I can’t properly prove how it is my mom didn’t see this lifelong favorite of hers, released almost exactly a year before I was born, until her baby boy was mere weeks away from arriving. But Candy Wener swears she first saw Barbra Streisand’s still-marvelous performance as vaudeville star Fanny Brice in early September ’69, when she was every bit as pregnant as Babs is in this musical’s bridal number, the one that gets Ziegfeld fuming — until he notices how much the audience is howling with laughter, and that he’s got a unique star on his hands.MORE...
This also would have been a handful of months after La Streisand’s historic shared Oscar win for best actress, the only time that or any other acting category has ever been tied. Katharine Hepburn got just as many votes for The Lion in Winter, and was helpfully not in attendance, so when the vivacious then-future legend, with then-husband Elliott Gould seated next to her, rose in her amazing, sheer, flared, futuro-flapper outfit and nearly tripped going up the steps to the stage, she gratefully didn’t have to also awkwardly accept the award alongside a then-actual legend. (Instead, her timing was impeccable as she famously addressed her new golden friend: “Hello, gorgeous.”) So the milestones of Streisand’s soaring popularity at that time — bolstered by Grammy-nabbing/platinum-selling albums, highly-rated television specials and a live performance before 135,000 in Central Park within weeks of Monterey Pop occurring on the opposite coast — all would have been more than enough reason for a 70mm roadshow print of Funny Girl to be shown repeatedly at that magnet for local film freaks in the ’70s and ’80s, the Cinedome in Orange.
From the outside, that trendsetting cluster of palaces (also born in ’69) resembled the nuclear boobs of the San Onofre power plant, but the immense insides of those giant globes still make IMAX seem small. Even the iconic Cinerama Dome in Hollywood couldn’t compare to its fully enveloping design, boasting cutting-edge developments in sound and stadium seating four decades before that would become the norm. Which is why it instantly drew patrons from all over Southern California — and why Mom (23 at the time) and Dad (22) quite possibly could have enjoyed several tunefully romantic nights at the movies there, complete with overtures and intermissions. Unlike, say, the night they were at Farrell’s having sweet treats when Candy’s water broke and Phil rushed her to the hospital. (The part they laugh about now is how Dad was equally concerned about both his wife and the condition of his passenger seat.)
However it happened — seeing Funny Girl, I mean, not popping me out — this classic that somehow feels like it’s from a lot farther back than 1968, starring quite possibly the most quintessentially Jewish of superstars, is very likely the first movie I ever “saw,” which is to say it’s really the first movie I ever “heard.” Sam, my 11-year-old son, heard Prince, Death Cab for Cutie, Rilo Kiley and more at Coachella from inside his cozy womb. I heard “Don’t Rain on My Parade,” “My Man,” “People” and “I’m the Greatest Star,” and I’d soon hear them again and again until my age hit low double digits. That both of those things happened says volumes about who I am. No other film could be a better starting point for this grandiose Ben-at-50 contemplation I’ve concocted, nor a more appropriate first inductee into this imaginary Jewish Cinema Hall of Fame that I’ve created to parallel my family’s past. Whether they like it or not.
*As Funny Girl has already been reserved for Opening Night at Philman’s Jewish Theatre (free matzos and Manischewitz in plastic cups!), it is ineligible for selection in the Jury Vote.LESS
Like any first-generation cable-raised VCR siblings just starting to awaken at the dawn of the ’80s, my sister Jennifer and I had a shelf’s worth of movies we watched dozens upon dozens of times, well past the point of achieving mere memorization. Seems Like Old Times, for instance, Neil Simon’s love-triangle farce with Goldie Hawn (Sock-It-to-Me Jew), Chevy Chase and Charles Grodin (Scene-Stealing Jew): that one popped up lots, seemingly on one channel or another every third day from 1982 until 1985. We could sit at the kitchen table doing homework and still recite lines of dialogue without paying the slightest attention to it, like freakish automatons, never breaking our studious concentration. Then there was Poltergeist, Tobe Hooper’s (but really Steven Spielberg’s) fright flick, which became Jen’s obsession in the summer of ’83. She made a habit of putting it on both upstairs and downstairs and then following Mom from room to room as she did housework, too terrified to be left alone. “So turn it off!” Candy would eventually gripe in exasperation. “But I like it!” Jen would cry back.MORE...
