15th 10 - 2009 | 7 comments »

2009 CIFF: Girls on the Wall (2009)

Director: Heather Ross

2009 Chicago International Film Festival

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

Those of us who love the movies do so for a variety of reasons. One of the biggest reasons I love them is that they tell us the stories of our lives. Depending on mood, we might want to get a thrill from an action-adventure film or feel the touch of love from a romance. But stories do more than evoke feelings we want to have; they also release feelings we do not always want to have. When a film like Antichrist appears on the scene, it puts us in a dark place—but at least we chose to be there.

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The female inmates of Illinois Youth Center in Warrenville, Illinois, have lived involuntarily in a dark place for much of their short lives. These girls have grown up with addicted, sexually and physically abusive, emotionally shut-down parents and caregivers. Many of them are not interested in doing anything with their stories but bury them. In so doing, they bury their pain and rage. All of them have already passed through juvenile hall to graduate to this relatively benign prison. Some of them will end up in adult prison. Some of them will die before their time.

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The administrators of Warrenville Prison will do something, anything to break this cycle. In 1984, they began a musical theatre program. The film opens as Meade Palidofsky, artistic director of the Music Theatre Workshop (now called Storycatchers Theatre), begins working with the Fabulous Females, a small group of inmates involved in the program, in preparation for a performance several months down the road.

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The film focuses primarily on three girls. Whitney, 17, is withdrawn and angry. She won’t talk about her crime, answering sarcastically, “I ran over a cat.” Christina, 18, is incarcerated because she ran away numerous times from the foster homes she’d been placed in after her crackhead mother lost custody of her. Rosa, 17, is doing time for auto theft. She has a temper that lands her back in Warrenville after a brief period of freedom sporting a brand-new scar on her neck from a knife wound that required 36 stitches to close. Over the months, “Ms. P” will encourage these and the other Fabulous Females to tell their stories, which will be molded into a musical, with the aim of helping them set some of their demons free as they await their physical freedom.

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The film records the show’s development process. The girls write out their stories in prose or poetry and recite them to the group. Rosa, a talented rapper, inspires the other girls to take Ms. P’s assignment seriously. Whitney must be coaxed repeatedly to come out of her shell, but eventually she recites a poem in which she reveals that her father gave all his love to his crack pipe and none to her. Christina talks about the reason she repeatedly runs away to find her mother—she has never separated psychologically from her mother and loves her even when “you smoke your pipe right in front of me.” Although Rosa doesn’t write about it for the musical, the close bond she, like the other girls, forms with director Ross and the small camera crew allows her to reveal for the first time the source of her anger—her cousins molested her from about the age of 5.

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The film is very well-constructed and moves with suspense and anticipation during its short 61-minute running time. When Christina leaves to move in with a Christian family who wants to adopt her, we can see the hope turn to despair at a mismatch that was obvious not 10 minutes after she drove off with her new “mother” and the youth mentor who brokered the arrangement. On the upside, it’s an incredibly moving experience to watch the sullen Whitney grow more animated and connected throughout the film.

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The final performance of their “lockdown musical” is very emotional, with few dry eyes in the house (including my house). At the end, when Whitney’s father embraces her in a genuinely heartfelt hug, followed by a huge smile on the young woman’s face, my feelings of joy surprised even me. Perhaps more importantly, this film shows that bad girls are made, not born, and if helped in the right way, they can turn their lives around before that chance fades forever. Palidofsky, whom I knew when we both danced at the Chicago Dance Center, has shown a lifelong commitment to using the arts for healing, education, and social justice. Good on ya, Meade!

This film has already been booked for the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival and will show up on PBS in 2010. Chicagoans have one more chance to see this outstanding documentary about girls from our own community. Please give this movie your support; it really deserves it. l


11th 03 - 2009 | 14 comments »

Our Backstreets #28: When Movie Stars Were Legit

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

Legit theatre, that is.

