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Friday, March 20, 2009

Going Back Up the Down Staircase

From: Gene

Though it feels strange to recall now, “To Kill a Mockingbird” was one of my first “forbidden” films. I was, after all, only 9 or 10 when it came out and when my mother found out from my aunt that the subject of “r-a-p-e” was woven into the storyline, she said that movie was definitely not the kind of thing for my weak eyes to behold. My aunt took me and my cousin anyway; to Hartford’s Blue Hills Drive-In on a Saturday night (no less), which made it seem even more transgressive (all together now) than it actually was. It was late enough at night to make me wonder now whether I even began to understand all those unsavory aspects my mother didn’t want me to see, Mostly, I thought “Mockingbird” was a more exotic and far spookier species of the Disney melodramas we’d see whenever they showed up at a downtown palace like the Strand or Loews Poli. Disney himself, according to Neil Gabler’s biography, reacted to “Mockingbird” with envy. (“That’s the kind of film I wish I could make,” he said after a screening. What kind is that, Uncle?)
Since then, “To Kill a Mockingbird” has been turned into such a rite-of-passage movie for succeeding generations of pre-adolescent cineastes (see “Almost Famous”) that its reputation is in danger of collecting mold. Some reviewers at the time thought it arrived with plenty of mildew. But as far as most of us were concerned, it was right on time – and as the decades pass, it’s still very much a part of a transformative moment in history and a collective consciousness-raising whose legacy we still treasure. Much later, I would discover how much Harper Lee’s story owed to Faulkner’s “Intruder in the Dust”, whose blunt-edged, superior 1949 film version by Clarence Brown has YET to appear on DVD! (Someday, this space will have to take up the “Free Juano Hernandez” cause.) But both her novel and its movie version have become so ingrained in our cultural DNA over the last half-century that it’s hard to find anyone who gripes about it now.
“Mockingbird”, of course, is the centerpiece of the Film Society of Lincoln Center “American Auteurs” retrospective tribute to its director, Robert Mulligan, which begins March 18 and runs through March 25 at the Walter Reade Theater. (See the full schedule here Mulligan, who died last year at age 80, left behind an erratic, but still intriguing body-of-work. Somehow, his first two, 1957’s “Fear Strikes Out” and 1960’s “The Rat Race’ (with Don Rickles playing a psycho thug) didn’t make it onto the schedule, but 1965’s “Baby the Rain Must Fall”, 1969’s “The Stalking Moon”, 1971’s “Summer of ‘42” an 1972’s “The Other” are there as are 1978’s Richard Price adaptation, “Blood Brothers” and 1991’s “The Man in the Moon” (Mulligan’s last, notable now as Reese Witherspoon’s debut.)
The catch-phrase about Mulligan’s career was that he was especially good with kids, though it should also be noted that, much like his contemporary Sidney Lumet, he seemed especially inspired by New York City; not that any of his Gotham-centric movies surpassed “Mockingbird” either in quality or impact, but there were flashes of inspiration in those movies that came within a spiked-hair’s distance of “Mockingbird.”
Of these, the one that I’ve lately rediscovered with the most pleasure is 1967’s “Up the Down Staircase.” It’s one of those relics of one’s movie-going past that you’ll never regard as great or even consistently good; yet somehow, you cherish even its messier moments in different ways than you covet the masterworks in your DVD library.
Back to my side of things: I went to an inner city high school very much like the one along Manhattan’s fringes that was cast in the movie as Calvin Coolidge High. The building was as drab, creaky and aged as the one I attended at about the same time. It, too, had “up” and “down” staircases and, because, before my freshman year, I’d read the Bel Kaufman novel from which the movie was adapted, I knew the perils of using the wrong stairwell; not that knowing such things mattered very much in the end.
Also because I’d read the book, I remember looking forward to the movie version when it was first released, not just to see how Kaufman’s epistolary narrative would be transferred to the screen, but to watch how it evoked day-to-day life in mid-1960s urban public education.
More than anything, I remember being caught up in the movie’s coating of New York grit which to me evoked an edgy glamour and seedy authenticity I found back then in pseudo-documentary TV cop shows. I had reservations, too: The musical score tried too hard to be winsome and cute, making it seem even more like a Hollywood product, despite the presence of such New York-based character actors as Sorrell Brooke, Vinnette Carroll, Ruth White, Eileen Heckart and Jean Stapleton. (Yup, that’s Edith Bunker herself as the school’s by-the-book secretary.)
Still, the school’s overall racial mix was pretty much in line with the urban school I attended. If, to contemporary eyes, there are a lot more white students than black students in this fringe neighborhood school, well, as the late, great comedian Godfrey Cambridge used to say, “Dats the way it wuz in dem days!” Most formerly all-white suburbs are exactly like that now.
What hasn’t changed much, if what my younger sister, a teacher in a working-class Hartford suburb, tells me is the grim mood and simmering sense of helplessness teachers find at their twilight parent conferences. (If anything, my sister says it’s gotten worse – and she teaches elementary kids.)
Though there are a couple of big melodramatic moments that become as over-emphatic as in any high school movie (the attempted suicide and its aftermath), the movie gets many of the little details right; their recognition is often funny, sometimes rueful. For instance: An African-American student, praised by his teacher for a cogent answer, is heckled outside the classroom as a “white-loving plowboy.” (If you’re guessing this moment landed on my chest with an especially resounding bump back then, all I’ll say in response is that it still does.) Overall, “Up the Down Staircase”, in its unwieldy blend of big and small vignettes somehow retains a vivid tableau of what such a public high school looked like in the Great Society years before metal detectors, cramped classrooms and fraying budgets. It’s awkward and gangly and sometimes too solemn for its own good. But then again, so was I back then. I watch this movie and it’s almost like watching my own hesitant sense of where and who I was when it was still possible to believe the Dream not only wouldn’t die, but actually come true.
Carrying this whole story with mild, tentative poise is Sandy Dennis as game, but perpetually flustered rookie teacher Sylvia Barrett. This was one of the very few lead roles (likely the only one) Dennis had in a mercurial movie career characterized by prodigiously neurotic characters. She was, after all, a devotee of the Method and, even here, once in a while, a mannerism will poke out of her performance like a loose thread. But she seems animated here by a sense of purpose that borders on vivacity – which isn’t a word that often shares a sentence with her name. In “Staircase”, she evinces a lemony composure that, for one of the few times in her on-screen career, never allows you to see the wheels turn. You wonder, 17 years after Dennis’ death from ovarian cancer, what her own body-of-work would have looked like if she’d had more chances to show this side of her. Maybe she did – and chose not to.

“Up the Down Staircase” is being screened at Walter Reade March 21 and March 23. It’s also available on Warner Home Video.

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