This fish-out-of-water comedic western, The Frisco Kid, featuring one of the very best of (Comedy Genius Jew) Gene Wilder’s many great performances plus Harrison Ford two years after first playing Han Solo, is among the ones we watched the most. For several years it easily outdistanced Fiddler on the Roof as the go-to choice at certain particularly Jewish times of years or when relatives were visiting. All these years later — must have been at least 20 before I looked at a few YouTube clips of it just now — I still have this strange for-Jews-only insularity about it.
I don’t recall ever even mentioning it to any gentile friends, or ex-wives or girfriends, exactly none of whom have been of the Hebrew persuasion. I’d sooner have shared tears over a Holocaust drama, a far more universally relatable horror, than to see if I might elicit a few snickers with this super Jewish yuk-fest about a less-than-exceptional Polish rabbi, a schlemiel with nothing but a heart of gold and a Torah for which he later might have to purify his soul with fire to rescue, making his way to San Francisco to head up a congregation during the Gold Rush. Right or wrong to be so self-segregating, I simply assumed my not-Jew pals just wouldn’t get the jokes, even with the always-popular Ford, here playing a softie bank robber who winds up becoming Wilder’s guide west, essentially standing in for audiences bewildered by Jewish traditions. (He wasn’t top choice for the outlaw role: director Robert Aldrich and his studio bosses tried for years to pin down John Wayne but to no avail — and then the Duke died just before this comedy opened.)
So, apart from family chats, I’ve only ever had Roger Ebert’s two-star review of The Frisco Kid with which to have any meaningful discussion of its merits. Reading Ebert’s massive compendiums of reviews was like that for me in my 20s, and still sometimes today. He believed that the film “tries for almost every possible tone” but that “what it doesn’t have is a consistent comic logic to lead us through its Western smorgasbord.” True and true, and I’d add that veteran film composer Frank De Vol’s by-the-numbers score, so reminiscent at times of the frothy touch he applied to Aldrich’s Doris Day comedies as the ’50s became the ’60s, doesn’t do the film’s genuinely poignant moments of cultural understanding and brotherhood any justice.
All the same, a smorgasbord of slapstick gags and double entendres and dialect puns and ethnic zingers can still leave me plenty full of joy, even a little verklempt. And then there’s Wilder’s Avram Belinski, the most tenderly stoic character he ever embodied, a pure charmer with irreplaceable facial expressions and impeccable timing. About the man who played him, Ebert and I completely agree: “He is, in fact, as good an actor here as he's ever been before, and at his own brand of complex vulnerability Gene Wilder has never been surpassed.”LESS
Another Wener family favorite that I can so vividly — “Wait a minute,” the one person not born Al Pacino who knows this film will undoubtedly interrupt. “What in the world is so Jewish about an Italian portraying a playwright with an Armenian surname whose wife, Tuesday Weld (not a Jew, although her third husband, the one after Dudley Moore, was Israeli violinist Pinchas Zukerman), well, she runs out on him, leaving Pacino with their five children, all but one not his, just as he’s trying to cast his next production, which is why he winds up wooing that ‘star’ named Alice Detroit, played by Dyan Cannon, who ...”MORE...
Stop right there and shout shalom three times: We’ve found a Jew!
Even so, a well-delivered supporting role from the oft-underrated Ms. Cannon (born Samille, not Camille, but Samille Diane Friesen) is hardly the yarmulke clip I’d hang this memorable little gem on for a deluxe screening at Philman’s Jewish Theatre (now serving gefilte fish!). And that’s doubly so considering Cary Grant’s ex-wife became a born-again Christian decades ago. There are, however, several other Jewish notables and notably Jewish faces involved in this mildly romantic dramedy, another from the glut of divorce pictures I saw with psyche-shaping frequency during my adolescence.
