1865 finds Edward behind the lines during the Civil War where he finds his fatally wounded brother and watches him die, then buries him in the new land.
Edward is the owner of a bar and gambling hall 1882 in Ohio. An ambitious man he takes the opportunity to enter politics in Cincinnati. He must give up the woman he has been keeping for she will taint his new life.
Now in 1899 in a loveless marriage to the daughter of a political boss, banks everything on a mayoral campaign and loses. The birth of his second son, Charles, only serves to further trap him in despair.
Charles' story begins in 1917. He is 18 years old and studying his heart's desire at the Art Institute of Chicago. He is called home by his father, Edward, to serve with his brother and enlist in the army in WWI. He cannot be protected by his deeply upset mother. He goes to war, giving up his dream of being a painter.
In 1925 Charles is a reporter working for a daily newspaper in Chicago doing a story about bootleggers. On an impulse he goes to visit the art school that he left years ago. He receives a phone call that his father has died and goes home to Louisville. While there he reads that his reporter partner has been murdered by the gangsters they were investigating. Charles breaks down and is comforted by his brother's wife, Molly, with whom he has always been in love.
Eight years later in the middle of the depression Charles is penniless and out of work seeking the haven and warmth of the local library. He falls in love with Genevieve, a retiring young woman who is flattered by his attention. He sees her off to her family for Christmas. Then, after visiting the whore he sees occasionally, he decides that he must change his luck, change his life and marry.
In 1939 Charles is a salesman in Louisville. He is married now with two children who are strangers to him. The city is under a plague of starlings. He feeds birds from his office window then goes to a museum where he often escapes to see a Vermeer. He talks with Natalie, the curator who has befriended him and is unsettled by how much of himself he reveals. Unused to the intimacy he gets drunk and finds that the police are shooting the starlings. Sickened by the slaughter he goes home and begs forgiveness of Genevieve.
Mitchell, Charles' son, is twelve years old in 1945 when the victory is declared in WWII. Mitchell watches from a distance at the celebration in the streets as his father shows emotions that Mitchell has always longed for. They fight and Mitchell runs away from home only as far as the woods across the tracks. A friend of the family brings the boy home.
In 1955, Mitchell goes AWOL from the Navy. He gets caught and sent to Great Lakes Naval Station, then discharged. He returns home to Louisville.
When Mitchell is taken to his first play in Louisville he feels he has found home in this theatrical community and further discovers he has some natural talent. He is cast in a play and begins his acting life. Charles meanwhile, gets fired and receives a call from his brother saying that Molly has died. He is devastated. Charles has a heart attack. Mitch comes to see him. They talk. Charles dies with Genevieve by him.
Mitchell is doing well in 1963 working in the theatre in New York. He is drinking heavily. He meets movie star Lee Remick and is offered a role In a Broadway play, but takes another job because of a prior commitment. His agent tells him he has signed his death warrant.
In only six years Mitchell is in demand; but by here In 1969, Mitchell is reduced to daytime continual drinking with his cronies at his downtown drinking hole. He calls his young son, Tim, making promises he will not keep. His co-star in the Broadway play arrives to rescue him and he is given a large movie contract. It's 1972 and Mitchell, seriously in the grip of alcoholism has brought his mother to Los Angeles. He has been fired from a movie and for drinking. He knows the word is out on him in the business. His mother, cold and resentful, blames him for her unhappiness. They argue and he leaves for the nearest bar. The next morning he returns to find his mother dead.
By 1973 Mitchell is seriously down and on the way out. He winds up in the hospital near death, puts himself in a sober living house, two months later moves out and starts his life again, sober.
In 1980 Mitchell visits the Malibu jail where he had been detained years ago to bail his son Tim, age 14, out of jail. He brings the boy home. And Tim's mother arrives from NY. Together they decide on a lock-down school for the boy.
In 1984 Mitchell gets Tim out of the school and they find common ground reciting Shakespeare in the car. Mitchell feels that Tim has turned a corner and it is a happy homecoming pairing Tim with his long time best friend, Beth. It's 1987 and Mitchell gets a call from Beth. She and Tim have driven south to The Barter Theatre where Mitchell has landed a job for Tim with his old theatre company. Tim got drunk and abandoned Beth in the car. Mitchell tells her to come home. By now, Mitchell has exhausted his patience and realizes that Tim can only heal himself. He vows to wash his hands of his son.
Mitchell has not seen Tim for two years. At his home in the California Mountains in 1991, Mitchell receives a call from Tim begging his father to come help him in New York. He is hurt and broke. Mitchell flies to New York. He goes to the hospital to find Tim but the boy has flown. Mitchell goes out to the street and finds Tim in the nearest bar. They have a hopeless confrontation and Mitchell leaves.
Tim sinks deeper and deeper into addiction all the while looking for salvation in all the wrong places. He spins through his day and into the late night whereupon he crashes into an embankment on his motorbike. He is in the ICU in a coma when Mitchell arrives from Los Angeles. Noah, Tim's eight-year-old son and Mitchell hold hands at Tim's bedside and the next day, Mitchell lets his son go for the final time.
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