It's a boy's, boy's, boy's world (and a girl's)

"Liberty Heights" stars Ben Foster and Rebekah Johnson talk about race relations and "spilling seed" in Barry Levinson's latest look back at Baltimore.

Topics: Directors, Baltimore,

Liberty Heights,” writer-director Barry Levinson’s fourth comedy-drama about middle-class Baltimore, is set in 1954 and named for a street that served as the borderline for a Jewish neighborhood. The movie tells how high school senior Ben Kurtzman (Ben Foster) and his college-boy brother Van (Adrien Brody) discover what it means to be Jewish — at least in a social sense. Ben declares war on a swimming club that posts a sign banning “Jews, Dogs and Coloreds.” (Jews, Ben notes, are targeted first). Van breaks the dating barriers between Semite and gentile. Meanwhile, Nate Kurtzman (Joe Mantegna), their father, holds together a burlesque house and a numbers racket in a city whose racial equilibrium is wavering.

The most original and compelling part of the movie depicts Ben’s tender bond with a smart, fetching black classmate named Sylvia. It’s one section of Levinson’s ongoing Baltimore series (including “Tin Men” and “Avalon”) that ranks in pungency and insight with his stellar debut entry, “Diner” (1982). And a lot of credit should go to the eloquent performer who plays Sylvia and the intrepid one who plays Ben.

Actress Rebekah Johnson records under the name Rebekah when she puts out CDs as an R&B-tinged singer-songwriter. She won the part of Sylvia in “Liberty Heights” on the merits of her readings and auditions. But Levinson must have sensed the admiration this performer had for the character of a poised student — and ebullient rock fan — who helps integrate a largely Jewish high school of 45 years ago.

Johnson ended her 1998 debut CD, “Rebekah: Remember to Breathe,” with “Little Black Girl,” a song that advises the girl of the title, “It doesn’t mean you’re dumb/Just ‘cuz no one smart looks like you on TV.”

When I interviewed Johnson during her San Francisco stop with co-star Foster, she said she responded passionately to the script of “Liberty Heights” because “I don’t see many scripts with black girls like Sylvia. I have a lot of respect for Sylvia. I wanted her to be strong and confident — that’s what I got out of reading the script. This was a girl who had such dignity at a young age — and at a time when you did have to mature a little quicker. When I was growing up I was able to take for granted tons of things that I’m only learning to face now. But back then it was, ‘You can’t sit here, you can’t eat here, you can’t go to this school. Your father may be a wealthy doctor, but there are still things you can’t do.’ I’m sure if you’re an intelligent person, that affects you.”

One way it affects Sylvia is to bring out her rebellious streak. She bends the rules of her loving-yet-conservative and overprotective father (played by James Pickens Jr.) and strikes up a flirtatious pal-ship with her Jewish admirer Ben.

Both Johnson and Foster felt lucky to make their feature debut in a Levinson picture with a big, cohesive cast (including Bebe Neuwirth as Ben’s mom). Referring to a recurring role he plays on the TV series “Freaks and Geeks,” Foster whipped his head from side to side and said, “From Barry Levinson … to retard. I’ll be happy to keep this diversity up.”

For Johnson, “It was nice that in my first movie I was part of an ensemble. I didn’t feel the pressure of thinking, ‘Don’t want to blow it, don’t want to blow it.’ And I didn’t feel as if all the weight was on my shoulders. I looked around and thought, ‘Everyone’s so good in this. But I’m not bad: I’m holding my own with these people.’”

Johnson and Foster give the film its spark of revelation, which has less to do with race or religion than with the venturesome fluidity of adolescent aspirations and emotions. “It’s the Superman syndrome,” cracked Foster. “It makes you feel you can do things you couldn’t do otherwise.”

The co-stars share a rare rapport. Foster temporarily took the role of Johnson’s dad when they first read lines together. “That’s why he liked me,” she chortled. “He got to be my dad.” In person and in the movie she is more centered than he is.

Levinson seemed to pour his most volatile memories into Ben. The kid outrages his family when he impersonates Hitler for Halloween and when he attends a James Brown concert on the black side of town.

And Foster acknowledged in our interview that he saw Ben as the adolescent Levinson. I think Foster keyed in to Levinson’s unassuming, subtly cutting persona so completely that he may not ever sort out the elements that went into his performance. When I told him that he pulled off with ease the kind of comical ’50s wise-guy attitudes that a kid like Ben might take from watching Sid Caesar on TV, Foster looked as if he didn’t know what I was talking about. It was Johnson who interjected, telling Foster, “Barry was a comedian: He started out as a stand-up, and he gave you some good bits in there. You’re the one who asks, ‘How did they pick the order on that sign? Why did they put Jews first?’”

But Foster had a point. “I never thought of Ben as a comedian,” he said. “There might have been more light-heartedness to that whole generation. And chances are when you’re hanging out with your buddies at the diner, you’ll have a pretty good time. Still, I suppose he did tap into some ironies of the time.”