First up: producer Irwin Winkler, for whom Author! Author! is an under-loved trifle in an extensive filmography that boasts five Oscar nominees for best picture: They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? from ’69, Rocky in ’76 (that one got him the gold), Philip Kaufman’s space-race masterpiece The Right Stuff from ’82, and two with Martin Scorsese, Raging Bull in ’80 and GoodFellas a decade later. (Winkler is still in the game at 88, having had a hand in Scorsese’s hotly anticipated gangster epic The Irishman.)
Next: director Arthur Hiller, the son of Polish immigrants, whose credits include an almost-big night at the Oscars as well, when his wildly successful 1970 adaptation of Erich Segal’s widely-read Love Story earned seven nominations but took home only one, for Francis Lai’s score. Among Hiller’s other credentials are social satires scripted by Paddy Chayefsky (The Americanization of Emily, The Hospital), popular comedies penned by Neil Simon (The Out-of-Towners, Plaza Suite) and a slew of hit pairings, best among them Silver Streak (Richard Pryor & Gene Wilder), The In-Laws (Alan Arkin & Peter Falk) and Outrageous Fortune (Bette Midler & Shelley Long). By the way, inaugural guests of Philman’s, other than Pryor and Long every name I just mentioned is/was Jewish. (Also, half-Jewish pianist and composer Dave Grusin provided the score for Author! Author!, and though I have yet to verify this, my guess is that its noted cinematographer Victor J. Kemper was fully kosher.)
And before we get out from behind the camera, it should be noted that this proto-modern-family piece situated adjacent to Broadway was tapped out by Israel Horovitz, renowned playwright and theater director, winner of Obies, Drama Desk Awards and a lifetime achievement salute from B’nai B’rith — and whose legacy was nonetheless tarnished in November 2017 when the New York Times published testaments from nine women who claimed Horovitz, now 80, sexually assaulted or harassed them during a 40-year span with the Gloucester Stage Company, which he co-founded in ’79. In the sort of twist-of-truth that begs for an embellished Jewish melodrama, Adam Horovitz (Sabotage Jew), one of six children the old master sired by three wives, and an artist in his own right as Ad-Rock of the Beastie Boys, had this to say: “I believe the allegations against my father are true, and I stand behind the women that made them.”
No matter how important and/or impactful these three (four and a half?) talents have been on Jewish-American cultural history, whose careers (even Horovitz’s) all merit Hall-of-Fame-level acknowledgement, it’s the two Jews who appear on screen who made the deepest impression on me when I was 13: Alan King, one of the best Jewish comedians ever, and a then-16-year-old kid named Eric Gurry, who I also cannot confirm was circumcised at birth, but with that Manilow look of his ... I mean, c’mon.
King, an angry, topical, always biting and often rant-filled stand-up comic who, it could be argued, represents a past link to the current humor of Lewis Black (albeit with less shouting and hypertension), rose from the Borscht Belt retreats of the Catskills to variety-show fame and soon a movie career that hit its peak of semi-popularity right around the time of Author! Author!, in which he has most of the sharpest lines as Pacino’s beleaguered but conniving agent, so perfectly named Kreplich. Rarely a leading man outside of 1980’s hit-and-miss comedy Just Tell Me What You Want with Ali MacGraw, King, who died in 2004 at 76, spent the rest of his career popping up in memorable bit parts, often as gangsters (Scorsese’s Casino, Winkler’s 1992 remake of the crime drama Night and the City) or rabbis, as in Paul Mazursky’s Enemies, A Love Story, another fine choice for an evening at Philman’s (comfy dine-in seating! try the hot pastrami on rye!). Another standout from King’s credits: Memories of Me, a bittersweet father-son comedy co-starring Billy Crystal (Mike Wyzowski Jew) and directed by Henry Winkler (The Fonz Jew).
I realize I’ve said almost nothing about Pacino’s performance, largely because it ought to be taken for granted that it’s a cut above — it’s Pacino. Author! Author!, an uncharacteristic rom-com-leaning role from one of filmdom’s most intense actors, catches him in the thick of his long-ranging zenith. Having rebounded from the laughable dud Bobby Deerfield (which still snagged him a Golden Globe nomination), he recaptured the explosively manic manner he brought to Sidney Lumet’s bank-heist masterstroke Dog Day Afternoon and made it just as unhinged and riveting in the courtrooms of Norman Jewison’s nuthouse legal drama ... And Justice for All. Then he tapped back into the undercover fury of Serpico for William Friedkin’s controversial, justifiably protested yet criminally underrated 1980 cop flick Cruising, a serial-killer mystery set amid the S&M gay bars of NYC’s Meatpacking District ... then comes Author! Author! ... and then he brings Tony Montana to cocaine-fueled life in Brian De Palma’s rethinking of Scarface. So, yeah: that Pacino.
