To Gillian on Her 37th Birthday

To Gillian on Her 37th Birthday is a 1996 American romantic drama film directed by Michael Pressman and starring Peter Gallagher and Claire Danes as a father and daughter struggling to come to terms with the tragic death of wife and mother, Gillian (Michelle Pfeiffer). The original score was composed by James Horner.

To Gillian on Her 37th Birthday
Theatrical release poster
Directed byMichael Pressman
Produced by
Screenplay byDavid E. Kelley
Based onTo Gillian on Her 37th Birthday
by Michael Brady
Music byJames Horner
CinematographyTim Suhrstedt
Edited byWilliam Scharf
Distributed byTriumph Films
Release date
  • October 18, 1996 (1996-10-18)
Running time
93 minutes
CountryUnited States
Box office$4.1 million (US)[1]

The screenplay was adapted by David E. Kelley from the play of the same name by Michael Brady.


David Lewis (Peter Gallagher) is so affected by the death of his beautiful wife, Gillian (Michelle Pfeiffer), who fell from the mast of their yacht on a sailing trip, that he turns their summer cottage in Nantucket, Massachusetts into a permanent home and spends most of his time on the beach there, communicating with Gillian's spirit and unwittingly neglecting his daughter, Rachel (Claire Danes).

On the second anniversary of Gillian's death, David invites her sister, Esther Wheeler (Kathy Baker), and her husband, Paul (Bruce Altman), to stay for the weekend. She insists on bringing a friend named Kevin Dollof (Wendy Crewson) whom she hopes David will become romantically interested in. He, however, ignores her in proceeding with a ritualistic celebration of Gillian's birthday.

The events of the weekend cause the adults to re-examine their relationships; Esther and Paul have to deal with the problem posed to their marriage by Rachel's provocative friend, Cindy (Laurie Fortier), while, most importantly, David comes to realize that he can be a loving and attentive father to Rachel without betraying the memory of Gillian.



The film was filmed on location in Nantucket, Massachusetts and in and around Wilmington, North Carolina,[2] although some of the beach scenes were filmed at Long Beach, California and the sailing accident was filmed at Marina del Rey, California; the obvious differences between the two were noticeable enough to be mentioned by The New York Times reviewer.[3]


The film currently holds a rating of 14% on Rotten Tomatoes based on 28 reviews, indicating an overwhelmingly negative critical response.[4]

Emanuel Levy in Variety described the film as "a bargain-basement Ghost, a hybrid of an earnest, inspirational play and a sleek, calculated Lifetime telepic."[5] Janet Maslin in The New York Times wrote: "It's not easy for the story's tear-jerking potential to be realized when its characters express their pain as if they were writing greeting cards."[3] The Washington Post wrote that "for all the moonlight and magic, the film scares up little in the way of enchantment."[6]

Many critics found it difficult to accept the basic premise, that the main character's continued mourning of his deceased wife was so detrimental to those around him. Roger Ebert, in particular, expressed frustration: "The movie cannot see that Esther is a deranged nuisance who should mind her own business, that David is entitled to his grief, that Rachel is happy living on the island, and that if Gillian appears to David, so much the better."[7] The Los Angeles Times wrote: "Despite its apparent parallels to Ghost, Gillian takes an entirely opposite path. Throughout Ghost, we were made to feel desperate for a reunion of Patrick Swayze's roaming spirit with a mourning Demi Moore. In Gillian, the whole purpose is to get David to give up the ghost."[8] Mick LaSalle in the San Francisco Chronicle thought the film lacked dramatic impetus: "the grieving husband never quite seems crazy enough - and the sister is never angry enough...drama is avoided. Issues are muddy. And everyone stays a nice person... In fact, typical of the film's undramatic choices - it's ungenerous unwillingness to commit to the extreme - the husband knows she [Gillian] is an illusion. So he's not crazy. She's not a ghost. And the sister-in-law, far from evil, is merely concerned. So why are we watching these people?"[9]

One aspect that garnered unanimous praise was Danes' performance as the troubled daughter. Variety wrote "Danes proves again that she's one of the most naturally gifted actresses of her generation."[5] The New York Times described her as "especially expressive in the film's later scenes, demonstrating a rare ability to seem fresh and honest when her material quite clearly is not."[3] The Los Angeles Times wrote "Danes is terrific playing an awkward teenager trying to understand her father's problems while feeling the first stirrings of passion in herself."[8] According to the Washington Post, "the gifted actress steals the show."[6]

Awards and nominations

Claire Danes won a Young Artist Award for Best Performance in a Feature Film - Supporting Young Actress.[10]


  1. To Gillian on Her 37th Birthday at Box Office Mojo
  2. "To Gillian on Her 37th Birthday - Filming locations". Retrieved 2009-12-17.
  3. Maslin, Janet (October 18, 1996). "Movie Review - To Gillian on Her 37th Birthday - Gone but Not Forgotten".
  4. "To Gillian on Her 37th Birthday Movie Reviews, Pictures". Archived from the original on 2008-07-26. Retrieved 2009-12-17.
  5. Levy, Emanuel (October 14, 1996). "To Gillian on Her 37th Birthday Review".
  6. Kempley, Rita (October 25, 1996). "'To Gillian on Her 37th Birthday'".
  7. Ebert, Roger (October 18, 1996). "To Gillian On Her 37th Birthday :: :: Reviews".
  8. Mathews, Jack (October 18, 1996). "To Gillian on Her 37th Birthday - MOVIE REVIEW - Los Angeles Times". Archived from the original on 2000-01-01.
  9. LaSalle, Mick (October 18, 1996). "FILM REVIEW - A Lifeless Story of Grief / Not enough seems at stake in 'Gillian'".
  10. "To Gillian on Her 37th Birthday - Awards". Retrieved 2009-12-17.
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