The Next Best Thing directed by John Schlesinger
Judy Berlin directed 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 minds.