At last, A Comedy

Categories: JCC

Mal Vincent closes the 23rd Film Festival at the Roper

“Avalon” is the name of the movie and it is a comedy. It is also the closing night show, and reception, for the 23rd annual Virginia Festival of Jewish Film, Sunday night (Jan. 24) at 5:30 p. m.  at Roper Performing Arts Center in downtown Norfolk.

The fact that it is a comedy is not happenstance. In fact, according to programmer Mal Vincent, it is has been a long time in coming.

Mal, veteran local theater and movie critic both in print and on radio, was persuaded some eight years ago to help the festival out in choosing one “Hollywood” entry to balance the entries – since most of the other films were from foreign countries. The idea was to find a film that reflected the way Jewish culture was presented in mainstream, commercial films as contrasted to the speciality films in the festival.   His choices, up until now, have been varied but mostly dramatic – including Rod Steiger’s astounding performance in “The Pawnbroker,” the Oscar winning “Gentleman’s Agreement,” Simone Signoret in  “Ship of Fools” based on the Katherine Anne Porter novel, Meryl Streep’s Oscar-winning performance in “Sophie’s Choice” and Barbra Streisand in “Yentl.” One musical, but mostly grim drama.

Mal admits that he was personally surprised when, in pursuing this assignment, it leaned toward tragedy and drama. “I looked everywhere for a suitable comedy,” he said. “We considered ‘Next Stop, Greenwich Village.’ Too vulgar to the point I was afraid to take it to the audience. “Portnoy’s Complaint?” Witty and clever but super sarcastic.  Then (why didn’t it come to mind earlier?) I thought of ‘Avalon.’ It’s perfect. It’s family and it’s down to earth and if they don’t laugh they’d better make an appointment with their doctor. Something’s wrong.”

“Plus,” he added. “It involves two of the favorite people I’ve met and known years ago. Joan Plowwright (also known as Lady Laurence Olivier or Dame Joan Plowright) and director Barry Levinson (Academy Award winner for ‘Rainman.’ ”

The “personal” connection was necessary because Mal steadfastly maintains that he isn’t in the business of merely “introducing” films. “Any college professor or movie fan can do that with notes from the internet, but that’s not what I want to do,” he said. “If I can’t bring some personal connection or experience to it, what would be the point of doing it?”
In the case of Levinson, he recalls that “he is one of the funniest men I ever met. He, in fact, is much funnier than his movies. He loved to tell me stories about his mother who was always on his case. One of my favorites was that she caught him skipping school to go to a baseball game and got on the loud speaker at the ball park to announce that ‘little Barry’ was to come home at once.”

Lady Olivier became a friend after Mal met her husband, Lord Laurence Olivier, at MacArthur Center in Norfolk and was invited to the famed actor’s openings in New York and London and worked with him in developing a Southern accent for one role.   Mal remembers that “Joan Plowright is an extremely funny woman in a droll kind of way. I think she ruled Olivier but in a good-natured way, hopefully. She encouraged Larry to do all those little cameo  roles that paid the bills late in his life. In any case, I know she wanted an American movie career and ‘Avalon’ was one of her main efforts. It was to be her breakthrough. As the mother here, she proved that she could drop her British accent but, alas, many of the roles she might have  played in American movies went to another dame, Judi Dench.”

There’s a lot more to tell.

And that’s what will happen. “Avalon” is set in Baltimore at the beginning of television in America, a turning point in our history.  You’ll hear lots of references to early television: Milton Berle, Howdy Doody, “Your Hit Parade,” Groucho Marx. The family opens an appliance store selling the new fangled television sets and….. well, not everything  goes right.

“Avalon” is greatly underrated and seldom seen even though it was nominated for four Academy Awards. The cast includes Aidan Quinn, Elizabeth Perkins and Elijah Wood, who later became Bilbo Baggins in the “Lord of the Rings” epics.

The festival programmers have scheduled the event  so that the football fiends will be free in time  to rush home and catch the sight of overweight brutes running around in spandex pants.  Both events can be caught in the  same night.  The time is 5:30 pm. but, if you’re on a diet, you can come at 6.  (If you’re worried about dinner, there are hors d’oeuvres here).  You’ll be out by 8.

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