Edgy 80’s Director Takes A Walk on the Mild Side

At 15, director Susan Seidelman set her alarm for 2 a.m., and sneaked out her bedroom window to party. At her suburban Philadelphia high school, she was suspended more than once for wearing oh-so-short miniskirts.

At her Reform synagogue, she and her pals ditched confirmation class for socials in a rough part of town.

“We’d dance like crazy for two hours but return in time for carpool,” the quirky, affable filmmaker said from her Manhattan home.

No wonder Seidelman grew up to direct rebellious punk classics such as “Desperately Seeking Susan” as well as the pilot and early episodes of HBO’s taboo-busting “Sex and the City.”

“Boynton Beach Club,” opening Friday, seems an unexpected turn for a filmmaker best known as a chronicler of hip 1980s youth culture. The comedy-drama revolves around a grieving Jewish widower, Jack Goodman (Len Cariou), who experiences a personal and sexual awakening in his Florida retirement community, where he encounters singles preoccupied with “early bird specials, sex [and] sex after early bird specials,” as Fort Lauderdale’s Sun-Sentinel said.

Goodman gets his share of both as one of few males in this demographic. (Women show up on his doorstep with casseroles or bang on his car window to ask him out). So why did the edgy filmmaker, now 53, spend years scraping together the funding for this movie about 60- and 70-somethings?

“Part of me is a nice Jewish suburban girl, but the other part is a free-spirited nonconformist who wants to perpetually reinvent myself,” she says.All her characters also reinvent themselves, from “Susan’s” bored Jewish housewife-turned-bohemian to “Boynton’s” reserved widower-turned-ladies’ man.

Seidelman’s new movie marks what is perhaps her most dramatic transformation — from wild-child to good girl — at least for those familiar with her early work. She closely collaborated with her mother, Florence, on “Boynton,” avidly listening when mom suggested the story several years ago. Seidelman’s now 75-year-old mother proposed a film loosely based on her shy widower friend, David Cramer, who became extroverted after he joined bereavement groups run by Alpert Jewish Family & Children’s Service in Florida. Florence was tickled by his descriptions of senior dating rituals: For example, the phrase “I can drive at night” was a major turn-on in personal ads, and women handed men their “card” as a demure way of offering their phone number. (Cramer, now 79, received stacks of such cards: “I felt like a teenager,” he told The Journal.)

The filmmaker was so taken with the idea that she suggested mom buy a screenwriting book and write a first draft of the movie. While the director ultimately re-wrote the script with a partner, she made her mother a producer and harmoniously lived with her during the Florida shoot. Seidelman says that as she has aged, so have her characters (note the 30- and 40-somethings in her 1989 film, “She-Devil,” and TV’s “Sex and the City.”) Her punk heroines would now be in their 50s, perhaps seeking sex with their early bird specials at this very moment. And if Seidelman’s 1980s movies have become somewhat iconic, she’s hoping “Boynton” will, too — at least by joining the smattering of recent films (think “Something’s Gotta Give”) that depict seniors in bed.

Seidelman says most producers reacted “with horror” when she pitched “Boynton,” perceiving the over-50 set to be commercially unviable (despite the fact that they’ve bought more than 20 percent of movie tickets since 2001, according to the Motion Picture Association of America).

“So I think my latest film is, in its own way, as subversive as the others,” Seidelman says.

Rebellion, whether subtle or overt, has always been in the filmmaker’s blood. Her mother, Florence Seidelman, recalls that while the young Susan was popular and creative, she simply couldn’t be trusted.

“I knew she could tell a good story, because she told so many to me,” Florence says with a laugh.

When Susan was 19, she was supposed to spend just the summer abroad, but finagled a longer stay when she phoned her mother from Israel. “She said, ‘I’m spoiled, so the [kibbutz] life would be good for me. And as Jewish girl, I should get closer to my roots,'” her mother recalls.

Mom promptly sent more money — only to learn that Susan had traveled to Turkey and that she would not return home until December.

It’s a hustle one might have expected of one of the director’s early protagonists, who were inspired by people she met while attending Ramones concerts, in tight black spandex and observing the East Village arts scene. After her 1982 debut feature, “Smithereens,” made it to competition at Cannes, she received offers to direct “lots of dopey Hollywood teen films, but declined everything until she read “Desperately Seeking Susan” around 1984.

At the time, she says, she was desperately seeking her own inner Susan, confused about her direction and identity as an artist. The story’s fictional Roberta Glass (Rosanna Arquette) gets knocked on the head, develops amnesia and adopts the persona of a bohemian hustler played by Madonna.

