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- April 25, 1983
- Vol. 19
- No. 16
Out of Woody Allen's Long Shadow, His Ex-Sidekick Scores Big with Lovesick
Until recently film viewers might well have wondered whether there really was a Marshall Brickman. For most of the '70s he was Woody Allen's nearly invisible junior partner, his collaborator on the screenplays of Sleeper, Annie Hall and Manhattan whose contributions wound up wedged between parentheses in doting cover stories praising master clown Allen. There were jocular rumors that he and Woody were, in truth, one very funny split personality, or that Brickman was an Allen clone, a slightly taller, not so nebbishy-looking duplicate, down to the Brooklyn accent, urbane sensibility and angst-inspired sense of humor.
No longer. By 1980 Brickman had left the partnership that brought him and Woody a 1977 Best Screenplay Oscar for Annie Hall and had gone out on his own as writer-director of Simon, a bizarre sci-fi satire that ended up a box office dud. But Brickman's second solo venture, Lovesick, starring Dudley Moore as a middle-aged shrink who falls in love with a young female patient, has already earned more than $10 million. It has also generated a host of enthusiastic reviews, and howls of outrage from the psychiatric establishment over the movie's lighthearted treatment of transference—the process by which patients project onto therapists attributes of parents or other major figures from their past. Most important, Lovesick has finally established Marshall Brickman as a filmmaker who can go it alone. The split with Woody wasn't bitter; he and Marshall still have dinner once a week.
Brickman, 43, a slender, casually dressed man whose face seems better suited to the corner pharmacist than a show business heavy, is nervous about opening chinks in his privacy. "This isn't going to expose my lovely 3-year-old daughter to kidnappers, is it?" he asks, surveying his visitor warily from an armchair in his newly refurbished studio on Central Park South. "You know, the guy from Kansas with The Catcher in the Rye in his pocket and a lot of dreams?" He gestures around the studio, serviceably furnished with a writing table, portable electric typewriter and a handful of books. His agent, Brickman says admiringly, wisely arranged for the Ladd Company, Lovesick's producers, to furnish Marshall with office space outside the Central Park West apartment he shares with his wife, Nina, and small daughter Jessica. "Now that Jessica is ambulatory, I can't write at home anymore," he explains. "Besides, this place makes me feel like a writer."
The screenplay that earned Brickman his solitude came out of his own experience with analysis back in the '60s, shortly after making the transition from itinerant banjo player to comedy writer for Johnny Carson's The Tonight Show. "I was depressed, I'd been working in nightclubs and on the road—it makes you a little crazy," he recalls. "I wasn't psychotic, living on catfood or unable to come out of my house. It was just sort of fashionable to be in analysis at the time. The analyst said, 'Mr. Brickman, I'm not sure why you're here, but you're in the right place.' Many years later he said, 'Mr. Brickman, I don't know why you're here, but you're in the wrong place.' "
In between came a near disaster that reinforced Brickman's uneasy sense that "when something goes right, it's a miracle. And you should wonder what God is saving up for you later." It was midsummer, 1969. Brickman was on a Los Angeles junket for Tonight, then located in New York, and was hanging out nights at the Bel Air mansion of John and Michelle Phillips, friends from his musician days. Brickman found himself hypnotized by the L.A. atmosphere. "The house was furnished in that strange star furniture from the tip of Olympus," he recalls. "People were floating around the rooms and steam was rising off the pool, which was lit from underneath. It was like being on Venus—except I think the atmosphere on Venus is ammonia."
One humid evening the Phillipses and their friends piled into their cars for a night on the town, and offered Brickman two choices. "We could either go out to so-and-so's in Malibu, or there were some people going over to Roman Polanski's house for a small get-together with Sharon Tate. I decided to go to the beach," he recalls, "and that was the night Tate and her friends were murdered by the Manson Family. I woke up the next morning at my hotel, and there was a pile of messages from everyone I knew. They all thought I had left the thing at Malibu, driven back to Benedict Canyon, and gone to the Tate party. The worst part was that the first victim the police discovered was a young unidentified male. I thought, 'Gee, that's interesting. I could have been dead.' To me, that's a definition of luck—something that happens to you from which you can learn absolutely nothing. Your parents, your teachers, your rabbi—all the people who tell you to be prompt, save string—never tell you that you could still be walking down the street and a man hoisting a piano up the side of a building could have a heart attack and it could come down and they'll send you home in an envelope."
