Fiddler in the ‘Hood … What Happened to Elisabeth Shue

Fiddler in the ‘Hood

New York’s public schools have come a long way since Blackboard Jungle . Teachers still confiscate the occasional switchblade from a second grader, and I’m sure they all have their own personal horror stories, but there are new alternatives to boredom and violence in the public school system. In the war against ignorance, music–the universal salve that heals and bonds–has become one of the most powerful weapons in education. That is the subject of Music of the Heart , a lovely, inspiring true story about Roberta Guaspari, played by the always stunning and convincing Meryl Streep, an actress who, I am sure, could find fresh and surprising ways to teach a course in dyeing Easter eggs.

In case you have overlooked the recent, remarkable documentary on her life or forgotten the voluminous newspaper coverage of her ongoing achievements, Ms. Guaspari is the violin teacher who has enriched and enhanced the lives of so many underprivileged inner-city kids through her music classes in ghetto schools. A housewife who was deserted by her Navy husband and left with two sons to raise and no means of support, Roberta suffered through a series of humiliating jobs, but her fascinating story really begins when she takes a hard look at her assets, which consist of 50 violins left over from an aborted attempt to teach music to kids on one of her estranged husband’s military assignments, and appears at her mother’s doorstep, frazzled and defeated, with nowhere else to go. She soon runs into an old journalist friend from high school she hasn’t seen in years (Aidan Quinn) who remembers what a vivacious girl and great violinist she used to be. He lands her an interview with the tough principal of an elementary school in East Harlem (Angela Bassett), and a journey as a music teacher commences that changes her life forever and makes a difference in the lives of others.

The challenges were almost insurmountable. Resistance to her music classes was immediate. Both parents and fellow teachers were wary of a white woman teaching music created by “dead white men” to children who had never even lifted a musical instrument before, in a rough neighborhood ingrained with decades of racial discrimination. And there was no money to finance her classes. But after 10 years of bucking the odds, there were so many student applicants that they had to be selected by lottery.

When the Board of Education slashed the budget and canceled her violin program, Roberta took her fight to the press, Itzhak Perlman agreed to join the students in a benefit concert to keep the classes going, and miraculously Roberta and her prize students all ended up in the now-famous “Fiddlefest” at Carnegie Hall in 1993, sharing the stage with Isaac Stern. Ms. Guaspari continues teaching the violin to this day in Harlem schools, improving the lives of hundreds of kids, guiding and propelling many of them into graduate studies at the Juilliard School and inspiring them with the courage and self-confidence to launch prominent careers of their own as concert artists.

What shines through the years of dedication and hard work and makes Roberta a worthy subject for a biopic is her unshakable humor in the face of adversity and her infallible sense of character–qualities which, of course, make the role a natural for Meryl Streep. The strides she takes in redefining her worth at home and in the classroom, often sacrificing personal happiness to realize her abandoned dreams by making a world of difference to hundreds of children who never knew they needed her, is a testament to the value of having faith in oneself with clear vision, no matter what the obstacles are. It’s the kind of thing this luminous actress does best, and her unmannered generosity and warmth give the entire film stature.

In addition to Ms. Bassett as the principal who believed in Roberta from the start, Mr. Quinn as the lover who offers everything but marriage and emotional security when Roberta needs them most, Gloria Estefan as a feisty fellow teacher who provides a sorely needed shoulder of strength when the going gets rough, and Cloris Leachman as Roberta’s pragmatic and often exasperating mother, the cast includes 150 of the most adorable pint-size wannabe violinists any screen could muster. More than half of them are Ms. Guaspari’s actual students, who have never acted before. They are all terrific.

But the major surprise is Wes Craven–master of slash-and-gash horror flicks such as Scream and A Nightmare on Elm Street –staging a career turnaround of his own in his first serious film. Like David Lynch, who showed his own heart with the magnificent new film The Straight Story , Mr. Craven is to be congratulated for tugging a few heartstrings of his own this time around. While sharing the universally uplifting message that music transcends all boundaries regardless of race or creed, Mr. Craven avoids the pitfalls of weepy, conventional sentimentality in a film of great feeling, optimism, decency and hope.

What Happened to Elisabeth Shue

Opting for the same kind of heartrending empathy, John Duigan’s Molly has just the opposite effect. This ill-advised soap opera has already been playing to snoring audiences on transatlantic flights and the reasons why it is finally being released commercially inspire skepticism at best. Molly, played by the criminally wasted Elisabeth Shue, is an autistic woman (I’m told it is politically incorrect to use the word “retarded” now, but you be the judge) who, after years in a nursing facility, is forced into the outside world in the care of her brother Buck (Aaron Eckhart, fresh from his success in two Neil LaBute films, In the Company of Men and Your Friends and Neighbors ), a free-wheeling bachelor in advertising who takes on his new roommate with understandable alarm.

