Best Thing directed
by John Schlesinger
by Eric Mendelsohn
What’s left, The
Next Best Thing demonstrates, is for Madonna to aggressively exploit the
fan base that has not outgrown bustiers, torn fishnets and mock-religious jewelry–her
gay male audience. As Los Angeles yoga instructress Abbie, Madonna actually
plays a supporting role to Rupert Everett’s Robert, the gay gardener and
best friend she lives with when she becomes pregnant. Abbie dominates the plot
(in Hollywood terms) in order to milk-feed its pro-gay message. Using Madonna
to prop up Everett this way is almost an admission of her onscreen deficiency;
Thomas Ropelewski’s screenplay avoids Madonna’s now-proven personality/talent
vacuum to emphasize Robert’s single-gay-male crisis. (He wants to be a
father.) It’s practically a first in the history of camp: a female star
unable to convey the emotions of her gay male audience. But more than that,
Madonna’s inadequacy travesties simple humanism.
What Madonna cannot do is
demonstrated by the contrasting independent film Judy Berlin, in which
writer-director Eric Mendelsohn constructs vibrant, aria-like moments for a
cast of actresses whose range of emotion wins audience empathy. Rather than
appealing to special interests like Ropelewski and Madonna, Mendelsohn’s
story of one day in the lives of some depressed Long Islanders–Madeline
Kahn as a school principal’s housewife, Barbara Barrie as an elementary
school teacher, Edie Falco as an aspiring actress–evokes common humanity,
average desperation. Those could also have been the themes of The Next Best
Thing, but its haughty presentation of Hollywood-set travails also carries
the erroneous, prejudicial idea that gay lives are more glamorous. That suggestion,
in effect, denies the universality of gay people’s feelings. But what’s
a fag hag for?
Like Meryl Streep, that
other past-her-prime icon, Madonna has not mattered for 10 years; the
media celebrates her out of habit. People now think of Madonna and her always-derivative
projects the way they used to regard General Motors: as a representative of
the Gross National Product–She Who Must Be Purchased. The Next Best
Thing arrives with the usual Madonna hoopla. But the dark horse Judy
Berlin is more heartening because Mendelsohn has tapped into sensitive perception
of female and male experience that, as in Tennessee Williams’ plays, makes
a primarily gay reading unnecessary and delimiting. Mendelsohn’s subject
is contemporary ennui, a suburban malady that affects both his young and middle-aged
characters. Instead of selling a fashionable attitude like The Next Best
Thing’s exploitation of unconventional parenting, Mendelsohn cautiously
yet bravely approaches the misery of non-fabulous people; their existential
quandaries feel average to them, therefore unanswerable. Even when a solar eclipse
shades their neighborhood for an afternoon stretching into eternal night they
do not inflate their lives–and that, Mendelsohn decently realizes, is enough
to make audiences verklempt.
It’s impossible to
resist Mendelsohn’s characters despite their small-town, self-deluded behavior.
They have working-class substance whereas Abbie and Robert’s sun-dappled
yoga lessons and rosebush trimming seem like playtime–adolescent occupational
fantasies without the trappings or inconveniences of adulthood. Madonna is selling
an unrealistic notion of life-problems as deceptive as her gaudiest videos.
When Abbie and Robert get drunk and have sex or fight over the custody of the
child they raised together, they’re playing at seriousness–miming
the sacrificial sentiments of Stella Dallas (call it Stella West Los
Angeles) and the courtroom betrayals of Kramer vs. Kramer (call it
Craven vs. Flamer). Such conceits demand a certain level of credulity–and
more: faith in actors’ expression of feeling. Here’s where The
Next Best Thing and Judy Berlin differ most radically–one is
ersatz, the other genuine.
Mendelsohn knows Long Island
and he knows his Italian cinema. This tribute to the poignancies of Fellini
(Variety Lights) and Antonioni (L’Eclisse) carries some neorealist
respect for the commonplace yet it is also a tribute to New York’s white
ethnic school of acting. Barbara Barrie as Sue Berlin and Edie Falco as her
daughter Judy take borrowed neorealist bits to heart and achieve classic moments.
Time seems to stop for them: when a retired teacher with Alzheimer’s invades
Sue’s classroom and she briefly confronts her own illusion of stability;
or when Judy’s dream of going to Hollywood gets doused during an unexpected
reunion with a high school classmate. Barrie’s age lines shift into wrinkles
of hurt and Falco’s pants-stretching hips seem weighted with embarrassment.
Their recognizable class and ethnic traits bring them emotionally closer to
us. But this mistitled movie belongs to the late Madeline Kahn. Her moving,
lyrical performance–singing about wanting to be 17 again, or braving surprise
meetings with an old rival and an ex-therapist–is worth your attention
and will claim your memory.
Kahn’s applied skill
blurs the definition of stardom and acting. Madonna-lovers take note: Kahn’s
tart voice, with unexpected piquancy, evokes the citrus twist that makes lemonade.