This weekend, the hubby and I roused ourselves from a rain-induced stupor and decided to do something we both like enormously—poke around some second-hand stores. We drove down Lincoln Avenue, easily my favorite street in Chicago, and pulled up on a block that had three antique stores, one used clothing store, and a used record shop. We waded around the clothes, buying nothing but enjoying a lovely conversation with the owner, who was celebrating her birthday that day. We scored a few records at the used record shop and again, enjoyed the company of a real music/record enthusiast. We bought a vintage-looking table fan to replace our actual vintage fan that stood precariously on an ill-designed pedestal, and again, talked with the owner who lamented the inadvertent sale of a directory from Rogers Park filled with the names of Jewish businesses in the formerly Jewish neighborhood. In the last store, populated mainly with antique furniture, we scored big time. A family had unloaded its collection of stagebills spanning performances from the 30s to close to the present, perhaps 300 in all.

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Now, I’ve seen at least that many plays and used to collect my stagebills until they just started taking up too much room. Therefore, I understood this collection and thumbed through it with great interest, wondering what this family had taken in over the years. I actually found a stagebill from one of the first shows I ever saw, The National Health, or Nurse Norton’s Affair (1972), with a very young Frank Galati in a memorable role as the white-coated nurse. He now is part of the Steppenwolf Theatre Ensemble and directed their Tony-award-winning production of The Grapes of Wrath. I also found the stagebill for G. B. Shaw’s Don Juan in Hell, a reader’s theatre production from 1972 starring Paul Henreid, Ricardo Montalban, Edward Mulhare, and Agnes Moorehead (“in her original role of Dona Ana”) and directed by John Houseman, whom I would interview just a couple of years later. So good were these actors that when Henreid lit a cigar on stage while Montalban was expostulating, I didn’t even notice. I was delighted to reclaim these bits of my past.

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The real pleasure of going through the stagebills was seeing just how many movie stars trod the boards in days gone by. The oldest stagebill I acquired was from 1939—Walter Huston in Knickerbocker Holiday at the Grand Opera House, book and lyrics by Maxwell Anderson, music by Kurt Weill. Do you suppose Huston sang well? I saw not one, but two stagebills featuring Edward G. Robinson on the cover. I bought this program of his 1951 production of Darkness at Noon, based on the book of the same name by Arthur Koestler that is one of my favorite novels of all time. It played at the Erlanger Theatre, which I had never heard of. I think the State of Illinois Building might be standing on the site of the old theatre.

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Others are Constance Bennett in Without Love (1943); Paul Robeson in Othello (1945), costarring Jose Ferrer and Uta Hagen; Audrey Hepburn in Gigi (1953); and Cyd Charisse in Once More with Feeling (1967).

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I’ve left you with a couple of puzzles and one surprise. I’ve put up two photos. The young lady was starring in Over Twenty-One, a 1944 comedy staged by George S. Kaufman. The elegant couple was appearing in The Cherry Orchard, also a 1944 show. Can you tell me who these stars are? HINTS: Both women had their brightest moments in film later in life, with the actress on the left becoming quite well-known beginning in the late 60s. The other actress spent almost her entire career on the stage, but was nominated for an Oscar in her third, and last, film; she also has something in common with Mrs. Ronald Reagan. The actor won an Oscar, and I wrote about him recently. ASKED AND ANSWERED BELOW IN THE COMMENTS.

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Finally, the surprise. The characters on this cover are of ZaSu Pitts and Guy Kibbee, who were starring in the 1947 production The Late Christopher Bean. One of the players in the cast is none other than Nancy Davis, aka, Mrs. Ronald Reagan. Here’s what the program biography has to say about her:

NANCY DAVIS (Susan Haggett), comes naturally by her theatrical bent because her mother was an actress and her God-mother was Alla Nazimova. After graduating from Smith College, where she majored in drama, she made the usual preparatory flights in summer stock and repertory work. These neatly completed, she landed her first professional job with Miss ZaSu Pitts in the touring company of “Ramshackle Inn.” This lead to her first Broadway engagement in Michael Myerberg’s enchanting production of “Lute Song” where she played Si-Tchun, lady-in-waiting to the princess. The following season again saw her on the road with Miss Pitts in “Cordelia,” and last summer she toured the stock circuit in her present role in “The Late Christopher Bean.” Her only contact with the flesh-pots of Hollywood occurred recently when she appeared in a documentary film for RKO.

