This is the first in an occasional feature highlighting some “produced and abandoned” or otherwise overlooked gems from the past eight years, at least the ones I can remember. You know, this one’s actually from 1999, but I saw it in 2000 – so whatever. “JUDY BERLIN” was my first exposure to future Soprano Edie Falco, and this small independent film has resonated with me for years afterward. Set in a fictional suburban town called Babylon, New York, and filmed entirely in stunning, high-contrast black & white, the film centers on the titular character (played by Falco) getting ready to leave this Long Island town for Los Angeles. Naturally, she’s leaving to become an actress, despite minimal training nor experience. Her last day in town is a somewhat aimless sojourn through the streets of a place that you get the sense she’s been for a long, long time – and it happens to also be the day that a very rare solar eclipse is taking place (of course, this only heightens the great black & white contrast of the film).
“JUDY BERLIN” is populated with odd characters, including a mildly unhinged Madeline Kahn in what would be her last role. Thankfully these aren’t necessarily “lovable, odd” characters; they’re the sort of “real, odd” oddballs you’d truly expect to find in any suburban locale, full of mild eccentricities the way folks from your own family likely are. These suburbs are also not savaged the way they are in so many Hollywood films (think “American Beauty”, also from around the same time), but infused with equal doses of hope and the requisite ennui. The solar eclipse casts a strange spell on the town, and the film sort of jumps from neurosis to neurosis, without really showing anyone caving in or going under as they reflect on their lives and how they got to where they currently are. You obviously root for Judy throughout the film – she’s radiant and good and full of life, and she appreciates the world around her, almost to a fault. When she inevitably fails in LA (though who knows?), she’ll probably keep her balance and her bearings, and come right back to Babylon to start again. The film leaves you with the same sort of strange optimism that Judy herself has, and I’d love to do my part in helping you to see and rent it.