|Not Poifect, Dem
Movies of Brooklyn
By Clyde Haberman
Foist of all, let's make one pernt poifectly clear: they don't
talk like this in Brooklyn.
At least most of them don't. And they didn't even back when
they did, if you'll forgive the Yogi-ism. At least most of
them didn't, not the way filmmakers would have had you believe
over the decades, with all those on-screen characters turning
oys into ers and vice voisa.
"To paraphrase Mae West, Hollywood done Brooklyn wrong,"
said John B. Manbeck, a former Brooklyn borough historian.
He had a per, uh, point.
For years, countless movie characters identified as coming
from Brooklyn spoke only the King's English. The Kings County
English, that is, laced with puh-lenty of dese, dems, dose
and de like. The mere mention of Brooklyn was good for a screen
laugh, since everyone knew that only a slap-happy bunch of
lovable mugs lived there.
Unless they went to war. Then they became the platoon wisenheimers,
like Richard Conte or Dane Clark. In case you think this a
dated stereotype, consider the soldier played just a few years
ago by Edward Burns in "Saving Private Ryan." What
a mouth on that guy! He was from Brooklyn, natch.
"Brooklyn really has a diverse population," Mr.
Manbeck said, and that has been true for decades. But he said,
"you'd never know it by looking at the movies, particularly
the movies of the 30's and 40's."
The various ways that his borough has been cinematically
handled and manhandled interested Mr. Manbeck enough to edit
a collection of essays on the subject, "The Brooklyn
Film" (McFarland & Company). His collaborator was
Robert Singer, a professor of English and film studies at
Kingsborough Community College, who lamented this week that
he and his fellow Brooklynites "have been archetyped
The durability of certain Brooklyn stereotypes in movies
was a recurring theme the other evening in, you'll pardon
the expression, Manhattan. An assortment of historians, academics,
writers and others gathered in the City University's Graduate
Center, at Fifth Avenue and 34th Street, for a symposium held
under the aegis of the Gotham Center for New York City History.
Judging from the loud applause that one speaker received
simply for mentioning that he was from Brooklyn, it seemed
safe to assume that so were most of the 60 or so people in
the room. They were ecumenically inclined, though. They didn't
flinch when a few refugees from the Bronx made their presence
No one there suggested that moviemakers are forever trapped
in the dumb-but-adorable Brooklyn of, say, William Bendix
or Jackie Gleason. How could they have? Just look at hard-edged
recent films like "Girlfight," set in the Red Hook
housing projects, or "He Got Game," with a rough
Coney Island as the backdrop.
One academic, Amata Schneider-Ludorff, talked about the terror-coated
images of Brooklyn's Arab-Americans, rounded up en masse in
"The Siege" despite Denzel Washington's objections.
Another scholar, Wilbert Turner Jr., discussed race and neighborhood
identity as reflected in "Saturday Night Fever,"
"Do the Right Thing" and "Smoke."
Race, a man in the audience suggested, dominates popular
perceptions of the borough, especially for young people in
the age of hip-hop. "Brooklyn is black to them,"
he said. "It's not William Bendix anymore."
NOT so fast, others replied. Obviously, Brooklyn's complexion
has changed, quite literally. But race, they argued, may matter
less than class distinctions. "Brooklyn remains the home
of the proletariat," said Joseph Dorinson, a history
professor at Long Island University. "That's why it remains
frozen in movies and on television."
Professor Singer essentially agreed. In movies, Brooklyn
has long been portrayed as a place people want to leave behind,
he said. It is "the other" to Manhattan.
That image is "never going to go away," he said.
"There will be some variations, but it's eternally locked
in the film and popular imaginations."
Yet moviemakers still find new things to say about Brooklyn,
said Katherine Oliver, commissioner of the Mayor's Office
of Film, Theater and Broadcasting. Reached yesterday by phone,
she ticked off a batch of new films set in Williamsburg, Park
Slope, Brooklyn Heights and Brighton Beach.
It was certainly good to hear. Even Chester A. Riley, that
Brooklyn-born zhlub played long ago by William Bendix, would
have agreed. No way could he have responded to the news with
his usual line: "What a revoltin' development dis is."