September 25, 2018

From Best Boy to Best Man

Filmmaker Ira Wohl

Two decades ago, filmmaker Ira Wohl sat at the Passover table andthought about his cousin, Philly. For his first 50 years, thedevelopmentally disabled Philly had lived at home with his parents inQueens, never venturing into the world. Wohl now wondered how Phillywould survive once his ailing parents were gone.

Thus begins a family journey that Wohl chronicles in tworemarkable documentaries, the Academy Award-winning “Best Boy” (1979)and the newly released “Best Man,” tracing Philly’s move towardindependence, toward leaving home at last. “Best Man” will screen atLaemmle Theatres’ Cinema Judaica ’97: The Los Angeles Jewish FilmFestival this month.

In both, the story is told in a series of poignant vignettes,small scenes of everyday life that are somehow universal. As “BestBoy” opens, Philly appears slovenly, slump-shouldered while his mute,pained, elderly father shaves him in the tiny kitchen. Philly oncelived in an institution, we learn, until his parents found out aboutthe beatings. By midlife, he is happy, ebullient as he plays with hisfloppy doll or sings gibberish to “Fiddler on the Roof.”

His transformation is best described in glimpses: Philly joyouslybounding to the corner store for ice cream all by himself, orexcitedly hopping the bus for his first day of school, while hismother, Pearl, asks, “You don’t want to stay home with Mommy nomore?”

When father Max finally dies, it is Wohl who gently insists thatPhilly must move to a group home while Pearl is still alive tosupport him. Eight months after he moves in, she dies, we learn in atag line.

Yet Pearl lived long enough to hear the cheers from the viewers atscreenings; and “Best Boy” made Wohl a star. Suddenly, he washobnobbing with Richard Gere and Sidney Lumet, and the Hollywoodproducers had come calling.

Philly, on the occasion of his bar mitzvah.

It was a far cry from his humble beginnings in show business,which began on a “semi-slavery basis,” working for, of all people,Orson Welles in the 1960s. Wohl, then around 20, was told that hecould have the job if he smuggled several boxes of Cuban cigars intoSpain for the director. Welles was living in a grand house outsideMadrid, and, with the cigar mission accomplished, Wohl found himselfcutting film day and night in the basement. He was invited upstairsweekly, however, for a three-course lunch and Hollywood gossip.

For Wohl, the aftermath of “Best Boy” was not the classicHollywood happy ending. He grew frustrated and depressed with theless-than-serious-entertainment job offers, and when they stoppedcoming, around 1990, he went back to school to become a socialworker. Perhaps as catharsis, he chose to specialize in issuespertaining to the entertainment industry.

All the while, people would ask what had become of Philly. By June1996, Wohl, who had moved to Los Angeles, was ready to