Three Old Working Guys
The Actor, the Judge and the Jazzer
“Oh it’s a long, long time from May to December
But the days grow short when you reach September.”
September Song by Kurt Weill
Performed by Gene DiNovi (Pianist/singer/composer Age 91)
It’s time to write Memoirs now
Days unknown in
Numbers quickly shrinking
It’s time to write while mind retains
Mineable dreams and fears
Of childhood, youth, age
by Jack B Weinstein (US Federal Judge/Poet – Age 98)
“I know I may be old, but I’m strong and healthy,
because in my youth I never drank nor lived recklessly.
..My old age is like a blustery winter: cold, but kindly.”
“As You Like it” by William Shakespeare
Recited by Norman Lloyd (Actor, Age 105)
There seems to be no bounds to the human spirit.
Life force lingers within each of us as long as the flame can flicker.
It hangs on tenaciously. Defiantly. Until it is extinguished.
Gene di Novi, Jack B Weinstein and Norman Lloyd have embraced their life passions whole-heartedly. Each of them is sustained by family, the loves of their lives (each has suffered the loss of a soulmate), but perhaps more than anything, what has driven them is their unyielding passion/obsession for their chosen profession. They do what they love and love what they do, and they continue to do that thing even at this stage of life in 2019. Gene still performs and composes brilliantly at 91 – his solo sets last a gruelling three hours at a go. Seven years older than Gene, Jack maintains a full docket as a district Federal Judge and continues to oversee some of the most consequential law cases in the country. Seven years older than Jack, Norman proudly brandishes his SAG (Screen Guild of America) card as he has for the last 87 years, forever awaiting the next phone call, the next role. Though he hasn’t actually appeared in a feature film since he was 100, as the damned US insurance companies stay the hands of the studios with fears of death coverage. But Norman believes that there must be some adventurous producer who would love to take a chance on an actor who was coveted by Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock; an actor who was so good that he could afford to turn down the role that he was offered in Citizen Kane!
The collective lives of the Actor, the Judge and the Jazzer, closely intertwined with some of the most famous and infamous names of the 20th century – some of their closest associates and intimate friends: John F Kennedy, John Coltrane, Charlie Chaplin, Charlie Parker, Orson Welles, Lyndon B. Johnson, Angela Lansbury, Judy Garland, Benny Goodman, Alfred Hitchcock, Bertolt Brecht, Lena Horne, Judy Garland, John Coltrane, Leslie Caron, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Robin Williams
Each of these forces of nature is coincidentally linked to one another. All have roots in 1910’s/1920’s New York where Jazzer Gene was born (though he now resides in Toronto), where Actor Norman got his start (before his move to Hollywood in the 40’s) and where Judge Jack continues to live and work. The Judge got acting roles on Broadway as a child even before the Actor did. Two of the men raged against fascism during WWII – the Judge as a submarine commander and the Actor as an agitator on radio and in theatre. As a boy, the Jazzer was powerfully affected by the Actor’s anti-Hitler radio broadcasts. The Actor was blacklisted by the House Committee of Un-American Activities, while the Judge’s first job as a young lawyer was to bring down HUAC by proving its unconstitutionality. The Jazzer excelled at the exquisite music of the American Songbook to which the Actor danced with his wife, and the Judge wooed his wife-to-be Evelyn (my aunt) at a club in which the Jazzer played. That music became the soundtrack to the three men’s lives and it will be to this film.
This film is very personal to me. The three subjects occupy my thoughts constantly. I am profoundly inspired by their simultaneous youthful spirit and their timeless wisdom. By their strength/power and vulnerability/fragility. I’ve known one of them for sixteen years - his singing while playing the piano moves me to my core; I’ve known one for twenty-five years and his persona and anecdotes fill me with awe and delight; and the other I’ve known for my entire life – I have loved my uncle deeply and his courageousness fills me with a pride beyond words. Our cameras will follow each of them, now residing in Toronto, Los Angeles and New York as they get through their day. Each of them rise very early and retire late. We will follow their routine, perhaps with two crews per subject just to keep up. Their minds sharp, their imaginations leap, and their powerful sense of humanity are astounding. Activist Judge Jack confesses that he had recently considered retiring or at least slowing down, but says, “I can’t. As long as Trump is in the White House I need to be there to help balance things out. I may even be asked to pass sentence on him while he’s in office or afterwards, so I need to stick around.” No wonder his former student, Ruth Bader Ginsburg calls him, “The Indomitable Jack Weinstein”. Like Jack, Norman, lives very much in the present tense but aware of the warning signs of the past, “You may not be aware of this, but the country has never swung so much to the right. We are far beyond anything we knew during the McCarthy era. Even though I and so many of my colleagues were destroyed or nearly destroyed by the American Fascists. And it’s not just the US – it’s everywhere.”