Seidelman underwent her own hard knocks when “She-Devil” fizzled at the box office and her film career flagged for a time. Fifteen years later, potential buyers snubbed “Boynton.” Rather than give up, the scrappy director decided to market the movie herself in heavily senior neighborhoods; as she called newspapers to place ads, her mother handed out flyers and plastered delis with posters, the Hollywood Reporter said. Festival screenings in cities such as Sarasota, Fla. and Palm Springs ensued, along with mostly good reviews. When the comedy outgrossed blockbusters at a Florida mall, distributors came around and bought the film, Seidelman says. So was the director rebellious while living in her parents’ Florida vacation home during production?

“My mother sometimes had to tell me to make my bed,” the director recalls. “But she actually asked me to leave the house one weekend because my presence was interfering with her sex life.”

The movie opens Friday in theaters.

Pulling Up Stakes

For someone only in his 40s, actor-director Robby Benson already has had a busy career. He also has had his fill of Hollywood.

Last month, the 47-year-old Benson sold his Los Angeles home and moved to Boone, N.C., where he has accepted a faculty position as artist-in-residence at Appalachian State University.

"I’m seeking quality of life for myself, my wife and my two children," said Benson, who now lives on a 10.5-acre farm in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains.

Rural Appalachia is a long way from Brooklyn, where Benson played the role that made him famous among Jewish audiences: Danny Saunders, the adolescent son of a Chasidic rabbi, in the 1981 movie version of Chaim Potok’s "The Chosen."

"Being in ‘The Chosen’ meant a lot to me," Benson said. "Although I’m not a practicing Jew, I am proud of my heritage, which has been handed down to me by my parents and grandparents."

Early in his career as a child prodigy, however, he feared that his Jewish name — he was born Robin David Segal — was becoming a disadvantage. On an episode of A&E "Biography," Benson recounted being typecast in auditions as "that Jewish kid."

At the suggestion of his mother, actress Ann Benson, he took her maiden name. At 12, Benson debuted on Broadway with a starring role in "Zelda."

His movie career took off in the 1970s, and in 1973, he earned a Golden Globe nomination for his performance in the movie, "Jeremy." In 1977, Benson starred in the basketball movie, "One on One," which he co-wrote with his father, Jerry Segal.

The actor had to bow out of "Apocalypse Now" to make "One on One," and now he’s leaving a recurring role as professor Witt on the NBC TV series, "American Dreams," for teaching.

Benson also has been in demand as a TV director, especially on sitcoms, including "Evening Shade," "Ellen," "Dharma & Greg," "Seinfeld" and "Friends." In addition, he was the voice of Beast in Disney’s "Beauty and the Beast."

Benson, who has taught filmmaking part-time at universities for 15 years, will teach in Appalachian State’s theater and English departments. His wife of 20 years, singer-actress Karla DeVito –who sang lead vocals with Meat Loaf on "Paradise by the Dashboard Light" — will teach voice.

Casting His Vote

Sixty one and still full of surprises, that’sWarren Beatty. This weekend, Beatty goes head to head at the boxoffice with “The Horse Whisperer,” starring that other senior iconRobert Redford. Redford, like his contemporary Beatty, not only starsbut also directs and produces his movie. May the best man win.

However, Beatty, never one to leave things tochance when he can micromanage every inch of his collected opus, isout there, looking for an edge — and selling his savage politicalfarce with the kind of intensity that would be exhausting if itweren’t so charming. In an era when movies poke bitter fun atpoliticos (most recently “Primary Colors” and “Wag the Dog,” bothcritically praised but not exactly box office dynamite), Beatty hasput his head on the line in the genre.

He playsincumbent U.S. Sen. Jay Bulworth of California, just days away froman election and in the throes of a nervous breakdown. With the racerazor’s-edge close, he’s become a blubbering mess, a disenchanted,burnt-out case, with a philandering wife (Christine Baranski) andlittle to hang on to. So he comes up with a unique solution to hisproblems: He hires a hit man to kill him for a fat life insurancepolicy that benefits his daughter.

But along the way to being 6 feet under, Bulworthmeets the gorgeous Nina (Halle Berry), a bright woman, 30-plus yearshis junior, raised by 1960s activists living in South Central LosAngeles. Bulworth, understandably, decides to cancel the hit. It’stoo late.

