June 11, 2018
Available via ScreenArchives.com;
Stars Lenny Baker, Ellen Greene, Christopher Walken, Lois Smith, Shelley Winters.
Blume in Love has always been my favorite achievement from writer-director Paul Mazursky’s treasured output spanning (mostly but not exclusively) 1969 to 1978. But after seeing Next Stop, Greenwich Village for the first time in decades via this new Twilight Time release, it may have some competition. Even though the soundtrack’s Paul Desmond staples somewhat predate the story’s setting, not many musical selections would so instantly suck us into the milieu. And for bravery of the especially brazen sort, how do you put a price on a scene where Shelley Winters pulls her dress up in a tap dancing fantasy sequence?
After years of self-imposed exile, I’ve recently been spending a lot of time in Brooklyn, Lower Manhattan and even my old grad school alma mater NYU, which has probably made me susceptible — though, yeah, a Brooklyn girlfriend has inevitably helped — to this extraordinarily personal coming-of-age comedy-drama, though the milieu still seems a little seedy to a wider-open-spaces Midwestern type such as myself. But the movie rings true on its own merits without need of any outside boosting, thank you, and gets quite a shot from some casting in a couple roles that means more than it did at the time.
The last said, Village’s two leads are Lenny Baker, whose character-actor looks and premature death limited his screen career — and Ellen Greene, who scored only modestly in the movies, though she did also het to re-create her stage role in Frank Oz’s screen version of Little Shop of Horrors. Standing in as Mazursky’s autobiographical surrogate, Baker is the focus here, though Greene helps create such a determined soul here as his rocky squeeze that I suspect a lot of women come out of the picture affected by her own story, which involves a then illegal abortion and a fear of feeling trapped. Everyone here, by the way, benefits from exceptionally strong writing, though choice casting sampling from a pool of the era’s best New York actors really puts it over.
Much or even most of Village is about acting, which is the side of the profession Mazursky pursued before finding his true calling behind the camera; he was in Stanley Kubrick’s shaky debut pic Fear and Desire (and unlike Kubrick, seemed happy to enough to concede its existence), and then as one of the hoody classroom cutups who made Glenn Ford wish he were teaching home economics in Blackboard Jungle. The Brooklyn-to-GV subway ride isn’t very far in minutes, yet it separated two entire worlds in the more traditional ’50s, when moving away from one’s parents without the impetus of marriage could seem like an affront to a Jewish mother (and can Winters ever play a Jewish mother, or at least a certain identifiable brand of one). And to make things even worse with mom: Here’s Mazursky/Baker not even leaving to learn an honest trade but to pursue a perceived folly that attracts dream-world rabble.
And yet the mother, who reciprocally loves him but also drives him up the wall, is something of a closet case — as was Mazursky’s own — when it comes to her own show biz appreciation. Along these lines, she can also jitterbug for real (Winters’ aforementioned fantasy tap pops up in a slightly different context), which she ends up doing during another of her unannounced “drop-ins” — this one at a rent party full of assorted pro-Rosenberg bohemians dancing to and floating on vintage 78s and old-school beer bottles. Acquiescent to all this maybe 90% of the time is a passive husband played by the instantly familiar Mike Kellin — who, here (as was often the case in his other movies) had one of those faces that divulge his character’s entire story.
I love the casting here, which includes lifelong favorite Lois Smith, whose single scene in East of Eden got to me as a child and who’s still around these days (Lady Bird and Marjorie Prime in just the past year). But the big bonus points these days come courtesy of seeing Christopher Walken in his first role of real note: as the intellectual stud of the aspirants’ group and one whose surface charm betrays his lack of character. Walken at least gets billing, but the truly wondrous ambush here is an unbilled Jeff Goldblum, who shows up late to blow a hole in the screen with a couple scenes as a self-destructive neurotic who does everything in an audition to make the producers not even desirous of asking him to read. Not long after I began programming at the AFI Theater four decades-plus ago, a resourceful guest lecturer got Mazursky to bring a print of Village down to D.C. from New York for a pre-opening screening — just as he did with Martin Scorsese and Taxi Driver the same month. And I remember people (myself included) just marveling at Goldblum — the way we had a year earlier with Richard Dreyfuss as Baby Face Nelson in John Milius’s Dillinger — in a “Who is this guy?” kind of way. Added note to star-gazing completists: The mustached guy standing off to the side in a fairly early saloon scene is Bill Murray.
The standout, though (and about a quarter-century after she was a newcomer) has to be Winters, someone I’ve cracked wise on for a lot of years but an actress whose chutzpah I’ve also secretly admired for just as long. Due to a geographical scheduling conflict, I once had to turn down an opportunity to attend a small dinner with her, leaving it to a pair of AFI colleagues and also two of my closest friends to witness the sight of her taking off her pantyhose in a Georgetown restaurant. Greene and Mazursky both praise her to the sky here in a voiceover commentary from a previous release; the latter died in 2014, which points up the timeless value of home-release commentaries in general for all your streamer/pretenders out there.
I always thought Mazursky a particularly keen industry observer, dating back to the time I heard his claim (in a documentary) that when someone talks about the advance “word” on an unreleased movie, it means that “someone who hasn’t seen the picture talked to someone who hasn’t seen the picture.” Here, he matter-of-factly tosses off the assertion that Winters didn’t get a much deserved nomination for Village because it didn’t make money. Don’t you love it when someone gives voice to obvious truths that no one feels comfortable about addressing?