"Bill" is a wonderful TV-movie, one of the best ever made. It doesn't have flashy sets; it doesn't have special effects; it's set in Minnesota and Iowa in the dead of winter, not very exciting or scenic places. What it does have is one of Mickey Rooney's best performances, and unarguably one of the most sweet, poignant and winning characters he's ever played. He won the Golden Globe for his performance, and it's easy to see why.
The film is based on Barry Morrow, an independent filmmaker who happened to run across Bill, an older man who was thought to be mentally challenged, and started doing a documentary on his life. Along the way Barry discovered that Bill was as smart as anyone else, but that he'd been locked up in a mental institution since he was 5 years old and treated as if he was mentally handicapped. Bill's early life isn't touched on in more than a random way, but what we do hear is terrifying; abuse of a normal child on a grand scale. Abuse so bad that Bill can only survive by acting like the rest of the inmates. When Barry takes Bill back to the institution to film a segment, Bill's reaction is pitiable.
Barry is played by Dennis Quaid in one of his early roles, and he's great in some scenes, merely passable in others. Luckily, the great scenes outnumber the passable ones. The rest of the cast are good with the exception of Largo Woodruff, who plays Barry's wife. She is alternately pouty, nasty, spoiled-rotten or smiley, with no subtleties in-between. She is the only drawback to the film; if she had only downplayed some of her more dramatic scenes she would have been much easier to take. However, she doesn't harm the movie in any real way; it's all Rooney's film and he's the reason to watch it. A sequel was made several years later with Mickey reprising his role and Helen Hunt playing the college student who took Bill under her wing. It is more of a routine TV movie; Mickey is good but the story doesn't have the magic of the first.
This film deserves to be seen more than it is. It's especially right for the Christmas season, since the real Bill loved to play Santa. This is a family staple in our house and we watch it every Christmas, marveling at just how magical "Bill" is.
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