Mr. Holland’s Opus: Starring Richard Dreyfuss in Oscar Nominated Performance

An idealized tribute to a charismatic teacher who has devoted his entire life to music appreciation, Mr. Holland’s Opus has the same old-fashioned texture and sticky sentimentality as Goodbye Mr. Chips, the 1939 MGM classic that won Robert Donat a Best Actor Oscar.

Hollywood Pictures hopes the same fate will touch Richard Dreyfuss, the film’s star, whose performance is quite effective and surprisingly restrained. Teachers and older audiences will, of course, be moved by the story, but the crucial variable is to what extent younger viewers will embrace this schmaltzy, Capraesque saga that’s not only set in the past but also feels and sounds as if it were made back then.

Spanning a whole generation, from l965 to the present, tale concerns Glenn Holland (Dreyfuss), a passionate composer who believes that his true calling in life is to write one memorable piece of music. Over the course of the saga, however, Holland becomes a reluctant hero, a man who fulfills his calling not at the piano, but at the blackboard, where his impassioned teaching and love for music inspire a disparate array of students.

Borrowing heavily from It’s a Wonderful Life, Patrick Sheane Duncan’s script stresses those pleasures in life that are unplanned and unanticipated. Initially, Holland accepts his school job as a “back-up” position that will give him free time to compose. He can never predict that his next 30 years would be spent in the classroom. But forced to redefine his dream, Holland ultimately realizes that he is not a failure, that his legacy as an inspirational teacher is just as important as his longed-for opus.

In the first segment, Holland is inducted into his job by Helen Jacobs (Olympia Dukakis), the tough school principal who immediately sees through his bitter self-recrimination. Though there are many on-the-job frustrations, teaching in the l960s was not nearly as problematic as it is today; Holland’s biggest “sin” is introducing rock ‘n’ roll to his students. One particularly effective episode involves Gertrude Lang (Alicia Witt), a highly motivated but basically untalented student whose potential is finally unlocked by Holland. Later on, Gertrude becomes a catalyst for Holland’s personal change of heart.

Rather tiresomely, saga switches back and forth from school to family life. At home, married to a most understanding and loving wife, Iris (Glenn Headly), Holland has to accept the sad, somewhat ironic realization that their only son, Cole (played by different actors at different ages) is deaf. At first, most of the burden falls on Iris, but when finally confronted by his son and charged with neglect, Holland fully accepts his parental responsibilities.

While Stephen Herek’s film has an epic scale, indicating along the way the era’s major political events (Vietnam, Nixon’s resignation, John Lennon’s assassination), it lacks epic vision. The narrative unfolds as a catalogue of familiar (often cliched) episodes, such as the talented student (Jean Louisa Kelly) who has a crush on her teacher; dreary faculty meetings peppered with humor; individualistic teachers reproached by rigid administrators; preparations for annual graduation ceremonies, etc.

One of the film’s few concessions to present-time realities is an acknowledgment of the severe budget cuts in schools’ arts and humanities programs, cuts that eventually force Holland into retirement. Overall, though, nostalgic aura envelopes the whole picture, which encourages viewers to think fondly of–and pay tribute to–the one teacher in their lives that made a difference. Mr. Holland’s Opus’s message is reconciliatory, urging viewers to accept the fact that life doesn’t always turn out as planned, that it can hold surprises when faced with an open-mind and heart.

Dreyfuss is the kind of actor who gets better and better as he grows older, and here he acquits himself with a sensitive, honorable performance that brings his work full circle to The Competition, in which he played a young pianist. Dreyfuss’ rendition of Lennon’s song, “Beautiful Boy,” to his son is an emotional highlight that will reduce some viewers to tears.

The often-underrated Glenne Headly lends fine support as the sensitive wife-mother. A secondary cast that includes Jay Thomas, as the happy-go-lucky football coach, Alicia Witt as the ungifted student, and Dukakis, as the principal who eventually comes to recognize Holland’s true talent as a teacher, add much needed color to the routine proceedings.

Shot on location in and around Portland, with a good chunk of the story set at Grant High School, pic reportedly used former and current students in its cast. However, clocking in at two hours and 22 minutes, the movie could benefit from a healthy trimming.