Outside the Lines
the movies, suburbia is usually plastic and colorful, familiar and pockmarked by
Pier Ones, Burger Kings, and Walmarts, as well as American Beauty roses. In Judy
Berlin, suburbia is black and white and strange, as if it's simultaneously
frozen in time and thrown out of it. And in its black and whiteness, the film is
an apt comment on the idea of the ‘burbs:
in particular, the idea that they don't change, that they can always look
and feel the same in the movies.
set in the fictional town of Babylon, Long Island, on an unusually cold autumn
afternoon, the second day of classes. It's the day when Judy Berlin (Edie Falco)
is scheduled to leave town for LA, after she completes her last afternoon of
work as a milkmaid at the local Colonial Village. She's been talking for months
about her trip, and everyone knows she's headed west to become an actress, and
her terminal optimism would be aggravating if she weren't so believable: you
want to imagine that she'll be fine, like she says, that she'll find what she's
looking for, even if she hasn't exactly articulated it. Her mother, Sue (Barbara
Barrie) is a second grade teacher, and when Judy stops by the school to say
goodbye, they stand awkwardly by the building's front doors, unable to move
toward one another or say the decent things they know they should be saying.
not so much that mother and daughter have a particular or huge conflict that
they need to resolve. Instead, you get the feeling that their tension is
longstanding and wearying. They know the routine and would rather avoid it, but
fall into baiting each other without thinking. Wearing her black leather jacket
and hair pulled back, Judy looks younger than her thirtysomething years but also
older, as if she's been through too much. She and her mother are sad but
relieved that it's about to stop, at least for a while, when Judy steps onto the
train that afternoon and heads off to the airport.
relationship is not quite at the center of Judy Berlin, a film named for
its most obviously hopeful character, but everyone in the film is treated with
respect and gentleness. The suburbs may be a nerve-wracking and emotionally
frying place -- as several characters acknowledge during the course of the film
-- but it's also a place of possibility, where relationships might be accepted
and even cherished for the fragile events they are. Judy ends up spending the
bulk of her last day with an old classmate, David Gold (Aaron Harnick), just
returned from LA, where he tried to become a filmmaker but somehow fell short.
Now back at his parents' home, David's feeling sullen and isolated: when Judy
spots him on the street at first, he's trying to avoid her gaze. But then he
tracks her down at the Village and takes her to lunch at the commissary. They
talk, she eats French fries, they take a walk.
this walk, the town is enveloped in darkness, due to an eclipse. In another
movie, this event might be apocalyptic or broadly meaningful, concerning
beginnings and endings or blindness and vision. Here, however, the eclipse is
what it is, a disruption in routine. The black and white ‘burbs become silvery
and dark, the kids at school are thrilled, the grown-ups a bit rattled. David
begins to admit his fears and ambitions, to this one-time tough girl, who used
to intimidate him. Initially he's raining on Judy's parade: "These are the
facts as I see them," he says; that is, she's going to fail, like he did.
For David, facts are only oppressive, obstacles to be overcome or assumed. But
it's not so long before their positions seem almost to reverse, and she's
looking like a role model and offering life advice. "I always wanted to
make a documentary about this town, but not sarcastic... no plot," he tells
her, suddenly re-energized by the prospect. It may not be the most novel idea in
the world, but it's his confession, that for all his frustration at being back
"home," he also wants to appreciate the world around him, like Judy
eclipse brings on other emotional shifts. Sue's classroom is unsettled when a
former schoolteacher, Dolores Engler (Bette Henritze), now succumbing to
Alzheimer's disease, wanders in, looking for respite from her house (suddenly
foreign, where all the appliances are labeled), looking for her past, looking
for something familiar. Unnerved by the visit and the children's alarm, Sue
responds badly, then feels overwhelmed by guilt, which she proceeds to dump in
the lap of the principal (and David's father), Arthur Gold (Bob Dishy). In turn,
he also responds badly. Long married to Alice (Madeline Kahn), Arthur is quite
unable to act on the intimacy both he and Sue are imagining at the same time: he
pulls back, they regroup, and eventually, they come to some kind of terms with
the limits and comforts of the friendship they can share.
the smallness of their gestures, their crystallized timidities and braveries,
that makes Judy Berlin seem, at times, a little too precious. But it's
the smallness and sureness of their depictions -- especially in the actors'
performances, all exemplary -- that makes the film insightful and different from
what you might be expecting. And it may be, as many viewers have noted, that
Kahn's performance is most remarkable. Alice's realignment is certainly the
film's most wrenching. Watching the eclipse from her living room window, she
calls for her maid Carol (Novella Nelson) to come see! (For Alice, obviously a
little unhinged inside her unthinkingly racist, sheltered suburban housewife
world, her maid is always available for any employer whim; for Carol, it appears
that the boss lady's tripping again, in need of looking after.) Together, they
take in the sudden newness of their surroundings.
put on their coats and begin to wander the streets, waving their arms like the
"space explorers" they've seen in movies. Encountering a neighbor with
whom she evidently had a fight several months earlier, Alice is surprised: she
has no memory of the incident and can't even apologize for her meanness. And
when asked by a grumpy neighbor to explain how she seems to derive such joy from
the strangeness of the moment, she does so, in perfectly considered terms:
"The day to day gives me trouble," she says, but in "an
emergency, when a thing like this happens, the rest of the world and I are
speaking the same language."
you to speak this language, to love its gently odd characters, to admire its
modest scope and optimism. That it succeeds, for the most part, despite its
rejection of the standard cues -- say, the sun breaking through, mother and
daughter embracing, Alice coming to her senses -- is a testament to its
resourcefulness and willingness to think outside the lines.