Molly wets the bed, wanders naked through his office and gets him fired, and barely musters more than an animal grunt. Through some kind of miracle surgery that is never quite believable, cells are implanted in Molly’s brain to increase her intelligence, and a 28-year-old woman with the mind of a child is suddenly transformed into a genius with the body of a sexpot. Unfortunately, the wardrobe department apparently didn’t read the same script, and Ms. Shue is transformed from a dowdy ragamuffin into a carnival midway kewpie doll with Shirley Temple curls. Buck learns to love Molly no matter how ridiculous she looks, Molly discovers her hormones with an equally challenged hunk from the loony bin named Sam (Thomas Jane, last seen co-starring with a mechanical shark in Deep Blue Sea –not much career progress here), and just when she starts dressing like Scarlett O’Hara, Molly’s brain reverts back to the good old days when she was just a Brussels sprout, and the whole movie plunges into bathos.

Ms. Shue was obviously told this is the kind of handicapped stuff that won Oscars for Dustin Hoffman ( Rain Man ) and Cliff Robertson ( Charly) , and she drools her way through it with legs splayed and arms flying. But did they have to make her look so gruesome in the process? In the end, they all go yachting, and you’re left with an overwhelming reaction of “Huh?” The three attractive and talented leads do their best to keep Molly afloat, but this labored, manipulative disaster is icky enough to rot the teeth.

Hot Acts: Moreno, Donahue

Can the salsa and paprika jokes. Cut out the tired old comparisons to Chita Rivera. Rita Moreno may be Puerto Rico’s pride and joy, but she’s as American as a boysenberry now. On the screen, she’s been everything from Esther Williams’ Tahitian servant in Pagan Love Song to one of Yul Brynner’s ill-fated Bangkok slaves in The King and I . She’s won an Oscar, an Emmy and a Tony, and now, in her colorful new cabaret act at the Algonquin, she’s proving, on a three-by-three-foot platform the size of a subway step, she can still manage some nifty dance steps.

Daringly musical, winningly versatile, still roomy in a pair of size two satin pants with the body of a 12-year-old boy, and backed by three musicians who look old enough to have been around for the Dead Sea Scrolls , she is, at 67, the cutest kid in town. She also knows her beans about songs. She is the only entertainer I have ever seen who can perform Fred Astaire’s great number “If Swing Goes, I Go Too,” which was cut from the final release print of MGM’s Ziegfeld Follies –and who else has the savvy to resurrect the Peggy Lee-Quincy Jones classic “New York City Blues,” mixing it up with some street rap just to prove she’s a modern kind of gal.

Less comfortable with ballads, she tackles too complicated arrangements of “I Got Lost in His Arms” and “I Found a Million Dollar Baby in a Ten Cent Store,” and turns “Guess Who I Saw Today?” into an aria that suggests Medea singing in a speak-easy. But when she conjures memories of introducing her Jewish husband Lenny to her Puerto Rican mother (“Joo are a Yoo?”) she’s as funny as any standup comic at the Friars Club.

The act is eclectic (everything from Rodgers and Hammerstein to Jacques Brel) and she doesn’t ignore her Latin roots, either. On a throbbing rendition of “Brazil,” her eyes blaze like lighted coals, an electric light goes off inside, and out from her tiny waistline comes the sounds of the forest primeval. To spend some quality time in her glamorous company is to feel the Caribbean sun in the paleness of autumn. Head for the oak-paneled Algonquin and see for yourself.

Finally, there is a bright new talent in our midst at the swanky Firebird Cafe who is well worth checking out. Just back from the national tour of Floyd Collins , Jack Donahue is warming the merlot on Thursday nights with clean-cut, all-American preppy good looks, a rich and enchanting voice and a stylish act full of fine songs that are as sad, funny and beautiful as they are unhackneyed. He finds a wistful twist to the Johnny Mercer-Barry Manilow “When October Goes” that is very different from Rosemary Clooney’s, seeing the passing of time and love from a younger but no less poignant point of view. And he proves there are still a few sophisticated people left under 40 by dusting off Matt Dennis’ hangdog classic “Everything Happens to Me” the way Frank Sinatra did when he was the age Mr. Donahue is now.

He can sing evergreens by the Gershwins with the same elegance he showers on contemporary works by Francesca Blumenthal and Carol Hall, landing surely on solid ground with every shift in mood and tempo. At 33, he already has more polish and taste than a lot of performers twice his age, with half of the inflated self-importance of many overpraised kids who are even younger. Handsome and personable, with his musical pores wide open, there is a strong indication that Mr. Donahue is going places fast. What a treat to visit him at the starting line.