After the financially struggling Cannon Films came under the ownership of Israeli producers/cousins Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, in 1979, the duo quickly boosted its profits by producing–and tirelessly promoting–schlocky, low-budget exploitation pictures. The model worked, and until the company’s demise and takeover by an MGM affiliate in the late 1980s, it released a slew of hits, most of them in the same action-adventure vein: three or four “Death Wish” sequels, “Missing in Action” and its sequels, countless other Charles Bronson and Chuck Norris potboilers, countless ninja films, and the most viciously violent of the Elmore Leonard adaptations, “52 Pick-Up” (to date, my father’s least favorite film).
Occasionally, however, there were deviations from the formula: classy children’s films (“Little Dorritt”), arty soul-searching exercises (John Cassavetes’ swan song “Love Streams,” the Louisana bayou-set family drama “Shy People”) and, my personal favorite, Norman Mailer’s scatterbrained, hysterically baroque adaptation of his own book, “Tough Guys Don’t Dance.”
One such anomaly was the 1984 Elliott Gould vehicle “Over the Brooklyn Bridge,” a strained hybrid of “Fiddler on the Roof,” “Portnoy’s Complaint” and “Seize the Day.” In the delicate hands of, say, Paul Mazursky, or a director with a knack for tales about sad-sack schlubs, such an amalgam could possibly be pulled off, but Golan shot the movie quickly and somewhat dispassionately, and it shows. The camerawork is wobbly, the lighting dim and foggy, the dialogue often drowned out by a mechanical, cloying saxophone score. What’s audible in the screenplay generates occasional laughs, mostly due to screenwriter Arnold Somkin’s nonstop zest for Jewish stereotypes (as Vincent Canby’s vicious, typically vague and dismissive New York Times review said, the film has “more failed ethnic jokes than might be heard in a decade of Miami Beach nightclubbing.”)
But I enjoyed “Over the Brooklyn Bridge,” which is not on Netflix, considerably more than “Portnoy’s Complaint,” the last film I watched that explored the neurotic, sometimes deviant sensibility of down-on-their-luck Jewish men. Maybe because it lacks the pretension, or aim for greatness, that a Philip Roth adaptation entails. Maybe because my late cousin, Leo Postrel, has a bit part in the movie (and for that reason, “Over the Brooklyn Bridge” is one of the first films I remember my parents referring to, during my childhood).
But mostly I enjoyed the film because there is actual movement in the story, as opposed to a series of rambling internal monologues sloppily thrown together. As Canby noted, the film “uses so many Manhattan and Brooklyn locations that it might easily be recycled as a promotional film.” Golan may lack heart and warmth and even comic timing here, but his shaky camera somehow elicits the feel of sleazy, run-down 1980s New York City. You don’t get the sense that this story could be told in just any location. The graffiti-strewn subways littered with urinating bums, the Brooks Brothers overcoat-wearing businessmen in the once-bustling midtown financial district, the seedy, clanging atmosphere of a working-class Brooklyn luncheonette (back when Brooklyn was considered alien and trashy)–these backdrops are all as much a part of the story as the characters, and often upstage them.
Furthermore, I can’t entirely dislike a movie whose climactic scene is set at the one and only Sammy’s Roumanian, the Lower East Side steakhouse that specializes in Jewish (but decidedly unkosher) food that your Mama might have served at the turn of the 20th century (chopped liver, sweetbreads, unborn eggs, chicken fat-ladled bread and, until recently, fried cow brains). But I digress.
Alby (Elliott Gould, above, getting his face squeezed) is the diabetic, whiny proprietor of the aforementioned loud, overcrowded diner. (Gould, whom I recently spoke with briefly, said the actual diner where the film was shot is the same one he visited frequently as a kid, growing up in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn). He visits his uncle Benjamin, an arrogant, often bellowing lingerie retailer (Sid Caesar, whom Gould said he personally recommended for the part) to request a loan. Alby wants to use the money to open a “hot” new diner in the East 50s area of Manhattan (which today has way more Subways and Au Bon Pains than high-end restaurants). Benjamin, however, disapproves of Alby’s shiksa (ie non-Jewish) girlfriend Elizabeth (the very blonde, very Waspy Margaux Hemingway) and instead wants him to marry a sex-crazed, diminutive spitfire named Cheryl (Carol Kane); she’s also–oy vey–his fourth cousin. If he does so, he’ll get the restaurant and put his uncle and fat, overbearing mother (Shelley Winters) at ease.
The rest of the film involves Alby’s mulling his options, flanked by many screaming matches with his uncle and a few attempts, led by Alby’s slimy best friend Phil (Burt Young) to procure the loan from some shady mafiosos.
