Filmmakers reveal magician’s secretive world

A British journalist recalls how she once sat down at a cafe with the legendary magician, author, historian, actor and, perhaps, the greatest sleight-of-hand artist on the planet in the documentary “Deceptive Practices: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay.”

On that sweltering afternoon, Jay was at first grumpy after the long drive to the restaurant, but he turned into a brilliant raconteur as he began to describe one of his heroes — 19th century illusionist Max Malini, who once borrowed a woman’s hat, placed a silver dollar underneath it, then lifted the hat to reveal that the coin had transformed into an enormous chunk of ice. And at that moment, the journalist recounts, Jay lifted his menu with a flourish to reveal his own 1-foot-square block of ice, which materialized as if out of thin air. The journalist was so astounded by “this supreme piece of artistry,” she says, that she “burst into tears.”

“Deceptive Practices,” by filmmakers Molly Bernstein and Alan Edelstein, unfolds like a magical mystery tour of Jay’s professional art and artifice. On camera, he transforms a paper moth into a real insect, flings a card at 90 miles per hour to pierce the skin of a watermelon and dazzles audiences with his specialty — astonishing card tricks — with maneuvers so virtuosic they defy the imagination.

But don’t expect the documentary to explain just what Jay has up his sleeves. The secretive artist reveals nothing about how he accomplishes his feats, nor does he speak much about personal matters, except to say that his parents didn’t “get” his obsession with magic. In fact, the only kind memory he has of them is the time they hired the acclaimed Al Flosso, aka The Coney Island Fakir, to perform at his bar mitzvah.

Born Ricky Potash in Brooklyn, Jay does wax at length about his late grandfather, the accountant Max Katz, a distinguished amateur magician and cryptographer who introduced Ricky to magic via lessons with genius illusionists like Slydini and The Great Cardini. In archival footage, we see 7-year-old Ricky turn a guinea pig into a pigeon on a local television show; by 14, he was performing as Tricky Ricky, complete with penciled-in sideburns, making a cane waft through the air.

After Katz died when Ricky was 17, Jay left home to seek his fortune as a professional magician, working carnivals and performing at the New York nightclub Electric Circus before landing gigs on “The Dinah Shore Show” and “The Tonight Show.” In Hollywood, he studied with his primary mentors, Dai Vernon and Charlie Miller, who made him practice the same maneuver “14,000 times in a row,” Jay says.

The magician also speaks about how he learned the routines of historical performers, such as the 28-inch-tall Matthias Buchinger, an 18th century magician who awed spectators (and fathered 14 children) despite having neither arms nor legs; about his scholarly books on arcane subjects, including cannon-ball catchers, hoaxers, living skeletons and acid drinkers; as well as his collection of obscure manuscripts and antique dice. In between, he performs card tricks for audiences of his one-man shows as well as for the filmmakers, who capture his illusions in extreme close-up.

During a conference call from New York, Bernstein and Edelstein admitted to studying those tricks in slow-motion in the editing room, but said they still have no idea how Jay effortlessly transforms one card into another.

Convincing the reclusive magician to appear in their documentary was akin to a magic trick in itself. The process began about 15 years ago, when Bernstein became mesmerized with Jay after reading his 1986 book, “Learned Pigs and Fireproof Women: Unique, Eccentric and Amazing Entertainers — Stone Eaters, Mind Readers, Poison Resisters, Daredevils, Singing Mice, etc., etc., etc., etc.”

Bernstein said she grew even more “enchanted” with Jay while viewing his 1993 one-man show, “Ricky Jay and His 52 Assistants,” in a small theater in Manhattan: “It was his ability to bring you into a rather obscure, eccentric world — and just the fact that it was this sophisticated, New York audience and people were gasping,” she recalled. 

Bernstein teamed up with Edelstein to pitch the documentary to Jay’s manager, who politely rebuffed their request; finally they arranged to meet Jay through journalist Mark Singer, who wrote an exhaustive profile of Jay for The New Yorker in 1993.

“It was nerve-racking,” Bernstein said of their first meeting with the magician, in a Japanese restaurant near The New Yorker’s offices.

“Ricky can be intimidating, even though he was very open and honest with us,” Edelstein added.

Jay almost immediately told the filmmakers that the BBC had just done a documentary on him, and that it had been a nightmare, so why would he want to do another film?

“Ricky’s life is all about keeping secrets, while a filmmaker wants to reveal secrets, so our agendas naturally clashed,” Edelstein said.

Singer helped convince Jay to participate, and the filmmakers also promised to focus the movie on Jay’s mentors. There were other (albeit implied) conditions, too: The filmmakers intuited that they should not press Jay on private matters, nor pressure him to perform on cue, which was “key,” Bernstein said.

Even so, Edelstein recalled, “Molly and I worried quite a bit in the early years that we weren’t going to get close enough to make something that would work as a narrative film. Especially in the age of ‘Oprah’ and confessional television, viewers expect people to open up about their personal life at the drop of a hat, but Ricky is not among those people.”

Over the years, however, the magician did agree to perform illusions for the filmmakers, only occasionally checking the camera’s position before filming commenced to ensure that no secrets would be revealed. And the famously cranky Jay eventually allowed Bernstein and Edelstein to tape his one-man shows in New York and at The Old Vic in London. He also provided archival materials, as well as access to his friends Steve Martin and David Mamet, the latter of whom has directed Jay’s shows, frequently cast the magician in his films, most notably “House of Cards,” and served as best man at his wedding in 2002.

Of Jay’s reserved persona, Edelstein theorized, “Ricky is a vulnerable person and he’s protecting himself, like many people who have boundaries or are defensive. But he could get very emotional at times while talking to us about his mentors.”

Jay does provide one moment of insight early in the film: “Cards are like living, breathing human beings, I suppose, because they give you real pleasure,” he says. “You sit in a room [practicing] with them 10 to 15 hours a day, and they become your friends, particularly for very lonely people.”

“Deceptive Practices” opens in Los Angeles on May 17.

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