Judy Berlin

USA 1998

Reviewed by Philip Kemp


Our synopses give away the plot in full, including surprise twists.

Babylon, Long Island, the day of a solar eclipse. Alice Gold, a housewife recovering from a drink problem, sees off her husband Arthur to the school where he's the principal. Her son David, recently returned from a failed career in Hollywood, sits at home sunk in deep depression. Sue Berlin, a teacher at Arthur's school, prepares her class to view the eclipse. She's interrupted by ex-teacher Dolores Engler, now suffering from Alzheimer's, who disrupts the class. When Sue tries to intervene, Dolores slaps her.

Wandering the streets, David meets an old classmate, Sue's daughter Judy. An aspiring actress, Judy is about to leave for Hollywood. They lunch together. The eclipse happens, and the darkness doesn't lift for hours. As Arthur comforts the distressed Sue they sense their unspoken attraction. Meanwhile, Alice and her cleaner Carol explore the dark streets.

David warns Judy she stands little chance in Hollywood. She takes offence and walks off. Arthur and Sue share a tentative kiss. David rushes to the station where Judy is catching her train to the airport and they bid each other an affectionate farewell. Sue arrives too late to see her daughter off. Meeting Dolores in the street, she speaks gently to her.


"There wouldn't be a plot," says Judy Berlin's protagonist, failed film-maker David Gold, outlining his idea for a documentary about his home town. "It would just be about how it is when nobody's looking." David's project doesn't exist; it's a spur-of-the-moment excuse devised to cover his ignominious return home after failing in Hollywood. What he's describing, though, is clearly enough the film we're watching - except for documentary, read feature.

Writer-director Eric Mendelsohn's first full-length film, shot in the Long Island suburb of New Bethpage where he grew up, all but dispenses with plot in favour of an atmospheric study in mood and character, and like David's fictitious film, there's "nothing sarcastic" about it. Spurning cheap shots at American suburbia, Mendelsohn portrays his town's inhabitants with affection, setting out to show "the melancholy and complexity of the people who choose to live there." There's something in common here with Steve Buscemi's 1996 directorial debut Trees Lounge, likewise set in the film-maker's Long Island home town. Buscemi's film, though pitched more towards comedy, shares Mendelsohn's wistful sense of dead-end lives and his unpatronising generosity towards his characters.

Shot in elegant black and white, Judy Berlin establishes a mood of dreamlike clarity even before the onset of the prolonged eclipse. The members of this largely Jewish community (which Mendelsohn renames Babylon, city of exile) are mostly leading, in Thoreau's famous phrase, "lives of quiet desperation"; there's a sense of deferred reality about them, of holding life at one remove for fear of having to acknowledge its bitterness and disappointments. Teacher Sue Berlin and school principal Arthur Gold both display the downturned mouths and slumped shoulders of diminished expectations, and their love scene together is touching in its wary, inarticulate tenderness. His wife Alice (Madeline Kahn in her final role) meanwhile wanders the streets chanting her rubric: "I wish, I wish, I wish in vain, I wish I was 16 again." Compulsively loquacious - "There's no sub with you; it's all liminal," her son observes wearily - she's elated rather than unnerved by the prolonged darkness, finding in it a strangeness to match her own.

The motif of the eclipse risks coming across as glibly symbolic, but Mendelsohn heads this off by putting the idea into the mouth of a lunkhead ex-schoolfellow of David's who burbles that the darkness would be "like a metaphor - a comment on the suburbs". Instead, Mendelsohn and his director of photography Jeffrey Seckendorf use the night-for-day chiaroscuro to create a sense of suspended time in which the familiar swaps with the bizarre. As the camera lingers on everyday trivialities, they come to seem impossibly exotic, and David's fixation on the yellow patio chairs of his childhood ("Where does something like that go?" he laments) starts to make perfect sense.

