Boesman and Lena
(French/South African, 2000, 90 minutes, color, 35mm)
following film notes were prepared for the New York State Writers
Institute by Kevin Jack Hagopian, Senior Lecturer in Media Studies
at Pennsylvania State University:
Berry’s career was a living chronicle of the performing arts in the 20th century. He began as an emcee in the Catskills in the early 1930’s, and from there, into the tumultuous New York theater scene of the mid-1930’s, and a stint in the Federal Theater Project. Berry spent the next several years at Orson Welles’ side in the legendary Mercury Theater, as an apprentice actor and then as an assistant director, where he worked on some of the Mercury’s most important productions, including the now-lost 16mm film that Welles directed and presented onstage as part of the play, Too Much Johnson. Berry’s direction of some troubled plays became well-known, and soon, he was swept up in the migration to Hollywood during the war years of many of the Left theater’s leading lights, artists such as Welles, John Houseman, Elia Kazan, and Harold Clurman. Berry took part in a unique experiment at Paramount Stuios, in which he was part of a "directors in training" program, with the opportunity to observe none other than Billy Wilder at work on the set of Double Indemnity. His own projects soon followed between 1945 and 1950: Miss Susie Slagle’s, at Paramount, From This Day Forward, an unusual attempt at American neo-realism, at RKO, a fine little film noir at MGM, Tension, and finally, He Ran All the Way, his acclaimed production with fellow New York radical theater alumnus John Garfield. Many said it was the star’s greatest work, and Berry seemed on the verge of the same success in film Elia Kazan had had. But Garfield died of a heart attack just after production, his health ruined by anxiety over the investigations of Hollywood political affiliations by the House Committee on Unamerican Activities. (HUAC), and for Berry, it was a portent. Soon, he was named in the shameful ritual theater of the 1951 HUAC hearings, by none other than lapsed Communist Edward Dmytryk. Berry left America to begin a life in Paris as a gypsy screenwriter and director. During the 1950’s and 1960’s, he wrote scripts for American television under pseudonyms, and directed films in France, some good, some indifferent. His American career seemed on the verge of a minor renaissance in 1974 after the independently made Claudine, a deeply sympathetic film about a Black garbageman and his family, miraculously found its audience. But it was not to be, and Berry reconciled himself to that most surreal of careers, that of the ex-blacklistee, frequently honored but seldom employed.
Boesman and Lena reunited him with two old colleagues, playwright Athol Fugard, and producer Pierre Rissient, and it turned out to be one of his very best films. An interviewer once asked Berry, "Where did you get your politics from?" Berry’s response was instant: "Out of hunger, man." Born on Hoe Avenue, in the Bronx in 1917, and raised in Manhattan, Berry’s memory was seared by the sight of homeless World War I veterans living in "Hoovervilles," squatter’s shacks of tarpaper and scrap lumber. Ironically, in his last project, Jack Berry would return to that memory. Boesman and Lena is the story of a "colored" (mixed race, in South African apartheid terms) who have been repeatedly dispossessed from various shantytowns near Capetown. They live on the pittance from recycling bottles, and argue bitterly over which of them is to blame for their reduced state. We watch as economics grind their relationship nearly to dust; flashbacks make our suffering more acute, because we know that these two once loved each other, and even once believed in a glowing future. But it is a future that never comes, and as they bicker and scream on the shores of the Swartkops River in what is perhaps the longest night of their lives, we’re allowed an uncomfortable close-up on the intimate relationship between race and economics in a separatist society. The arrival of a Xhosa tribesman, and the violence that ensues, brings the long-delayed final confrontation between these two. It is a clash we know must happen, if Boesman and Lena are each to regain their dignity, yet one we dread.
Boesman and Lena began life as a 1969 Athol Fugard stage play, and as with the best of Jack Berry’s theater and film, the script was inherently political, a gauntlet thrown down at the apartheid regime that had broken millions of men and women like Boesman and Lena. A film version was made in 1974, but it was with the popularity of Fugard’s late-apartheid plays like Bloodknot (which Berry had directed) and Master Harold and the Boys that a larger, more thematically expansive version of the play, with an ending that Berry preferred to the play’s original, could be properly mounted on film. Getting the cooperation of socially-conscious stars Angela Bassett and Danny Glover gave the project an A-list imprimatur. Boesman and Lena’s humanity and anger over the costs of apartheid are not dimmed by apartheid’s collapse; indeed, the film seems to insist that we never forget those years, and the psychic destruction of the ordinary people, the real Boesmans and Lenas, who were its true martyrs.
Berry always loved to tell the story of the last months of his fellow Blacklistee, Dalton Trumbo. There sat Trumbo, in the bathtub of his house on Ives Avenue in Hollywod, banging out his last novel on a typewriter rigged on a board across the tub, laughing and drinking, proudly outrunning the cancer that already taken one lung and was sure to kill him. During their last conversation together at Trumbo’s house, Berry told interviewer Patrick McGilligan, Trumbo got up and urinated behind his house. "My father always said you were a success if you could piss in your own backyard," said Trumbo, who went to his death proudly, with no regrets. That was just the way Berry wanted to go out, the tools of his craft still moving as surely and incisively as a surgeon’s scalpel.
Brave, funny, and noisy in his eighties, Berry couldn’t have had a more appropriate valedictory than Boesman and Lena, this profound saga of political conflict in the lives of the little people. The tough kid from the Bronx, one of progressive Hollywood’s last survivors, was gutty and obstreperous to the end. Jack Berry died on November 29, 1999, just after Boesman and Lena finished shooting, still able to piss in his own backyard.
— Kevin Hagopian, Penn State University
For additional information, contact the Writers Institute at 518-442-5620 or online at http://www.albany.edu/writers-inst.