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.

CLAIRE DANES and JEANNE MOREAU

CLAIRE DANES and JEANNE MOREAU

The potential was there; in fact, it was almost too obvious. An introverted Jewish girl attending a posh private school in Manhattan is the target of anti-Semitic harassment. Her parents seem to think of her as an inconvenience, but she can turn for solace and encouragement to her grandmother — a survivor of the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz.

These are the main ingredients in I Love You, I I Love You Not, a 1996 film based on a play by Wendy Kesselman, but the result is confusing and at times even incomprehensible.

The cast is promising enough. Jeanne Moreau plays the grandmother, referred to only as “Nana”; Claire Danes plays Daisy, the troubled girl known for her silence, and, in flashbacks and dream sequences, the younger Nana; and Jude Law plays Ethan, the charismatic, lacrosse-captain, straight-A student whom Daisy secretly yearns for and, in fact, stalks.

CLAIRE DANES and JUDE LAW

CLAIRE DANES and JUDE LAW

The movie begins as a Holocaust survivor is making an audio-visual presentation to a class that includes Daisy and Ethan and others who exhibit varying degrees of appreciation for or indifference to what they are hearing and seeing. Daisy is the most affected by far. It shortly becomes clear that she is a misfit at the school. The anti-Semitism that presumably contributes to this condition is clearly presented in only one incident. Another factor in her isolation, one that is openly discussed, is the fact that she is bookish to a fault, a characteristic that her grandmother nourishes even if she doesn’t encourage it. We never meet Daisy’s parents, but we can infer that there is no love lost between them and their daughter. We infer from the dialogue only that they like their freedom as gadabouts and want Daisy as out-of-the-way as possible. Whenever she talks to them on the telephone, they accuse her of adopting a “tone”(she doesn’t), and they accuse Nana of the same thing on one occasion. Although we would expect Daisy’s solitude to raise some issues of intimacy, her obsession with Ethan, whom she barely knows, seems out of character for such a cerebral young woman, and so does her willingness to share this obsession with a few girlfriends, in childish terms.

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Daisy’s stalking is clumsy enough that Ethan becomes fully aware of it, and eventually they are face to face, and then in a relationship. When Daisy is unwilling to let their passion progress beyond heavy kissing and caressing, Ethan — who is under pressure from his friends to drop her for one of the other girls who “want your jock” — breaks up with her. This leads to a  crisis in which Daisy rages at Nana and flees Nana’s home and survives only because of Nana’s intervention, naturally, and Daisy continues to nurse a hope that she can recapture Ethan’s attention. Nana’s role in all of this is problematic. Daisy is so fixated on Nana’s wartime experience that she once uses a marker to write on her own arm the number the Nazi’s tattooed on Nana’s. And she insists that Nana repeat a macabre sort of bedtime story which represents the loss of Nana’s two siblings in the death camp. Why Daisy deals with Nana’s history in this fashion is not made clear. Ethan’s motivations are familiar enough, but Nana’s and Daisy’s are not, and inasmuch as their relationship constitutes the raison d’être for this film, that’s a problem.