse.

Despite all his praise of vintage movie fare, the founder of Playboy has no time for the censorship that restricted filmmakers during the golden age of Hollywood. Although a wee lad at the time, Hefner vividly recalls the beginning of the dreaded Production Code. “I was coming of age with its arrival in 1934, and saw all the sudden that Tarzan and Jane were dressed more sedately, that Nick and Nora had to sleep in twin beds. I was aware of the censorship and related it to my childhood, because I wasn’t getting hugged a lot by my parents. That’s the other part of what Playboy is about.”

If not for the movies, American men may never have experienced airbrushed centerfolds or Vargas illustrations of pretty girls in panties and lace. There’s no doubt about it, says Hefner, “There’s a direct connection between Busby Berkeley, films like 42nd Street and Footlight Parade, and World War II movie pinups and Playboy.”

Marilyn Monroe, the magazine’s first cover girl, looms large in this universe. “Some Like It Hot is her best, she’s also very good in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and Bus Stop,” opines this M. M. expert.

Fortunately, it’s not all old movies all the time at the mansion. In addition to Casablanca Nights, Hefner hosts recent fare as well. “The Departed is a movie movie. It moves right along,” he says of Martin Scorsese’s 2006 Oscar winner starring good cop Leonardo DiCaprio and bad cop Matt Damon. Neil Burger’s The Illusionist, with Edward Norton’s love-struck magician, brought back some old romance to the screen, in Hef’s opinion. And the man who launched a hundred Bond girls was very happy to see 007 in shooting form again with Casino Royale’s David Craig.

“I like the new Bond,” says Hefner. “Ian Fleming used to be a contributor to the magazine, so it’s nice to see they’re getting back to their roots. Good job.”

E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial
E.T. and Steven Spielberg, 1982

Javier Bardem Actor

Watching the movies had nothing to do with Javier Bardem’s current job as an actor or even his Academy Award for playing a killing machine in the Coen brothers’ 2007 Oscar winner, No Country for Old Men. “My whole family comes from acting. It is not something I wanted to be,” he says. “I studied painting. Acting is something that found me rather than I found it.”

Actually, the actor was born to it. His mother, whom he memorably spoke to in Spanish from the stage of the Kodak Theater during his Oscar acceptance speech, is actress Pilar Bardem, his grandfather is actor Rafael Bardem, and Javier got his first acting gig at age six in El Picaro (The Scoundrel).

An indelible childhood experience at the movies apparently did not include either that early film or any of the other 100 movies his close relatives have made. Instead, the big one is the all-American E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial. Bardem has seen Steven Spielberg’s 1982 sci-fi movie more than any other film. “I was eleven and I saw it twenty times. In a row. Like, I saw it at 2 P.M., 4, 6, and 8 P.M. in one day. I felt overwhelmed by the beauty. Even when I see it today, it hits deep in me and always makes me cry,” he reveals.


“Love,” says Bardem. “It is such a beautiful love story between this kid and this totally, theoretically dangerous alien. It has to do with trust, with a strong sense of following our instincts and trusting in your love rather than what the other people are trying to tell you to do. E.T. is about a commitment of taking care of the person you love. You feel like a better person after watching that film.”

Danielle Steel Novelist

Despite having sold over half a billion copies of her romance novels, Danielle Fernande Dominique Schuelein-Steel eschews any expertise on the subject of love. “I haven’t had a date in so long, I wouldn’t know what it is like,” says this currently single mother of nine kids. Not that the author of such novels as To Love Again, Loving, No Greater Love, and Toxic Bachelors doesn’t love movies.

Of the classic romances, Steel picks George Cukor’s 1940 screen adaptation of Philip Barry’s The Philadelphia Story for obvious reasons: “I like happy endings. I love Katharine Hepburn. She was the epitome of chic, glamorous and aristocratic; and when they had an auction of her clothes recently, I bought two of her hats.” She promptly nailed them onto the wall of her Pacific Heights house, the largest private dwelling in all of San Francisco.

The other Hepburn, Audrey, also strikes a chord with Steel. “I like her looks and her wardrobe, but I didn’t like her movies as much,” notes the novelist, who grew up in 1950s France and saw few American movies. “I do remember seeing Lilie with Leslie Caron and Mel Ferrer, and I had a big crush on Mel Ferrer, but I don’t even remember the story.”

Elephant Walk seems to have made a slightly bigger impression. In the 1954 film, Elizabeth Taylor and Peter Finch grow tea and try not to get squashed by the rampaging beasts in British Ceylon. “I was so scared of the elephants, it marked me for life,” says Steel.

More recently, the ultra-prolific novelist found special meaning in the Julia Roberts/Hugh Grant 1999 headliner, Notting Hill. “I identify with it; she is famous, I am famous,” Steel says, referring to Roberts’s movie-star character, Anna Scott. “Fame imposes certain burdens on your love life. You have no privacy. Everybody wants to read about the break-up and the divorce. It doesn’t afford you any privacy, and people enjoy your disappointment.” The following line from Richard Curtis’s Notting Hill script is especially meaningful for Steel: “Ah, and every time I get my heart broken, the newspapers splash it about as though it’s entertainment.” Roberts delivers the line with real conviction, and so does Steel.

What the novelist doesn’t like are Big Family movies. “No one shows it like it is,” opines this expert. An exception is the original Yours, Mine, and Ours, released in 1968 and starring Lucille Ball and Henry Fonda. “I didn’t enjoy the remake so much,” she says of the Rene Russo/Dennis Quaid starrer, which came out in 2005. “I don’t like movies that hold big families up to ridicule and make it look like chaos. Steve Martin in Cheaper by the Dozen, it infuriated me. There is something wonderful about a big family; it is astonishingly orderly. It is easier to have nine children than two. They don’t fight, they help each other. There is an amazing solidarity. They are responsible, and it makes me so angry to see big families so badly portrayed in the movies. It’s like a joke tool in the movie, as opposed to portraying what a cool thing large families are.”