When I was 13, however, the face that meant the most to me belonged to this Eric Gurry fellow, whose unavoidable schnozz, snarky demeanor and never-hidden sweetness I greatly identified with just as I had Quinn Cummings’s turn as the precocious pre-teen daughter of single mom Marsha Mason, who rents a room to Richard Dreyfuss (Cranky Jew) in The Goodbye Girl until he wins an Oscar for it. Gurry’s character, Pacino’s eldest and sole biological kid, cruelly/coolly named Igor (can you recall any character not from Frankenstein given that moniker?), grapples with the same sort of teenage tensions I was already sensing in my life — specifically, how to set a good example for younger ones while still having fun yourself, and how to learn to be more than a child when your parent needs parenting. As with Chris Makepeace’s remarkably conveyed moods in My Bodyguard and even Meatballs (see the SAMX section for more on those) or, later, Jon Cryer’s Duckie in Pretty in Pink, here was a kid maybe only a year or two older than me, in whom I glimpsed so much of myself. Sam could do a lot worse than meet Igor now.LESS
“These are all comedies, schmuck! Where’s Shoah and Schindler’s List? Where’s fucking Exodus?! And you call yourself a Jew! I bet you read from the phonetics during First Seder, and probably don’t even bother going to a second one. Do you even know how many Hanukkah candles are needed for an eight-night run? Of course you don’t. Fool.”MORE...
All of us here at Philman’s Jewish Theatre — the only place west of Skokie where you can get delicious mohel-approved hot dogs and Dr. Brown’s soda on tap! — we hear you. Your troubling concerns about the overall lighthearted nature of this Judaica popup that we’ve attached to our just-begun 50th anniversary celebration are being taken quite seriously at the top levels of our organization. We want to assure you, our most sage and somber of cinephiles, that future BenFests will be filled with all kinds of bleak, grief-stricken tragedies for the whole family, or your money back!
In the meantime, please kindly sheket bavakashah! (That’s “shut your piehole” in Hebrew.) We’ll get to the really sad and important stuff in due time, when Sam & Sydney & Gabriel are a little older. Besides, what’s so meshugge about launching an imaginary Jewtopia with five good-to-great comedies, none of which involve Woody Allen?
OK, yes, in a roundabout way the permanently stained Woody (wait, that doesn’t sound right) is in some small part responsible for this delightful elaboration of how crazily fun life could be as a young comedy writer in the early days of live television. Screenwriters Norman Steinberg (let’s call him Writer Jew) and Dennis Palumbo (presumably a Not-Jew Writer?) conceived the central character Benjy Stone as a composite of Allen (quite the Jew) and My Favorite Year’s executive producer, Mel Brooks (so very much a Jew), both of whom cut their teeth thinking up quips and gags for programs just like the fictional King Kaiser Show back in 1954, the titular year in question.
Fleshed out in a breakout, windup-toy performance by Mark Linn-Baker (who only looks like a Jew) four years before ABC’s Perfect Strangers cast him as straight man to Bronson Pinchot’s more popular Balki, the character Stone wasn’t the only not-so-vaguely devised homage to the past. Peter O’Toole (not Jewish, British), in his finest comedic role by far as faded swashbuckler Alan Swann, is obviously a drunken, philandering reprise of Errol Flynn (also not Jewish, Australian), although Brooks has said the actual action hero’s brief time on the real Your Show of Shows was entirely uneventful. Joseph Bologna, not a Jew but he plays one as believably as he can an Italian, gets some of the most memorable lines that aren’t O’Toole’s as Stan “King” Kaiser, clearly based on one of live TV’s earliest giants, Sid Caesar (SuperJew, oft-rumored to be the most well-endowed of all snipped males). Even the smaller roles are inspired by quirks cribbed from other famous writers: the always-whispering Herb Lee character, played by Basil Hoffman (no clue ... Jew?), was apparently drawn from Your Jew of Jews Neil Simon’s manner of quietly relating ideas to colleagues rather than shouting to be heard during script meetings.
