There is a time in American life when we are just past adolescence, but not yet fully adult. This is the time explored in Next Stop, Greenwich Village (1976), a semi-autobiographical film written and directed by Paul Mazursky. Set in Greenwich Village in 1953, it is not just a special time in a young man’s life, it is also a special time in the history of New York, when it was the epicenter of artistic ferment. Greenwich Village attracted young men and women who wanted to break the rules and explore the world, and the protagonist, Larry Lapinsky (played by Lenny Baker) is just such a young man. He wants to be an actor, and he works and studies to make his dream come true, while working a day job at a health food store.
Larry and his friends form a family of sorts, an assortment of characters, including early performances by Christopher Walken, Lois Smith, and Jeff Goldblum. But Larry finds it difficult to leave his Brooklyn family behind, mostly because his mother, Faye, (played by Shelly Winters) keeps following him, dragging his father along to his apartment at inappropriate hours.
We see Larry through this transition in his life, right up until he comes to a truce with Mama and a new stage of life. In the last frames of the film, he is walking down his old street in Brooklyn, munching on Mama’s strudel, saying goodbye to childhood, for real this time.
Larry Lapinsky is not a “religious” Jew. In the opening scene of the film, we see him take a yarmulke out of the bureau drawer as he is packing to leave home. He puts it on his head, looks in the mirror, shrugs, and drops it back into the drawer. For him, religion is something that went with childhood: he’s over all that now.
And yet for all that, this is a film about a young Jew in the transition from adolescent to man. His mother is out of control, drives him crazy, and is the personification of the over-protective Jewish mother stereotype. Shelley Winters is a force of nature, whining, screeching, cajoling, seducing, bribing, sulking, and flipping out: she is a nightmare mom with whom her son is hopelessly entangled. (Whatever you think of the stereotype, her performance is breathtaking.)
This is perhaps the most troubling aspect of this film: as Rabbi Brian Zimmerman pointed out in a comment elsewhere on this blog, many film directors and writers have been less than kind to Jewish mothers. Faye is perhaps the worst of the mothers appearing in the films on this list, and yet in Winter’s capable hands, she holds an attraction for the audience, just as she does for Larry’s friends.
As those of youwho have read other commentaries in this blog know, I am interested and bothered by the depiction of Jewish women on screen. For all the charms of this film (and most critics say it is Mazursky’s finest) the Jewish women in this film fall into unpleasant stereotypes a bit too easily. Mama is a harridan, clingy and shameless in her manipulation. Sarah, the girlfriend, can’t commit to anything. Connie, played by Dori Brenner, the least developed of the Jewish women, is sweet and motherly: a bit too sweet and motherly, waiting patiently for someone to need her, and it is all too easy to see her as a younger version of Mama.
Rabbi Zimmerman suggested a trilogy of films depicting Jewish mothers: (1) Next Stop Greenwich Village, for the poisonous image of Mama, (2) Crossing Delancey, for the warm relationship of grandmother and granddaughter and (3) Kissing Jessica Stein, for an entirely new portrait of a Jewish mother in film.