It's a Mother's Day present with a past.
Such was the gift lovingly provided by Lee Caplin, whose call to his mother two years ago that they had gotten rights to adapt a book to film provided a social security for Ruth Sacks Caplin that no government check could compete against.
How dramatic a real-life script when you're an 85-year-old bubba, and your first screenplay is being made into a major motion picture with your son as a producer.
"Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont" is now at area theaters.
"No better Mother's Day present is right!" laughs the charming Sacks Caplin, a resident of Chevy Chase, Md., whose chase of this project goes back three decades.
It was in the 1970s that the Brooklyn-born fashion designer – who once sewed the costumes for her youngsters' school plays – had designs on adapting Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont, a novel by the late literary and very British Elizabeth Taylor – as compared to the current legendary actress Elizabeth Taylor – for the screen.
So what's a novice screenwriter to do? She adapted the book with help from … a book. "First thing I did was go to the local book store and buy How to Write a Play Script."
Paging Ruth the rookie writer! By the time she reached "The End," she had made a new beginning. Fade in with fireworks: "I sat down with my Olympia manual typewriter and wrote it."
As Olympian a challenge as writing from scratch – especially one that itches with problems for even the most experienced writer – Sacks Caplin capped it off with a sale of the screenplay.
Thirty five years later.
In between, as she recounts, there were countless problems involving buying copyright rights to the novel. But then Mrs. Taylor's husband – who had husbanded the rights all those years, refusing to give them up to Sacks Caplin – died, giving birth to a new hotshot octogenarian screenwriter.
The estate sold the rights, and Sacks Caplin was right where she wanted to be. On screen.
"So much of this success was because of Lee's persistence," she says of the son who's no stranger to going the distance and thinking outside the boxing ring; he was also a producer of the film "Ali."
Ironically, "Mrs. Palfrey" had an Everlast – and everlasting – quality to it. Sacks Caplin discovered the Taylor-made novel on a book shelf at London's Connaught Hotel, where she and her husband, Mortimer – a law prof and former IRS commissioner to whom she's been married for 68 years – were staying in the 1970s.
Already a fan of Taylor, Sacks Caplin was especially captivated by her sentient saga of Mrs. Palfrey, a lonely older woman forgotten for the most part by family, who finds what comfort she can by taking up space in a residential hotel in London, where so many sadly seem to check in just before checking out.
When Mrs. Palfrey accidentally – and literally – trips into the life of a young street performer, the two discover a friendship that squeezes the years into a today twosome.
But this is no Harold and maudlin; their relationship is chaste and chatty as she passes him off as her grandson, making for some grandiloquent moments as she deceives her friends and, at times, her heart, too.
Nothing like a Dame Joan Plowright to give it some spunk; Plowright plows right into the role with a grand sensitivity reserved for such grand dames as herself.
Not Sweet Enough?
Ironically, when the director was casting about for actors, Sacks Caplin wasn't interested in reeling in the prominent Plowright, whose late husband, Laurence Olivier, also knew a thing or two about acting.
"She didn't seem sweet enough," says the writer who sacked the idea because of her familiarity with Plowright in the unsympathetic "Enchanted April."
Even more enchanting was the advice given the writer by her grandchild. "My grandson said, 'I saw her in 'Dennis the Menace,' and she was sweet there."
What's a bubba to say?
"I said, 'Okay.' "
More than okay is this sweetly gentle movie, in which friendship is forged despite the gap of years and yearnings; he for fame as a budding writer, she for meaning in a long life.
And while "Mrs. Palfrey" has no patina of Jewishness, it is the character's core that is so. "She's the best Jewish grandmom of all," laughs the Jewish grandmom who adapted her for the screen. "She embodies love that doesn't require" paybacks or pity.
It is, insists Sacks Caplin, a timeless love of boy-meets-bubba in which both salve the other's soul.
And, now, at 85 – at a time when she neither seeks nor covets the fame attendant to attending film premieres – Ruth Sacks Caplin caps it off with a touching, tangible accomplishment.
A poster "girl" for Jewish Geritol? There are other scripts to come.
Is Ruth Sacks Caplin going Hollywood?
"Oh, no," she laughs. "I'm not going anyplace but home."