Levinson Does 1954; Depp Dresses 1799
Barry Levinson is back in Baltimore, and Liberty Heights is the latest in what I call his Baltimore Quartet-four movies about the writer-director’s hometown in the 1950’s that include Diner , Tin Men and Avalon . There was apparently something darker and campier going on than the working-class stuff Mr. Levinson experienced; elsewhere in town another wannabe filmmaker was also growing up, and his name was John Waters. But that’s another story.
In bringing his high school yearbooks, scrapbooks and social observations of the day to life, Mr. Levinson tells what it was like for him in 1954, the year the Baltimore schools were desegregated and members of the Kurtzman family, who were segregated already in a Jewish neighborhood called Liberty Heights, felt the climate of social change hit them like a comet. Liberty Heights is a warm, humorous, soft-heeled stroll down memory lane that deserves a place on the video shelf next to Neil Simon’s Brighton Beach Memoirs . Mr. Levinson’s memory serves him so well that he brings back the time of pink Cadillacs, McCarthy witch hunts, A-bomb tests and James Brown concerts with great relish. So if he’s such a perfectionist, why do all the cars in 1954 have 1956 license plates? Just asking.
Ignore such infractions and you will have a lively time with the Kurtzmans: while Nate Kurtzman (Joe Mantegna) grapples with the I.R.S. cracking down on his numbers racket (which he runs behind the seedy but legal facade of a local burlesque house) and his wife Ada (Bebe Neuwirth) wrestles with her meatloaf, eldest son Van (Adrien Brody) falls madly for the richest, blondest and most unattainable WASP Cinderella in school, and youngest son Ben (Ben Foster) scandalizes the entire family by dressing as Adolf Hitler on Halloween.
While most of his friends adjust to desegregation with more curiosity than enmity (wondering about the size of the black students’ tools in gym class is a major topic of the day), Ben almost gives his grandmother a stroke by falling for the school’s first black student, a nice girl named Sylvia (Rebekah Johnson) who, to the horror of her own parents, teaches Ben a lot about religious, social and racial differences. Events take an even bleaker turn when, on the eve of his high school graduation, Ben and Sylvia are kidnapped by a black drug dealer, Mr. Kurtzman is arrested and sent to prison for income tax evasion and importing girls across the state line for prostitution, and things will never be the same in Baltimore.
Well written, loaded with period atmosphere and especially well served by an excellent cast, Liberty Heights weaves the fates of its characters with sensitivity and perception, and Mr. Levinson knows just when to make you laugh out loud for ballast. Even though we didn’t know it at the time, 1954 was a turning point in American history, and for a Jewish family the cross-cultural impact was enormous. You don’t have to be Jewish to enjoy Liberty Heights ; its universality addresses change and growth in us all. It’s a trip back to 1954 that is so wise and sad and funny you won’t even notice the 1956 license plates.
Sleepy Hollow , which should have been marketed for Halloween, pretty much wrecks what’s left of Washington Irving’s reputation, and it won’t do much to brighten the Christmas of the caretaker at Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Tarrytown, N.Y., either. In the hysterical, over-the-top style director Tim Burton is infamous for, the dozing Dutch farm community Washington Irving described in “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” has been turned into an impressionistic landscape of horror on London sets that would scare the cloak off Dracula’s back. (Christopher Lee, a latter-day vampire from cheesy British horror flicks, even makes a guest appearance, just to let you know what kind of B-movie shenanigans Mr. Burton is aiming for.)
Ichabod Crane is now Johnny Depp, who is as nervous and out of place in 1799 as a penguin on a Texas freeway, and the Headless Horseman is no longer a joker who leaves behind a jack-o’-lantern head but a monster from the bowels of Hell who litters the village with butchered victims and steals their heads. Mr. Depp plays a constable who is dispatched to the Hudson Valley to track down the fiend, a rather hammy Hessian soldier (Christopher Walken, spewing foam from rotten dentures) who rises from his grave in the haunted forest. To make a short story long, Mr. Burton cranks up the dry ice machines, drags in howling wolves, squeaking hinges and a tree that spouts blood, while heads roll from severed jugulars every time the audience threatens to doze. There’s a mystery to be solved, but it doesn’t explain why the villagers don’t move .
