HomeMovies1999 Movie-versaries: The Cider House Rules

1999 Movie-versaries: The Cider House Rules


1999 was a big year for movies. It was the year that The Matrix’s slow-motion bullet influenced action movies for years to come. It was the year American Beauty won Best Picture at the Academy Awards and Oscar fans have been arguing about it ever since. It was the year Pokémon jumped from Gameboys and TV to the big screen. And worst of all, it was the year that disappointed a generation of Star Wars fans with the release of The Phantom Menace.

To celebrate that landmark year in film’s 20th Anniversary, The Pop Break continues its year-long retrospective of 1999’s most influential (at least to us) films, with staff writer Matthew Widdis, looking back at Best Picture nominee, The Cider House Rules.

In 1999, Swedish director, Lasse Hallström, gathered a dream cast to bring John Irving’s 1985 coming-of-age novel, The Cider House Rules, to the screen. It’s the story of orphan, Homer Wells (Tobey Maguire), who is isolated from World War II by a medical defect and never even leaves the state of Maine, but still manages to touch upon the realities of race and class, romantic and sexual relationships, and the harshness of the world outside. Through him, Irving and Hallström explore the nature of parent/child relationships, finding purpose in responsibility, and the sometimes necessary compromise of one’s moral code.

Homer is twice returned to his orphanage as an infant, all but ensuring his lifetime residency. The caretaker, Dr. Wilbur Larch (Michael Caine), takes a practical but endeared interest in him as a result. Despite never attending high school, Homer is trained in medicine to a professional and even exceptional level by Dr. Larch, focusing on obstetrics and gynecology. This includes illegal abortions, which Larch secretly performs in an effort to protect women who might otherwise seek them out from the incompetent and which Homer, citing his own existence, finds repugnant. His fellow orphans, Buster (Kieran Culkin) and Mary Agnes (Paz de la Huerta), look up to Homer despite sometimes bristling at their circumstances, but Homer remains inspired by the upbeat but chronically-ill Fuzzy (Erik Per Sullivan). Unable to reconcile his place at the orphanage as he reaches adulthood, Homer leaves with young lovers, Candy (Charlize Theron) and Wally (Paul Rudd).

Wally sets Homer up with a job at his mother’s apple orchard and leaves him and Candy behind as he goes off to war as a pilot. Homer works the picking season with Mr. Rose (Delroy Lindo) and his crew of migrant workers: abrasive Jack (Evan Parke), deep-thinker Muddy (K. Todd Freeman), and affable Peaches (Heavy D). Sheltered from his life at the orphanage, Homer doesn’t notice or acknowledge the peculiarity of his inclusion creating an interracial bunkhouse. When Mr. Rose’s daughter, Rose Rose (Erykah Badu), finds out that Homer can read, she asks him to read a notice that has been posted unread on the cider house wall for years, but he is interrupted by Mr. Rose, who gives him (and the audience) a lesson in civics and declares the rules null and void.

Homer spends his time in the off-season with Candy, his only friend, working for her lobsterman father and eventually they become lovers. The return of both Mr. Rose’s crew and Wally bring unforeseen and tragic changes while Dr. Larch, having had a secret agenda for years, beseeches Homer to return to the orphanage in his letters. How Homer and the others handle these new developments determines how they are able proceed, cope, and even survive. Sometimes, you have to go home. Sometimes, there was never a home in the first place.

The film was nominated for seven Oscars, including Best Picture. Producer Richard Gladstein continued to find success over the years, collaborating with Quentin Tarantino, bringing novels like The Bourne Identity to the screen, and earning another Best Picture nom for Finding Neverland. Lasse Hallström returned to the Oscars the next year when Chocolat was nominated for five awards, including Best Picture, and he has found continued financial and critical success with Salmon Fishing in Yemen, The Hundred-Foot Journey, and adaptations of Nicholas Sparks’ popular novels.  Having previous works adapted for film (most notably The World According to Garp and A Prayer for Owen Meany as Simon Birch), John Irving took up the job himself for The Cider House Rules and won the Academy Award for best Adapted Screenplay. Having survived prostate cancer in 2007, Irving continues to focus on themes of feminism and spirituality in his writings. The memorable score, including the main theme now used in (of all things) ads for the Michigan Board of Tourism, was supplied by Rachel Portman who, in 2015, added an Emmy to her 1996 Oscar (the first for a female composer).

Tobey Maguire went on to star in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy, produce films like Spike Lee’s 25th Hour, and infamously took up the hobby of high-stakes poker. Michael Caine earned his second Best Supporting Actor win with Cider House and continues to act, frequently collaborating with director, Christopher Nolan, most notably in the Dark Knight trilogy as Alfred Pennyworth. Continuing the superhero theme, Paul Rudd had four appearances in the Marvel Cinematic Universe as Scott “Ant-Man” Lang in addition to a slew of screwball comedies like The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy.  Charlize Theron has displayed her talent in movies ranging from an Oscar win for portraying serial killer, Aileen Wournos, in 2003’s Monster, to post-apocalyptic badassery in Mad Max: Fury Road and her humanitarian work as a United Nations Messenger of Peace since 2007.

Homer’s peers at the orphanage and orchard have gone on past mythical Maine as well. Kieran Culkin has carved out a name separate from his family’s after breaking out in Igby Goes Down and now on HBO’s Succession. Outside of an unintentional appearance in the video for Lana Del Rey’s “Video Games,” Paz de la Huerta has worked in film and television (most notably Boardwalk Empire) and, in 2017, spoke out for herself and other victims in the condemnation of disgraced Hollywood producer, Harvey Weinstein (who, it’s worth noting, produced this film). Erik Per Sullivan rose to prominence during seven seasons of Malcom in the Middle. Fans of Netflix’s A Series of Unfortunate Events may recognize K. Todd Freeman as Mr Poe. Evan Parke has been playing cops on TV and fighting everyone from King Kong to Captain America on the big screen.  The multi-talented and outspoken Erykah Badu continues to make music, films, and the occasional controversial comment, but we sadly lost Heavy D to a pulmonary embolism in 2011.

In the years since its release, The Cider House Rules seems to get overshadowed by the later successes of the large and notable cast. It’s hard not to have an, “Oh, hey!” moment seeing Tobey Maguire’s Homer unloading lobster traps with JK Simmons. And, as a bildungsroman, it’s a film we’re supposed to leave behind to some degree. It’s what happened that got Homer from boy to man. We can feel for him and even identify with him, but, when the story is done, he’s an entirely new person and (hopefully for those of us in the same phase of life when we first saw it) so are we.  Like Homer, I was once young, (very) uncompromising, and content in my beliefs that a comfortable change of location meant more than the exercise of my potential. He learned. I learned. Neither of us is truly a Prince of Maine or King of New England but we know what business we’re in and being of some use. That’s a happy ending most of us dream about.

The Cider House Rules is available on VOD through iTunes, Amazon and various platforms.


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