Setting aside adorable Jessica Harper (if only she were a Jew) as King’s assistant — she was a constant crush from several films of my youth who I couldn’t wait to grow up and marry — the Hebrew hit parade in My Favorite Year gets longer and longer the deeper you scan the credits. There’s Bill Macy, best-known as Bea Arthur’s husband on another of (Sitcom Jew) Norman Lear’s groundbreakers for CBS, Maude, playing overbearing but spineless head writer Sy Benson. The wonderful Lainie Kazan, beloved as both Aunt Frieda on another CBS sitcom, Fran Drescher’s The Nanny, and as the mom in My Big Fat Greek Wedding, earned a Golden Globe nomination for her performance as Benjy’s Swann-swooning mother. (In 1992, she also would be the only member of the movie cast to reprise her role in a darker-toned and widely-panned Broadway musical version of MFY that starred Tim Curry as Swann — and closed a month after opening, despite snagging Tony nods for its two biggest stars.)
Add to those names quintessential Jewish character actor Lou Jacobi, as Benjy’s uncle, although I remember him most from prancing about in a dress during the transvestism segment of Woody’s chapter-book farce Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* (But Were Afraid to Ask); stage and screen veteran Adolph Green as show boss Leo Silver; George Wyner, a regular of Brooks’s comedies, perhaps best-known as Col. Sanders in Spaceballs; and terrifically gruff-voiced Selma Diamond, an overlooked writer from the same stable that produced Brooks and Allen and Reiner and Simon, who would inspire Rose Marie’s character Sally Rogers on The Dick Van Dyke show. I’m not sure she’s Jewish, but wow does she ever remind me of plenty of sassy old broads I met at Temple.
Then there’s the Jew chiefly responsible for why My Favorite Year holds together so neatly, why the jokes land so swiftly, and why the look of it feels so authentic: director Richard Benjamin (Portnoy Jew), whose own time at 30 Rock, where several of this movie’s scenes were shot, began in 1956 when he was a mere NBC page. The man also known as Mr. Paula Prentiss (they’re both now 81 and have been married for 58 years) may well have been the most identifiably young male Jewish face that wasn’t Woody Allen’s when both of their careers began to soar the year I was born, with Woody delivering his first true directorial effort, Take the Money and Run, and Mr. Benjamin starring in the screen edition of Philip Roth’s popular novella Goodbye, Columbus opposite Ali MacGraw, as star-cross’d Jewish lovers from different social strata.
He’d follow that up with noteworthy 1970 parts in Catch-22 (directed by Mike Nichols, Urbane Jew) and Diary of a Mad Housewife before embodying an even more notorious Roth character, the sexually frustrated (not-so-)nice Jewish boy making all that noise and goo in Portnoy’s Complaint. By the start of the ’80s he would switch almost exclusively to working behind the lens, leading next to the underrated Racing with the Moon (1984, with Sean Penn and Elizabeth McGovern) and then a string of hit-and-miss movies, mostly comedies: The Money Pit (a memorable remake of Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House), the spy thriller Little Nikita with Sidney Poitier and the soon-departed River Phoenix, Mermaids with Cher (not Jewish, Armenian-Cherokee, among other things) and Winona Ryder (totally Jewish), Made in America with then-lovers Whoopi Goldberg (nope) and Ted Danson (hardly), and Milk Money with Ed Harris (c’mon, quit kidding around) and Melanie Griffith (who also mixes meat and dairy). (However, two years earlier Ms. Griffith did provide a back-to-back double-whammy of preposterous shiksa-as-Jew performances, first as a translator-turned-spy in the WWII romance Shining Through, then as a homicide detective who goes undercover amid NYC’s Hasidic community to solve a murder in A Stranger Among Us. I paid to witness both of these completely believable roles because back then, before she froze all facial expressions, there was just something about Melanie Griffith that left me inexplicably googly-eyed.)
