Sylvia’s father: “Shouldn’t you be getting out [of the car]?”
Ben: “It’s Sinatra [on the radio]. You don’t walk out on Frank, Sir. It would be too disrespectful.”
Barry Levinson’s Liberty Heights (1999) is great example of a “Is the glass half empty or is the glass half full?” film. It’s a movie about race and religion that’s either nostalgically revisionist and hopelessly naïve, or sharply reflective and refreshingly optimistic. Set in Baltimore in 1954/1955, one can admire Levinson for exploring Jewish, WASP, and black stereotypes with a deft hand, or slam him for ignoring the racial rifts that would set American cities aflame in the Sixties. I’ll give you the Glass Half Full review; you can check the Net for the Glass Half Empty ones (the World Socialist Website is particularly scathing).
Liberty Heights chronicles a year in the life of two brothers, Ben (Ben Foster) and Van (Adrien Brody) Kurtzman, who’ve grown up in the relatively insular Jewish neighborhood named in the title. Van’s the cooler, more responsible older brother; Ben’s just graduating high school and looking for ways to establish his own identity. Their father Nate (Joe Mantegna) is, incongruously, a pillar of the community who manages a burlesque hall in decline and runs the local numbers racket. As a Glass Half Full reviewer, I commend Levinson for defying convention by giving us a functional family instead of a dysfunctional one. The Kurtzman household, whatever its moments of crisis (e.g. Ben deciding to go trick-or-treating dressed as Adolph Hitler), is built on love and respect. Movies such as Liberty Heights rescue genuine family values from their debasement in politicians’ and demagogues’ 5-second sound-bites.
Director Levinson would have been the same age as Ben in 1954. Much of what makes his film work as well as it does is surely autobiographical. There’s an amazing attention to period detail. I’m a real sucker for those cruise-liners-on-wheels that were called cars back in the 50’s, but Liberty Heights is flawless in all its settings—inside the homes of the middle class and the rich, in the streets of the ghetto and in suburbia, at a Jewish Rosh Hashanah service, or with James Brown at the Royal Theatre. Credit the unsung heroes: the Production Designer (Vincent Peranio), the Art Director (Alan E. Muraoka), the Costume Designer (Gloria Gresham), the Set Decorator (William A. Cimino).
The soundtrack, put together by Ennio Morricone’s son, Andrea, is flawless. It’s a sign of the intelligence behind the whole film that, along with Frank Sinatra and and Nat King Cole and Elvis, the filmmakers chose Tom Waits to give the Burlesk Theater its bump-and-grind. Recreating the past doesn’t mean being a slave to it.
The Sixties often get front-page treatment as a time of radical change, but the mid-50’s were no slouch in that department either. Joseph McCarthy’s powerful anti-communist witch hunt was finally being exposed for the travesty it was. Young people were hit simultaneously by racial desegregation of the schools, by television, by rock’n roll, and by the new consumer culture. The melting pot stopped being a theory and became a reality.
That the stereotypes people clung to at that time now strike us as absurd (Jewish views of WASPS as Aryan-storm-troopers-in-waiting, whites’ views of blacks as sexual animals, mutual horror at the thought of interracial dating, WASP views of Jews as gatecrashers of the American Dream, the idea that every black in Baltimore must know Cab Calloway and every Jew must know Einstein ) shows how far we’ve come. Not that we don’t still have a long way to go, but when was the last time you saw a sign at a public lake that said “No Jews, Dogs, or Coloreds Allowed”? Those signs were still up in Baltimore in 1954. I had no idea. It took ten years after the Holocaust to figure out that official anti-Semitism wasn’t a good idea?? I love Nate’s comment when he says, “They [the government] integrated the golf courses in ’51 and the schools in ’54—where’s their sense of priorities?” The way Ben and his friends react to the “No Jews, Dogs, or Coloreds” sign typifies the film’s strengths. Naturally there’s anger, but they express it through humor and irony. “How do you think they came up with that order?” one of the boys asks. “Must have been some meeting to come up with that order: ‘You know, I gotta tell you, the Jews bother me more than the dogs….’” Humor is healing; Liberty Heightschooses it over the corrosiveness of bitterness every time. Is that naïve? Maybe. Maybe not.
When Ben lets slip that he finds the new black girl in his homeroom class attractive, his mother’s (Bebe Neuwirth) reaction is “Just kill me now!!” Ben and Sylvia (Rebekah Johnson) first connect through the 23rd Psalm, recited every morning in homeroom with the Pledge of Allegiance. Ben finds Sylvia’s genuine reverence fascinating. He breaks the ice, and suddenly finds his world a whole lot bigger. He discovers that for some people “regular” radio means Billie Holiday and Big Joe Turner instead of Frank. And because Ben loves music, that’s a pretty cool discovery. Meanwhile, his friends can’t see any possible basis for a relationship with a black girl that isn’t based on easy sex. Nor is Sylvia’s father, a wealthy Baltimore doctor, thrilled to find a white boy in his daughter’s closet.