She’d have a little more contact with a particular flesh-pot soon enough.

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16th 04 - 2007 | no comment »

Our Backstreets #14: Julia Sweeney Redux: Letting Go of God

Julia%20S.bmpBy Marilyn Ferdinand

“There really ARE coincidences!”

Julia Sweeney bellowed this line in amazement right after she confessed her earlier belief that there are no coincidences. It was a funny and oddly moving moment in Sweeney’s new live show Letting Go of God, about her search for and eventual rejection of God. For me, it was also a strange moment. Only about a week ago, I wrote a review of God Said, “Ha!”, the 1998 film of her one-woman show in which she recounted the worst year of her life. In the last line of that review, I hoped that she’d provide an update on the Sweeney clan at some point to give us hope and a good laugh. A week to the day after I posted that review, an item in a local paper said she was in town for a two-day run of her new show. I was lucky to get tickets for the next day’s eventually sold-out performance.

The monologue opens with Julia telling us that she had come to the end of a 4-year love affair that caused her so much pain that one night, in deep despair, she cried out to God to help her. This call in the dark set the stage for a deeper exploration of her religion, unexpectedly triggered one day by the appearance of two Mormon missionaries at her door. The usual reaction to pairs of men in white cotton shirts and thin black ties with bibles in their hands is to politely hide in a windowless room until they stop ringing and knocking on the door. Julia, in an altered state by her spiritual need, invites them in. In answer to their first question, she says, yes, she does believe that God loves her with all His (wait a minute, His?, she thinks) might. Eventually they get to the kookier aspects of their religion, at which point they are invited, very politely, to leave. We then get a brief history of God according to the Sweeneys.

Julia Sweeney was raised a devoted Roman Catholic in Spokane, Washington. We learn of her first religious disappointment—feeling gypped that she hadn’t known God wasn’t reading her every thought before she turned 7, the age of reason. She started telling every 0–6 year old she knew that they could be bad all they wanted and God wouldn’t know, but this knowledge seemed to fall on deaf ears.

In later years, she contemplated becoming a nun. Like me, she was completely devoted to the Hayley Mills character in The Trouble with Angels (“I’ve got a scathingly brilliant idea,” she intones in a perfect imitation of Mills’ enthusiastic British accent.) Like me, she watched The Song of Bernadette in perfect rapture and walked around with a towel on her head. But when a priest angrily told her, “Don’t be ridiculous,” to her request to be an altar boy, she did the one thing Catholics are taught never to do—go up on the altar and TOUCH EVERYTHING.

Returning to her spiritual quest, Julia tries joining a liberal Catholic church and signing up for Bible study. She becomes acquainted with the horrors and caprices of the Old Testament God, then moves on to the New Testament, where she discovers Jesus is angry and impatient more than she remembered him to be from her youthful ardor. Finally, the book of Revelations gives her a White Rabbit experience, and she decides that Catholicism doesn’t really do the job of explaining her faith. She sets off for Bhutan to visit a Buddhist monastery, where she is appalled by children younger than the age of reason turned into monks, and comes to reject Buddhism. Then she tries the glories of nature by sailing to the Galapagos Islands and witnesses cute blue-footed booby babies having their brains pecked out by their stronger sibling. Brrrrrr!

She was a huge fan of Deepak Chopra and his scientific explanation for God’s existence and gushed all over him when they were both guests on a talk show. When she actually takes a class in quantum physics and realizes that it doesn’t do anything to explain intentionality in the creation of the universe, she wants that moment of gushing back so she can say, “Deepak, you’re full of shit!”

Sweeney has a prodigiously inquisitive mind that never let religious dogma—or even the feeling of comfort she got from praying—get in the way of what reason applied to indisputable facts told her. “It’s so hard because invisibility and not really there look so much alike!” She ends up an atheist. When she tells her parents that she no longer believes in God, they seem to take it in stride. But when an AP story titled “Julia Sweeney Comes Out of the Closet—As an Atheist” shows up in the local paper in Spokane, her parents stop talking to her. Her recounting of how they finally reconcile is funny, true, and touching.

