Thursday, November 22, 2012

Neglected Gem #29: Judy Berlin (1999)

Edie Falco as Judy
In Judy Berlin, the exquisite film debut of writer-director Eric Mendelsohn, a Long Island town in early September, that magical, touching time of valedictories and new beginnings, is the setting for a Chekhovian tragicomedy of emotional revelations. The characters are all interconnected. Judy (Edie Falco) is putting in one last workday at one of those American heritage villages; at the end of it she’ll hop the local train into Manhattan and take a flight to Los Angeles, where she hopes to break into movies. Her mother Sue (Barbara Barrie), a strained, uncomfortable woman whose relationship to her daughter is tense and awkward, teaches at the local elementary school. Bob Dishy plays Art Gold, the principal, who is married to Alice (Madeline Kahn). They barely seem to make contact with each other; as he heads for the door, there’s anguish in his eyes – mourning for vanished feelings – when she coaxes him to join in a worn exchange that begins, “Who’s your best lady?” You can see the pain of all the living the Golds have shared; it feels as though they can hardly bear it any longer.

Their son David (Aaron Harnick), a filmmaker, is thirty, but after leaving Hollywood he came back to live with them, flattened by depression, unable to take a step forward or reach out to anyone. You can see him trying, tentatively, as he wanders around town in the morning: he sits beside an older woman on a bench, and when she goes on her way he chases after her with a glove he thinks she’s left behind – but it isn’t hers. He runs into an old classmate, but their interaction is fatuous, meaningless; we can see that this man has nothing to offer David but a superficial interest in the fact that he makes pictures. But then he sees Judy, whom he knew, too, at school, and who always intrigued him. He was a Jewish “brain” who skipped a year; she was a tough kid, half Jewish, half Italian, who wore a leather jacket and didn’t get good grades. Yet meeting again, unpredictably, on this September day, they see something in each other neither has seen before. It isn’t the basis for romance, exactly, or even for friendship – we don’t have any expectation that they’ll cross paths again, even though, like Nina in The Sea Gull talking to Treplev, Judy suggests wistfully that he could make a film sometime and she could star in it. But somehow, wandering all over town together, Judy and David touch each other’s hearts. Sensitive, embodying (in her mind if not in reality) the stability and success she’s always longed for, always felt closed out of, he grounds her emotionally for a little while; vibrant, determinedly upbeat, she draws him back into life. (Falco’s Judy emphasizes every major word in a sentence, as some people do when they’re trying desperately to stay positive.)

Most of the movie takes place during a mysteriously long solar eclipse that transforms the town into an enchanted place, like the woods or island of a Shakespeare comedy. Judy Berlin is about connections, lost and found; the magic of the eclipse seems to permit some that the familiarity and public nature of broad daylight might render impossible, or at least improbable. One is between Art and Sue. Sue’s class is interrupted by a retired teacher, Dottie (Bette Henritze), whose mind has wandered; she returns to the classroom as if the years since her departure had simply vanished. She directs the children to look out the window at the wisteria. When Sue interferes, asking her politely to leave, Dottie slaps her across the face, upbraiding her, “Rude! And everybody says so.” Art manages to escort Dottie out of the school, while other women on the staff smile at her and ask her if she remembers them, and she answers, puzzled by the question, “I’m not a child. Why do they treat you as if you were a child?” (Henritze, with her crumpled face, is marvelous, and this is a devastating moment.) Then Art returns to make sure Sue is all right, and as he consoles her, something unspoken hangs in the air between them – a romantic tension, a recognition of past desires, never acted on or even acknowledged.