All of the above is more than enough proof that smaller cultural comedies deserve just as much enshrinement in any sort of Jewish Cinema Institute as inadvertently funny biblical epics like The Ten Commandments or any other similarly tremendous spectacles in their day that nonetheless sport hilariously wooden dialogue, plenty of miscasting, and body language that often reads homoerotic. As Gore Vidal recounts in the queer-cinema survey The Celluloid Closet, take another look at those longing looks Stephen Boyd sometimes gives Charlton Heston in Ben-Hur. (No famous Jews were summoned in the creation of that sentence.)
And yet, astoundingly, none of the above hits upon my reasons for picking this over dozens of other high-quality comedies. Those two are:
1. Here at last, after 13 fairly torturous years growing up as Benjie Wener, was a Benjy unaffiliated with any canine. For those perhaps too young or just unfamiliar with what I’m getting at ... well, first, let’s get it straight: It’s Weeeeee-ner, friends, not Wehhhhh-ner. Like wiener, only without the i. Why isn’t it pronounced in a manner that has more than once led someone to believe I’m somehow related to Rolling Stone founder Jann Wenner? Because of spelling differences, for starters. But in fact it’s because my family’s original surname looked like Wenercour and was pronounced Venercour. So when my wonderful great-grandfather Sam (yup, that’s how the kid got his name) and his siblings escaped the deathly pogroms and driving snow and bone-chilling cold of mother Russia and arrived at the Canadian version of Ellis Island to savor the freedom of maple syrup and driving snow and bone-chilling cold, the surname got shortened by whichever sorey-ass hosehead was manning the immigration desk that day. We’ve been Weners ever since.
Additionally, I did not grow up a simple Ben or a stately Benjamin — I was Benjie as definitively as if it had been printed that way on my birth certificate. Yet, just as I was beginning to cope with classmates who didn’t like my looks suddenly taunting me by snottily singing the then-new “oh I wish I were an Oscar Mayer wiener” song — timeout: why would someone want to be that? — along came a scruffy little movie mutt named Benji. An adorable little junkyard Asta with the combined smarts of Lassie and Rin Tin Tin, he became such a hit with families that his self-titled debut adventure spun off a whole series of popular flicks. Thus began the years of Benjie DogDick jokes, and of Benjie Wener quickly learning to laugh at himself, else the wounds might show. Imagine my joy, then, when quirky, funny, sweater-vested, tender-hearted wiseacre Benjy Stone appeared on screen when Mom and I first saw My Favorite Year. At last! A genuine Benjy! A Benjy not worth mocking — a Benjy who’s got talent! Who’s going places! In 1954, ok, but still! Did I mention he also gets to kiss Jessica Harper? Benjy Stone was immediately my hero.
2) Peter O’Toole. I had only learned of him two years earlier when he played a half-crazed, Elia Kazan-like director in Richard Rush’s cult favorite The Stunt Man, an inevitable Pantheon selection. He got another best actor Oscar nomination for that one, his sixth, and I remember watching the ceremony in early ’81 and rooting for him even though everyone (including O’Toole, who stayed home) knew that Robert De Niro had it in the bag for Raging Bull; I hadn’t seen Scorsese’s bruised masterpiece yet, otherwise I’d have understood why it was such a given. When I first noticed O’Toole prat-falling and shouting “I’m not an actor, I’m a movie star!” in TV ads for MFY, I couldn’t wait to see it — and then couldn’t wait to see it again, since I giggled so much the first time that I knew I must have missed something.
He’s superbly funny throughout the whole movie, from the moment he stares terrified at that teddy bear in his introductory scene to his final act of swashbuckling heroism. So he snagged his seventh Oscar nod for it. But of course Ben Kingsley would just have to play Gandhi that same year, right? O’Toole would rack up eight nominations in all but never win one competitively, so they gave him the lifetime achievement prize in 2002. Twenty years before that overdue moment, back in ’82? I was still a half-decade away from seeing Lawrence of Arabia for the first time, thankfully in 70mm at the Cinedome. By that point, I’d already determined I liked O’Toole more than Alec Guinness, John Gielgud and Laurence Olivier combined.LESS
I love this movie oh so very hard; it just as rightly belongs on this year’s Pantheon list. But I’ve tucked it into the lineup over here at Philman’s Jewish Theatre (come break your Yom Kippur fast with our screening of Crossing Delancey — everyone goes home with a jar of pickles!) as a means of saluting the unique, largely unsung genius of Albert Brooks, another comic-genius Jew, and a less-than-prolific filmmaker who, if you take to his cockeyed realism and offbeat social satire, is nonetheless among the most consistent you can find.MORE...
