Throwback Thursday: The Portrait provides a unique glimpse into family dynamics & love


‘The Portrait’ (1993) is a poignant movie about the tie that binds – we love each other for who we are and not for who we are not. Gregory Peck, Lauren Bacall and Cecilia Peck star in this made-for-TV movie exploring the emotions that bond families together.


I love it when I take a chance on a movie I’ve never heard of and it ends up being the perfect choice, as it directly pertains to my personal thoughts and emotions I’m trying to sort out. This week I took a look at The Portrait, a 1993 made-for-TV movie now on DVD thanks to the continuing efforts of the Warner Archive Collection, and I’m glad I did. Starring two legends of the Golden Age of Hollywood – Gregory Peck and Lauren Bacall – and Gregory’s daughter Cecilia, The Portrait is about the ongoing struggling relationship between Peck, Bacall and their only daughter that resurfaces when she returns home to paint their portrait only to discover they are in the process of moving. It seems they sold the family home without telling her.

The portrait is not the only thing left unresolved in the Church household.

Mags Church (Cecilia Peck) is an artist who lacks confidence in her artistic abilities. When she is given the chance to exhibit some of her artwork in a small gallery with an excellent reputation, she decides to go back to her childhood home to recharge her creative batteries after a break-up and to finish a portrait of her parents (Fanny and Gardner) she had begun long ago and never finished. However, we quickly discover that the portrait is not the only thing left unresolved in the Church household. There are many complex emotions and miscommunications lurking just beneath the surface of this seemingly happy little trio.

While a part of me could understand how Mags must have felt, a part of me also found her character rather childish and at times silly and irrational. For example, I felt she overreacted to the news about the home being sold. What kind of adult presumably in her late 20s/early 30s storms up the stairs because she wasn’t consulted on her parents’ decision to retire in a cottage in another city? A rather selfish one in my opinion, especially when you take into account the fact that she resided in another city and only came home to visit during holidays.

The main issue between the parents and Mags seems to be the fact that Mags has always resented her parents’ close relationship because she has always felt like the third wheel. Fanny and Gardner are always seen laughing and talking together. We see Mags’ exasperation at their behavior during their portrait sitting. She has difficulty getting them to sit still and pose, which makes her think it’s because they don’t take her career choice seriously. I laughed when they held up a fork and teased her about their portrait being the next American Gothic by Grant Wood.

Bacall and Peck are absolutely wonderful together. 

Bacall and Peck are absolutely wonderful together. What I enjoyed most about this movie was seeing this couple who was still crazy in love despite their age. In a world where so many marriages end in divorce, it was refreshing to see two people who could make it work and keep things interesting and fun after so many years. It was a beautifully honest portrait of a happy marriage and two people who truly cared about one another. For example, they kid around about sick people they know and how much money she spent on a fancy French designer hat she found in a thrift shop. It was the type of relationship and marriage I’ve always wanted for myself.

Throughout the visit, it also becomes apparent that Gardner is becoming forgetful in his old age. He starts to become confused about what to buy at the market and there is one scene in which he keeps asking Mags when the last time she visited was. When Mags confronts Fanny about this, she dismisses it saying that’s he’s 75 and he can’t always be expected to be in tip-top shape and that aging is something that happens to all of us. It isn’t until Gardner goes out for a walk and turns up unconscious by the river’s edge that Mags finally makes peace with her parents.

In one of the most poignant scenes, Mags and her mother bond over the seriousness of the situation. Fanny explains to Mags that she felt something physical when she married Gardner, saying that the emptiness she had always felt as a child was finally filled. She was a happy child, but she became an even happier adult. I almost cried when she explained that she could still look across the room and marvel at the fact that he married her out of all the women he could have possibly chosen.

She reveals it was Gardner who had wanted to have a baby and she admits that she was hesitant because she didn’t want anyone to end their perpetual honeymoon. Though she loves her daughter, she tries her best to explain that nobody will ever come before Gardner in her heart. She’s concerned about them having less time together because every minute they spend together is so precious and so wanted. That’s why she’s been in denial about his forgetfulness. She’s extremely protective of her love and she doesn’t want anyone to look at him in a diminished sort of way. I think Mags gains a better understanding of her parents’ relationship after this chat.

Once the father returns home from the hospital, Mags has a heart-to-heart with him. I think it helps that this is a real-life father and daughter on the screen, as it makes the emotions seem more genuine. Mags asks what her father thinks about her art and he tells her that he believes she is on the verge of finding herself and that crazy courage we all need to invade our privacy if we’re going to hold nothing back in our work. She seems pleased with this answer. The movie ends at her art show in New York and her parents coming to support her.

“I can still see the big picture – it’s the little details that confound me.”

The best quote in the movie comes from Peck: “I can still see the big picture – it’s the little details that confound me.” I know he said this in reference to his age and forgetfulness, but I felt like that’s true of me also. It’s like I can catch glimpses of what I want my future to be like, but I can’t quite grasp hold of it yet. Maybe the picture isn’t 100% clear of where or who I’ll end up with, but I take comfort in imagining that someone will hopefully reach out their hand to me and come along with me for the ride. I just need more of that “crazy courage” described by Peck. Don’t we all? I want to believe in myself, my ability and in the concept of never-ending love that doesn’t fade over time but rather goes stronger. For if you put the proper amount of time into it, love can blossom like a garden – Fanny and Gardner Church are fictional proof of that. I’d recommend this movie for anyone in the process of still trying to find themselves.

Photo Credit: Turner Pictures

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