What follows is a “Warren in the Hood” politicaltragicomedy-cum-farce, which gives the savvy Beatty a chance tosavage not only the hometown Hollywood industry, but to fire deadlyarrows at assorted sacred cows, from politics to racism. Beatty asthe demented candidate turns into a hip-hopping, rap-spoutingpolitico who decides the only way to salvation is to tell it like itis: about Jews, blacks, Hispanics and the entire U.S. politicalhierarchy.

Why should politicians follow through on theircampaign promises to blacks, he asks his audience at a South Centralchurch, when blacks don’t make financial contributions? Whateverhappened to federal funding? asks a congregant. “They told you whatyou wanted to hear,” he snaps back. “Half your kids are out of workand half in jail, so what are you gonna do, vote Republican?”

Then whisked to a fund-raiser at a Beverly Hillsmansion, he scans his speech. Gazing out at the fat-cat donors, hemuses, “Oh, mostly Jews here — I’m sure they put something in aboutFarrakahn.”

As for Israel, he tells the astounded group thatpoliticians say they will support it just to take your money.

The $32 million movie is Beatty’s baby. Heproduced, wrote, directed and, of course, is the on-screen linchpinof this outrageous caper — made, ironically, for theultra-conservative Rupert Murdoch, who owns 20th Century Fox.

Political movies, especially since they’re upagainst some fairly stiff competition from the real thing these days,are not an easy sell. So Beatty is hitting the campaign trail asnever before to peddle “Bulworth” to the widest possibleaudience.

At the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills,Beatty, who turned 61 in March, looks in pretty good shape: There area few silver flecks in his full head of hair, a few wrinkles, but thewhole thing is pretty well preserved and immaculately attiredcompletely in dark-green cords, suede jacket and matching tie.

Throughout his long career, he has had a love-haterelationship with the media, but this time out, he’s making nice.Like a politician on the stump, he walks into the suite anddeliberately shakes everyone’s hand, paying particular attention toblack journalists. He knows there’s an audience out there thatnormally wouldn’t be seen dead at a Warren Beatty film, and he’sanxious to grab them. (When he’s finished, he even sits patiently,signing photos and posing for pictures with some of the morestar-struck journalists.) This is uncharacteristic behavior, to saythe least, from a man who has shunned the media all his life.

“This,” he declares, as if to convince himself,”is the best film I’ve ever made. It has a certain energy and makesme laugh when I look at it.”

And it’s pretty lifelike stuff, its creatorinsists. “In order for the film to work,” he says, “it has to beviolent, sexy and funny — or else it turns into C-Span.”

This desire to get attention has sent Beatty intosome strange territory. There’s enough rap music in his movie to keepthe most ardent fan happy. And Beatty compares the rappers of the1990s to Russian protest poets of Moscow, circa the 1960s.

It is also the first time that moviegoers get achance to see Beatty unvarnished, unairbrushed, filmed without thelayers of gauze he has lately employed when he takes to the bigscreen. In most of his movies, including the most recent, “LoveAffair,” “Bugsy” and “Dick Tracy,” Beatty has been filmed with thekind of devotion that only a Barbra Streisand can top. In “Bulworth,”he is unkempt, unshaven and crazed — upon orders from Beattyhimself.

“I told [cinematographer] Vittorio Storaro, ‘Iwant to be ugly in this movie,'” says Beatty. “I wanted to do thething that was the most opposite to me.”

And, so, the man who says with some justification,although not as much as he thinks, “I’ve been famous longer thananybody alive,” is preparing to sabotage his legend.”

And how does it feel to go out there symbolicallynaked in front of the multitudes? Don’t expect a straight answer fromthe man who perfected the responseoblique.

“This is the kind of language you hear processedthrough the press,” he says sharply. “It’s so ephemeral and goofy. Ifyou were to get caught up in this whole image thing, you’d go down aroad of unrewarding narcissism. And that is something I have neverwanted to get involved with.”

He then goes on to give the lie to himself inspades. “To tell you the truth, I’ve dealt with this legend thinglonger than most people…longer than Robert Redford and JackNicholson. My first film [“Splendor in the Grass,” l961] was a hugehit. Those people had to wait decades longer before hittingit.”

Failing to quit while he’s ahead, he gilds thelily further: “If I put my career into perspective, this is what Isee: I’ve done some good work and got awards, got critical acclaimand made enough money to live happily. I have built up a body ofmovies to make it impossible to forget me.”

Wonder what Bulworth would say about that one?

Ventura writer Ivor Davis writes a weeklycolumn for The New York Times Syndicate.