Like so many other aspects of BenFest, his career also traces back to ’69, when Brooks began sharpening his standup skills into brainy material that wasn’t above relying on goofy voices or silly noises to put across a good gag. In the late ’70s, by which time he was a mainstay and occasional guest host on The Tonight Show, Brooks was the alternative to the alternative: less zany than Steve Martin, less meta than Andy Kaufman, less pseudo-smug and insular than Martin Mull, and yet crafting the most natural of post-modern humor enhanced by elements found in all of those peers.
He soon made the leap to the Silver Screen by bouncing off the boob tube, where his eccentric short films first started gaining a following via Saturday Night Live. Though they all weren’t intended to be funny, Lorne Michaels (Sketch Jew) featured them heavily on his new show, including the debut episode in October ’75, right about the time Brooks was appearing in Scorsese’s Taxi Driver as an envious campaign aide who disapproves of angelic Cybill Shepherd (not a chance) going on a date with De Niro’s Travis Bickle. Come ’79, the man actually born Albert Einstein (the scientist “changed his name to sound more intelligent,” he’d joke) made his full-length directorial debut in much the same way Woody Allen had a decade before: with a mockumentary, in this case Real Life, a spot-on spoof of PBS’s eye-opening series An American Family from six years earlier. Two decades before it would become a mainstream force, Brooks was already skewering the very notion of reality television.
What followed — downbeat studies of love (1981’s Modern Romance) and marriage (1985’s Lost in America) that are still as painfully honest as they are painfully funny — was topped and never bested once Brooks made Defending Your Life, his most cohesive and satisfying piece, despite the many laughs peppered throughout terrific but little-noticed films still to come, like Mother (1996) and The Muse (1999). It’s also his most imaginative invention: Brooks’s concept of an Afterlife trial to defend one’s soul isn’t set floating in some dreamy, heaven-neighboring whereversphere, as in Pantheon choice A Matter of Life and Death. Instead he creates a shinny happy suburban Purgatory called Judgment City where everything looks as beige as Irvine; the meals are the best you’ve ever had, ready in seconds, and you can’t gain weight; and new arrivals (“small brains,” defense attorney Rip Torn calls them) not only get the soundest sleep they’ve had since Week 1 of this most recent life, they also can head over to the popular Past Lives Pavilion, where a Shirley MacLaine hologram will show them flashbacks of previous existences.
There is one requirement, however, while enjoying all these amenities: you also must spend your days defending your actions on Earth, with an emphasis on those times when one ought to have been fearless instead of fearful. The higher the number of days, the less likely it is that you’ll be moving on, and instead will be reincarnated. (So the what-comes-next thinking here is as much Hindu as it is Jewish, and overall the film is wisely nondenominational.) At trial, scenes from just-ended lives are replayed for defendants, their attorneys and opposing prosecutors, all of whom debate their merits before a two-judge panel. Naturally Brooks’s bits are riddled with bungling misadventures and overthought missteps, while co-star Meryl Streep’s clips are like watching a Mother Teresa highlight reel. That the most beloved actress of her generation is presented so saintly yet also so ordinarily is a not-so-simple trick in this flick, one that is aging quite well.