We will see the Judge in the court room as he tries a greedy corporate representative, or a Mafia Chief, or an angry plaintiff from the NRA – these are the typical cases that land in this Judge’s court. He will describe his latest decisions around the need for diversity and gender equality in the courts. Or his life-long pursuit to end incarceration racism – issues that propelled him to be considered by Robert Kennedy for Supreme Court Justice. The assassination of his friend altered Jack’s fate and career though he feels that as a Brooklyn circuit Justice, his unilateral decisions are far more effective than had he been part of the politicized Supreme Court tribunal.
We will see the Actor speak of his roles of the past and will intercut with the scenes for which he became known and revered. In 1940, Alfred Hitchcock had Norman fall to his death from the Statue of Liberty in “Saboteur”. Norman figures he has died at least 67 times for his art so he has “something to say about death!”
And the Jazzer will compose at the piano as we watch. Powerful music that he will eventually hand out to a myriad of instruments. We will watch him at his monthly gig at Toronto’s Old Mill Restaurant where he reminisces and plays music to which he was closely connected like no other living soul. Then he’ll sing at the piano. He doesn’t mean to make you weep, but his rendition of “Someone To Watch Over Me” by Gershwin or “Speak Low” by Weill with his quivery 91 year old voice is at once uplifting and heartbreaking.
Each of the subjects will address the camera directly as they get on with the routine of their day. Each has a raging and at times wicked sense of humour. They will reflect on the past – memories that extend seventy, eighty, ninety, one hundred years back. They will also speak of living in the present because each of them is very connected – intellectually, politically and even technologically. They see the pitfalls of the cyberage, of the internet, of the dangers of alienation and hatemongering that goes on. The Jazzer tries to cure the “21st century malaise” with music; the Judge has had to pass judgements to curb the toxins of contemporary society, and The Actor has very recently decided to “get off the grid”. He’s closed all his social media accounts and has even decided not to fix his broken laptop! “Life is too short” he says, sardonically.
Norman: “My secret is attitude. Always finding something positive – always finding something amusing in people. But I work at staying young: I ride my [stationery] bike for half an hour every day. I watch every film being considered for the Oscars. I like what I see and where motion pictures are going. I do, however feel that the power of the star has diminished. There are no more Carole Lombards.” he says of his favourite actress who died in a plane crash 77 years ago! “Mostly I surround myself with friends – nearly all of them younger than me”, he says with a sly wink. “Will I ever retire? Impossible! I’ve loved my continued journey too much– my days with Charlie Chaplin and Orson and Hitch to the hysterical time with “little” Amy Schumer!”
Jack: “I swim in my pool every morning as soon as I wake up and then I walk along my property on Long Island before I’m picked up to go to court – I walk among the Canadian geese and stare out at the bay, in the distance, the Washington Bridge…. This is my ritual every dawn before I am driven to court. Most of my court preparation and most of my decisions are written in the back of the car – Thank God for New York traffic jams! To keep my mind young, I attend the opera and take poetry classes. The poems are a means of personal expression, not to mention, I think I may have finally found a new profession!”, he chuckles but his face clouds over, “but life also is infused with melancholy. I lost Evie, my beautiful, brilliant wife of 68 years and I slumped. The loneliness was unbearable. I remarried at 92. Susan is a dream come true.”
Gene: “To replenish myself I get out to my cottage in Bracebridge with my family – we’ve had it forever. My favourite piano is there. It’s there where I dream of all the old beautiful songs that I’ve played over the last 80 years, and of the people I played them with – naturally, all gone. And then I compose afresh. Music that moves me. I don’t think in terms of hits, but in terms of the lifeforce that comes from that process of plucking music from the air. Jazz is life – life is jazz. We improvise from the moment of our first breath to our last gasp. It is something beautiful. Sure my colleagues are gone but that music is forever in the air.”
This is a film about memories and reflection; about joy and sadness, about the regrets that comes with singlemindedness. It suggests that our obsessions give us a reason to be and how without them we might waste away and perish. These remarkable subjects are testament to that. But along the way, each of them has made sacrifices and they will speak of regrets. This is something with which we can all identify and perhaps more today than ever. We will learn that there are no easy answers, but these powerful subjects – this Actor, this Judge and this Jazzer, will at least raise those essential questions.