While Ben is bridging the racial divide, his brother Van is spinning through the socio-religious one. He’s fallen madly in love with a cool blond beauty, Dubbie (Carolyn Murphy), from the other side of the tracks—the wealthy WASP side. For Van and his buddies to crash a party on the other side of Fells Road, “Gentile turf,” is like running the Berlin Wall. The “rednecks” in this part of town are college preppies with too much money and a medieval mindset on Jewry. But the times they are indeed a-changing and the boys head into unknown territory with a battle cry of “Get ready, folks! The Jews are coming!”
This anti-Semitic Berlin Wall collapses as decisively as its namesake. Ironically, Van’s real problem is the fact that the girl he worships is far less than she seems. The dream girl with feet of clay.
There isn’t a weak piece of casting in the film, major or minor. From Frania Rubinek as the traditional Jewish grandmother (“[Sampson] knocked the building down. He killed the goyim. End of story.”), to David Krumholtz as Van’s friend Yussel. Yussel knows as little about Gentiles as they know about Jews. He can’t understand why a supposedly wealthy Gentile family would put up with a (antique) wooden dining table and (Persian) throw rugs when they could buy a brand- new Formica table and put in wall-to-wall. Despite his suspicions of those who live on the other side of Fells Road, he’s willing to dye his hair, change his name (“Call me Yeats”) and venture into the territory if there’s a chance of getting laid (“My father’s from Norway and my mother’s from Denmark. They met in Sweden. That sort of covers the whole Nordic spectrum” he tells a girl he’s chatting up.)
Joe Mantegna gives his usual flawless performance. A very honest man running a very illegal business. Not as contradictory as it sounds. This was just before the states started running their own lotteries. It’s not the best of times for Nate. In addition to rumors of the state lottery, the burlesque business is tanking, the IRS is getting suspicious, and a small-time hood, Little (“Don’t make me moody”) Melvin flukes a $100,000 win on a bonus numbers ticket.
Along with superb casting and flawless production values, Levinson’s skill as a director also shines through in the editing of Liberty Heights. At one point, scenes of Ben and Sylvia at a James Brown concert at the Royal are intercut with those of Van and Dubbie at a huge outdoor party. Not only do the visuals play narrative counterpoint, but the soundtracks overlap. The effect is like watching a ballet with tango and apache interludes. Elsewhere, a raucous Tom Waits dirge (can anyone else besides Tom Waits compose a raucous dirge?) drifts like smoke into a domestic scene.
Not only is this cinematic glass half full, it’s a great vintage to boot.
(Also highly recommended this month: Jay Scott’s movie reviews as collected in Great Scott! Some amazing work. Short and right on. Virtuoso. His reviews of James Cameron’s Aliens and Akira Kurasawa’s Ran are incredible. Jay Scott died of AIDS in 1993. Proceeds from the sale of Great Scott! go to the Canadian AIDS Foundation.)
Looking Back & Second Thoughts
I don’t have much to add to my original review of this good-hearted film about the joys & tribulations of being Jewish in Boston in the mid-1950s. Levinson mines the humor & angst in interracial dating, interfaith dating, inter-class dating, and the perils of trying to supplement a dying burlesque business with a numbers racket. I can’t help thinking that if this movie were made today there would be more anger, less laughter, and graver consequences. In short, more pain.
There’s so much that works here: the Rosh Hashanah new Cadillac tradition, Ben’s Adolph Hitler Halloween costume, Yussel’s dyed-blond-hair Nordic make-out scam, the girl-next-door striptease number to a Tom Waits song, the Jewish grandmother, the boyfriend-in-the-closet scene, the bitter & sweet love stories, James Brown at the Apollo, the “You-just-don’t-walk-out-on-Frank scene, Ben & Sylvia’s scandalous kiss, the final bathing breakthrough, etc. As Stephen Holden wrote in his review of Liberty Heights, Baltimore has been awfully good to Barry Levinson.
One thought that did cross my mind was how the Jewish and black American veterans felt when they came back home after the war and discovered that nothing had changed for them when it came to racism and bigotry. This theme was explored recently in Dee Rees’s Mudbound (2017). That a local public swimming area could have had a “No Jews, dogs, or coloreds” sign in 1954 boggles the mind. That’s just a year before I was born.
The casting of Liberty Heights is as close to perfection as it gets. So many of the lead actors—Adrien Brodie, Bebe Neuwirth, Joe Mantegna, Ben Foster, Orlando Jones, David Krumholtz, Vincent Guastaferro–have gone on to long and successful careers. For whatever reasons, neither of the two actresses who played the love interests, Rebekah Johnson and Carolyn Murphy, made a career in films. Nor did Carlton J. Smith, who played James Brown. As of 2021, Barry Levinson continues to work in film and television. Rain Man (1988) remains his only Oscar win, but he has picked up four Primetime Emmy awards. He’s now in his fifth decade as director, producer, and writer. I’ve unfortunately lost touch with his more recent work, so can’t make any recommendations along those lines. I plan to check out his most recent film, The Survivor (2021).
Available on YouTube? Yes, at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=85BjH4XTh8E
Also available for rental or purchase at iTunes & YouTube