Chatty romance develops between the two leads, something else that factors into Brooks’s defense; there’s friction between Torn’s Bob Diamond and Lee Grant’s “dragon lady” prosecutor, plus a not very helpful (but funny) drop-in from Buck Henry; and eventually there’s a mildly heroic finish involving the voice of Marlon from Finding Nemo leaping onto a moving Universal Studios tram to profess his love for The Iron Lady. But the happy ending hardly matters and almost makes me sad, because I wish we could just watch more weeks of life in Judgment City and never see them move on. It’s no wonder I adore The Good Place. I mean, apart from it being brilliant and all.LESS
Army of Shadows, a somber account of the bleak yet heroic spy-vs.-spy maneuvering that was Jean-Pierre Melville's life on the run within the French Resistance, from my favorite of that country’s gang of cinematic innovators; Au Revoir, les Enfants, Louis Malle’s intimately detailed boarding-school drama, every bit as heartbreaking as Sophie’s Choice; Avalon, the most distinctly Jewish of Barry Levinson’s tetralogy of Baltimore films (including debut gem Diner, the Dreyfuss/DeVito flick Tin Men and the scantly-seen Liberty Heights), and also the realest portrait of post-WWII Jewish assimilation on film; The Big Fix, an offbeat detective mystery starring Richard Dreyfuss — the oft-manic Jew who won best actor for The Goodbye Girl the same year an even more neurotic Jew was sweeping all the other Oscars with Annie Hall — in an underrated role underpinned by moral/ethical quandaries that touch on his character’s modern sense of Judaism; Crimes and Misdemeanors, because sooner or later we gotta deal with Woody, so we might as well start with something that is sublime, morally obtuse, overloaded with revised significance, and as close as possible to the inflection point where everything did or did not go wrong, depending on your point of view, without actually entering the hellish unease of Husbands and Wives; The Damned, from Italian maestro Luchino Visconti, also from ’69, kinkier than Cabaret and more dread-filled, too; Down and Out in Beverly Hills, Paul Mazursky’s nutty, Nick Nolte-led modernization of Boudou Saved from Drowning, with Dreyfuss and Bette Midler (Hawaiian Jew) as wealthy matzo munchers who, respectively, taught me the Yiddish words verkakte (crappy/shitty/screwed-up) and faygeleh (guess, just guess) long before my elders did; Girlfriends, Claudia Weill’s insightful drama, the first American independent film funded by grants, starring Melanie Mayron (Frizzy Jew) as a photographer coping with her roommate moving out and getting married, plus the great Eli Wallach (Tuco the Ugly Jew) as her rabbi; Goodbye, Columbus, because I suppose it makes more sense to screen it before considering Portnoy’s Complaint, but they’re probably better off shown as a double-feature; The Great Dictator, Chaplin’s fearless takedown of the Nazis, complete with balloon-globe ballet; History of the World, Pt. 1, because I prefer Mel Brooks when he’s closer to narrative anarchy but I’m tired of Blazing Saddles, plus Young Frankenstein is best viewed at Halloween, The Producers is too obvious, Spaceballs is too silly, and I’m not sure whether Silent Movie and High Anxiety hold up these days; Lenny, with Dustin Hoffman (Mumbles Jew) unforgettable in a re-creation of the crazed life and crazy times of Lenny Bruce (Censored Jew), grimly but poetically put together in black-and-white by Bob Fosse; Mr. Saturday Night, Billy Crystal’s directorial debut about an aging Catskills comedian, one of his finest performances that didn’t come via hosting the Oscars, and a movie just teeming with Jews (Jerry Orbach, Helen Hunt, Julie Warner, Ron Silver, Jerry Lewis and, in a lauded role that earned him several nominations, David Paymer); Munich, a gripping historical drama from Steven Spielberg (Schindler's Jew) about Israeli vengeance after the PLO-led massacre at the 1972 Summer Olympics, a must-see meditation on the toll taken by eye-for-an-eye terrorism; Once Upon a Time in America, Sergio Leone’s final film, a crime saga about Jewish gangsters (Robert De Niro and James Woods, neither Jewish) that spans the bulk of the 20th century, an epic initially butchered but eventually restored to full four-hour dimensions; Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, because Paul Reubens is a very special Jew; The Princess Bride, which I’d pick over When Harry Met Sally... to represent not only the work of Rob Reiner (Meathead Jew) but also William Goldman (Master Screenwriter Jew, like Chayefsky), plus you get those great bit parts from Billy Crystal and Wallace Shawn (Inconceivable! Jew); Sophie’s Choice, to marvel at Meryl Streep, already incomparable here at 33, and also because the title moment still rips hearts out; The Sunshine Boys, during which I can still hear my Grandpa Sam laughing.