BluRay/DVD Reviews


By • Apr 27th, 2004 •

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BEST BOY (Docurama) 1979. 103 mins.
BEST MAN (Docurama) 1997. 86 mins.

BEST BOY won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature in 1980. It is one of the most profoundly moving documentaries ever made, and holds up better today, honed with DVD technology, than when it was originally released on grainy, often dark film stock.

Ira Wohl, whose career has been in psychology as much or more than film, recorded the progression of his cousin Philly – a retarded adult – and Philly’s parents, after he urged them to make their 50-year-old son more independent in light of their encroaching old age. Shot over a period of four years, we are shown a sweet, upbeat, but barely social Philly, his kind but forlorn mother, Pearl, and his quiet, stoic and ailing father, Max, cooped up in their claustrophobic, simple lodgings, as well as Philly’s efforts to learn how to do more things by going to special school and camp.

There are certain remarkably powerful touchpoints in this often funny, always insightful narrative, which I remembered clearly from having seen the film only once, upon its original release. At the 22 minute mark, Pearl, not in anger, but in sorrow, laments, “…God wants to punish anybody, he should only punish them with retarded children.” 52 minutes in, the family takes Philly to see a performance of FIDDLER ON THE ROOF on Broadway, in which there are songs he loved to attempt to sing. Zero Mostel welcomes Philly backstage and even sings with him. Mostel, who I’d met, and found to be an annoyingly cantankerous individual, summoned all of his compassion for this encounter, which looked dreadfully underexposed on film, but has been brought into full bloom for the DVD.

And at around the 65 minute mark, Max has to go into the hospital. He and Pearl have been married for 59 years. There’s an unspoken forboding about this, which adds to the lurking tragedy of the unfolding story. At the 83 minute point, Pearl desperately tries to find the words to tell Philly his father has died.

With all that, Philly makes the successful transition to a group home at the end. And a sequel, BEST MAN, made by Ira 18 years later, gives testimony to that. Now, though Ira says he was partially motivated by people asking him over the years how Philly was doing, the sequel also gives him the opportunity to precipitate another major event in his cousin’s life – his bar mitzvah at the age of 70.

I was finishing my own docudrama about mentally handicapped children, BURT’S BIKERS, at just about the time BEST BOY came out in theaters after its Oscar win. I called Ira Wohl and asked him how it was doing, and he told me that they’d lost every cent they’d invested in, and thus far earned, with the film by opening it theatrically. Nobody wanted to pay money to see a film about a retarded person, no matter how heart-warming the subject matter, how ecstatic the reviews, and how many awards the film had garnered. Heeding his warning, I immediately cut my film from 78 to 55 minutes for tv rather than theatrical distribution. It showed on NBC in 1981.

How many documentaries are there that are ‘must haves’ for your collection? CRUMB, HEARTS OF DARKNESS: A FILMAKERS APOCALYPSE, BROTHERS KEEPER, maybe THE FOG OF WAR, maybe FAHRENHEIT 9/11? TRIUMPH OF THE WILL, 42 UP (and it’s sequels and prequels), THE EPIC THAT NEVER WAS, GIMME SHELTER, GREY GARDENS, maybe MAU MAU SEX SEX. Maybe VISIONS OF LIGHT. Maybe THE SORROW AND THE PITY. Maybe HELL HOUSE. I’m sure I’m leaving out a few. But BEST BOY (with BEST MAN thrown in) deserves a place of distinction on your DVD shelf. There’s no ‘maybe’ about it.

As to what DVD to play with it as a double bill, well, you’ve got the double bill in the same box. Lovely though he is, a double dose of Philly might be a little much without a breather, so make sure to take a dessert break in between.

Produced, directed and edited by Ira Wohl.
Director of Photography, Tom McDonough.
Production sound, Peter Miller

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