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Right of Way (1983) - Overview, Synopsis, Critique

teddy ruda mini suicide

Principal social themes: end-of-life issues, suicide/depression, aging

HBO. PG rating. Featuring: Bette Davis, Jimmy Stewart, Melinda Dillon, Priscilla Morrill, Louis Schaefer, Charles Walker, East Carlo, John Harkins, Edith Fields. Written by Richard Lees based on his play Right of Way . Cinematography by Howard Schwartz. Edited by Sidney M. Katz. Music by Brad Fiedel. Produced directed by George Schaefer. Color. 102 minutes.


Right of Way , a made-for-cable production, is best remembered for the historic pairing of two screen legends, Jimmy Stewart and Bette Davis, in their only joint screen appearance. The screenplay is a dramatic one showcasing their talents as an elderly couple who decide to commit suicide together after one of them is diagnosed with a terminal illness. The initial cut of the film was judged too disturbing, and the director changed it three times before HBO cleared it for broadcast. Nevertheless, the original ending, including the suicide of the two main stars, remained intact. Reaction to the film was positive, although with reservations. It attracted a large audience, becoming one of the highest rated cable films of all time.


Teddy and Miniature Dwyer, both in their early eighties, telephone their estranged forty-year-old daughter Ruda to come for a visit. She drives up from southern California and is startled to find their home in a dilapidated condition, with their four cats running wild. When Ruda tries to lecture them that they might be fined by the town for creating an eyesore, they tell her they do not care. Mini explains that she has been diagnosed with a rare blood disease and only has a few months left to live. Since the last stages of this condition are quite painful, Mini has decided to commit suicide. Teddy has no desire to live without her, and he informs Ruda that they intend to die together. Stunned, Ruda tries to talk them out of it, and finally walks out, checking into a hotel. She calls her mother’s doctor to verify Mini’s condition and then turns to the local social service agency for help. Mrs. Finter speaks with Ruda, and then visits the Dwyers herself. Speaking plainly, the elderly couple confirm Ruda’s story. After Mrs. Finter files her report, the county authorities begin an investigation to declare the Dwyers unfit. Teddy is served with legal documents summoning them to a court hearing. They go to a lawyer, who refuses to take their case when they calmly tell him that they plan to commit suicide together. After leaving his office, Teddy and Mini decide they had better carry out their plans before they are placed in custodial care.

Ruda continues to visit them and finally tells them she now accepts their decision. She visits Mrs. Finter to see if the legal action can be halted, but the social worker explains that the matter is no longer in her hands but in those of the court. Teddy’s hobby is reading poetry, and he selects a line of Spanish poetry to leave in their farewell note. Mini’s avocation is doll-making, and she finishes her final doll, a perfect likeness of herself, which greatly moves Teddy when he sees it. They place all of Mini’s dolls on their living room table with Teddy’s note. They then withdraw to the garage. Teddy starts the car motor and attaches a hose from the exhaust pipe to the vehicle’s interior. They sit in the car, embrace, and chat over old times. Ruda has a last-minute change of mind and returns to the house. After searching, she notices the four cats hanging around the garage door. Hearing the running motor, Ruda decides not to intervene. She returns to the house, takes the doll with her mother’s likeness, and drives away.


Right of Way is a sober, almost gentle, love story that covers a whole range of social issues from aging and privacy to governmental authority over the lives of its citizens and the concept of death with dignity. Richard Lees’ script is a potent one, raising a number of troublesome points but not providing any clear-cut solutions. It also deftly sidesteps several questions. Teddy and Mini are nonreligious, but they never discuss any philosophical or moral principals, which the story surely calls for (at least in passing). At one point, Mini tells her daughter that she rejects relying on anyone else but herself. This attitude of absolute self-reliance, however, is never examined or even discussed. Of course, Mini’s decision to end her life is a logical one, since her condition is hopeless and she wants to avoid any artificial prolongation as she wastes away. It is a clear-cut example that illustrates end-of-life issues.

Teddy’s decision, however, is more emotional and controversial, since he is physically well and has all of his mental faculties intact. Teddy does not see his choice as suicide but as an act of love to his ill wife, to accompany her and to make her last moments as easy as possible. He is a far more amiable character than the acerbic Mini, but it seems to touch a nerve whenever his decision is challenged, particularly by strangers. Incidentally, social workers are presented as meddlesome, remote, and insensitive in the drama. They do not seem to regard the Dwyers as people, merely a problem to be resolved. The lawyer, played by John Harkins, is even worse. He assures Teddy and Mini that their session with him is confidential, but then he spreads their story in the newspaper. At times it seems everyone wants to violate the Dwyers’ rights (which is reflected in the film’s title).

Viewers can also consider the film a case study of the limits of personal rights versus government intrusion. Right of Way avoids becoming maudlin. Mini and Teddy are largely nondemonstrative in their emotions. The performances of Jimmy Stewart and Bette Davis are exceptional, although the personal chemistry between the stars was reportedly strained. Stewart found Davis cold, arrogant, and uncooperative. Melinda Dillon is adequate as Ruda, which is somewhat confused, particularly since her final scene was revised three times. Perhaps this confusion served to represent the audience’s traditional viewpoint, not wanting the main characters to die. One could argue that the final scene with Davis and Stewart is the most positive depiction of suicide in motion pictures. They both seem relaxed and content, untroubled by any fears or second thoughts. Their comfort with their final choice is a remarkable one that leaves a lasting impression on the audience.

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