Outside the Lines
In 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.
Judy Berlin is 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 L.A., 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.
It’s 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 30ish years but also older, as if she’s been through too much. Sue looks decidedly prudent an elementary schoolteacher’s look but also verging on something more self-expressive, or perhaps, more self-assertive. She’s so used to taking care of children that she seems caught, unable to adjust to her daughter as an adult. And both Judy and her mother are visibly 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.
This relationship is not quite at the center of Judy Berlin, a film named for its most obviously hopeful character. It’s more generous than that, or more interested in the connections and comparisons between relationships, than it is interested in working through one in particular. It treats all its characters with respect and a kind of gentle curiosity, listening in on their conversations, then moving on, returning a few minutes later, to observe what changes may or may not be in the making. 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 L.A., 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.
During 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 does.
The eclipse brings on other emotional shifts. Sue’s classroom is unsettled when a former teacher, 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 with handwritten signs), looking for her past, looking for something familiar. But her appearance throws everything out of whack. Sue is unnerved by the visit and the children’s wariness, and she responds badly, only to feel overwhelmed by guilt. When the principal (and David’s father), Arthur Gold (Bob Dishy), comes by to make sure she’s all right, Sue dumps her grief and guilt on, surprising herself and him. In turn, he also responds badly: surprise is nervous-making. Long married to Alice (Madeline Kahn, in her last performance), 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.
It’s 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 detail 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. Alice’s realignment is exemplary. 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 her employer’s tripping again, in need of looking after.) Together, they take in the sudden newness of their surroundings and find themselves adoring it.
They 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. But for her, surprise is welcome, she’s more bothered by routine and frustration. When asked by a grumpy neighbor to explain how she seems to derive such joy from the strangeness of the moment, Alice 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.”
Judy Berlin invites 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 testament to its resourcefulness and willingness to think outside the lines.