As a comedienne whose vulnerability was the source of her humor, she was also
an expressive actress–whether showing wounded propriety (What’s
Up Doc?), cheap ambition (Paper Moon) or seething horniness (Young
Frankenstein but especially her exact Marlene Dietrich parody singing the
song "I’m Tired" in Blazing Saddles). Kahn’s emotional
command gives coherence to Judy Berlin; she doesn’t play the title
role but she owns the movie by rooting its whimsical view of suburban anomie
in credible humane depths. Embodying the lonely, addlepated Alice Gold, Kahn
skims the edge of lunacy. Walking through her home, wasting humor on her withdrawn
adult son David and unhappy husband Arthur (Bob Dishy’s brief pained performance),
there is a gravity to her desperation: Alice wants to save her disintegrating
family as well as her own sanity. Mendelsohn may have given Kahn one too many
lines about vanished youth but Kahn possessed a rare showmanship. She knew how
to make even the obvious play.
This is one of the finest,
most empathetic female ensembles since Ayoka Chenzira’s Alma’s
Rainbow. The danger of these characters becoming bathetic is offset by the
comic-ethnic resources of Kahn, Barrie with her mild sweetness and Falco with
her big grin (Judy’s Dinettes Plus tv commercial hits the Felliniesque
bull’s-eye). The movie also becomes a tribute to the ambivalences women
learn to funnel and reclaim in their own lives. Despite the familiar faces,
familiar acting styles, these characters are even more touching than those in
Almodovar’s All About My Mother; their believability suggests Mendelsohn
has soothed the anguish of Todd Solondz’s Happiness. Its sitcom
resemblance (certified by Anne Meara and Julie Kavner in cameos) is not necessarily
a bad thing. (It puts Aaron Harnick’s annoying David into a credible Adam
Sandler context.) Evoking Long Island’s Jewish contentment and tribal restriction
is not incidental: Mendelsohn uses its sense of place to show his characters’
social customs sneaking up–the timeless cultural bonds of human misery.
His eclipse is a better apocalyptic device than Magnolia’s plague
of frogs if for no other reason than allowing Kahn’s delightful "we’re
space explorers" routine to turn familiar territory into a psychic moonscape.
She paces her hallways and neighborhood with endearing buoyancy, a frail ego
on a tightrope.
In a 1967 essay, "Spotlight
on the NonWoman," John Simon nailed a phenomenon in which New York’s
white ethnic actors made a spectacle of their neuroses but his acuity left out
the beauty of class and ethnic identification that makes Judy Berlin’s
actresses matter. Realizing this, I don’t mean to simply ridicule Madonna
but point out how her arrogant careerism–the thing her subcult fans worship–misses
the eloquent artistry of the women in Judy Berlin.
Madonna is Prurience. Over
and above expressing complex humanity, her slit-eyed look simplifies everything
(even maternity) to fucking, not simply sex. Pathetic camp-followers who go
to The Next Best Thing instead of Judy Berlin might be seeking
a newfound truth. Yet in only one sequence do the aged Madonna and Everett convey
a brazen generation’s trashing of old gay traditions–by wrecking the
home of two old queens (one played by Gavin Lambert). But this is not revolutionary.
It sells the subcult audience short. Even Everett shows only a little of the
independent strength Alan Bates brought to mature gay characters in Nijinsky
and We Think the World of You. Inheriting Edward Everett Horton’s
prissy sidekick roles has expanded Rupert Everett’s screen personality.
But good actor though he is, Everett now seems stuck in a gossip column pigeonhole.
Unlike his harmony with Julia Roberts in My Best Friend’s Wedding,
this Madonna-Everett team is mere celebrity impertinence.
Within 10 minutes of the
story, Madonna’s called "beautiful" three times, "intelligent"
twice–a la Streisand’s vanity productions. No wit or humor redeems
Madonna’s bawdiness; it’s just audacity. Her face is as hard as Joan
Crawford’s but not as fascinating, and her voice (without multitracking)
is tinny and inexpressive. It’s clear that in music Madonna has gotten
away with having little talent and variable focus. She’s a coarse Judy
Berlin, but because insensitivity’s celebrated and not questioned in our
culture such a character has eluded cinematic dramatization. Madonna’s
Abbie seems more thoughtless than the mental defectives seeking unequal companions
played by Jennifer Aniston in Object of My Affection and Cristina Ricci
in The Opposite of Sex. To endorse this script indicates that Madonna
only knows how to flatten human experience. When has she ever done otherwise?
(Well, critc Johnny Huston perceptibly cites maybe "Love Tried to Welcome
Me" from Bedtime Stories.) Her ideal film would have been last year’s
New Zealand drama When Love Comes, but then that part was claimed by
Rena Owen, an actress.
Director John Schlesinger
tries to protect Madonna, editing her reactions and assertions into interlocking
bits. Yet after working with Alan Bates, Julie Christie, Dirk Bogarde, Laurence
Harvey, Terence Stamp, Peter Finch, Jon Voight, Dustin Hoffman and Glenda Jackson,
he still can’t get a performance out of her. She yields nothing beyond
three minutes of screen time. Madonna’s gay sympathy may back up Schlesinger’s
attempt to redeem his own feelings, once smothered by 60s propriety (cf. the
closeted love story of his Midnight Cowboy), but despite the smooth pace
and good colors Schlesinger gets from cinematographer Elliott Davis, this trite
view of the mess people make of their lives is unworthy of the man who directed
the great Sunday, Bloody Sunday, the extraordinary Far From the Madding
Crowd and the slick but timely-and-complicated Darling. Schlesinger’s
early films Billy Liar and A Kind of Loving had recognizable qualities
just like Judy Berlin but The Next Best Thing, despite its gay
forthrightness, turns human affairs into twaddle. It’s the work of frivolous