But as Brickman has proved in Lovesick, he is capable of balancing such pessimistic visions with tinges of sweetness. "Marshall is one of the most exquisitely funny people I've ever met," says Dudley Moore. "He has a cutting edge attached to a soft bottom—which makes an attractive, seductive combination." Moore's Lovesick co-star, Elizabeth McGovern, agrees. "I found Marshall sensitive and romantic," she says. "He comes on cynical at first because of his wit. What surprised me was the heart underneath."
It was that delicate balance that brought Brickman and Allen together. They met at the Bitter End in Greenwich Village in 1963, when Brickman was a banjo player with the folk group the Tarriers and Woody was a stand-up comic. "My memory of his act was that it was absolutely brilliant and amazing, and the audience was not really with it," recalls Brickman. The writing collaboration that followed was surprisingly formal, despite the two men's similar backgrounds. "It was like the bakery my family went to was on Avenue M, and his was on Avenue J," Brickman says. "We only discovered this years later, when we broke enough of the ice to get involved in personal material, like 'Where were you born?' "
By then the pair had become friends, sharing long walks through Central Park during which they discussed everything from Chinese food to sex to Ingmar Bergman. Much of their dialogue ended up in their screenplays. Together, they explored the psychic and intellectual turf of what Brickman calls "the articulate, educated, self-aware, analyzed, little bit nervous, little bit guilty" characters inhabiting the elegant brownstones and penthouses of Manhattan's Upper East and West Sides. They are people, says Isaac Davis in Manhattan, who "are constantly creating these real unnecessary neurotic problems for themselves that keep them from dealing with the more terrifying unsolvable problems about the universe."
Though Brickman and Allen share a certain uneasy sensibility, Brickman's friends insist his outlook is sunnier. "Woody is a worrier, withdrawn and private, and doesn't get as much pleasure in life as he'd like," says Roger Angell of the New Yorker, who has edited pieces by both Brickman and Allen. "Marshall is the center of calmness and cheerfulness—I've never seen him depressed or worried." Dudley Moore concurs. "Woody is a timid and hostile chap, though I admire him enormously," he says. "Marshall is more socially amenable." But for all of Brickman's gregariousness, buddy Dick Cavett admits he can seem distant. "He's extraordinarily intelligent, which makes it hard for him to find people on the same wavelength," says Cavett. "Neither he nor Woody suffers fools gladly. Both make people feel inferior—and, of course, usually they are."
For his part, Brickman, who was born in Rio de Janeiro, where his father ran an import-export business, claims he is a product of his upbringing in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn, which he remembers as "rigid, upper-middle-class and Jewish—with an additional overlay of guilt and fear from being the son of left-wingers. I spent several years hoping and fearing that the FBI would come and take away my parents." His father he remembers somewhat mysteriously as doing "what Sydney Greenstreet did in The Maltese Falcon—he loaded crates onto ships in the dead of night." Brickman was brought up listening to Leadbelly records and attending summer camps "where they put you in the middle of the field and you joined arms and sang labor songs. The social strata there was determined not by how much your father earned but by how many of your parents were in jail under the Smith Act. It made me feel special and kind of out of it."
By his teens, Brickman had mastered the banjo and was traveling into Manhattan on weekends to play in Washington Square Park. "We used to call Manhattan 'The City,' " Brickman recalls. "It had a mystical meaning to us—like Oz." Music, he says, "got me involved with a group of interesting people—musicians, bohemians and left-wingers—and it was a way out of Brooklyn. The kids that I grew up with on the block dutifully became dentists, doctors and drug salesmen. And if they couldn't become drug salesmen, they did the next best thing, which was to become patients."
