Tribute to a Lost Star

Cover of Tribute to a Lost Star

I came across The Merchant Ivory 1984 adaptation of E.M. Forster’s A Room with a View completely by chance. One evening, in the late eighties, as an awkward middle schooler who had just been granted the grace of wearing contact lenses, a skinny brown, frizzy-haired tween, who loved books, music, and taking our family dog for long walks around our unincorporated semi-rural neighborhood in Southern California, I found myself alone in the living room. My mom, dad, and younger brother had all gone upstairs. No Monday Night Football. No Raiders game for my mom to scream and holler during tackles and fumbles. No basketball. No news or Sixty Minutes. Just me, by some miracle, holding sole possession of the remote control. I surfed aimlessly, bent on the thrill that the TV was mine. Ready to tune in and zone out. It must have been a Saturday night, our local PBS station airing the usual weekend movie. I didn’t surf for long, immediately caught by a costumed drama unfolding on screen.

Only a certain type of girl would fall for George Emerson. The kind who carries the Brontës in their backpack and memorizes lyrics from The Cure and The Smiths. The kind who scribbles poetry as a means of prayer under the shade of a beloved eucalyptus tree. The kind who accidentally stumbles across the stories of E.M. Forster purely by happenstance and ends up holding onto dog-eared, well-creased, coffee-stained copies of Howards End, A Room with A View, and Maurice as if each novel were a kind of talisman. The kind who, decades later, shifts from girl to woman, to professor of writing and literature, to mother, and then mourner, who grieves for the loss of innocence for lovers like George and Lucy.

I remember Lucy, the heroine of the story, and Cecil, the would-be antagonist, traipsing through an English forest. Lucy’s long white dress catching on some nearby branches, the awkwardness of her trying to maneuver her parasol and lacy white train as she made her way through the brambles. I remember Cecil prattling on, looking out of place despite his self-satisfied smile. At the time I had no idea who these characters were, knew nothing of their story and the entanglement about to ensue but was entranced by the landscape, those thickets of green, the lovers weaving their way as decorously as possible through a near-wild landscape. I remember the tension building, romance on the line, that line being both a definitive boundary, separating the domestic from the wild, as well as a threshold, a gaping ache where a soul yearns to connect two complete opposites, coalescing reason with impulse. 

What I remember most, was George Emerson. Or, really, Julian Sands as George Emerson. I remember all too vividly the bath scene that soon followed with Mr. Beebe, Freddie, and George. Three loose acquaintances diving into an intimate, spontaneous moment. Each completely free, stark naked, half-wild, and fully open. Of course, as a young girl as impressionable as Lucy, I remember Sands, his leonine figure, all muscle, and taut flesh. His cornflower blue eyes, his sleek blonde hair combed back, a strand or two gone stray against his marble skin. A Grecian idol striding out from Lucy’s sacred lake in full frontal display. There were the candid shots of Vincent Cadby and Rupert Graves completely in the buff, hooting in chase as they flung clothes at one another in rapturous sport. I remember watching in astonishment, terrified my parents would come downstairs, particularly my dad, who’s voice I could easily imagine bellowing through the house, “what the hell are you watching?” But no one came. The TV, the bath scene, George, the Reverend, Lucy’s brother, all were mine to take in and marvel at their wild abandonment. Their innocence. Their celebration.  

I wouldn’t realize until much later how that night the universe tilted. How the silver-screen revealed a different way of seeing the world. Thanks to Julian Sands and the power of film crushes, his portrayal of George Emerson ignited a new devotion. Though the Edwardian English world was so completely removed from my Filipina-Mexican-American experience growing up in east county San Diego, the awkwardness of George, his pensive shyness, his bold eccentricity struck a chord that reverberated throughout my life. 

Cinematic crushes embody something intrinsic, some quality that resonates inside of us, maybe hidden and locked away, itching to be set free, and, at the same time, signifies qualities totally beyond us, the opposite of how we see ourselves or how others see us. Why couldn’t I have lighter skin? How could I coax my kinky curls into something like Helena Bonham Carter to catch the interest of someone like Julian Sands? The potency of films and books colors our imagination, and at the time, moving from a gangly, four-eyed mixed-race adolescent to a teenager coming into an awareness of body and self, I fell in love that Saturday evening, deeply in love on so many levels. My perspective forever tinted by the graces, the metaphysics, the pantheism of Forster come alive through Sands’ performance. 

I devoured Forster’s books after watching and then reading A Room with a View. I became a true devotee, even tackling P.N. Furbank’s three-hundred-page biography in high-school, where I’d learn how the real George Emerson was based on Forster’s first college love, H.O. Meredith, a fiery radical he met at Cambridge. Thumbing through the biography now, with all the many footnotes, the literary and historical allusions, I wonder how my fifteen-year-old self could have processed any of it, especially since I teach college undergrads and am all too familiar with the reading habits of nineteen and twenty-year-olds. 

Julian Sands became a gateway drug to the Bloomsbury group. Without him and his portrayal of George Emerson, I might not have found my way to Mrs. Dalloway. I might not have appreciated the weight of Joyce or Eliot or learned to love the likes of Thomas Mann and Bruce Chatwin. So early this January, when I read the news headline of Sands’ disappearance in the San Bernardino Mountains, just east of Los Angeles, an unexpected wave of grief hit me. A crack fissured inside. A shadow darkened one of the sunniest places in my heart. 

