In the creation of movies that linger in the memory, the little details matter enormously – bits of telling dialogue, shot composition, directorial choices, costumes, props, music – in transporting an audience into a very specific place from which they can in turn draw upon the universal references that clinch their involvement. In this regard, Next Stop, Greenwich Village (1976), the lovely, autobiographical seriocomedy from writer/director Paul Mazursky (1930-2014, born 88 years ago today) about an ambitious young actor in 1953 New York who moves away from his Brooklyn family home into his own Lower Manhattan apartment to discover the joys and sorrows of a bohemian lifestyle, is a master class in lovingly assembled details realized by collaborators who are ideally synchronized in service to the story.
Naturally, it is filmed on location by a cinematographer who knew the territory for all its sunlit bliss and nightfall shadows, Arthur J. Ornitz, who previously lensed The Anderson Tapes (1970), The Possession of Joel Delaney (1972), Serpico (1973) and Death Wish (1974). The jazz-inflected score reflected Mazursky’s own musical awakening; he told Paul on Mazursky biographer Sam Wasson: “I didn’t know much about music until I got into the Village. That’s where I got my education.” So it is permeated by performances by the Dave Brubeck Quartet, augmented by Bill Conti contributions that included “some saxophone music with a Brubeckian feeling” played by the legendary reedman Paul Desmond just a couple of years before his death in 1977. Casting efforts by the expert Juliet Taylor rounded up an amazing ensemble of emerging acting talents who nailed the authentic look, hip attitudes, unconventional camaraderie and shifting loyalties of the Village vanguard: Dori Brenner, Antonio Fargas, Jeff Goldblum, Ellen Greene (her film debut), Lois Smith, Christopher Walken and, as ambitious, simultaneously grating/charming Mazursky surrogate Larry Lapinsky, hawk-nosed stage actor Lenny Baker. As the hovering parents Ben and Faye Lapinsky, Mazursky and Taylor went for the gold: the singularly hangdog-looking character great Mike Kellin, a husband/father figure for whom fatigued resignation and quiet dignity were second nature, and a potentially unbalancing choice of a larger-than-life award-winning legend to play the emotionally needy Jewish mother whose formidable presence always seems to dominate and overtake. But thanks to the care taken in drawing the character, “it may be Shelley Winters’ first full-scale performance that works on all levels” (Pauline Kael, The New Yorker).
And if Mazursky was devilish about detail, he met his match in Winters. The filmmaker recalled two key examples of her commitment in his 1999 memoir Show Me the Magic. “Shelley came up to me one morning and asked me if my mother had been a great typist. ‘Who told you that?’ I asked, stunned. ‘Nobody told me anything,’ said Shelley. ‘Answer my question.’ I told Shelley that my mother could type 120 words a minute. She was a whiz. ‘She had a lot of part-time typing jobs,’ I asked. ‘I knew it,’ said Shelley. ‘I just knew it. She also loved the movies, didn’t she?’ ‘Yeah, but you can tell that from the script.’ ‘Oh, yeah,’ Shelley said. ‘Where in the script does it talk about her loving foreign films?’ In some uncanny way, Shelley Winters was fast becoming Jean Gerson Mazursky. I didn’t realize it, but I was reacting more like Shelley’s son than the director of a movie.” (Amplifying on this, Mazursky told Wasson: “You’ve got to have good instincts if you’re a lower-middle-class Jewish lady and you’re going to see the movies of Michel Simon and Jean-Louis Barrault. You know, she took me to see Children of Paradise? She loved Nöel Coward. She used to ask me to cut school to see a double feature with her.”) And the incident of the rye bread is even more telling. From Paul on Mazursky: “You could talk about technique, you could talk about casting,…but it all adds up to dishwater in the end when you’re talking about that unknown thing, that mysterious thing that makes certain people great. They have an instinctive understanding of what’s going on in the role. And they have charisma. Shelley could even be sexy. It’s hard to find it sometimes, but it’s there. I don’t know anybody else who could have played the part as well as she did. She was very demanding what she wore and props. In that scene when she brings Larry food, Shelley demanded that I use actual Ratner’s rye bread. I had given her a loaf of regular commercial rye bread, but she wanted the real thing. She went nuts. The crew was staring at me, waiting to see what I was going to do. So I took the bread, opened it, smelled it, and said, “That is a Ratner’s rye if ever I smelled one!” and then I said, ‘Shelley, I find it difficult to believe that you, who studied at the Actors Studio, can’t find the right sense memory from your past.’ That’s when she said, ‘Of course, I can!’ And away she went.”
As a result of all this attention paid to the minutiae that makes a movie work, “Mazursky beautifully creates a ’50s ambience, populates his film with real characters, effectively blends humor and tragic elements; he also has included several stunning scenes,” Danny Peary writes in his indispensable Guide for the Film Fanatic. “My favorite moment has Winters, who has been hysterical throughout, sitting in her son’s apartment and, like a sweet schoolgirl with a crush on a singer, tearfully listening to an opera record – at this point we can perceive the beauty and depth of emotion in this woman.” Be prepared to experience many memorable moments when Next Stop, Greenwich Village is your next destination, with an Audio Commentary by birthday honoree Mazursky and actress Greene as well as an Isolated Music Track as added guides, on Twilight Time hi-def Blu-ray May 22. Preorders open May 9.