Well, we do get that Sweeney clan update. Father Sweeney finally succumbs to emphysema, after a doctor-induced death watch that had been renewed every Christmas for about 20 years. Julia adopts a daughter from China. In raising Mulan, she stresses that it’s comforting to think that Grandpa and their recently deceased cat are together in heaven.

But it’s not real.

Julia Sweeney is touring her exquisite show around the country. She will be back in Chicago June 16–17 at the Lakeshore Theater, a fine, converted movie theatre run by the ever-friendly Chris and Jessica Ritter. An audio recording of the show is available on CD. I hope a film is in the offing as well.


6th 04 - 2007 | no comment »

God Said, “Ha!” (1998)

Director/Writer/Star: Julia Sweeney

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

The 1980s will be remembered for many things—most of them bad—but one positive development of that go-go decade was the blossoming of comic monologues. Spalding Gray gave us Swimming to Cambodia, Lily Tomlin revealed the depth of her talents in The Search for Intelligent Life in the Universe, and Billy Crystal created one memorable character after another in a variety of works.
I was dismayed when I caught the latest in this line of monologists, Sarah Silverman, in her filmed concert performance Sarah Silverman: Jesus Is Magic (2006). Silverman, like Tomlin and Crystal, creates a character, an uber-prejudiced, self-involved Jewish American Princess named Sarah Silverman. She is clearly a very gifted individual, but her act is so one-note that it loses its flavor after about 15 minutes. However, nasty sells these days, and her popularity is assured because she is a pretty woman who talks dirty.

After this painful experience, I needed something to cleanse my soul, and that brings me to former Saturday Night Live star Julia Sweeney and her warm and courageous monologue God Said, “Ha!” Over the course of 90 minutes, Sweeney tells us about 1994-1995, the worst year of her life.

She tells us that the year started very hopefully for her. Although she had just come off a divorce and her bomb of a movie It’s Pat, based on her gender-ambiguous character from SNL, her divorce was amicable and she looked forward to moving from New York to Los Angeles and into her newly purchased bungalow for one. Her idealized vision for her life was one of a sophisticated, strong, single woman and happy about it! Her fears come out, however, as she envisions being one of the active elderly, involved and admired by her neighbors for her independence—in other words, alone forever.

No sooner does she start her brave new life than her brother Mike is diagnosed with lymphoma. She moves him into her bungalow, and her parents come down from their home in Spokane and move in to help care for Mike. Julia has a lot of hand-me-down furniture from her parents. Thus, the experience is akin to moving back home. To Julia’s plans, “God said, ‘ha’!”

In the midst of this nightmare, Julia relates the comedy of family life in affectionate caricatures of her parents. For example, Mrs. Sweeney interrupts Julia’s work in the coach house behind the main house to ask her where her “mixes” are. Julia is baffled about this term. “You know,” she says in a nasal imitation of her mother, “your boxes of Hamburger Helper.” Pasta becomes noodles; marinara sauce becomes red topping. The 1950s live again for Julia, the would-be sophisticate.

The arrangement has its unforeseen benefits, however. When Julia begins a romance with Carl, a outdoorsy type from Idaho, she finds she has to sneak around her own place to have sex with him when he comes to Los Angeles for a visit. She finds herself saying things like, “My parents are so weird. Come on, let’s go neck in the coach house!” The unexpected titillation of the fear of discovery becomes a sweetly humorous memory when she finds that her parents purposely leave the house empty so Julia and Carl can have some privacy. Her apparently clueless parents are, in fact, adults, and that comes perhaps as no surprise to Julia.

The horrors of dealing with a very sick person aren’t glossed over, but the focus is on what Mike has to go through, not very much on her reactions or those of her family. I liked how she recognized that it is the patient who really does all the heavy lifting, and Mike’s procedures (chemo every other day through a spinal tap; a shunt placed directly into his skull) are gruesome to contemplate. Her life-goes-on approach is refreshing and hopeful for all of us who will one day face taking care of a dying loved one.

As Mike continues his downward slide, Julia discovers that she has a rare form of cervical cancer and must have a hysterectomy. The odds of this much pain coming in this short a time to one family is mind-boggling. That Julia can joke about a misplaced ovary and Mike can accuse her of trying to steal the cancer spotlight from him is testament to the beauty that can accompany our darkest moments.

