RIGHT OF WAY (1983) James Stewart and Bette Davis portray a married couple who want to kill themselves rather than wait for disease to ravage their bodies.

Right of WayTheme Song: Piano with string accompaniment.

Interesting Dated References: Having tuna casserole paired with coffee for dinner and acting like it’s super delicious.

Best Line: In reference to being prepared to die — “I’m pleased, I’m happy, I’m ready.”

Social Context: Beloved but elderly actors James Stewart and Bette Davis portray a married couple who want to kill themselves rather than wait for disease to ravage their bodies. The film deals with right to die issues, all centered on a loveable, old couple.

If Right of Way had received a bigger release in the early 80s, surely there would have been unhappy old people following the example set by two actors they looked up to their entire lives. Luckily it only aired on HBO, which at the time was too new of a network for old people to be interested in.

Summary: The Dwyers are a somewhat-grumpy old couple who are living out their golden years in Santa Monica. Mini Dwyer (Davis) has been diagnosed with an unspecified terminal disease and wants to die with dignity through suicide. Her husband Teddy (Stewart) can’t bear the thought of living without her and has decided to join in on the fun.

Right of Way

They make the mistake of calling their somewhat estranged daughter, Ruda (Melinda Dillon, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, A Christmas Story, Magnolia), in Carmel and invite her down to give her the good news.

Right of Way

When Ruda arrives, she finds her parents’ house in a state of disrepair. The outside is unkempt, and the inside is overrun with cats that are named after celebrities (Bobby DeNiro, Pacino, Redford). Ruda and her mother have a stifled relationship. Mini berates Ruda about her pottery store and how she abandoned her parents, then goes immediately into telling her about the joint suicide plan. The bottom line is they want Ruda’s consent and help in organizing a few loose ends. Ruda gets upset and goes to stay in a hotel, paying absolutely no regard to the fact she parked in a handicapped spot.

Right of Way

Look at how big that phone book is! It’s insane! So once settled in her room, she calls a city social worker to intervene with her parents exit strategy.

Right of Way

The social worker visits the Dwyers and grills them about back taxes and unpaid utility bills. Then she tries to offer them alternatives, such as relocating them closer to their daughter. Mini remains a sourpuss and brushes everything off.

Right of Way

Meanwhile, Ruda goes to Crown Books and buys books with titles like Why Survive: Being Old In America, and On Death and Dying (both still in print, and On Death and Dying is notable for establishing the five stages of grief).

Right of Way

The next day, Ruda takes the Dwyers out for groceries, followed by a walk on the beach. When they return home, some boobs from the board of inspection are taking photos and knocking shit over inside the house. The set decoration is a little inaccurate here. Clearly Teddy would have had several stacks of National Geographic, not just two small shelves of them. Nice try.

Right of Way

The next day they get served with a subpoena to appear at a conservatorship trial, so they opt to meet with a lawyer. Then they return home and clean the shit of their house. Imagine how fucking clean you could get your house if you knew exactly when you were dying. That would be the best. And think about all the embarrassing and/or incriminating things you could dispose of. You’d look like a posthumous angel!

Right of Way

While Teddy is out buying flexible dryer hose at JC Penny’s, Mini and Ruda have yet another argument. They bicker on and on about childbirth, adulthood, and disappointment. Ruda goes to the social worker and asks to get the case dismissed, but the social worker says she can’t. Eventually Ruda decides, “better by you, better than me,” and opts to stop fighting her parents’ suicide solution. She hugs her dad goodbye and heads back to Carmel.

Right of Way

Then our ill-fated couple starts to get a little sentimental as they prep for suicide. Teddy fixes the hose onto the car’s exhaust pipe and seals all the garage doors.

Right of Way

Then they drift off into death while quietly reflecting about their relationship. Super uplifting.

Right of Way

Ruda turns her car around and gets back to her parents’ house, only to find them locked in the garage. She goes inside and hugs a doll that looks like her mom and cries. Go figure, this depressing movie was based on a play. There were three endings shot for this movie, but I can’t find out what the alternate endings were. See the comments below for a brief description of two other endings that exist for this movie.

Poster and Box Art: It’s that photo portrait you’ve always wanted of your loving grandparents who performed a double suicide! Right of Way wasn’t released on the big screen because the world has too many unhappy, elderly people wandering around theatres in the middle of the day.

Availability: Right of Way has been uploaded to youtube a few different ways. One guy did the whole thing, and someone else did it as like 12 parts. You figure it out. Otherwise, used VHS are on eBay and Amazon.

3 comments

  • The ending in the movie was just right was the way the parents wanted it to be.

  • I have another version on DVD, reporters go to the house for an interview and discover what they’ve doing and rescue them.

  • Hi. For whatever reason, the version that was released in Brazil is the one with the alternate ending. A passer-by sees smoke seeping through the garage door, breaks a window and calls an ambulance. The daughter arrives and is informed that her parents are “technically under arrest” and will be kept apart. The mother is unconscious and the father doesn’t seem to recognise his daughter. Daughter vows to take care of her mother. Your ending sounds less depressing to be honest.

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