After attending the University of Wisconsin ("girls in camel-hair coats and penny loafers, and New Yorkers trying to get at them"), he joined the Tarriers in 1962, and toured later with John and Michelle Phillips before they struck it rich as one-half of the Mamas and the Papas. In 1966 he landed a job writing for Candid Camera and moved from there to The Tonight Show. Within a year he had become the head writer—at the tender age of 27. "Not only was he verbally brilliant," recalls David Lloyd, a co-writer for Carson, "but he had enormous mechanical facility. Marshall would sit there in his office taking apart a stereo and fixing it while spewing out jokes. It used to irritate the hell out of me."
For Brickman, the high-intensity life of The Tonight Show was both glamorous and agonizingly pressure-filled. During trips to Los Angeles, "I used to carry my hotel room key in my pocket, so they'd know where to return me if they found me weeping, sitting on a Sunset Boulevard traffic island unable to cope." By 1970, however, he had become jaded. "Carson was the Queen Mary—he was never going to sink," Brickman recalls. "It didn't have that edge in it for a writer. Dick Cavett's show was new and unpredictable. He offered me a job as producer, and I asked Carson to release me from my contract. He did—which says more for him than it did for me."
Brickman worked for Cavett until 1972, when an improbable series of events changed his life. Back in 1963, Marshall had recorded an album of banjo and bluegrass tunes with his childhood friend Eric Weissberg. In 1971, when John Boorman began filming Deliverance, he asked Weissberg to provide a tune for the movie. Weissberg obliged with Dueling Banjos, which rose quickly to the top of the charts. Warners then dug into its archives and rereleased the old Brickman/Weissberg album, using Dueling Banjos for the first cut and renaming the album The Sound Track From Deliverance, which it plainly wasn't. Nevertheless, the album sold more than a million copies. "I'm at the Cavett show and I get a call from my lawyer. He says, 'I've got a check here for $78,000,' " recalls Brickman, "and there were more on the way. I was in analysis at the time, and my analyst was doing his best to pound into my head that I was just like everybody else. Then this check comes floating out of the sky." The money made Brickman financially secure, enabling him to strike up a full-time collaboration with Allen, which began with Sleeper in 1973.
It was around that time that Brickman married Nina Feinberg, a onetime ballet dancer and film editor whom Brickman had known casually since his high school days. "We finally came to our senses after having exhausted all other possibilities," laughs Brickman. Nina served as film editor on both Simon and Lovesick, and plans to work on Brickman's next film, which he has just begun writing, for Lovesick, Nina had to set up her equipment in the living room of the couple's nine-room apartment, in order to keep an eye on Jessica. Brickman, too, is heavily involved in being a parent. "Fatherhood's great," he says. "It's the other way to get immortality. One way is to write Pygmalion or build the Eiffel Tower. It's certainly less time-consuming to write Pygmalion."
Brickman sees his life these days as "a triangle," with his time divided between his studio, his apartment and several Manhattan restaurants: the Carnegie Deli (for pastrami), the Russian Tea Room (lunch only) and Frankie & Johnny's (dinner)—where he eats with friends like Allen, Cavett and actor Michael Murphy. From this cloistered perspective, Brickman casts his gaze on contemporary America, and finds it hasn't improved much since his bitter satire Simon. "Studio 54 is like, you know, the shot of people dancing wildly right before the stock market crash," he says with a sigh. "We live in a very silly culture—you can tell just by watching the Country Music Awards. This fascination with celebrities—America wants to know how to live. They're always looking for examples of 'how to be.' "
Brickman confesses also to a nagging uneasiness about himself. "There are people to whom all good things happen in the first half of their lives," he says. "Then there are those to whom all good things happen in the second half. Jack Kennedy was one of the people in the first. I certainly hope I'm in the the second." Still, Brickman says, paraphrasing Freud, he has come to "accept the normal frustrations of life,' " and his mood seems cautiously optimistic. "I'm happy to be happy when I can be happy," he shrugs. "When I'm not, I'm happy to be productive. I was in a fog, I wasn't totally awake—that's what put me in analysis. Now I'm awake and I don't know if I'm happy, but at least while the meter is ticking I'm looking out the window."
November 23, 2015
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