I didn’t know Sands was an avid and experienced hiker nor that he made California his home. From the updates that followed earlier this year, I’d learn how Sands preferred the back country of Los Angeles, and that he’d been summiting Mt. Baldy during one of the stormiest winters our state has endured. California was just recovering from an assault of atmospheric rivers. Countless communities deluged, washed away in water and mud. Power blacked out by downed trees. Lives swept away by rushing rivers. The bomb cyclone gave as much as it took. I checked the news daily for weather updates and for reports on Sands. The mountainside where he went missing was under threat of an avalanche. He trekked facing snow and ice. High winds deterred helicopter search and rescue attempts. The last ping from his cell phone was located at the Baldy Bowl Trailhead. Six months later his remains would finally be found by hikers who first discovered one boot then another until his clothes, his driver’s license, and his bones confirmed Sands’ death.

He was twenty-seven years old when he was cast as Lucy’s love interest. Born January 4, 1958, from Yorkshire, England, Sands trained at the London School of Speech and Drama. He’d go on to make 150 films as well as star in countless TV roles. I loosely followed Sands career, rushed to the theater to see Boxing Helena, stayed up late any time Warlock, Vibes, or Impromptu were re-televised on any of the cable channels. Though, for me, he would always be George Emerson.

Sands’ George Emerson is a walking contradiction, shy and bold, ruminative and impulsive, gentle and yet unabashedly blunt. Perfectly flawed. George remained fixed in my universe, a cardinal direction, an anchoring point when everything else turned on its head: my aging body, the move from singlehood to becoming a wife and then, later in life, motherhood. Losing Sands in some respects means a guiding star has dimmed, a pattern in the constellations less bright than before.

In a November 2018 Guardian interview, Amy Nicholson begins by saying, “There’s freedom in being Julian Sands, an actor whose eclectic career has taken him from prestige romances to subversive indie movies and sinister TV shows.” The roles Sands took on after A Room with a View were blatant refusals to be pigeon-holed. He didn’t buy into Hollywood status, wasn’t interested in being a leading man, or a box office romantic figure. From characters such as Jor El in Smallville and Vladimir Bierko in 24, forty years later, Sands still embodies the very essence of a free spirit, and I wonder how much of George Emerson in the film was Sands’ creation as opposed to Forster’s? Did I conflate Sands’ creativity with the character Forster conjured on the page?

It’s not just the sudden loss of Sands that has rattled me, but how he was lost that cuts to the core. I grew into hiking, dedicating myself to a regular practice in my early twenties. I moved from Los Angeles, where I went to college, to the Bay Area mainly to hike the coastal trails in Northern California. Hiking is like breathing, like reading and writing, intrinsic to who I am and how I come to understand this world and my place in it. My brother and I spent our childhood exploring our own backyard wilderness, traipsing over rugged chaparral on the undeveloped hillsides of our unincorporated hometown, where coyotes often visited our back lawn, and even a mountain lion was once spotted behind our neighbor’s house. Hiking was just an afternoon out among the buckwheat, the coyote brush, the sage, and eucalyptus groves. Sands grew up adventuring solo across the Yorkshire moors. He trekked the greatest destinations, climbing the Himalayas, the Andes, and Kilimanjaro. There was one harrowing trip through dangerous terrain when a few of his fellow travelers didn’t make it back. In a 2020 interview for Thrive Global, Sands shares his philosophy on hiking as “not so much a celebration of oneself, but the eradication of one’s self-consciousness.” 

The act of setting one foot in front of the other, of hearing gravel crunch under step, of witnessing the sky in conversation with trees and rock, and feeling the force of gravity work against you is to become wholly present in time and place. To exist as is. Ideals fall away. Forget the silver screen. When the air is filled with bay laurel, when the wind cuts into you, and the strain of the slope pulls at your breath, every muscle, every tendon, every part of you in motion comes alive. To be truly free is to submit to the universe. Freedom, at its heart, is the ability and agency to embrace submission. 

Twelve days after he went missing, Sands’ brother, Nick, made an official statement saying he’d come to terms that his brother was gone, praising Julian for being a loving and devoted brother, who always took time to return home, be with his family, including three older brothers, and checking in after their mum. There are those Sands leaves behind, three grown children, a wife, friends, and the years left unlived, the small day-to-day moments now suddenly at an end. The older I get, the more I realize how precious we’re granted any connection to others, to place, and to self. 

Sometime after that first night when I had the TV all to myself, I finally got to watch A Room with a View in its entirety. I’d just become a high schooler, learning how to be comfortable in that other wild terrain, the jungle of hormones, the sweaty awkwardness of gym class and theater productions. My devotion for Forster only more steadfast, and I began to understand in a deeper way, deeper than the love interest, the Romance that Forster strived for, that “figure with outstretched arms yearning for the unattainable.” The Eternal Yes. In my second viewing, the scene  that still resonates and impacts me today is the beginning of a series of unfolding moments: George standing in the olive tree on the Fiesole hillside in Florence. Birdsong ringing loud, wind rushing like water. While the English party picnics and plays nice, George declares his creed, shouting his truths to the world:





His voice sounding out over the birds and the polite conversations. His hold on some flimsy branches beginning to flail as the limbs give way. His call for hope turns to caterwaul, and he falls like a comic version of Icarus, crashing to the ground.

After that fall, there is the kiss, and after the kiss, there is Aunt Charlotte rushing Lucy away, back to safety, back to the pensione. There is George invited to sup with the locals, and the threat of lightning promising to strike down the once happy picnickers making their way down the hillside by horse and carriage. Disaster looming for everyone. 

Looking back now, it’s not the kiss, not the sudden passion that strikes Lucy and George ignited by the Firenze landscape, not Kiri Te Kanawa’s “O mio babbino caro” swelling with the ardor of the moment, but the aftermath of that passion, the real submission, the true love story of George, who is Julian, running down the embankment, the storm thundering above, rain slicing down, and his great, wide smile, a smile in complete submission to the sublime. His face, Julian’s whole being, a depiction of pure joy, as he gives himself to the land, to the falling sky, to the trees, and to the light that’s left as the storm begins to take hold. 


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