Madeline Kahn
As the eclipse begins – Alice, her face lit up with wonder, opens her blinds so she can look; a man reaches his hand up against the preternaturally darkening sky and a silhouette appears; the children in the playground cheer – Sue watches silently, bitterly. She can’t open up even to her daughter; it’s clear from Barrie’s performance that Sue is terrified of her own inability to express her emotions, of growing old and losing her faculties, like Dottie. The characters in Judy Berlin are scared of their own inertia and yet scared to plunge themselves past it – except for naïve Judy, who, we sometimes think, is making the plunge for everyone in this town. And we’re scared for her, as David is: he warns her that Hollywood will break her heart. The dialogue doesn’t tell us that Art kisses Sue because he’s freaked out about growing old; it doesn’t have to, because Mendelsohn and the actors have made the characters’ feelings and motivations so clear that we can read the subtext. And this theme, the fear of aging, has already been introduced – in a gentle, whimsical, almost Saroyanesque way – by Alice, who chants to herself as she pads through the house, “I wish, I wish, I wish in vain / That I could be sixteen again / But sweet sixteen I’ll never be / Till apples grow on a cherry tree.”

Barbara Barrie & Bob Dishy 
The strange mood prompted by the eclipse enables Alice to reconcile with a neighbor, Maddie (Carlin Glynn), whom she’s stopped speaking to, for reasons Maddie never understood and Alice doesn’t remember. With her housekeeper (Novella Nelson) at her side, Alice pays Maddie an unprecedented midday visit and admires her new built-ins. In the unnatural darkness, the women are silhouetted against the plastic in which the new cabinets are still wrapped. (The black-and-white photography by Jeffrey Seckendorf is amazing. He shoots the lights on the train platform in the scene where Judy takes off so they look like stars glimpsed through tears.) Then Alice sees her husband’s car stop down the street and rushes out to greet him; he steps on the gas and races off, and she’s certain that he’s left her – that, as she puts it, she’s too much for him. Alice would be a lot for anyone; all her impulses, all her neuroses hang all over her like Christmas lights. When she relates one of her dreams to her son and wonders about its “subliminal meaning,” David replies fondly, “There’s no sub. You’re all liminal.” Alice says that she falls apart in the day-to-day but that she handles crises well, because in a crisis the rest of the world speaks her language. (Mendelsohn’s one hell of a writer.) She’s middle-aged yet childlike; you can believe that in some crucial way, even after seeing a son grow up, she still thinks of herself as a schoolgirl. (“I wish, I wish, I wish in vain / That I could be sixteen again” – Adriana Asti’s Gina in Bertolucci’s Before the Revolution comes to mind, weeping because the little girl reciting a nursery rhyme won’t stop long enough to teach it to her.) As splendid as Bob Dishy and Barbara Barrie are, as charming as Falco is, as heartrending as Harnick and Henritze are, each in a different way, it’s Madeline Kahn who’s the soul of this movie, which was her last. She has its most affecting and perhaps its most resonant moment: she recalls Art getting up in the middle of the night for a glass of water and bringing her one, too, without her even asking him to. (Here you might think of Wally Shawn in My Dinner with André extolling the joys of a life where he can sometimes wake up in the morning to a cup of coffee that a cockroach hasn’t crawled into.) American Beauty, from the previous year, depicted a venal suburban existence where the connections between people are normally crass, vindictive, self-serving. By contrast, Mendelsohn, who loves his characters, provides moments of intimacy between them that both mourn the loneliness that overtakes them the rest of the time and pulse with unreasonable hope. He’s read his Chekhov, all right.

And he’s studied his David Lynch. You see Lynch in the oddness of tone, and in the direction of the actors, who are somehow both naturalistic and emblematic – almost, in some scenes, suggesting figures in relief against the poetic, iconic suburban backdrop. You see Lynch in the way the mood of a moment lingers in the air after the actors have stopped speaking, and – especially – in the generosity with which Mendelsohn portrays the eccentricities and disappointments of women and men living in the suburbs. He doesn’t count it against Alice and Art and Sue and David that their lives haven’t worked out, that they’re stalled, that they’re not always strong enough to stand up in the face of the disintegration of their youth and the shattering of their dreams. At one point David tells Judy that he’s always wanted to make a documentary about the town they grew up in – the one Judy is, at long last, springing herself from. If Ricky Fitts, the video fiend in American Beauty, were to speak that line, we would naturally read it as an indictment of empty lives, corrupt desires and hidden agendas. David says it tenderly. For Eric Mendelsohn, the gaps in these people’s lives are filled up with feeling, and Judy Berlin is a love letter to them.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and The Boston Phoenix and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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