Olive Films has released the 1990 TV movie "The Last Best Year" as a no-frills DVD. The movie is a sobering account of a young woman's battle against life-threatening cancer. Jane Murray is a 38 year-old career woman who has distinguisher herself in the corporate travel industry. A workaholic, Jane has placed her career trajectory above everything else. Consequently, she's respected by her boss and her peers but her personal life is largely devoid of personal relationships. She lives a solitary existence with only a pet cat as a companion. Her love life is relegated to occasional flings with an older married man. She seems content with her lot in life until she becomes mysteriously ill. She ignores the symptoms of weakness and dizziness until a visit to her physician, Dr. Castle (Brian Beford) becomes unavoidable. He delivers the bad news: she has terminal cancer and has only a number of months to live. The diagnosis hits Jane with understandably devastating results. She suddenly takes stock of her life and realizes how many unfilled dreams there are. Dr. Castle suggests that she get counseling from his friend, psychiatrist Wendy Haller (Mary Tyler Moore). However, Wendy is reluctant to take on Jane as a client because she is hesitant to form relationship with someone who is destined to die in a few months. It turns out that Wendy is haunted by the death of her own father at a young age when she was a little girl and has had her own mental barriers when it comes to dealing with people facing untimely deaths. Nevertheless, she is moved by Dr. Castle's pleas and agrees to see Jane. The two women form a close bond that goes beyond a doctor/client relationship. Wendy is happily married to a good man and they have a healthy son who is a college student. She realizes through Jane's plight how fortunate her own life is. She devotes herself to ensuring that Jane's remaining days are as as pleasant and fulfilling as possible. Jane has no living relatives except for her aunt Lizzie (Carmen Matthews), who still lives in a small town in Kansas where Jane was born. At Wendy's urging, Jane decides to make a surprise visit to Lizzie, who is delighted to see her. Through Lizzie, she learns much about her own childhood and the qualities of her parents, both of whom died at young ages.
As Jane's health declines, she increasingly relies on emotional support from a new found friendship with her secretary Amy (Erika Alexander), Lizzie and Wendy. Jane makes a shocking confession to Wendy: at age 18 she became pregnant. Alone and desperate, she received care in a convent and signed a legal agreement to give her baby son up for adoption. Over the years she has been haunted by the boy's fate. Before she passes away she wants to find out what his disposition in life is in the hope that he has been happy and successful. However, the agreement with the convent precludes her from finding out who her son's adoptive parents are and making any inquiries of them. Jane makes a trip to visit Sister Mary Rose (Kate Reid) at the convent in the desperate hope that an exception might be made so that she can have some peace of mind about her son's fate. The latter portion of the story concentrates on this aspect of Jane's dilemma as she finds her physical health diminishing rapidly and being confined to a bed.
Reunited: Mary Tyler Moore and Bernadette Peters at tribute dinner for Moore at the Players club in New York City, 2009. (Photo copyright Cinema Retro. All rights reserved),
"The Last Best Year" is what would have been quaintly referred to in time's past as a "two-handkerchief" production, given the amount of emotional baggage the character of Jane is forced to carry. Although the movie was clearly designed to appeal to female viewers, it's central theme of how a health crisis can affect far more people than the person who is afflicted will resonate with everyone. The performances are universally excellent (the film features the final acting role of Dorothy McGuire in a supporting role) with Moore proving once again that she had plenty of skill in playing dramatic roles. The revelation at the time was that Bernadette Peters could, too. Up to this point, Peters was primarily known for her singing skills and for playing light comedy. She gives a superb performance as Jane, a strong-willed, courageous woman who never loses her dignity even as her personal situation leaves her in a rather undignified status, forced to rely on the kindness of her circle of newly-found friends. The production is very sensitively directed by John Erman, who eschews over-the-top sentiment and provides a realistic scenario that millions of people can identify with: the challenge of bringing comfort to a dying loved one. "The Last Best Year" is a predictably sad experience but ultimately one that manages to be uplifting, as well, as it deals with a brave individual and the caring people around her who try to make her tragic situation as bearable as possible. In that respect it concentrates on the best aspects of human nature, something only rarely seen in many of today's television productions.