CEZARY ZAK as Karol Krawczyk and ARTUR BARCIS as Tadeusz Norek

CEZARY ZAK as Karol Krawczyk and ARTUR BARCIS as Tadeusz Norek

My wife and I were staying at a hotel in Warsaw a couple of decades ago when we happened to catch on TV a series called “Miodowe lata,” which, I’m told, means “The Honeymoon Years.” The scenes were in contemporary Warsaw and the series was shot in color, but something about it looked familiar. We’re not conversant in Polish, but when we had watched the episode long enough, we realized that the actors were performing the episode of “The Honeymooners” in which Ralph becomes the janitor in the apartment building. The lead character, whose name in the series is Karol Krawczyk, is a conductor on a trolley in Warsaw. His neighbor is Tadeusz Norek. I learned later that the series was produced from 1998 until at least 2004 by the Polish broadcast network Polsat. We wondered as we watched the episode whether the producers had sought permission to use that story line, but as the credits rolled we saw the Viacom logo, which seemed to answer the question. According to an article in “Variety,” the first episode of “Miodowe kata” in 1998 attracted an estimated 40 percent of the viewing audience. The average share for Polsat shows at the time was in the range of 17 to 25 percent.

There also have been versions of “The Honeymooners” in Indonesia, Canada, the Netherlands, and Sweden.

There’s a whole episode of “Miodowe kata” at the link below, and there are more available on YouTube.

 

DIANE KEATON and JULIETTE LEWIS

DIANE KEATON and JULIETTE LEWIS

Movies that accurately portray the lives of people who have mental disabilities are important. Such movies, by helping the general population better understand the exceptional people in their midst, can create a healthier and more constructive environment for everyone. The Other Sister,’ a 1999 film starring Diane Keaton and directed by Gary Marshall, tried to do that but fell on its face. In fact, it was embarrassing for me to watch, and it should have been embarrassing for the actors to perform.

The “other” sister of the title is Carla Tate, played by Juliette Lewis, who is mentally challenged in some way but who is bright and personable and eager to live independently. Carla is the youngest of three daughters of well-off parents, Elizabeth and Radley, played by Diane Keaton and Tom Skerritt.

JULIETTE LOWE and GIOVANNI RIBISI

JULIETTE LEWIS and GIOVANNI RIBISI

At the beginning of the film, Carla has successfully completed the course of study at a private boarding school and is returning to her family’s home. She wants to get on with her life (and by that she means get training at a public polytech school, get a job, and get an apartment), but Elizabeth has no confidence in her daughter’s ability to do anything but live under the protection of her parents. Radley — who seems to have licked a drinking problem — is a little more willing to let Carla stretch. Carla does go to a tech school, and there she meets Danny McMann (Giovanni Ribisi) who, of course, is also mentally challenged and, it seems, less bright and emotionally stable than Carla. The two strike up a friendship and then fall in love and then become sexually active — an aspect of their story that the filmmakers handled with exquisite clumsiness. Carla wears Elizabeth down enough to get an apartment, but Danny isn’t doing as well in school, and his absentee father cuts off funding for any further education. There is a painful scene in which Danny attends a country club Christmas party with Carla and her parents, is intimidated by the surroundings, gets hopelessly drunk, grabs the bandstand microphone and blurts out his feelings for Carla and the fact that the two have been having sex. She is furious at the crowd for laughing at her, as she interprets their reaction, and at Danny for embarrassing her. The next we see of Danny, he is on a train heading home, wherever that is.

TOM SKERRITT, DIANE KEATON, and JULIETTE LEWIS

TOM SKERRITT, DIANE KEATON, and JULIETTE LEWIS

Cut to the wedding ceremony of the second of the three daughters. Marshall, perhaps to demonstrate that the spirit of Laverne and Shirley is never quite exorcized from his soul, brings Danny back, in the balcony of the church, of course, from whence he interrupts the nuptials with a parody of The Graduate. The young couple, now reunited, want to wed, but Elizabeth won’t consent. Carla and Danny are determined to marry with or without Elizabeth’s blessing or presence, but the worth reader can no doubt anticipate how that turns out. As if to test how much an audience can tolerate in a 139-minute movie, Marshall and the other writers arrange for Danny, who was a kind of gofer for the polytech’s marching band, surprise Carla outside the church with the band in full regalia marching by and playing “Seventy-six Trombones.”

