Judy Berlin

          One of the heartbreaking things about the 28th New Directors/New Films
  festival at New York City's Museum of Modern Art was learning that the opening
  night selection, Eric Mendelsohn's wonderful
Judy Berlin, was then still seeking
  distribution. It had a great pedigree as well having received the imprimatur of the
  1999 Sundance Film Festival (where Mendelsohn picked up a prize) Even a sterling
  cast that includes Edie Falco, Barbara Barrie, Madeline Kahn and Bob Dishy wasn't
  enough. Ah, right! That cast may have been part of the problem. These are mature
  actors, not the twinks, tweens and twentysomethings that the marketing men in
  Tinseltown are pushing on movie going audiences. No, these are established
  craftspeople, award-winners for their previous film and stage work who can truly
  act. And Mendelsohn has given them all three-dimensional characters to play.

          Indeed he crafted a gemlike film that would require special handling and
  bless the people at The Shooting Gallery who finally sealed a deal to distribute
  the picture. While they delayed the film until 2000, in hindsight, that was
  probably a mixed blessing. Falco, who was known predominantly in theatrical
  circles when the film first premiered emerged as a full-fledged TV star as Carmela
  on the HBO hit
"The Sopranos". On the other hand, the film also marks the final
  screen appearance of Madeline Kahn, who succumbed to ovarian cancer in
  December 1999.

          Judy Berlin is that rare film -- one that is both entertaining and enlightening.
  It opens a window into the world of schoolteachers and families who live in the
  suburbs of New York -- in this case Long Island. The action of the film is set on
  one day in the fall when there is a solar eclipse (thereby allowing for some rich
  and gorgeous black-and-white sequences superbly shot by director of photography
  Jeffrey Seckendorf). While Falco ostensibly has the title role, playing a woman in
  her early thirties who is about to head to California to try her luck at acting, the
  film is really an ensemble piece about a community. Barrie is Judy's mother, a
  prissy not well liked schoolteacher who is attracted to the principal (Dishy). Kahn
  is Dishy's stay-at-home wife and newcomer Aaron Hartnick (Barrie's real-life son)
  is their son, who has returned home after an unsuccessful showbiz career. He and
  Judy were high school classmates and they bond during this particular day when
  the world turns dark and day seems like night.

          Discussing plot specifics is almost pointless. Mendelsohn brilliantly has
  assembled a series of vignettes demonstrating how small moments and brief
  encounters can have a powerfully cumulative affect on a life.

          Judy Berlin is deliberately paced and it does take a while to kick in.
  Mendelsohn takes his time in introducing the main characters, delineating their
  relationships and allowing them to flower. That he successfully has written
  characters that reflect an almost forgotten segment of society and has done so
  in such rich detail is part of the pleasure of the film. His cast is comprised of
  predominantly stage-trained performers and they all offer incisive and beautifully
  realized portraits. The standouts are Barrie, Dishy, Falco, Hartnick and especially
  Kahn. Watching the film now after her death only adds to the poignancy she
  captures as a bored suburban matron. It is one of her finest performances and
  stands as a great testimony to her prodigious talent. Barrie captures the
  loneliness and bitterness of a woman disappointed by life while Dishy is
  befuddled by his attraction to her and his duty to his wife. Falco and Hartnick
  have a lovely chemistry as a mismatched pair who under different circumstances
  might have ended up together. There is also memorable work from Bettie
  Henritze, Carlin Glynn, Novella Nelson and comic cameos by Anne Meara and
  Julie Kavner.

          While it may have taken a while for this beautifully realized feature to hit
  the movie screens, it was well worth it.
Judy Berlin is a rarity; an intelligent,
  finely performed first feature.

                                      Rating:                B+
© 2005 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.