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
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
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.
|© 2005 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.