Voices | Meredith Goldstein

The big picture

Planning a loved one’s final movie involves Netflix, memories, and more

By Meredith Goldstein
Globe Staff / November 17, 2009

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The day I got the news that my Grandma Lorraine had less than three months to live, I went straight to her Netflix account.

Maybe that’s weird, but one of my first thoughts was that I wanted her last movies to be good ones.

I promoted “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford’’ and “The Visitor.’’ I moved “27 Dresses’’ and “Made of Honor’’ to the bottom of the pack. There was no way Lorraine’s last movie would be romantic comedy schlock. I did not want her to leave this world having just seen two hours of a pouting Katherine Heigl.

My Grandma Lorraine and her husband, Grandpa Marty, signed up for a Netflix account shortly before she got sick. They weren’t regular Internet users, so it was my job to manage their list.

Lorraine, a well-read feminist, liked smart movies: foreign films, epic love stories, and adaptations of quality novels. She enjoyed “Elizabeth: The Golden Age’’ and “Away From Her.’’ She requested “The Painted Veil’’ twice. If she were still alive, she’d already be asking for “Precious.’’

Netflix had become more important to my grandparents as my grandmother’s health declined. It was too difficult for them to leave the apartment with any regularity, so they lived vicariously through the DVDs, anxiously awaiting new titles.

When I got the phone call about my grandmother’s fatal condition, I felt powerless. Her last movie was about the only thing I could control. I was like God. God of the Netflix queue.

I considered what I would want as my own last film - probably something from my youth, like Jim Henson’s “Labyrinth.’’ If I were choosing a film for my mother, I would go for Harrison Ford’s “Witness.’’ My 36-year-old sister would be happy to end her life watching “The Lost Boys’’ and “Weird Science’’ repeating on a loop.

My grandmother’s tastes were harder to predict. I knew she’d want her last film to be about another culture or time. She’d want it to be a story about women transcending some type of oppression. That was her favorite plotline: women rising up. It was a bonus if they were in costume or spoke another language.

I scrolled through the list again. There was “Bordertown,’’ a movie about the investigation into the murders of Mexican women. It was right up Grandma’s alley, but the film starred Jennifer Lopez. Too risky.

I demoted “The Bucket List’’ for obvious reasons.

None of the films seemed right.

I’ve talked to friends about this - the idea that “lasts’’ somehow count, whether they’re last words, last songs, last films, or last meals. The “lasts’’ seem to be meaningful for those left behind, an assurance that loved ones were amused or touched before they moved on.

My friend Stephanie lost her father unexpectedly last year. She found out after the funeral that the last movie seen by her dad was “The Searchers,’’ an old John Wayne picture that happened to be the first movie he had ever seen in a theater. He owned a copy and happened to watch it before his passing.

Another friend once told me that her dad’s last movie was “The Mask of Zorro.’’ Not necessarily the classiest film, but he liked it. That gave her some comfort.

Technically the last movie my Grandma Lorraine saw in its entirety was “Penelope,’’ a film I hadn’t even noticed on her Netflix list. The movie stars Christina Ricci as a girl cursed with a pig nose. It didn’t do well commercially, but Grandma praised it. She liked the moral of the story, that true love was tied to self-awareness and self-confidence.

During Lorraine’s last days, my family repeatedly offered to bring a television into her bedroom so she could continue watching movies. She had already made it through the opening of “The Other Boleyn Girl,’’ and we wanted her to be able to finish it.

But Lorraine was far more interested in her own last picture show, the one that played out before her eyes during her final days.

There were stories of siblings as eccentric as the misfits in “The Royal Tenenbaums.’’ Thanks to one of the musicians in the family, there were songs more heartfelt than the tunes in “Once.’’ There was my Woody Allen neurosis - and a receiving line that reminded me of the end of “Evita.’’ There was an 86-year-old man’s grief that trumped anything in “The Notebook.’’

Lorraine was right not to change the channel. It was a better last film than anything Netflix could have offered.