Next Stop, Greenwich Village

(USA - 1976)

by Mike Lorefice

Cast: Lenny Baker, Shelley Winter, Christopher Walken
Genre: Comedy
Director: Paul Mazursky
Screenplay: Paul Mazursky
Cinematography: Arthur Ornitz
Composer: Bill Conti
Runtime: 111 minutes

Mazursky's hilarious semi-autobiographical tale of his early adulthood when he left the home of his overbearing possessive mother and moved to the artist's quarter, Greenwich Village, in an attempt to become an actor. Lenny Baker plays Mazursky as a loveable dreamer who eventually gets the call to go Hollywood. However, the film focuses on the attempts of Mazursky (or Larry Lapinsky as he's called here) to escape his family and past and persevere on his own working a lousy job to support himself until the time comes when his chosen profession might be able to.

Depicting with honesty and integrity more than lovingness the way hopeful aspiring artists associate and relate to one another, the Greenwich Village denizens alternately prop each other up and tear each other down based on circumstances, selfishness, or things they don't even realize and can't even fathom. There's a certain warmth that allows you to care about the characters and root for them, though they certainly have their share of problems and often don't handle them well.

Everyone outside of the village, lead by Larry's mother Fay (Winters), thinks he's wasting his talent, skill, intellect, and well life trying to act, not to mention setting himself up for a life of poverty. We see the various ways the world tries to rear would be artists in, force them to be "realistic" and conform to the dull 9 to 5 life.

Though he may borrow some from Federico Fellini, Mazursky's film is an intensely personal work that's more honest and true to life than usual. It's the kind of lifelike film where people have a conversation that has nothing to do with anything and then pause for a condom. The characters have been accused of being too broadly drawn, and these days it's certainly hard not to see the gay black character Bernstein (Antonio Fargas) as the kind of parody you get from a sitcom. He's a sad comic relief character who is crying out for someone to love him and care about him more than a bit too loudly, but we can get over certain flaws due to the refreshing indifference to the supposed fragility of the audience. In a sense they may appear cliché today, but they are a lot deeper because they aren't reduced to a singular purpose that's neatly defined by their look and we can see their humanity, their finer points and their folly.

Mazursky's film is one of the only times you'll find a positive portrayal of a group of intellectuals in US cinema, they always seem extinct unless they are dragged out to be objects of derision. In a sense they are only intellectuals from today's perspective, as in 1953 you were considered cool in certain quarters if you talked about the great authors and directors, recited poetry, and listened to jazz. Mazursky might not be the director to look to when it comes to finding new artists to be influenced by (that's Godard), but he's certainly not reinforcing the extremely limited cannon like today's corporate crap. Rather than just using the new to resell the same old, he incorporates some of the influential works into conversations that sub for the plot.

Mazursky doesn't make himself out to be any great actor. He's a ham who is more of an impersonator. Baker is a riot acting out scenes where he pretends to be his mother, anticipating every complaint and disapproval she'll pin on him in advance. He does some pretty good star impersonations as well, but what made the biggest impression on me is when the instructor said joking is the American actor's disease because it keeps life out; it's just the actor protecting himself. I would add it's become the Hollyplastic director's disease, especially in genre where corn, parody, and camp are used to hide behind and distract from the fact they are wholly incapable of making an effective straight entry. Anyway, his acting coach eventually gets him past his distancing methods so he can take everything in and become the character rather than hiding behind his sense of humor.

I'd be remiss if I didn't talk about the acting in the film, which is more than memorable. Shelly Winters is extremely impressive as the clinging meddling Jewish mom who relies on the guilt trip and means well but can't handle the truth or avoid making a horrible embarrassing scene. While that aspect of Winters' character is always emphasized because it's never been done so well, it's perhaps equally important that she's a failed singer. There's something to her character, she's trying to spare her child from making the same mistakes she did, from getting behind and then having to settle for something that only brought misery and regret.

Baker gives what should have been a star making performance, but unfortunately he died soon after at just 32-years-old. It's similar to the early roles of Robert De Niro, playing a charming, energetic, and fun character that far from being perfect is also clumsy and confused.

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Before he was so amazing in Deer Hunter that he was always associated with disturbed or hyper characters, Christopher Walken shows he can be memorable in a calmer more normal role. He's an egomaniacal poet who thinks every woman on the face of the planet must invariably love him. They'd be a lot better off avoiding him and falling in love with this lively, entertaining, and damn funny movie.




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