Streaming on Stan.
By © Jane Freebury
Six Degrees of Separation, a film from 1993, had a catchy idea and title to match that has had the distinction of becoming part of our lexicon. Other movies come to mind, like Groundhog Day and Bucket List, but there aren’t that many.
A name for a list of must-see travel destinations before you kick the bucket has caught on, as has the idea of being caught in a time loop of repetitive routine. And there’s another one that’s trending, from the title of George Cukor’s 1944 thriller, ‘gaslight’ has become a shorthand for an insidious type of psychological abuse.
Six Degrees of Separation, currently streaming on Stan, proposed the idea that people are only six connections away from each other. In the age of a corona virus pandemic, the idea that we are interconnected to a degree we had never realised doesn’t seem far-fetched at all.
It wasn’t a new idea when screenwriter John Guare put it forward in his play of the same name, on which this film is based. There have been media reports since that the thesis is verifiable and correct, and that we are connected, by 5 to 7 informal acquaintances, to every other person in the world.
a satiric take on the notion that people who live in the same country can still be worlds apart
Six Degrees of Separation, directed by expat Australian director Fred Schepisi, is sharp, funny, and acutely observed comedy of manners. Its theatrical roots are very apparent, but it is well worth revisiting not just because of the intriguing take up of its title, but for its satiric take on the notion that people who live in the same country can still be worlds apart.
Upper East Siders, Flan (Donald Sutherland) and Ouisa (Stockard Channing) Kittredge are an affluent couple who have reached the pinnacle of success. With their adult children away at college, their life is a constant round of art deals and dinner parties.
They live on Fifth, of course, in a high-rise apartment crowded with artworks that reflect their taste and their cultural capital, but they are liberal, decent folk, wanting to do the right thing.
So, they are seriously challenged when an attractive young stranger with a knife wound to the stomach arrives at their front door, requesting refuge. He was mugged, he says, then saw the name Kittredge downstairs and realised they were parents of friends of his at college.
His name is Paul, he says, and he is the son of actor Sidney Poitier. Flan and Ouisa and their guest, Geoffrey (Ian McKellen), are sceptical but intrigued by their uninvited guest, who is so confident, articulate and, well, charismatic. When he steps up to prepare their dinner, he shows he’s no slouch in the culinary and sommelier arts either.
The role of Paul, a wily and plausible imposter, is a gift for any young actor. It was the first major film role for Will Smith, and some would say that despite the star he has become in years since, this early role is still his best.
After Paul brings a hustler back to the apartment, Flan and Ouisa chuck him out, then regale their friends with anecdotes about him at their dinner parties. The film is structured around flashback as friends and acquaintances respond with similar stories about how Paul infiltrated their lives too, took up offers of free bed and board, and stole opportunistically.
Paul has been working his way through the Upper East Side. The Kittredges can count themselves lucky that he left the Cezanne and the Kandinsky behind.
Curiously, there is a running joke about an upcoming movie version of Cats. If only they knew in 1993 how funny that turned out to be in 2019.
Ultimately, the idea of six degrees of separation is more device than underlying theme. It’s an idea that Ouisa muses about, fascinated to think that ‘a US president could be connected with a gondolier in Venice’. Our take-up of the expression seems to indicate that we like the idea too.
not in the cast, but Kevin Bacon is also connected
After Six Degrees of Separation came out in the 1990s, some Pennsylvania students invented a parlour game they called Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon.
Bacon didn’t mind. He ran with it, founding a charitable trust based on the notion that what you do in an apartment in Manhattan will inevitably affect people in Bangladesh, because we are all connected.
Are we ever.
First published in the Canberra Times on 12 April 2020, and broadcast by Artsound FM 92.7
*Featured image: Who am I? Will Smith as Paul