That John Berry’s adaptation of Athol Fugard’s apartheid melodrama Boesman & Lena was graced with an indulgent slot in the latest New York Film Festival is a testament to the harrying grip HUAC still exercises over the consciences of American movie culture. With paradise once lost to careerist skulduggery, attempts at regaining Hollywood’s squandered princess crown and hymen persist, even as the witnesses all face the business end of their Biography specials. The unpopular Oscar canonization of Elia Kazan, and the accompanying amnesia about the late Abraham Polonsky notwithstanding, Berry was one of the McCarthy gauntlet’s last men standing, exiled to decades of European obscurity by the blacklist. Long a race-relations flag-waver (he acted in a 1940 stage version of Native Son), Berry died last year while Boesman & Lena was in postproduction, and there will be those for whom the film’s blunt-cudgel obviousness will seem a fitting coda. I haven’t suffered such overcooked caterwauling since my first Rangers game.
A personal disclaimer seems called for: In general, the leaden, loud indulgences and speechifying Tinker Toy-ness of filmed theater give me gas. Whereas Boesman & Lena might not have been a return to the fold for Berry, it’s no challenge to middlebrow sanctimony, either. Fugard’s sermon on racism boils down to two voices and a junk heap; it’s Beckett if Beckett were John Singleton, and Waiting for Godot were Higher Learning. Boesman (Danny Glover) and Lena (Angela Bassett) are an aging, half-crazy homeless couple carving out a night’s shelter on the barren but lovely Cape Flats, after being bulldozed from their shantytown. Their relentless, overenunciated bickering—shut up, no you shut up—focuses on their ingrown love-hate while picking over the pair’s recent series of flop-stops, Boesman’s fondness for violence, and an elderly tribesman (Willie Jonah) who wanders into their riverside power struggle.
Stilted as a beach house, the movie crawls from one harangue to another, and the passionate tirades against the “white man” are duly overshadowed by the passion for actorly Excess. You have to appreciate the effort—Bassett in particular works up a ferocious aerobic spritz—but the effect resembles seals begging for fish, not incisive social drama. Berry, in the end, could be gracelessly literal, but Boesman & Lena is simply served stagecraft, which is the most and least that can be said for it. The flat, frighteningly empty South African cape lands, on the other hand, wait on the outskirts of society for a filmmaker to exploit their metaphoric torque.
A significantly less plagued middle-aged couple stands at the center of John Gallagher’s Blue Moon—vaguely dissatisfied New Yawkas Frank and Maggie (Ben Gazzara and Rita Moreno), who attempt to rekindle their marriage at their Catskills vacation villa. Thanks to Gallagher’s ludicrously coy script, the lucky pair wish (on the moon) for their younger selves and get them, literally: 25 years old, oblivious and randy. The four have a big chat, with flashbacks. Retarded magical-realist heartwarmth that demands a gross of Zantac in its own big way, Gallagher’s movie never climbs out of its tuna can, despite the favors granted from the local paisano talent pool (Victor Argo, Vincent Pastore, Lillo Brancato Jr., Burt Young, etc.). A real midlife crisis might be more enjoyable.