In the 1950’s, New York was the center of the art world. The Broadway Theater was filled with the works of great playwright like Tennessee Williams, William Inge, and Robert Anderson with plays like “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof”, “Sweet Bird of Youth”, “Picnic” and “Tea and Sympathy.” The musical theater was electric with shows like “Gypsy”, “West Side Story” “Guys and Dolls”, “Bye Bye Birdie” and all were original productions, new shows. Not one was a revival. The theater was just the tip of the iceberg, live television, dramas produced by such up and coming writers as Paddy Chayefsky and Rod Sterling were broadcast live featuring unknown actors like James Dean, Eva Marie Saint, Rod Steiger, Ben Gazarra and Paul Newman, directed by such newbie’s as John Frankenheimer, and Sidney Lumet. Music was also in the air, Jazz clubs one after another on 52nd Street; Folk Music filled the streets of Greenwich Village, along young comedic acts like Woody Allen, Mort Sal and Lenny Bruce, and artists like Jackson Pollack and a young man by the name of Warhol were breaking new ground.
It must have been an exciting time to be young, creative, free and living in New York, but not just New York but one specific area in lower Manhattan known as Greenwich Village. There was art, music, coffee houses, poetry readings, politics, rent parties and sexual freedom. The Village was a place to fit in when you did not fit in anywhere else. In his 1976 film, “Next Stop, Greenwich Village, Paul Mazursky, who lived the life, gives us one of the best screen portraits of what Village life was like in those now bygone days. Mazursky, was a young actor and writer performing in improvisational theater before he moved on to the left coast and an acting career that included parts in Stanley Kubrick’s first film “Fear and Desire” along with “The Blackboard Jungle” and “Crime in the Streets.”
His story centers on young Larry Lapinksy (Lenny Baker) a Brooklyn College graduate who has always wanted to be an actor. He moves out of his parents’ apartment, much to the despair of his over protective mother Fay (Shelley Winters) and complacent father (Mike Kellen), in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn to Greenwich Village. Here he gets a job in a deli working for Lou Jacobi and attends acting classes where he meets other young hopefuls all vying for a piece of the artistic pie. Among Larry’s inner circle are his girl friend,a free spirited girl named Sarah (Ellen Greene). She’s intelligent, witty and incapable of committing to a relationship. When Lenny asked her if she loves him, she could only respond by saying, she wears a diaphragm. Sarah is also attracted to Robert (Christopher Walken), a self-absorbed playwright/poet who draws women like flies yet remains emotionally cold. Other village eccentrics include Lois Smith as Anita, a depressed suicidal type, Antonia Fargas as Bernstein, a gay black man and a young Jeff Goldblum as Clyde Baxter already a phony leading man type looking for his break.
Lenny may have left home but his over emotionally attached mother Fay (Shelley Winters) will not leave him. Inappropriately appearing at his apartment, she barges in during a rent party, charging in like a hippo in a Yardro factory embarrassing Lenny to no end. On another occasion, she unexpectedly appears when he is attempting to make love to Sarah and blindly going into a tirade insisting that they now have to get married. Lenny gets a bit part in a Hollywood movie and is ready to fly off to Hollywood. Saying goodbye to his parents, his mother gives him a bagful of apple strudels to eat on the plane. She is a Jewish mother to be reckoned with; all love and terror wrapped up in a loud uncontrollable big heart spitting out guilt to for the world to share. Lenny Baker’s performance holds the film together and it is a shame his career was cut short when he was struck with cancer three years later and died prematurely in 1982. He was 37 years old. Shelley Winters is ideal as a lovable bear of a woman who is fearful of letting go of her baby. Ellen Greene is tantalizing as Sarah and Christopher Walken is prefect as the unemotional Robert.
Mazursky has written a gentle love letter to his past, a fond look back at his early days. You get the feeling that for him there is a nostalgic fondness to days gone when we see Larry’s imitations of Brando and his dreams of an Oscar acceptance speech as he waits at the subway station. Lenny is Mazursky as a young man. It is a lovely film with no bitterness, resentment or regrets.
“Next Stop, Greenwich Village”, opened to generally favorable reviews in 1976, Pauline Kael liked it, and Vincent Canby did not. The film was nominated for the Golden Palm Award at the Cannes Film Festival and Mazursky received a nomination for cest comedy written directly for the screen from the Writers Guild. This is a film that seems to have gotten lost in the seventies and waiting to be rediscovered. It’s an intelligent, witty and engaging work of a period in time that will never be seen again.