Va­lerie Harper back on screen de­spite cancer strug­gle

Times Colonist - - Arts - LYNN LE­BER

LOS AN­GE­LES — This is what a tough cookie Va­lerie Harper is: De­spite her pro­longed fight against cancer, she ac­cepted the de­mand­ing role of a wo­man with Alzheimer’s to draw at­ten­tion to the dis­ease.

The re­sult is My Mom and the Girl, a short film writ­ten, di­rected and pro­duced by Susie Singer Carter, who plays op­po­site Harper in the story drawn from the film­maker’s ex­pe­ri­ence with her own mother, Norma Holzer.

“The film was joy­ful to make, as well as emo­tion­ally dif­fi­cult,” Harper said. “There is a real joy to it, as well as sad­ness.”

Harper etches the dis­ease’s un­pre­dictabil­ity as her char­ac­ter, Nanny, whip­saws between aware­ness and con­fu­sion, warmth and anger. Carter por­trays her de­voted daugh­ter, and the “Girl” in the ti­tle is a trans­gen­der wo­man (Har­mony San­tana) whom Nanny meets when she ven­tures out on the street one night, as Carter’s mother did. Liz Tor­res plays an af­fec­tion­ate care­giver.

Carter said the story of her mother’s on­go­ing ex­pe­ri­ence with Alzheimer’s needed to be told, but “I re­sisted it for quite a while. I would tell anec­dotes about my mom and peo­ple would say: ‘You have to do a movie, you have to write that.’

“That’s the last thing I want to do, is live in this world more,” was Carter’s re­sponse. Then, she re­al­ized she had an obli­ga­tion to tell the story, “and it all lined up the way it should,” in­clud­ing Harper’s par­tic­i­pa­tion. The film’s de­pic­tion of Nanny’s undimmed spirit par­al­lels both Holzer’s and Harper’s jour­neys, Carter said.

Dis­ease is “tragic and it’s hard and it beats the crap out of you … and it shifts your life in all ways that you wouldn’t ex­pect, and you don’t want it to go there. But you’re here and you’ve got to make the best of it,” she said.

The film, which re­lied on crowd­fund­ing and sup­port from the group Us-Against-Alzheimer’s, was screened this month for Os­car con­sid­er­a­tion and awaits dis­tri­bu­tion.

It’s Harper’s first time back at work af­ter a se­ries of health set­backs, said Tony Cac­ciotti, her hus­band and man­ager. She was di­ag­nosed in 2013 with lep­tomeningeal car­ci­no­mato­sis, a rare con­di­tion that oc­curs when cancer cells spread into the flu­id­filled mem­brane sur­round­ing the brain, and was given just months to live. She has dis­proved that prog­no­sis.

“Two or three times, she was out of it, she wasn’t go­ing to sur­vive,” Cac­ciotti said. Be­fore a stage per­for­mance in 2015, she was rushed by he­li­copter from Maine to Mas­sachusetts Gen­eral Hospi­tal in Bos­ton, “where they saved her life,” he said. A pres­sure-re­liev­ing shunt was placed in her brain af­ter an­other cri­sis.

Re­cently, he said, a drug that had proved a life-saver for the past four years started to lose its ef­fec­tive­ness, and Harper en­tered a sec­ond-stage trial for a new med­i­ca­tion. She’s also work­ing to boost her strength with daily walks and hoist­ing light weights while watch­ing TV.

“She’s a fighter,” Cac­ciotti said. “I’m amazed ev­ery day what she can do, and now she wants to get back to work, which is very ex­cit­ing.”

“I’m feel­ing great,” said Harper, bub­bly and up­beat dur­ing a phone in­ter­view, cred­it­ing her hus­band’s lov­ing care and doc­tors at Cedars-Si­nai Med­i­cal Cen­ter in Los An­ge­les.

Film­maker Carter pre­dicted that au­di­ences will be sur­prised that Harper, who gained fame in The Mary Tyler Moore Show and as star of the spinoff Rhoda, is so adroit at drama. She also gets to show off her singing voice, which she’s dis­played on stage and in the oc­ca­sional TV va­ri­ety show.

“I think most of us know Va­lerie from her come­dies on tele­vi­sion but, my God, her breadth of work is ex­tra­or­di­nary and her range is phe­nom­e­nal,” Carter said. So is her stamina. “I was con­cerned ini­tially, think­ing maybe it would be too much for Va­lerie, but hon­estly, her en­ergy was im­pec­ca­ble and in­cred­i­ble,” Carter said.

“She out­did most of us,” she added, re­call­ing a Harper’s ral­ly­ing cry on set: “C’mon, it’s only 11 o’clock. Let’s shoot an­other hour!”

Va­lerie Harper stars in a short film ti­tled My Mom and the Girl, about a wo­man’s bat­tle with Alzheimer’s dis­ease.

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