Mike succumbs to cancer, though he has to have a psychologist brought in to help him let go of life. Julia survives to this day, still a single woman, an adoptive mother, stronger and in greater awe of the wonderful foundation of her family. I hope she’ll see fit to bring us an update on the Sweeney clan. The world needs some gentle and wise comic monologists today to give us hope and a good laugh. l


22nd 05 - 2006 | 1 comment »

Our Backstreets #9: Bored with the Boards

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

There was a time when the film industry looked to the theatre for inspiration, talent, and most important of all, material to fill movie screens. It’s great for me, a lifelong theatregoer, to be able to see the works of some of my favorite playwrights captured on film for my whenever viewing pleasure. I’m ecstatic that Volker Schlöndorff’s staged version of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman starring Dustin Hoffman has been preserved, as well as Jason Robards’ performance in Eugene O’Neill’s heartbreaking one-act play Hughie. The list of excellent film adaptations of outstanding plays is far too numerous to catalog, but some standouts include The Children’s Hour, Peter Pan, Oklahoma!, A Streetcar Named Desire, Hair, and Inherit the Wind.

Lately, however, the theatre seems to be threadbare of compelling original product with which to entertain and enlighten fans of live drama. There is always a large offering of revivals in smaller theatres, of course, waiting for new theatre hounds to discover. That kind of production gets a big nod of approval from me. But I expect more from Broadway and off-Broadway theatres and their regional counterparts. With occasional exceptions, the theatre I’ve seen lately has been reactionary, slight, and positively boring.

There’s no lack of high production values, and topnotch acting, singing, and dancing on the boards. But where are the ideas? I saw The Clean House by Sarah Ruhl yesterday. It’s quite funny, but it includes some serious subjects, such as infidelity, divorce, cancer, death, and alienation. In earlier days, a crack playwright would have turned this material into a tragicomic tour de force as Tony Kushner did with Angels in America. Instead, we get something a little above a wisecrack and as thin and insubstantial as a chiffon scarf—and it gets nominated for a Pulitzer Prize!

Perhaps most ironic of all, to fill the gaps in its creativity, Broadway is looking to the movies for material. I’m not sure when this trend started, but I think it was when Sunset Boulevard was made into a Broadway musical by the George Lucas of the theatre, Andrew Lloyd Webber. It even featured a movie star (Glenn Close) as Norma Desmond. Since then, we’ve been assaulted by The Producers, a vulgar, bigoted musical with second-rate songs dragging down the timeless ditties of the original film. Its un-PC characterizations of dumb Swedish blondes, old women dancing around on walkers, and mincing gay men should have made audiences squirm, but instead they seemed to love having permission to laugh the old-fashioned way.

It is one thing to watch a film made in the 1960s and appreciate it from its own historical vantage point; it is quite another to revive such offensive material as a brand-new, live experience for people to get off on. It’s even more unsettling to take this new-old musical and make another film of The Producers of it. The science of cloning tells us that each successive generation of an original will be weaker than the last. The same is true of the endless tape loop that seems to be Hollywood/Broadway.

Now we have a new theatrical ripoff of a movie for a younger generation—Spamalot, based on Monty Python and the Holy Grail. The material in this film is very funny, but the stage version does nothing to improve upon it. The script is repeated almost verbatim, which flattens the jokes for older fans, while reviving ideas that new audiences probably have never heard of, such as anarcho-syndicalism. The show is also full of foul language, which caused the father and son sitting in front of me to leave. This show pretends to be family fare, but it’s not. What it is, much to Broadway’s amazement, is a draw for males in their 30s and 40s who are Monty Python fans and apparently are so mind-numbed that they enjoy parroting the dialogue along with the actors on stage. Because of this new demographic surge, look for more of the same. Perhaps the inevitable stage version of Life of Brian won’t hedge its bets for Broadway’s traditional audience by putting in a lame musical number—no doubt bewildering to the male Python geeks—about Jews.

But really, who is to blame for the downward spiraling of our artistic life? Look at the people squealing in delight at the flaming fags in Broadway’s The Producers, and the real producers in their counting houses counting up their money, and I think you’ll have your answer.l

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