Mendelsohn draws oblique, understated performances from his cast, letting his characters' feelings emerge in the play of emotions across their faces and the gaps between what they say. (Just before Arthur kisses Sue he gently brushes a speck from her coat, a gesture far more eloquent than his fumbling words.) Amid these lives of subdued defeat, aspirant actress Judy stands out for her defiant, doomed optimism. Superbly played by Edie Falco (the disaffected Mafia wife from television's The Sopranos), she's always just a touch too bright, too eager, like a light bulb about to blow. As she hams her way through her role at the town's low-rent historical theme park, miming cow-milking and butter-churning, it's all too clear that David is right: she doesn't stand a chance in Hollywood and will probably, like him, end up back home with all her illusions busted. But Mendelsohn treats her vitality as admirable, however insecurely based, and hints that enough of it may have rubbed off on David to lift him out of his depression. "Make a movie!" she tells him as she boards her train, her wide-eyed grin like a benediction. And just maybe he will.


Eric Mendelsohn
Rocco Caruso
Eric Mendelsohn
Director of Photography
Jeffrey Seckendorf
Eric Mendelsohn
Production Designer
Charlie Kulsziski
Michael Nicholas
©Jaeger Films, Inc.
Production Companies
A Caruso/Mendelsohn production
The Sundance Institute Line Producer
Lisa Kolasa
Associate Producer
Wendy Jo Cohen
Production Supervisor
Rebecca Feig
Production Co-ordinator
Alexandra Lisee
Location Manager
Phil Schulz
Post-production Supervisor
Kendall McCarthy
Assistant Directors
Christian Montalbano
Bob DeMarco
Script Supervisors
David Welch
Kate Conroy
Laura Rosenthal
Ali Farrell
Camera Operator
George E. Byers
Art Director
Dina Varano
Set Decorator
Paula Davenport
Costume Designer
Sue Gandy
Wardrobe Supervisor
Lisa Emerson
Make-up Artist
Kim Behrens
Hair Stylist
Marion Geist
Titles/Optical Effects
Pacific Title/Mirage
Solo Harpsichord:
Elaine Comparone
French Horn:
Daniel Grabois
Ted Sperling
Score Mixer
Cynthia Daniels
"Mozart's Serenade No. 10 in B-flat" - New York Philharmonic Chamber Ensemble
Production Sound Mixer
Eric Susch
Additional Sound Recordist
Mitchell Rosenbaum
Sound Mixer
David Novack
Supervising Sound Editor
Stephen Altobello
Effects Editor
Jason Kaplan
Nancy Cabrera
Jason Kaplan
Barbara Barrie
Sue Berlin
Bob Dishy
Arthur Gold
Edie Falco
Judy Berlin
Carlin Glynn
Aaron Harnick
David Gold
Bette Henritze
Dolores Engler
Madeline Kahn
Alice Gold
Julie Kavner
Anne Meara
Novella Nelson
Peter Appel
Mr V
Marcia DeBonis
Glenn Fitzgerald
tour guide
Marcus Giamatti
Eddie Dillon
Judy Graubart
Arthur Anderson
Doctor Stern
Margaret Mendelson
Keith Mulvihill
Bob DeMarco
gas station attendants
Jeffrey Howard
Sylvia Kauders
woman on bench
Diane Tyler
neighbour in window
Louise Millmann
Julie Kessler
Alice's neighbour
Ellen Baer
Louisa Shafia
chatting nurse
Dennis Roach
Renee Guest
P.A. announcer
Vic Caroli
TV announcer
Stephanie Goldberg
Adam Blondrage
Pamela Bossdorf
Juliana Cardella
Sandra Fleming
Jamie Giannino
Nicole Goldberg
Victoria Kaplan
Brett Lustig
Victoria Pick
Kaitlyn Rajzewski
Erica Tamburro
Gregory Tamburro
Lalenur Tastan
Suzan Tastan
children in class
Blue Light
8,436 feet
93 minutes 45 seconds
In Black & White
Last Updated: 20 Dec 2011