Henry Jaglom and His Theatrical Families

Henry Jaglom’s newest film, Just 45 Minutes from Broadway,is an adaptation of his play about two generations of a Jewish theatrical family, and the secrets that come to light when one daughter brings home her “civilian” boyfriend.

For those unfamiliar with Jaglom’s work, he uses an improvisational style that blurs the edge between actor and character so that, to a degree no other filmmaker manages, it often feels as if you’re eavesdropping on real people. His films tend to involve ad hoc groups in restrictive settings (usually comfortable upper-scale homes), and his concerns around feminist issues (his series of “woman’s issue” films, for example, from Eating, to Going Shopping, to Babyfever). His work isn’t for everyone, and he has some vocal critics, but I treasure the sense of reality he presents.

Just 45 Minutes from Broadway is also an interesting bookend with another Jaglom film, 1995’s Last Summer in the Hamptons. That was the first Jaglom film I saw, and since then I’ve seen almost all his others. Interestingly, both these “theatrical” stories are fairly atypical of Jaglom’s usual concerns, but they share a family resemblance to each other. I have no real experience with the theatrical life, but both films show how seductive, and destructive, it can be.

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In both films, an “outsider” figure comes into the well-established family, acting as the viewer surrogate. In Hamptons it’s Oona Hart (Victoria Foyt), a movie actress who’s recently starred in a smash superhero movie and now wants to get some real acting cred. In Broadway it’s James (Judd Nelson*), a real estate lawyer and fiance of one of the sisters. But while they’re similar figures, they’re actually opposites: Oona wants something from the Axelrods, and ultimately refuses to change, while James is there to meet his future in-laws, and ends up changing fundamentally.

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The families, too, are similar. The Axelrods are preparing for the final performance of their annual theatrical review, while the Isaacs are facing the very real effects of the current economic downturn. In both films, the potential loss of a house represents the loss of the family unity. The Axelrods don’t really have a patriarch, but when your matriarch is the formidable Viveca Lindfors, you may not need one. The Isaacs are presided over by George and Vivian, theatrical veterans with family ties to the Yiddish theater. Sibling rivalry is also part of both, although Jack and Trish Axelrod are a bit more disturbed than the fairly upfront rivalry between Pandora and Betsy Isaacs.

Jaglom’s improvisational approach is a much bigger presence in Hamptons. Broadway feels more scripted (and that’s not a criticism), although the Seder dinner has the freewheeling, on-edge feel of a real social event. But it also means that Broadway stays more traditionally focused, and doesn’t meander (again, not a criticism) to the degree Hamptons does.

Both films are also showcases for Jaglom’s then-current muses. Foyt is terrific as a movie actress tempted by the “reality” of the theatrical life, but who ultimately can’t commit (her “baby seal” scene is great). And Frederick (as always showing everything her character feels at every moment) is luminous as the actress daughter worried that she can no longer exist either onstage or in the real world.

Jaglom (l) and Foyt

But the films have crucially different climaxes. Hamptons ends with the end: the final Axelrod showcase, after which the family home will be sold and the clan will likely no longer gather. Broadway ends with new beginnings, a more “traditional” romantic comedy ending but one that feels earned because of the affection generated for the characters.

Frederick (l) and Jaglom

As I said, I don’t have any real experience with theater, or theatrical families. But both the Axelrods and the Isaacs are people I’d love to visit for a weekend. I recommend both films for fans of ensemble acting, independent film and unique points of view.

*Never been a fan of Judd Nelson, but he’s absolutely great here. So I guess now I am a fan.

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