7 Days in the Arts
A Woman's Voice
Director Eric Mendelsohn's talks about his film 'Judy Berlin' and working with Madeline Kahn
By Naomi Pfefferman, Entertainment Editor
Writer-director Eric Mendelsohn is sitting in a quintessentially suburban living room in Sherman Oaks, gazing past the sliding glass door to the concrete patio, brick barbeque and kidney-shaped pool in the backyard.
He admits to a sentiment that is rather unfashionable for a New York independent filmmaker: He loves the suburbs. In fact, he would happily trade his fourth floor Greenwich Village walk-up for three bedrooms behind a manicured lawn and a white picket fence. No wonder his striking, black-and-white feature film debut, "Judy Berlin," which earned the 1999 director's award at the Sundance Film Festival, depicts the 'burbs as landscape art.
It's the tale of one strange day in the life of a mythical Long Island Jewish town, when lonely, withdrawn housewives, teachers and shopkeepers emerge, like sleepwalkers, during the eerie hours of a solar eclipse. In the gloom, the central character, David Gold (Aaron Harnick), a depressed, failed filmmaker, is reborn after encountering his eternally-optimistic high school classmate, Judy Berlin ("The Soprano's" Edie Falco).
The rumpled director, who began his career as an assistant costume designer for Woody Allen, doesn't share Allen's distaste for the 'burbs.
"I don't mind all the satire about the suburbs," confides Mendelsohn, 35, who has large, expressive brown eyes, several days' worth of beard growth and a sinus problem. "But it's old, very old, and nobody is going to be surprised to learn about the seething underside of the otherwise-placid suburban exterior. We all know that 'The Sopranos' live in the suburbs, and so does the pederast from Todd Solondz's film, 'Happiness,' and I wasn't interested in showing viewers what they have already seen a zillion times before."
What did interest Mendelsohn was accurately depicting "the little Jewish town where I grew up," he says. In the very Jewish suburb of Old Bethpage on Long Island, Mendelsohn attended a public school that "for all intents and purposes was a yeshiva." His family frequented a quirky little synagogue, an offshoot of the Reform movement, where congregants read from the Union prayer book and recited affirmations in a quaint wooden shul with creaky floors.
Life in Old Bethpage was "like something out of an Isaac Bashevis Singer short story, wistful and humorous and provincial," Mendelsohn says. A moment from his Jewish childhood informs the magical atmosphere of "Judy Berlin." "It was Yom Kippur, and I was standing outside temple in my dress pants, kicking a rock," he recalls. "At one point I looked into the temple and saw all these people swaying back and forth in prayer. Then I looked down a hill and saw a bunch of kids kicking a soccer ball, and I remember thinking, this is a very strange mixture, a very strange place. There is something eccentric and mystical and, for the lack of a better word, 'neat-o' about being Jewish and living in the suburbs."
The Mendelsohns were the most eccentric family on their block. The five children were not allowed to watch TV or listen to rock 'n' roll music during the week; instead, they helped their parents construct a harpsicord in the living room or built models of the Parthenon in the basement.
Mendelsohn, the next to the youngest, was creative but withdrawn; like the character of David in "Judy Berlin," he hid out in his parents' home, cringing from the world. "There wasn't anything I wasn't afraid of," he admits; young Eric ran away from the mailman, recoiled at the thought of talking to strangers and believed a friend's mother was trying to poison him with real mashed potatoes (his family ate instant). While he drew well, he was otherwise a poor student who repeatedly failed math (a teacher once told him he needed a brain scan), perhaps because of a learning disability.
It didn't help that his overachieving Jewish classmates were obsessed with getting into Ivy League schools. "All the streets in our neighborhood had names like Harvard and Yale," he recalls, wryly. "I remember when a girl admitted that she was not applying to college. This Hiroshima-like silence suddenly spread through the lunchroom, because that just was not done."
Mendelsohn, for his part, attended the State University of New York at Purchase, "the college you went to when you couldn't get into one of the well-known art schools," he says. There he met Falco and "Judy Berlin" producer Rocco Caruso, who convinced him to switch from painting to filmmaking.
After graduation, the budding director moved to Manhattan, went to work for Woody Allen and paid attention on the sets of "Crimes and Misdemeanors," "Husbands and Wives" and "Bullets Over Broadway." Allen praised Mendelsohn's 1992 short film, "Through an Open Window," which played the festival circuit, though screening the film for Allen was scary, Mendelsohn says. The young filmmaker, too anxious to sit through the screening, nervously paced the streets instead, as Allen watched his movie.
From Allen, he learned an important lesson: Stick to your ideas, no matter how idiosyncratic they are. "For 'Judy Berlin,' I just collected ideas without censoring myself: an eclipse, a provincial suburb, the second day of school, Jewish humor, harpsichord music and falling leaves," Mendelsohn says.
When a studio expressed interest in the movie, with Nicolas Cage as the lead, Mendelsohn passed. The movie, after all, was about a Jewish man who goes home to his parents, and Cage isn't very Jewish. For authenticity, Mendelsohn cast Jewish actors such as Harnick, Julie Kavner, Barbara Barrie and Madeline Kahn, all of whom agreed to work for around $87 dollars a day.
"Judy Berlin," as it turns out, was Kahn's last film; Mendelsohn's mother, who had served as the impromptu caterer on the bare-bones set, frequently wrote to the actress during her illness. The last time the director spoke to Kahn was about two weeks before her death last year. "She told me how much it meant for her to have been in the movie," Mendelsohn recalls, softly. While battling cancer, it apparently cheered Kahn to know that "Judy Berlin" was earning kudos on the festival circuit. She was proud that Mendelsohn had been deemed, by the New Yorker, as the director from Sundance '99 who "has the greatest chance of attaining the stature of Robert Altman and Erroll Morris." "I was so pleased that Madeline was proud of her performance in my film," Mendelsohn says. "That made me feel like I could do no better."
"Judy Berlin" opens Feb. 25 at the Fairfax (Cineplex), 7907 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles, (323) 653-3117.
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