Biopics are very common–we all know this. However, it’s not often that the subject of a biopic actually stars in their own film. Joni Eareckson Tada is one of the few. 1979’s Joni was based on her book of the same title and covers the first five years or so after Tada’s life-changing accident.
Since the film follows Joni’s life pretty closely, we’ll start right in. It all opens in the summer of 1967, when Joni (pronounced “Johnny”) is swimming at the Chesapeake Bay with her sister, Kathy (Sarah Rush), and Kathy’s boyfriend, Butch (Jeff Austin). Joni takes a dive into shallow water and hits her head, breaking her neck.
The movie emphasizes the disorientation and despair Joni felt after multiple surgeries and months in a Stryker frame. She was so depressed she begged her friends to cut her wrists or give her pills because she couldn’t possibly be a quadraplegic. Finally, in the dead of night, Joni, who was a nominal Christian at that point in her life, prayed that God would show her how to live.
The next two years are tough going. Joni has to adjust to sitting upright. She has to learn how to feed herself and write with a pencil between her teeth. She labors under the belief that she’ll get her hands back, but it’s not meant to be. However, Joni discovers a talent for drawing and painting and produces amazing, expressive work.
Joni isn’t the only one who has to adjust to her new normal. Joni’s boyfriend, Dick (Cooper Huckabee) tries to pretend Joni’s quadraplegia is no big deal, but Joni can’t shake her feelings of inadequacy and breaks up with him, although they stay friends. Diana (Louise Hoven), Joni’s friend from high school, gets worried when she sees Joni looking at her yearbook too often and takes it away from her, which ticks Joni off. Joni stays ticked until Diana shows up for horseback riding lessons after she meets a guy.
Speaking of guys, Joni has a couple of them in her life herself. Don Bertolli (Michael Mancini) starts coming around after a wedding, but his interest only seems to hinge on whether or not Joni can be healed. Then there’s another guy named Steve Estes (Richard Lineback) whose Bible is practically attached to his hand. Which one will stick around? Well…spoiler alert: Joni and Steve are still friends almost fifty years after they met.
Making the film was taxing for Joni, who not only had to relive traumatic experiences, but spend a good portion of the film either flat on her back or in a Stryker frame. She gives a really competent, earnest performance, though, especially for a first time actress, and there’s a lot of authenticity to the film and its setting.
However, shooting didn’t always go smoothly. Filming had to be delayed when Joni was rushed to the hospital after her legbag malfunctioned, and the constant stress on her body caused a pressure sore that took years to fully heal. Joni also had to struggle against self-centeredness as a result of all the attention she got, and she disliked that the movie gave the impression that she had it all together. She tried to read her Bible to stay grounded.
Joni is unusual as Christian films go. For one thing, the dialogue is relatively natural most of the time, including humor. These characters talk about God while going about their daily lives instead of framing the Christian stuff like a sermon so the audience has to pay attention OR ELSE. It’s not crammed down anyone’s proverbial throat. It says, essentially, “We know this is true, but we’re not demanding acceptance. It’s OK to think about what you’ve heard here.”
The film was made by people who knew how to make films, which was typical of the Billy Graham Association–they wanted their movies to look technically and artistically legit. Director James Collier was often their go-to guy, and in the case of Joni, there was also makeup artist William Tuttle, who worked on Gone With the Wind, and gaffer Kal Manning, whose credits include Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. The performances are equally competent. Many of the actors, especially Cooper Huckabee and Bert Ramsen, have extensive filmographies and stage experience as character people.
Since the story isn’t conventional, some unusual tricks came into play. In one scene Dick sneaks a puppy into the hospital to cheer Joni up, and the idea was that the puppy would lick Joni’s face, but unfortunately the dog wouldn’t budge until someone smeared liver-flavored baby food on Joni’s cheek.
This is definitely not a perfect movie (Which movie is, really?), and one of the aspects of Joni that doesn’t quite land is the editing. Sometimes scenes will just abruptly end and it’s a little jarring, especially if that scene carries any kind of emotional weight. There’s one part where Joni and Dick are discussing their struggles with Joni’s injury and Dick is clearly depressed, but the scene cuts with Dick leaning on a wall and nothing resolves. Not that the scene had to be tied up in a neat little bow, but there should have been something to signal the characters’ inner turmoil like a look, or a sigh, or whatever, but no, it just jumps to the next scene without any transition. This happens all over the movie.
The other thing is that some of the scenes needed a little more room to breathe. There are quite a few times when the characters are shot from the shoulders or neck up and it feels a bit cramped. Maybe this was due to the filmmakers using real locations as opposed to soundstages, but there are ways to work around space limitations and it just doesn’t happen here.
Minor flaws aside, Joni garnered favorable reviews at the time of its release. It’s been widely shown all over the world and translated into numerous languages, bringing an unusual story to countless people.
Also unlike typical Christian films, Joni makes no bones about coming to a place where God can be seen in the midst of hardship, and not in a simplistic Disney way, but in a joy-through-gritted teeth kind of way. Joni has admitted freely many times that she still grapples with the ideas of paralysis and people assisting her with every little thing. On the other hand, though, she admits just as freely that God is with her every step of the way, and that’s what counts most.
For more great biopics, please see Annette at Hometowns To Hollywood. Thanks for hosting, Annette–this was great!
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Tada, Joni Eareckson. Choices…Changes. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1986.