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This article was prepared by Jamie Saxon for the April 27, 2005
issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
My Life – on the Silver Screen
To have your novel published is a feat in itself. To have it made into
a movie is to have your cup runneth over. Rachel Simon’s cup now
rivals Niagara Falls. Simon, who was in charge of community relations
at Barnes & Noble at Marketfair from 1995 to 1998, wrote "Riding the
Bus with My Sister," an autobiographical novel about her
developmentally challenged sister, Beth, which was published by Plume
in September, 2002. The plot revolves around Beth’s move to a group
home, where she decides she wants to learn to be more independent and
rides the bus in her mid-sized northeastern city nine hours a day, six
days a week.
Even before the book came out, friends were bugging Simon about who
she would cast as Beth if the book were made into a movie. In an
interview posted on her website, wwwrachelsimon.com, Simon says: "I
had no answer for them at all, until one day, six months before the
book came out, I was driving to work and an idea zinged into my head:
‘If there is a movie, Rosie O’Donnell should play Beth.’ Immediately I
knew Rosie would be perfect. Of course I had no connection to Rosie
O’Donnell, so the idea was amusing, and that was about it. Five days
later, I got a message on my phone at home: `Hi, Rachel Simon. This is
Rosie O’Donnell. I read your book, I love your book. I want to make a
movie of your book and play your sister. Call me.’ You can imagine
that I burst into tears, and felt overwhelmed by astonishment and
thoughts of something far greater than a book. I was later to learn
that a few months earlier, my agent, Anne Edelstein, sent the editors
of Rosie’s magazine, Rosie, my book in manuscript form, to consider
for excerpt purposes. Unbeknownst to me, (the editors) passed the book
along to her, and that’s how she saw it. I met Rosie the day after
that call, made sure Beth was okay with everything, and things started
to move forward." She later found out that O’Donnell had devoured the
book in one sitting.
"Riding the Bus with My Sister" airs as a Hallmark Hall of Fame movie
on CBS on Sunday, May 1.
As if having your novel published and then made into a movie starring
Rosie O’Donnell weren’t enough, here’s the icing on the cake: Andie
MacDowell plays Rachel and the film is directed by Angelica Huston.
Simon, who teaches creative writing at Bryn Mawr College and has lived
in Wilmington, Delaware, since 2000 (she lived in East Windsor from
1995 to 1999), says that her visit to the movie set, in Hamilton,
Ontario, was unforgettable. "It was so emotionally overwhelming to
watch other people reenacting my memories that I actually kept
breaking down and crying during the filming of the scenes.
Fortunately, the crew was so busy with their own tasks that no one
noticed. I suppose there’s some irony in this: I was crying away all
on my own, in the midst of a crowd of 100 that was filming my life for
millions." Simon appears in a crowd scene at an art gallery at the end
of the film. "I’m wearing an orange-red blazer and am seen only for a
split second, in profile. So be alert!"
She says she was impressed with how Rosie portrayed her sister, Beth.
"I just kept thinking, ‘Gosh, Rosie is unbelievable. She’s this
complete force of nature who really gets it, who has become my
sister.’ I was filled with awe and respect." In a press statement,
O’Donnell says she was drawn to the book because of the relationship
of the sisters. "I was very moved. I liked the way the sisters
balanced each other, and ultimately helped each other. I thought it
was a very touching and beautiful story. Angelica said she wanted the
film to be really gritty, very realistic. I remember her saying, ‘I
want you to be able to feel and touch and smell the people on the bus
when you’re watching this movie.’ She wasn’t interested in a sanitized
version, and I was thrilled with that. Then she said, ‘I’m thinking no
makeup for you.’"
O’Donnell, who never met the real Beth but watched a videotape of her,
also used a friendship she has with a mentally challenged woman in New
York as inspiration for the character. She says it wasn’t difficult to
grasp the notion that Beth really does spend all her time on a bus. "I
understand that some people hearing about Beth for the first time
might say, ‘Are you kidding me?’ But you have to understand that
compared to where she was – isolated in a bit of a closet – she was
able to enter the world thanks to the bus and the bus drivers. That
was enough for her. Don’t forget, for some people a crumb is a whole
Simon rode buses with her sister for a year before writing the book.
"During that year I got to know the drivers as individuals. And
they’re really the reason I decided to write the book, even more than
my sister. These are salt of the earth people. They are school of hard
knocks graduates. One of the drivers in the book, Estella, says of her
passengers, ‘I know when their wives have thrown them out of the
house, and they’re standing on the corner with nothing. I know when
they’re on their way to bail their son out of jail. I know when they
just got the pink slip, and they’re suddenly leaving the factory for
the last time.’ I’ve had drivers say to me, ‘What we really are is
nurses on wheels.’ Riding a bus and driving a bus isn’t about getting
people to destinations. It’s about the journey on the bus."
Simon says the experience of riding the bus with her sister had a
great impact on her outlook on life. "(I learned) that I needed to
learn how to love my sister without trying to control her. After all,
truly accepting someone, as self-determination helped me learn to do,
means stepping back and not trying to control. When the movie entered
development, I realized that I wasn’t going to be able to control the
outcome – so I just applied the very same lesson. After all, if I
can’t control Beth, why should I think I could control Hollywood? The
process was easy and painless once I made that connection."
In a phone interview from the air – Simon was on a flight to Los
Angeles for the April 26 screening of the movie – she says that being
the subject of a nationally-released film hasn’t changed her sister a
bit. "She’s very happy, she’s still who she is – and she still rides
the bus. I worked hard (throughout the production of the movie) to
maintain her life pretty much the same." Simon adds that because her
sister doesn’t think abstractly, she was not wholly aware of the scope
of the project. "She doesn’t see things that are not real to her."
She remembers her years at Barnes & Noble in Princeton with great
affection, where she worked tirelessly to promote writers and hold
writers’ events. "I was committed to demystifying the writer’s world.
I wanted the events to involve the whole community. I had a sense of
bringing the world together. Every night I would go home and say to
myself, my life is so filled with purpose and meaning. I was making
hundreds of people happy every day. Maybe my next book should be, "How
I Discovered the Secret to Life Through Barnes & Noble." She says the
energy she felt from those events definitely spurred her to write
"Riding the Bus," which is her fourth book.
Simon says her sister will attend the Washington, D.C., screening on
Thursday, April 28. "She will have me and her boyfriend and her case
manager there, so she will know people."
In the movie Rachel is a fashion photographer while the real life
Rachel is a writer and a professor. She is also a motivational speaker
for the disability community and the public transit industry. "Most of
(the movie Rachel’s) reactions mirror mine, but I tend to be a lot
more outgoing and lively than the Rachel in the movie. Andie MacDowell
also looks a lot better than I do in the morning – not to mention
throughout the day!"
– Jamie Saxon
movie, airs on CBS on Sunday, May 1, at 9 p.m. For more information
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