Canby was not overstating the amount of stale ethnic jokes, which are not limited to Jews and which become very exhausting very quickly. The Japanese men that patronize Caesar’s lingerie shop are not customers, it turns out; they are peddling Honda motorcycles. The regulars at Gould’s Brooklyn eatery are fat, screechy Jewish women that curse and spit in their napkins, and they alternate between racist English and racist Yiddish (yes, they call a black chef “Schwarze.”) There’s more Yiddish to come: the words “fakakta” (crappy, or some sort of expletive adverb) and “mishpocheh” (family) are tossed off at random. The comic banter is usually of this variety: Hemingway: “They [your Orthodox Jewish cousins] looked at me like I was from a different planet.” Gould: “You are, you’re from Philadelphia!”
When the film isn’t baiting ethnic groups, it’s downright prurient. There’s plenty of shots wherein Gould ogles high-class women. When he buries his head in Hemingway’s bosom, she asks, “Can you breathe?” and he replies, “I don’t care!” Young, with the same five o’clock shadow that he wears in every film, gets the brunt of the laughs, as he has a way of pulling off even the most hopeless laugh lines. “Let’s go look at some bimbos!” he says to Gould as they embark to a strip club; once there, he exclaims, “With an ass like that, she should be an angel.” Trying to dissuade Gould from marrying anyone, he philosophizes dolefully, “I’ve been with my wife ten years. I could leave her in ten seconds.” And Carol Kane has a field day as the sex fiend; she bites Gould’s nose, meows at him, gyrates all over him, all while babbling about self-realization; she outright ignores Gould’s lament that he’s “just a basic humper.”
And sometimes the jokes are scatological in new and exciting ways. Besides the bum that pisses all over the subway phone booth Gould is occupying, there’s another extended piss joke, when Burt Young takes a sloshed Gould home and holds his, er, material up so he can pee. But all of this culminates in a sentimental, teary reconciliation scene between Gould and Caesar. (Gould, recalling the shoot, said that he was reluctant to hit Caesar in the scene because “you never hit an elder.”)
Like many of the films discussed here, the behind-the-scenes stories are often more interesting than the film itself. In past interviews, Golan has spoken of his negotiating new union contracts for low-budget films during the making of “Bridge,” and in turn softening once-rigid salary requirements for cast and crew, regardless of an individual film’s budget. Over e-mail, I pressed Golan for further detail, and he wrote back: “When I shot in NY and the union shut me down I raised havoc with the help of my attorney Sam Perlmutter, who succeeded in convincing the heads of the unions to come to a meeting. I spoke for over an hour and stressed that the unions were ruining the independent producers of America. Somehow I was convincing and finally the unions understood how important it is to help the low budget independent films. Right there we achieved what is now called ‘The Cannon Contract.'”
Golan was not only defiant about his shooting schedule and conditions. He generally insists, for both his directorial and production credits, that the films in question turned out exactly the way he and/or the artists involved envisioned them at the outset. He does not blanch at negative reviews; in fact, the VHS version of “Bridge” that I received as a present from my fiance, explicitly mentions that critics called it “loud, vulgar and obnoxious,” almost as a point of pride.
“I don’t give a damn about some American stupid critic,” Golan said via e-mail. “We Jews are sometimes loud, vulgar and obnoxious but, on the other hand, we are honest, clever and good and very creative people. The fact is that this film was invited to the Berlin Festival and played successfully around the world.”
Both Gould (who knew writer Arnold Somkin personally) and Golan were drawn to the script’s lighthearted depiction of a Jewish bachelor in love with a gentile. (In fact, Gould told me he would have preferred for Golan to stick with the film’s original title, “My Darling Shiksa.”) “Many Jewish boys in America are assimilated and marry Christian girls and by that face a complicated life,” said Golan. He added that he was drawn to this particular cast because they are all “loud, funny and good Jewish actors.”
Gould said that the final product had some good moments but was not the “classic” he’d set out to make; he was also somewhat displeased with the poster artwork of an animated figure climbing the body of a naked woman, sprawled over the Manhattan skyline (see above).
The actor (who made “Bridge” directly after shooting “Tramps” in Austria with director Peter Patzak) recalled only a few moments of tension with the reputedly difficult Golan. Cassavetes’ last film, “Love Streams,” was being shot around the same time, and Gould, hearing that Golan and Globus were giving the ailing legend a hard time, said “Leave John alone. Let him make the movie. Give me a hard time, I can take it.”
Later, several actresses complained privately to Gould that a nosy still photographer was disrupting the production. Gould asked Golan to take care of it, and Golan, according to Gould, promised to make the photographer go away. But word came to Gould that on his off-day, the photographer re-emerged. He erupted at Golan and the shoot was called off for a day as a result. Looking back, Gould is not fond of his behavior and hated losing a day of work.
“Over the Brooklyn Bridge” is one of many, many films that Golan directed (and don’t get me started on the seemingly endless number of films he produced) that are not on Netflix. Once I have seen the brunt of them (some of them are impossible to find outside Israel), I plan to interview Golan further. The same is true of Gould.