Oscar History
Welcome

The Film Experience™ was created by Nathaniel R. Gemini, Cinephile, Actressexual. All material herein is written and copyrighted by Nathaniel or a member of our team as noted.

Powered by Squarespace
Don't Miss This!
Comment Fun

Comment(s) Du Jour
Best Actress in Miniseries

"A big factor is "are the voters watching the entire season of these shows?" From my bubble everyone watched Big Little Lies and Feud in its entirety - and in real time." - Ellsworth

"I want Kidman to win and I think she probably will unless vote splitting costs her." -Matt

"What excites me most about this category is that the Emmys, unlike the Globes, don't necessarily care who the biggest name is" - Jakey

What'cha Looking For?
Interviews

 

Jerome Reybaud Director
(4 Days in France)
Emmanuelle Devos Actress
(Retrospective)
Nicholas Galitzine Actor
(Handsome Devil)
James Ivory Director
(Maurice Restoraton)
Betty Buckley Actress
(Split)

Keep TFE Strong

We're looking for 500 Patron Saints!

IF YOU READ THE SITE DAILY, PLEASE BE ONE BY DONATING. 
Your suscription dimes make an enormous difference to The Film Experience in terms of stability and budget to dream bigger. Consider...

I ♥ The Film Experience

THANKS IN ADVANCE

Subscribe
« This Comment Thread is NOT Going to Be Ignored | Main | Amir's TIFF Roundup, Pt 1: The Bad and The Ugly »
Thursday
Sep192013

Movie Teachers: "Fame" (1980)

Back to School Month + 1980 Retrospective- StinkyLulu doubles up for Fame (1980). A partial version of this article first appeared at StinkyLulu in 2007

 

When I was a wee lil Stinky, I watched the original Fame over and over and over again. 'Twas my movie. And possibly because I watched the film so many dang times, the starkly human performances by the actresses playing teachers in the film burrowed deep into my consciousness. I’m not just talking about Debbie Allen’s legendary cameo. Mostly, I’m thinking especially of Anne Meara as Mrs. Sherwood and Joanna Merlin as Miss Berg. 

The roles of Sherwood and Miss Berg are quintessential “actressing at the edges” sorts of parts. Each is relevant to the film’s dramatic arc only insofar as she amplifies the narrative of one of Fame’s principal characters. As the language arts teacher, Meara’s Sherwood is Leroy’s obstacle, while Merlin’s Miss Berg is the ballet teacher who makes Lisa’s life hell. In the student-centric emotional swirl of Fame, Meara’s Sherwood and Merlin’s Miss Berg are indeed the hard-ass battle-axes who appear to have nothing better to do than to torment their students. Merlin’s Miss Berg permits the languid Lisa no slack, and Meara’s Sherwood refuses to buckle, even when Leroy explodes in a kinetic blaze of profanity and violence. 

But Fame, to its credit, gives both Meara and Merlin just enough room to be human. For Merlin, the kicker comes when she calls Lisa to her office to cut the young dancer from the program. With measured, unflinching firmness (you can almost tell that Merlin paid the bills by being Harold Prince’s casting director for much of the 1970s), Merlin’s Miss Berg conveys in no uncertain terms that there has no future as a dancer in the department or, in all likelihood, beyond. Merlin’s Miss Berg is brutal in her honesty, deflecting Lisa’s promises and pleas as if she’s waving away flies. Yet, when she opens the door to dismiss Lisa, her eyes brim with a glint of emotion, until she wilts — just that little bit — against the door upon Lisa’s exit.

Merlin in "Fame"

Meara’s moment comes when Leroy (suddenly terrified that his grade in English might actually be important now that his invitation to join a major dance company is contingent on his successful graduation from high school) seeks Sherwood out at the hospital where her husband is undergoing some unnamed "serious" procedure. Meara's Sherwood is at first firm but dismissive when faced with this self-involved student come, to the hospital, for a little bit of friendly grade grubbing. Then when Leroy pushes, accusing her of having it in for him, Meara's Sherwood explodes with sheer, agonizing fury. Her rebuttal ("Don't you kids ever think of anyone but yourself!?) stops Leroy cold, allowing him to grow up a little and to show Sherwood a quiet gesture of empathy and consideration.

In most ways, Meara's Sherwood and Merlin’s Miss Berg are thanklessly supporting performances. Everything each does is in support of Leroy’s/Lisa’s character arc. But Meara and Merlin mine every moment for its depth, humanity and humor. (The looks Merlin gives Debbie Allen during Leroy’s audition. The flash of fear that ripples Meara’s stern facade when Leroy physically erupts. Merlin’s way of whispering her true feelings, both snarky and vulnerable, under her breath. Meara’s heart buckling devastation when Leroy tears into Sherwood with the oblique epithet "You people...”) Each line, gesture and sideways glance conveys the simple fact that this woman is really good at her job and that Leroy/Lisa is but one of her more difficult pupils. Neither is a saintly superteacher. Neither is an inhuman gorgon. They are both simply educators working in the NYC public school system, trying to get through another day.

Meara in FAME

Indeed, I will be ever grateful to Anne Meara and Joanna Merlin for crafting these teacher characters so intelligently, so generously, so humanely -- and, in so doing, for also teaching little StinkyLulu how much was to be learned from all the actresses not only at the edges of Fame but also all those other actresses at the edges of fame itself.

 

previously on back to school...
History Lessons from Half Nelson, The Breakfast Club when you're too young for it

PrintView Printer Friendly Version

EmailEmail Article to Friend

Reader Comments (5)

Great post. And with all due respect to Meara, three words come to mind: Carol Mayo Jenkins. As the TV series Sherwood, her imperiousness and diction were and are a delight.

September 19, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterDave

where's the sweat, lisa?

September 19, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterpar3182

"Neither is a saintly superteacher. Neither is an the inhuman gorgon. They are both simply educators working in the NYC public school system, trying to get through another day."

THIS. A thousand times this. It's one of the reasons why I love Fame.

September 19, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterdenny

DAVE: I liked Carole Mayo Jenkins fine but just look at what the teevee show did to Miss Berg!
PAR: She's just a bitch // She hates ME.
DENNY: Thanks.

September 19, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterStinkyLulu

I've been teaching for the past 10 years, and have about had my fill of saintly-teacher movies that only seem to have one class, and that are single-handedly going to "save" all of the kids (usually non-white kids, to boot) through sheer charisma and dogged determination. And there are definitely administrators out there who are only interested in hiring Mary Poppins--they "expect almost all discipline issues to be handled inside the classroom." It's nice to be reminded of teachers who are human--they fail, they cry, they may occasionally snap at kids, but they keep coming back for more because they're committed to the job. (I also really like Marsha Mason's frazzled English teacher in "Max Dugan Returns" and whomever played that cool teacher who helps Chris Makepeace in "My Bodyguard.")

September 20, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterDback

PostPost a New Comment

Enter your information below to add a new comment.

My response is on my own website »
Author Email (optional):
Author URL (optional):
Post:
 
Some HTML allowed: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <code> <em> <i> <strike> <strong>