Chicken Shit Or Chicken Salad

It’s up to you, what do you want to make of your life?
Photo Credits: Jennifer Coolidge (Ig@jennifercoolidge) For Paper Magazine 2021
August 2, 2023
If you haven’t seen director Joel Schumacher’s 1989 movie “Cousins,” perhaps I might entice you. The film is a celebration of the choices we make in our lives within the context of family relationships. It is centered around two boisterous Euro-American families that bring to light “the good and the bad” in marriage, parenthood, adolescence, old age and death. Schumacher wittily wraps these stages of life in a perfectly comical and entertaining package and reveals an important truth. Through its characters’ charm, humor, humanity and endless bright smiles, “Cousins” does something fascinating:

IT FOLDS LIFE’S HARDSHIPS INTO A PERFECT ORIGAMI OF TRIUMPH. IT DEMONSTRATES HOW WE CAN MAKE “CHICKEN SALAD OF CHICKEN SHIT,” THROUGH GRACE UNDER PRESSURE, DIGNITY UNDER GRIEVANCE, AND STRENGTH UNDER WEAKNESS.

“Cousins” opens with a scene from a wedding in which Tom and Tish, who although committed to someone else, sneak away for some hanky-panky and return late, with the excuse of the car breaking down (Tom is a car salesman). While away, their spouses (Isabella Rossellini as Maria and Ted Danson as Larry) meet and strike up a conversation regarding their spouses’ disappearance. Unbeknownst to Maria and Larry, this first encounter sparks what will become a deep love affair of their own.

We get inside the lives of the characters and see how each makes their own version of chicken salad from chicken shit: Tom as a serial-womanizing car salesman who tries his best to redeem himself with his wife; Maria who, aware of his cheating and torn between unhappiness and fidelity, finally decides to leave him for Larry; Larry who, as a simple and apparently blasé misfit, finally musters the courage to win Maria towards the end; Tish, as a young attractive make-up artist who yearns for respect and finally gains self-respect; Larry’s humorous widowed father, Vince, who marries his deceased brother’s widow Edie (and who also brings some of the best one-liners of any movie); Mitch, Larry’s son from a previous marriage and a provocative ballsy punkster video artist who proudly wears his badge of nonconformity. Maria’s widowed mother Edie who loses one husband (Vince’s brother) only to fall in love with and eventually marry Vince. And Aunt Sofia, a bitter great aunt whose cynicism becomes her own entertainment.

Each of the characters is quite endearing but the true star and inspiration isRossellini. There is an aura—a glow—about Rossellini in this film that stays with you. Her character is powerfully magnetic, as she radiates a genuine warmth, tender softness and inviolable honesty. She shows us that suppression and repression breed the power to oppose it.

The chemistry between her and Danson is deeply compelling and their smiles and eye contact are especially powerful. Through her soft-spokenness, careful wit, and discrete but powerful body language, she transmits understated strength and boundless depth. Danson too pulls off a similar reserved but powerful charm and depth in his role as Larry. And together, they embody:

I AM WEAK, THEREFORE I AM STRONG

Although an artificial depiction of the riot of life, “Cousins” is refreshingly tender and light. In real life, adultery, death, and marriage and remarriage are never quite this simple, “tidy,” or life-affirming. However, this film manages to give us a valid perspective on life: that from life’s mishaps, we can forge meaning and build identity. “Cousins” somehow circumvents queasy feelings around life’s cruelty and manages to inject them with delicacy, humor and meaningfulness.

Here, to amuse you, are some of the film’s unbeatable one-liners:

Vince : I’d rather have a case of the clap than a case of this wine.

Vince : You’ve got only one life to live. You can either make it chickenshit or chicken salad.

Vince : Can you keep a secret?
Mitch : Yeah.
Vince : So can I.


Vince : [at the cemetery, declining to join the funeral group] At my age, you don’t want to get too close to an open grave.

Mitch : [at the funeral] So, Grandpa, how come you didn’t come to the church?
Vince : God makes me nervous when you get him indoors – besides, I don’t like to see people in their coffins. They always look so much smaller without their spirits.

Vince : [after Edie reluctantly accepts his dinner invitation] You’ve made an old man very happy!
Edie : You’re not so old.
Vince : Yeah, I know, and I’m not so happy.

Aunt Sofia: You still want to kill people?
Mitch: Na, they’re too stupid.
Aunt Sofia: You’re telling me – your grandfather’s marrying the Bermuda Triangle!

Maria: How many jobs did you have?
Larry: I don’t know. A lot. I change every two or three years. If it looks like I might be successful. I move on.
Maria: You don’t want to be successful?
Larry: I want to be happy.

Larry: Maria, would you dance with me?… Then, how about spending the rest of your life with me?

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