As the dewy-eyed Katrina Van Tassel, object of Ichabod’s affection, the woefully miscast Christina Ricci is a riot in innocent blond curls-like a whore dressed like a Shirley Templedoll-but in the laugh department, she’s no match for the eye-rolling, scenery-chewing Mr. Depp as a prissy-mouthed sleuth who says, “I am pinioned by a chain of reasoning” and is subject to fainting spells.
The ketchup budget must have been astronomical, the 18th-centurywaistcoats and ruffles seem designed to camouflage the stars’ tattoos, and everyone in this numbing disaster looks like they can’t wait to head for the nearest disco. The rumbling you hear under Sleepy Hollow is the sound of Irving turning over in his grave.
She’s Deaf, But Not Unfunny
Several exciting people are currently making memorable contributions to New York after dark. From humble, impoverished roots in a hick town in Ohio where, in ignorance, her schoolteachers declared her retarded, Kathy Buckley is a hearing-impaired Wunderkind who spent the first 20 years of her life contemplating suicide. She is making up for lost time. From her misfortunes she’s managed to mine a rich vein of humor and pathos in Now Hear This! , a one-woman show at the Lamb’s Theater on West 44th Street that is entirely mesmerizing.
“I’m not deaf,” she says, “I just don’t listen.” But what fun she is when it’s the audience that does the listening. Willowy, attractive and exuding sparks of warmth and love, she makes you laugh even when describing the most harrowing circumstances in a life that would make strong men crumble. She was an abused child, she lived on food stamps, she was fired from an endless array of jobs, she was given last rites five times, the one day she escaped from her travails to sunbathe at the beach she was run over by a Jeep and ended up for five years in a hospital and two years in a wheelchair. (Did I fail to mention her cervical cancer?)
The deck of cards she was dealt seems positively diabolical, but the show is about how she gained control of her life, made peace with her past, got new hearing aids, learned to speak, threw away her prescription drugs and reinvented herself as a standup comic. Now a walking career testimonial to survival and hope, she gets a standing ovation every night and, boy, does she deserve it. In an ugly, disconsolate and unfair world, her way of finding a crucible of humor in everything is an object lesson that is both refreshing and unconventional. (New definition of optimism: When a deaf child steals a blind child’s lunch, the blind child never sees the deaf child do it, and the deaf child never hears the blind child complain about it.) Ms. Buckley is the first deaf comedian I have encountered, but I hope to see-and hear-a great deal more of her.
Gary Cooper-lanky, with the pipes of a velvet crooner, singer Douglas Ladnier is knocking them dead at the Firebird Cafe every Thursday night at 11, through Dec. 2, with the support of pianist Randy Klein, Tom DeRenzo on drums and a great guitarist named J. McGeehan who conjures memories of Vincente Gomez, Andrés Segovia and Laurindo Almeida. Instead of the usual dull cabaret material, Mr. Ladnier tackles real gems with matinee-idol looks, range, sensitivity and awesome taste. No dumb songs here. Just lots of Cole Porter, Bronislau Kaper, John Latouche and Lorenz Hart.
From a haunting “Lazy Afternoon” to the most gorgeous arrangement of Anthony Newley’s “There’s No Such Thing as Love” since Carmen McRae’s, this guy’s melting baritone could single-handedly revive the art of the ballad, the love song and the heartbreaker. It’s hard to believe anyone 28 years old could know, comprehend and convey the sophistication Mr. Ladnier does, but he has the intelligence and talent to create an illusion and draw the listener into the spell of both the singer and the song.
Michael Feinstein has extended his gig at Feinstein’s at the Regency, the club that bears his name, through Nov. 27. I know where he’ll be eating Thanksgiving turkey. Rosie Clooney’s six-piece band has stayed on, too, so expect fireworks-everything from a swinging jazz rendition of “Let Me Off Uptown” to an abridged version of the 3-hour, 20-minute score of Oklahoma! in only 90 seconds.
Singing with more ease and self-assurance than ever, Mr. Feinstein has the musical savvy to skillfully juxtapose George Gershwin and Duke Ellington with seamless audacity in the same arrangement, then delve into obscure songs by the great, underrated saloon singer-pianist-composer Charles DeForest, tying it all together with polish and spruce. When he’s in town, the town really jumps.