Nowadays, Steel goes to the movie with her kids or she doesn’t go at all. “I won’t go alone,” she reveals. Not that her in-house movie critics can always be trusted: “My children told me I wouldn’t like Borat, and I laughed my ass off.”

Millie Martini Bratten Editor in Chief, Brides

In addition to her Brides magazine gig, Millie Martini Bratten serves as editorial director of a dozen other Condé Nast wedding publications that drive this $160 billion a year business. As the foremost arbiter of all that is good and right with weddings, she also has a keen eye for cinematic nuptials.

“I loved Four Weddings and a Funeral for its emotional highs and the emotional angst of weddings,” says Martini Bratten. “It shows everything that goes on in a wedding. It’s all about the catalyst of love.”

Mike Newell’s 1994 comedy was Hugh Grant’s follow-up to The Remains of the Day and made the British actor an international star who came to specialize in comedies. The romantic movies that have most influenced Martini Bratten’s career at Brides, however, are two headlining Grant’s erstwhile costar Julia Roberts.

“She was one of the prettiest bridesmaids I’d ever seen, in My Best Friend’s Wedding,” says the editor. “That gorgeous purple dress she wore. That was before bridesmaids’ dresses became fashionable [with that] evening-type look. Julia made them look so good. We saw the styles of bridesmaid dresses change shortly after that film came out in 1997. We got many calls on that dress. It was an example of someone making the dress look very, very good.”

Two years later, there was Garry Marshall’s Runaway Bride, which, in some ways, took a page from Roberts’s own off-camera scenario when she canceled her wedding with Kiefer Sutherland, in 1991, to run off with Jason Patric. The actress’s couture in that 1999 romantic comedy also rocked the fashion world, says Martini Bratten. “In Runaway Bride, Roberts wore some very romantic dresses, such as the off-the-shoulder, fitted bodice, tulle skirt, which she wears in the iconic picture of her on the horse. We still get calls for that dress.”

Martini Bratten sees a correlation between Roberts’s real-life wedding dress, when she married her second husband, Daniel Moder, and her movie-wedding duds: “When she married Moder, the style was also romantic—the halter dress with an embroidered bodice and a shawl over her shoulders. Her hair was swept up with lilies of the valley tucked into her hair. As natural as she is off-screen,Julia’s a real glamour girl when she turns it on.”

Runaway Bride
Joan Cusack and Julia Roberts, 1999

Regarding her own life and career, Martini Bratten is a little less romantic, and she takes special inspiration from a Rosalind Russell classic about a most unique female. From 1958, “Auntie Mame is zany and stylish and rule-breaking, and it is great inspiration for going after what you want and grabbing hold of life with gusto,” she says. Of course, even the wildly independent Mame Dennis makes it to the altar in the final reel. “What I like so much about weddings is beautiful clothing, wonderful music, and a lot of emotion and romance and style. It’s all about a stylish life.”

Annie Hall
Woody Allen and Diane Keaton, 1977

Candace Bushnell Novelist

The author of Sex and the City and Lipstick Jungle grew up in a “small town without a movie theater.” It was the 1960s, and in an era before DVDs and cable, Candace Bushnell chilled in front of the tube to catch the occasional Three Stooges or Jerry Lewis movie.

“My all-time favorite: It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World,” she says of Stanley Kramer’s 1963 romp that starred nearly every comic known to vaudeville: Sid Caesar, Milton Berle, Buddy Hackett, you name it. “I still rent [it] occasionally and always laugh out loud at its sheer, unadulterated silliness,” says the writer.

Bushnell’s own prose straddles the fence between comedy and romance. Merging the two is tough business, she insists. “Picking a romantic comedy is trickier,” she adds. But here’s her list: “Bringing Up Baby and The Philadelphia Story are the gold standards. There’s also The Graduate, When Harry Met Sally, Pretty Woman, Four Weddings and a Funeral, and Goodbye, Columbus, all of which capture the zeitgeist of the uneasy relationship between the sexes in a time when traditional rules may or may not apply. . . . Goodbye, Columbus


  • Skyscraper
    , Spring 2009

    “Hofler compiles engaging glimpses into the minds of sports stars, politicians, humorists, directors, musicians, journalists, writers, and other VIPs, finding out what motion pictures have had an impact, negative or positive, on their lives, their hopes, even their nightmares…What makes this collection of anecdotes, insights, and impressions so readable is the unexpected choices…Easy to skim through…Encapsulates what movies mean to everyone, celebrity or not, without belaboring the point, and recognizes all sorts of people, from opera directors to quarterbacks, can be disturbed, uplifted or transformed by the silver screen.”

    Curled Up with a Good Book

    “If you are a movie addict, this book will ring your chimes. The best thing about it is that it reaches across so many genres, age groups, vintages, and viewpoints…It's nicely organized and spiced with many photos to remind us of the monumental films and the stellar actors of the past 70 years…[It's] the kind of book you can carry around and thumb through at random—great reading for the doctor's office or a weekend getaway.”

On Sale
Dec 11, 2008
Page Count
304 pages
Da Capo Press

Robert Hofler

About the Author

Robert Hofler is a senior editor at Variety and author of The Man Who Invented Rock Hudson and Variety‘s “The Movie that Changed My Life.” He was previously an editor at Buzz, Life, and Us magazines. He lives in Los Angeles.

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