I guess the filmmakers were concerned that this movie would not seem socially relevant, and so they included a subplot in which Elizabeth is estranged from her third daughter, who lives in a gay relationship. Guess what happens at the end.

The marriage of Carla and Danny

The marriage of Carla and Danny

The most annoying thing about this movie is that it treats a serious subject like a sit-com. The annoyance is aggravated by the patronizing portrayals of both of the young people—although Juliette Lewis does her best with what she was given to work with—and by the improbable and even slapstick scenes. Marshall doesn’t seem to know what he wants to do with those characters, or maybe he’s simply not competent to deal with such personalities. How else to explain that on one hand Carla is presented to us as mature, confident, and determined, while on the other hand she accompanies her mother to a benefit event at an animal shelter and starts barking at the dogs being housed there and ultimately turns them loose. The sequence in which a bartender at a high-end country club serves an obviously troubled young man one powerful drink after another stretches credibility to the breaking point. A scene in which Elizabeth comandeers a golf cart to chase a distraught Carla across the country club lawns is hopelessly absurd. And Keaton’s portrayal of the inconsistently up-tight Elizabeth can set  one’s teeth on edge.

Roger Ebert, of happy memory, commenting about this film, cited Jean-Luc Godard’s observation that the best response to a bad film is to make a good film. In this case, Ebert wrote and I agree, that film is Dominick and Eugene. Don’t see this one; see that one.

 

 

 

SHELLEY BERMAN

SHELLEY BERMAN

I met Shelley Berman in 1972. He was staying in Bernardsville, New Jersey — I think it was Mike Ellis’s house — and appearing in a production of Neil Simon’s Last of the Red Hot Lovers at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn. Berman had become widely known because of his television appearances. His signature routine was sitting on a stool and talking on an imaginary telephone — a bit he put his stamp on before Bob Newhart used it in his own act. I had always thought of Berman as a kind of reiteration of Oscar Levant. I never met Levant, but Berman’s often dour persona reminded me of what I had read about the pianist-composer. I also think that certain points in their lives, they resembled each other physically. I found Berman to be articulate. I remember quite well the case he made about the damage critics can do to performers’ careers. It was something he had experienced himself and had thought a lot about; he could have made that argument before a jury.

JUDE LAW and CAMERON DIAZ

JUDE LAW and CAMERON DIAZ

I bring up Shelley Berman because we saw him the other night in a 2006 movie, The Holiday. I watch movie credits right to the end, and that’s how I discovered that Berman was in the movie. He had a small role, and I hadn’t recognized him. He was 82 years old when he made that film. But when I saw his name in the credits, I went back into the movie to have a look. I wouldn’t have known him, but the point is that he was a perfect choice for the part he played. And that — the casting — is what makes this movie worthwhile.

The Holiday, which was produced and directed by Nancy Meyers, is about two women who are unhappy in love. Iris Simpkins (Kate Winslet), who writes a society column for The Daily Telegraph of London, has been in love with a colleague for years. He is an affectionate and manipulative friend; he’s also engaged, and there is no prospect for him to return her passion. Meanwhile, frenetic Amanda Woods (Cameron Diaz), who owns and operates a lucrative Los Angeles company that makes movie trailers, finds out that her live-in lover has been having an affair with his secretary. Both women abruptly decide to take a holiday to assuage their anguish and, under the only-in-the-movies rule, they end up swapping houses. The outcome is exactly what you’d expect — in a movie.

KATE WINSLET and JACK BLACK

KATE WINSLET and JACK BLACK

But although the plot is obvious and implausible, the casting decisions were impeccable and the result is a very entertaining movie. Winslet and Diaz are perfect as the ingenuous Iris and the frantic Amanda. Jude Law is disarming in an unusual role for him; he plays Iris’s brother, Graham,who makes Amanda’s visit to England worthwhile. Eli Wallach, who was 90 years old when this film was shot, has a tour de force as Arthur Abbott, a retired screen writer with whom Iris develops a warm relationship that revs up the lives of both parties. Shelley Berman plays a buddy of Abbott. The most ingenious stroke of all was the choice of Jack Black as Miles, a sympathetic Hollywood composer who shares with Iris a weakness for the wrong lovers. The script was written with Winslet, Diaz, Law, and Black in mind. Any one of us could had written it, as far as the story line goes, and the reviewers had a few things to say about that, but the movie with its stable of charming characters still made money.

