COVID took my brain to a dark place. Five days after testing positive, I was sitting up in bed, bawling in a teleconference with my therapist about how I’d fallen so far behind in everything. “I feel like I’m failing miserably,” I wailed. She talked me down, saying I must tend to my health first and foremost. I agreed to post a sign next to my bed that said BARE MINIMUM in big print so I wouldn’t forget healing was more important than work. And then she told me something I desperately needed to hear. “Tara, this depression you’re feeling is a symptom of COVID. You have felt joy before, and you will feel joy again.”
I took all of her advice to heart. Whenever I felt overwhelmed over the following week, I’d look at my BARE MINIMUM sign and mind its message. When my body felt weak, I’d lie down. And on several occasions, when I needed to revisit a sense of joy from another time and place, I watched the 1987 romantic comedy Roxanne.
Roxanne is an adaptation of the 1897 French play, Cyrano de Bergerac. Steve Martin stars as CD Barnes, chief firefighter in an idyllic mountain town called Nelson. Charming, witty, and spry, CD is beloved by neighbors, colleagues, and his best friend Dixie (Shelley Duvall). Yet romance eludes him because of his freakishly long nose. Despite his good humor, CD has little patience for anyone who mocks his face; in the opening sequence he effortlessly beats up a couple of bullying yuppie cokeheads who make fun of his schnozz. Later that same evening he meets ethereal, intellectual beauty Roxanne (Daryl Hannah), an astronomy PhD student who’s come to Nelson to study stars. CD quickly becomes smitten with her, but then she develops a big crush on his newly arrived colleague Chris. Knowing Chris fancies Roxanne too, CD helps his handsome-but-dumb friend write a passionate love letter to her. Moved by this gorgeous prose, she falls deeper for Chris, unaware that he’s just a friendly himbo. CD becomes further entrenched in this triangle, all while continuing to express his true love under another man’s name.
During the height of my sickness, romantic comedies comforted me more than anything. Once I got through every Reese Witherspoon flick I could find, I stumbled upon Roxanne on Hulu and decided to give it another look. I watched a VHS copy of this movie repeatedly when I was a kid, but hadn’t seen it since then. I figured it was just another pop culture piece kid Tara loved that adult Tara would appreciate mainly for nostalgia’s sake. What a pleasure to discover this movie not only holds up as a classic rom com, but is much improved by the widescreen framing that so beautifully captures its picturesque scenery. (Our cropped videotape version did no justice to the cinematography.) Nelson is a real place — in Canada to be exact — and even if I’ve never been there physically, it’s become my favorite escape as I recover from the plague.
Roger Ebert’s original review of the film said it quite well — “What makes ‘Roxanne’ so wonderful is not this fairly straightforward comedy, however, but the way the movie creates a certain ineffable spirit.” It’s more than the pretty mountain vistas, the Victorian houses, Roxanne’s cascading, ringleted mane, or the agile way CD dances down the road as he sings Fats Domino’s “I’m Walkin’”. Much of the film’s sentimental glow emanates from Steve Martin’s delightful adaptation, full of silly zingers and witty observations about love, relationships, and human flaws. What strikes me most is how truly romantic it is, in a way that reminds me of Jane Austen but from a male viewpoint. I’ve developed a crush on both CD and Steve Martin. Every time I see him immersed in writing his first love letter to Roxanne, it fills the darkest corners of my psyche with warm, honey-colored light. There’s something so pure about it.
The thing about CD (and perhaps Steve Martin, too), is that he genuinely likes women as people. It’s a rare quality in real life, maybe even rarer in fiction. It sticks out when the male protagonist has a sassy best friend like Dixie, who rolls her eyes at his nerdy jokes and gives him shit for not pursuing the woman he loves. But the way CD falls for Roxanne is even more outstanding.
When they first meet, she comes to the fire station stark naked because her robe got caught in the locked door as she was chasing a cat who’d run out of her house. She asks CD to help her get back in, he grabs a toolbox, and they have an awkward conversation as they walk to her place. He casually jokes about her nakedness — “I notice you don’t have any tattoos. I think that’s a wise choice. I don’t think Jackie Onassis would’ve gone as far if she’d had an anchor on her arm.” Roxanne clearly thinks he’s a weirdo, but then he acrobatically swings and shimmies his way up to an open attic window to access her home. Impressive! And as she gets dressed, he instantaneously prepares a lovely cheese and crudite tray to help revive her after her misadventure. So she invites him to a glass of wine. Roxanne looks otherworldly in this scene — a statuesque queen with gorgeous, golden, mermaid hair, wearing a shimmering ivory robe. Most men would either be stunned silent or making a move. But CD just casually chitchats with her like she’s one of the guys at the firehouse.
Then he notices Roxanne’s telescope and asks if she knows about M-31. He adds, “Now, see, I like it when they give astronomical objects names, you know, like ‘Andromeda’ and ‘Saturn’ and ‘Sea of Tranquility.’ This whole numbering thing is just too boring for us civilians.” Roxanne replies, “Do you know how many objects are up there?” CD stammers, “Well, I know it’s over fifty.” Realizing she knows more about this than he does, he becomes sheepish. She playfully says, “Well we don’t know everything, do we,” then leans over his shoulder to show him the textbook definition of a quark. And when he looks at her with deep admiration, that is the moment you see he’s falling in love. Not when she’s naked, but rather when she checks his mansplaining and teaches him something new. And the chemistry just gets better from there.
As Sam Cooke said, I don’t know much about astronomy. But I am a smart woman and the idea that a man as charming and handsome as CD would love me for my intelligence and humor enchants me in the same way Mr. Darcy does. Because as weird as his nose is, the rest of CD looks and acts like peak Steve Martin, from the silver hair to his sprightly antics to his Cary Grant impersonation. There’s a lot to love, once you get past the Pinnochio thing.
I have a habit of revisiting pop culture pieces that comfort me over and over again. I call them my “security blankets.” I’ve seen every episode of “Star Trek: The Next Generation” multiple times because it’s one of my go-to shows when I want to feel better about humankind. Roxanne has become my COVID comfort. And by that I mean that I’ve had COVID, I don’t know what the long-term effects will be, it took a lot out of me, and I know I can catch it again. That’s scary. So much scares me these days. But love and joy feel eternal, and the stars will last a lot longer than me. And as long as Roxanne is there to remind me about all that, I will be at least somewhat okay.