Both actors drew on whatever experience they could apply to 1954 Baltimore. “I come from Cleveland,” Johnson said, “and Cleveland’s a lot like Baltimore. Same kind of people: regular people, working people. And there’s a black part of town, and a Little Italy, and a place where Jewish people live for the most part, or Hispanic people.”

Growing up in Iowa, Foster didn’t taste that kind of urban smorgasbord. “It was really a small town, with everyone just piled in together. At the same time it was Middle America and I was one of the few sort-of Jewish people.” Sort-of Jewish? “Not active. More spiritual. Half-.”

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Johnson’s Sylvia and Foster’s Ben were able to act out a lovely dalliance. “It was a nice fantasy for me,” said Johnson. “Guys these days don’t court girls that sweetly.” To Foster, the beauty of Sylvia and Ben’s relationship “is that they were awkward — and they were OK with that. When I, uh, ‘lost my seed’ on my pants, she was beyond forgiving. You couldn’t get a better response from someone to that situation.”

“There was an understanding and a safety zone that was important to the characters’ chemistry,” Johnson added. “They’re both their own people, both kind of loners; both have a lot of integrity.”

“And they try not to be trapped by their parents or their culture,” Foster chimed in. “They try to shake it up a bit. So there’s a real sensitivity to each other which contributed to how it worked.”

To keep an audience off balance, Johnson thought it was important that the characters not come off as goody-two-shoes. “They do defy their parents for something they feel is right. And the way Ben’s character is written, there’s no telling what he is going to do next.”

Sylvia’s finest moment comes when she introduces Ben to Redd Foxx’s racy comedy records — which in a way reflects well on her seemingly hidebound father. As Foster said, “Her father probably introduced them to her; they are probably his records. And some of them might be too dirty for her.” Joked Johnson: “We only listened to the cleaner stuff in the movie. She might have played a few other things for Ben and that’s how he ‘lost his seed.’”

Johnson wanted today’s girls to look up to Sylvia. But she recognized that the character was “definitely pre-women’s lib. If it were me, I would speak my mind and say what I want and ask my dad, ‘Why can’t I go to the dance?’ And that is not the time portrayed in the movie. It took a little restraining for me to play this role, because I’m not that sedate and I’m not that docile. I had to remove the nose rings and the dreads. I told my dad that Sylvia was the ‘me’ he always dreamed of, the perfect vision of what he wanted me to be, instead of this funky, wacky girl. It helped that I’m used to hearing my dad or mom say, ‘I couldn’t talk to my dad or mom that way.’”

Since “Liberty Heights” derives from Levinson’s own youth in the ’50s, the director didn’t ask his young stars how they would respond to situations. As Foster said, “It was more like us asking, ‘Why wouldn’t you tell your mother this or that?’ And, ‘What does “percolate” mean?’”

Or, as Johnson asked in a needling way, milking that “spilled seed” incident, “Why is she asking Ben what’s wrong with him? Wouldn’t she know what happened?”

One aspect that didn’t require any annotation was the music. Johnson “was already a fan. My father is a huge musician. He directed our church choir, and was in a band when he was younger. I heard a lot of this ’40s and ’50s black music in my house, and that is where rock ‘n’ roll came from — rhythm and blues and soul.” You get the idea that Johnson, like Sylvia, could give an ardent recitation of the 23rd Psalm and then rock out with James Brown.

Ben Foster is almost as avid a Sinatra fan as his character Ben Kurtzman, who won’t get out of a car if a Sinatra tune is on the radio — not even if Sylvia’s dad is driving and waiting for him to exit. “I went in loving the Chairman; I’m such a fan. So that was really nice, easy to shoot. Singing along to Frank and not getting out of the car — that was a lot of fun to do.” It reminded Foster “of that scene in ‘Diner’ with Daniel Stern, where he and his wife are in the car and he’s yelling at her because she doesn’t know the year the record came out and why it came out and what was important. It’s deep with him. And there’s a bit of that with Barry. He’s a documenter. He takes all of this information that runs through his life and uses it.”

Levinson was part of a comedy team with Craig T. Nelson; Johnson worked with the Los Angeles troupe the Groundlings; Foster studied improv, too. But the director told them early on to trust the script and not scramble for laughs: “If a situation is already set up, hold on to your reality and truth.” Johnson and Foster say that he operates as a director through indirection and osmosis — and unexpected bits of dialogue or business. “He has great stories,” recalled Johnson, “and that’s why he has great movies. He’d be the one in the family who told funny stories at the holidays, the ones that make everyone say, ‘I can’t believe that.’”

To Foster, “Being such a fan, shooting in the original diner — the diner, the origin of the Baltimore series — was really exciting. When we shot the scene where I have to pick one of my two best friends to take to the James Brown concert, Barry came up and said, ‘OK, I want you guys to talk about Spanish fly. Just take it from there.’ Gerry Rosenthal, the guy with the red hair, said, ‘She rubbed it all over her body,’ and we were like, ‘You don’t rub it!’ It just moved. And that’s how Barry works: He gives you a thought and it explodes. It taps into your subconscious and, after the film, spins over and over and over.”

Michael Sragow's column about moviemakers appears every Thursday in Salon. For more columns by Sragow, visit his archive.

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