Dustin Hoffman has a brief uncredited cameo in this film. It occurs when Miles and Iris go to a video store and are discussing The Graduate. Hoffman appears as a customer who overhears their conversation and reacts with a whimsical smile. Hoffman has said that he noticed all the cameras and lights at a Blockbuster store and stopped to find out what was going on. He ran into Meyers, whom he knew, and she wrote him into the scene.

In this scene, SHELLEY BERMAN is the second from the left and ELI WALLACH is next to Kate Winslet

In this scene, SHELLEYT BERMAN is the second from the left and ELI WALLACH is next to Kate Winslet

Shelley Berman performed one of his telephone routines on Judy Garland’s television show. It is introduced by Garland and a short musical number. To see it, click HERE.

Audrey Meadows, Jackie Gleason, Art Carney, and Joyce Randolph.

Audrey Meadows, Jackie Gleason, Art Carney, and Joyce Randolph.

 
When Joyce Randolph marked her 90th birthday recently, I took a glance at the Wikipedia article about her to see how recently it had been updated. Among the things I read there was that she was recruited to play Trixie Norton in Jackie Gleason’s series The Honeymooners after Gleason saw her doing a commercial for Clorets, which was a chlorophyl gum on the order of Chicklets. That isn’t what she told me when I visited her at her Central Park West apartment in 1976. On that occasion, she said that she had first been hired by Gleason to appear in a serious sketch he insisted on performing on his comedy-variety show, The Cavalcade of Stars, which was then being broadcast on the Dumont Network, originating at WABD, Channel 5, in New York.

Art Carney and Jackie Gleason during one of the filming sessions Joyce Randolph described.

Art Carney and Jackie Gleason during one of the filming sessions Joyce Randolph described.

“Gleason liked to write for the show or suggest things to the writers,” Joyce told me. “This time he wanted to do a serious sketch about a down-in-the-heels vaudevillian who meets a woman he loved many years before. We did very little rehearsing, and when we went on with it people were a little flabbergasted. They didn’t know whether to laugh or cry or what. A couple of weeks later, the part of Trixie came up, and Gleason said, ‘Get me that serious actress.’ ” Perhaps the Clorets commercial got her cast in the dramatic turn, but however Joyce got cast as Trixie Norton, she became an immortal among television actors. The Honeymooners first appeared in October 1951 as a six-minute sketch on The Cavalcade of Stars. The sketch became one of the regular features on the show; Trixie Norton was introduced as a former burlesque dancer and was played, in only one episode, by Elaine Stritch before Joyce Randolph got the part. In later and less successful iterations of The Honeymooners Trixie was played by Jane Kean, but the part is universally associated with Joyce Randolph.
 

JOYCE RANDOLPH

JOYCE RANDOLPH


That is true, in part, because Joyce played the part when The Honeymooners was broadcast as a free-standing half-hour sitcom in 1955 and 1956. Those thirty-nine episodes are among the most revered examples of American television comedy. While many shows from that era — Our Miss Brooks and The Life of Riley, for instance — seem stilted in retrospect, The Honeymooners still entertains viewers who have seen the episodes over and over again. Joyce didn’t claim to know definitely why that should be so, but she speculated that one factor was the spontaneity of the performances. “We filmed a show once, and we did it with an audience,” she told me. “We’d start at 8 o’clock and we’d be finished by 8:30, just as though we did it live.” She said the cast would rehearse on Monday and Tuesday and film a show on Wednesday, then rehearse on Wednesday and Thursday and film a show on Friday.” Gleason himself frequently skipped rehearsals and missed cues and confused the lines during the filming, but there were no breaks or re-takes, so those mistakes were preserved as part of the shows. Joyce Randolph told me that in those early days of television, some audience members became so absorbed in the show that they lost their sense of what was real and what was not. “In fact,” she said, “people used to send in draperies and tablecloths for the set; they thought the Kramdens really lived like that.”

Joyce Randolph was kind of the Zeppo Marx in the Honeymooners act, because her own personality was not that distinctive (perhaps making her a perfect choice to play the wife of a New York City sewer worker) and she was playing fourth fiddle to three strong character actors — Gleason, Art Carney, and Audrey Meadows. Still, her own genuine earnest and wholesome quality came through in Trixie’s persona, which is why no one really could replace her in that part.