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.
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.
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