Catching up with Workman and remembering Widmark

by Mark Burger

I first met filmmaker Jeremy Workman a decade ago at the Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival. Jeremy was touting his very good short film “Claire Makes It Big” and I had also seen his documentary Who is Henry Jaglom? (1997) on television not long before.

It was because of the Jaglom documentary – and, maybe, a little bit because of the unbelievable blonde he was with – that he and I got to talking, and last week we renewed our acquaintanceship with a telephone interview to reminisce about Who is Henry Jaglom?, which has finally made its DVD debut via First Run Features (see page 45 for review).

For those unfamiliar with Jaglom’s work, he specializes in intimate, seemingly free-form comedy/dramas that tend to be drawn directly from incidents and people in his life. He casts his friends, his wives, his relatives and frequently himself. He not only writes, produces and directs his own films, but he also distributes them through his own independent banner, Rainbow Releasing.

Such films as Someone to Love (1987), Eating (1990), Babyfever (1994) and Last Summer in the Hamptons (1995) could hardly be called mainstream, and some detractors hardly call them movies at all, but rather cinematic self-indulgence and its most… well, indulgent. Others, however, consider Jaglom a maverick genius – on par with the likes of Woody Allen, John Cassavetes, Robert Altman and even Orson Welles (who gave his last performance in Someone to Love).

When it comes to Henry Jaglom, there truly is no middle ground; you either love him or hate him – and everyone, it seems, has an opinion. If they’ve seen his movies, that is.

When Workman and co-director Henry Alex Rubin began work on a documentary that would explore Jaglom’s career, “so many people were so negative across the board that we said ‘Let’s look at it this way,'” recalls Workman.

Nevertheless, his films do have a following, and although Workman is not a follower, he says, “I’m not going to attack the people who like his movies, because that’s absolutely a part of the story.”

Looking back, Workman said that he wouldn’t go back and change the film. “One reason I think it holds up is that it’s still applicable,” he observes. “[Henry]’s the same animal, with the same issues.”

Jaglom’s most recent film, Hollywood Dreams, introduces his latest discovery, actress Tanna Frederick. His ex-wife, Victoria Foyt, had starred in his films throughout the 1990s but now is writing books. Frederick, naturally, will star in Jaglom’s next film, Irene in Dreams, which he will of course be distributing himself.

As a filmmaker who has also weathered the independent trenches over the years, Workman does salute Jaglom’s longevity and tenacity.

“I don’t know how he does it. He keeps plugging along. He keeps churning them out. I don’t know where he gets the financing or how well they do financially, but they keep coming.”

As for his own future, Workman is hard at work – still editing, directing and writing – and he’s preparing a feature- film project that’s been simmering for years, a mere speck of time in Hollywood parlance. This one’s a keeper, he says, and he’s determined to take it all the way home. (Hey, if Henry Jaglom can do it, anybody can do it.)

Oh, and as for the unbelievable blonde Workman was with at the festival in Fort Lauderdale – “I’m not surprised you remember her!” he laughs – they are now the parents of a two-year-old girl who is, he says, an unbelievable blonde, too.

And who said there are no happy endings?

The word “durability” always came to mind whenever I thought of the actor Richard Widmark, who died last week at the age of 93. Although he hadn’t made a movie in 17 years (True Colors), his passing brought back many screen memories – all of them good, many great.

Nominated for an Academy Award as best supporting actor for his 1947 screen debut (in Kiss of Death – a film he utterly dominates), Widmark powered through more than four decades of performances on screen with dependability and a durability (there’s that word) that never failed to impress me, and made me a fan for life.

Panic in the Streets (1950), Night and the City (1950), Pick-up on South Street (1951), Judgment at Nuremberg (1961), The Bedford Incident (1965), Madigan (1968)… these were the films I’d seek out on the Late Show or the Million Dollar Movie, and frequently it was because Widmark was in them. Throughout his career, he fought being typecast as a heavy, but even his heroes possessed an edge that often bordered on the anti-heroic.

When his days as a leading man drew to a close, Widmark segued very smoothly into character roles in the 1970s – precisely the era when yours truly was embarking on a lifelong love affair with the movies. Such films as Murder on the Orient Express (1974), Twilight’s Last Gleaming (1977), Rollercoaster (1977), The Domino Principle (1977), Coma (1978) and – yes – even The Swarm (1978) were a part of my elementary education in cinema. In fact, my living room is proudly adorned with original theatrical posters of The Domino Principle and Twilight’s Last Gleaming, the latter being one of my all-time favorites – if not my favorite of all. (And so few have heard of it).

In supporting roles, Widmark’s intensity – and sometimes simply his mere presence – often overshadowed the leading players. He always made an impression, in films good or bad, and one would be hard pressed to come up with more than a handful of Widmark performances that weren’t solid – and he made over 70 films. That he was never given an honorary Oscar is really quite a shame (I’d talked about it for years), and yet, it figures; Widmark was so good an actor that audiences took him for granted.

After all, aren’t all actors supposed to be that good?