By Richard Winters
My Rating: 7 out of 10
4-Word Review: He dreams of stardom.
In 1953 Larry (Lenny Baker), a young man in his early 20’s, decides to move out of his home in Brooklyn that he still lives in with his parents (Shelley Winters, Mike Kellin) and into an apartment situated in the artsy district of Greenwich Village. Larry dreams of becoming a movie star and feels the way to start his career is by living with fellow artists. He also wants to get away from his meddling mother, but finds no matter where he goes she always comes to visit many times at the most inopportune moments including when he’s holding wild parties, or making-out with his new girlfriend Sarah (Ellen Greene).
The film is loosely based on writer/director Paul Mazursky’s early life as a struggling artist, which is fine, but how much one likes this movie hinges almost completely on how much they can stand the main character. For me he wasn’t so likable. While I admit his mother was annoying she was still well-meaning and the way he constantly lashed-out at her seemed too angry and aggressive. I would’ve thought someone who had been raised in that type of overbearing environment all of his life would’ve figured out a more subtle way to placate his mom that wouldn’t have needed to be so abrasive. When he tells his neighbor lady (Rachel Novikoff) that he’s moving to Greenwich Village to ‘become a big star’ like it was going to be some automatic thing seemed a bit too deluded and you’d think by that age he would’ve been a little bit better grounded.
The friends that he makes, which include some early performances by Christopher Walken, Antonio Fargas, and Dori Brenner, are a bit off-kilter as well. For instance they visit a fellow artist friend named Anita (Lois Smith) at her apartment only to find her sitting inside the bathroom with her wrists slit and talking about how she wants to die. They manage to get her patched-up, but then return to the apartment a couple of weeks later with the same carefree spirit that they had the first time, but you’d think after what they witnessed they’d approach the place cautiously, or maybe never want to go there again, for fear that she’d try it again and this time succeed forcing them to witness a tragic sight and yet this bunch acts like for some reason the whole suicide thing will never reoccur only to be shocked when it does even though I as a viewer was completely expecting it.
The story is rather rudimentary and involves basic elements that seemed to be analyzed in a lot of coming-of-age films during the 70’s including having Larry’s girlfriend get pregnant and require an abortion, which wasn’t exactly a unique twist. I did though enjoy the scenes inside Larry’s acting class and the way his teacher (Michael Egan, who was portraying the legendary acting coach Herbert Berghof) challenged his students after his each performance that they gave in the class and requiring them to analyze why they portrayed a certain character the way they did. Not enough other movies capture the technical side to acting, so I felt these scenes stood out in a good way and were quite introspective to the craft. I also liked the dream sequence where Larry imagines himself as a successful star, but then this quickly turns into a nightmare where he sees himself booed by the audience and even has pies thrown in his face, which I felt brought out the insecurity many artists, especially actors, harbor, even the successful ones, where they secretly fear never being quite good enough.
My biggest complaint though was with the ending where for some inexplicit reason Larry gets hired to play a part in a movie and whisked off to Hollywood even though I didn’t see what was so great about his audition, or why this scrawny guy stood out to the casting directors from all of the other men that were also vying for the role. I realize that Mazursky was basing this on his own life as he was able to escape to Hollywood after getting the starring role in the Stanley Kubrick drama Fear and Desire, but this only occurs to a small handful of people and the vast majority who move to Greenwich Village never really leave it, or if they do it’s most likely to the suburbs where they’re forced to get ‘real jobs’, or maybe even back home to their parents after they run out of money. If the movie has Greenwich Village in its title then that’s where it should’ve stayed as most people who live there probably ultimately wouldn’t like Hollywood as it’s a completely different vibe and sometimes it’s better being a big fish in a small pond, which I felt is the message that the film should’ve conveyed as the Hollywood twist seemed too dreamy.
End of Spoiler Alert!
Either way the film is helped immensely by Shelley Winters, who plays the overbearing mother to a T and comes complete with realistic crying spells. This should’ve netted her a third Oscar and for all purposes was her last great role as the parts she got offered after this were virtually all of the B-movie variety. Baker on the other-hand, whose only starring vehicle this was as he died, at the young age of 37, less than 6 years after this film came out, is an acquired taste. I don’t know if it was his extreme skinniness that got to me, he was 6’0, 145 pounds, but I just couldn’t really ever warm up to him and felt that Harvey Keitel, who had been considered for the part, would’ve worked better. You do though get to see Bill Murray, in his live-action, feature film debut, as a party guest as well as Jeff Goldblum as a humorously obnoxious struggling actor doing whatever he can to stand out and get noticed.
My Rating: 7 out of 10
Released: February 4, 1976
Runtime: 1 Hour 51 Minutes
Director: Paul Mazursky
Studio: 20th Century Fox
Available: DVD, Blu-ray