US Release Date: 05-02-1990
Directed by: Uli Edel
- Stephen Lang, as
- Harry Black
- Jennifer Jason Leigh, as
- Peter Dobson, as
- Alexis Arquette, as
- Burt Young, as
- Big Joe
- Jerry Orbach, as
- Stephen Baldwin, as
- Sam Rockwell, as
- Ricki Lake as
Jennifer Jason Leigh in the role of her career.
As the tagline says, the novel “Last Exit to Brooklyn” shocked the world upon its publication in 1964. Hubert Shelby Jr. wrote an uncompromising portrait of a lower class neighborhood in Brooklyn during the early 1950’s; exposing, in brutally honest prose, such topics as street violence, drug use, homosexuality and gang rape. This book was the subject of an obscenity trial in England and was banned in Italy. It would not be made into a movie until 1989 and even then the screen version would be tamer than the written word.
The plot is several intertwining stories all set in one neighborhood near the Brooklyn waterfront. The lives of several characters intertwine and crisscross during the course of a local union strike. There is the loud-talking prostitute who spends a few days with a young soldier heading to war in Korea. There’s a closeted union worker who has rough and perfunctory sex with his wife. A young transvestite lusts after the bad boy leader of the local gang. In some ways it is that clichéd “Boy was my neighborhood tough” joke that comics have bandied about for decades. Only it is far too real to be funny.
The cast features several well known faces, including Jerry Orbach, Stephen Baldwin, Sam Rockwell, Alexis Arquette and Ricki Lake. Overall the acting is quite good. Jennifer Jason Leigh steals the picture and gives one of her best performances as the hooker Tralala. She’s outwardly tough as nails but her eyes reveal just how lost, fucked-up and sad this girl is. A young neighborhood boy, about fifteen, loves Tralala. She’s his first love. In his eyes she is all beauty, glamour and kindness. The final scene they share together is heart wrenching as we witness his loss of innocence in her arms. I won’t spoil it with details.
This movie also shows an aspect of pre-stonewall gay society. Although a really grim and pathetic side. Transvestites then had to worry about getting arrested just for appearing in public in drag. Naturally they were a part of the underside of the city. The only place they could get along to any degree. Last Exit to Brooklyn is the antithesis of the idea of the 1950’s as a carefree golden time in America. It is also that rarity. A great novel that became a great movie.
Stephen Lang in Last Exit to Brooklyn.
A line from Star Wars kept running through my head as I watched this movie. It's the one spoken by Obi-Wan Kenobi in reference to Mos Eisley spaceport and it goes, "You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy." As Patrick wrote, this is not the sunny 1950's America so often depicted on film and television. This is like lifting a rock on those times and seeing the dark things that lived underneath its surface. It's a difficult film to watch, but also one that is hard to look away from once it gets going.
There are few sympathetic characters in this story. Almost no one is truly happy and nearly everyone contributes to their own unhappiness through self-destructive behavior and the pursuit of personal demons. The Lieutenant who falls for Tralala is one of the few innocents in the story, along with the young boy who idolizes her. What they both have in common is that neither of them know the real Tralala. They see in her what they want to see in her. With no one to truly root for, all we can do is sit back and travel with these characters on their personal journeys through hell.
What's missing from this movie is a reason why. We are shown horrible scene after horrible scene of unhappy people in unhappy situations that gradually grow worse. The only glimmer of hope comes from the family and the newly married young couple. Their's is the closest the movie comes to a happy ending, if you can call it that. But to what end are we shown all of this dark madness? Nothing is learned and no redemption is possible or probable for most of the characters and certainly no hope is offered to the audience that they are even interested in finding such redemption.
The cast, I agree, is quite good. Jennifer Jason Leigh does excellent work as the whore without a heart of gold. Really though, there's not a bad performance in the bunch. Each of the cast brings an authenticity to their part that draws you into the cesspool of their character's lives.
Author Hubert Selby Jr., who has a cameo in the film as the driver who hits Georgette, clearly had a dark vision of life. He also wrote the "upbeat" novel of addiction, Requiem for a Dream. Both stories are uncompromising looks at the darker side of life. They're not the type of films you will want to watch over and over again, but they are compelling ones that are definitely worth watching at least once.
Tralala flirts with the neighborhood boy.
When I first saw Last Exit to Brooklyn, I had not the life experiences to fully grasp all that was going on with these deeply disturbed and morally vacant characters. Viewing it yesterday, I found most of them to be simply one dimensional with a single personality trait. The gang of boys is nothing more than a pack of stereotypical 1950’s street hoods. The leader Vinnie has a prison past and there is a suggestion that he had a gay fling with a transvestite. The transvestite is likewise one dimensional. All we know is that he is very feminine and is in love with Vinnie.
As Scott wrote, there are only two sympathetic characters. They are likewise one dimensional but they play important roles. The young neighborhood boy sees Tralala, as Patrick wrote, as something far greater than she sees herself. He does little throughout the film but stare longingly at her. He has one of my favorite lines though. When he walks in on his sister getting fitted for her wedding dress, their father tells her to cover up. The boy remarks, “I’ve seen her bush before.”
The Second Lieutenant who also falls under Tralala’s spell is poorly defined but like the boy, he serves a greater purpose in Tralala’s life. The soldier must know what kind of girl she is by her choice in clothing and the fact that they meet in a bar and they fuck their first night together. However, he also defends her and treats her with the kind of dignity that is completely foreign to her.
Harry is a very solid character. He has one important thing going for him. He is the steward for the local union and has money to spend because of it. He uses it to buy liquor to get the gang of boys to hang out with him. It is the one thing that makes him feel good about himself. He then has a poorly timed homosexual affair and his world falls apart. He loses his job and his gold digging lover. I like the line when the union boss finds out he has been wasting their money and asks, “Who the fuck do you think you are; Frank Sinatra?” The final scene of Harry looking at his sleeping wife and baby is the very definition of despair.
The one constant throughout Last Exit to Brooklyn is the feeling of hopelessness. Every character wants something but none of them get it, at least not for long. This is most obvious with Tralala, only she does not know what she wants until it is too late. The Second Lieutenant wants a girl he can think about while away but Tralala is only after his money. Likewise, the teenage boy has made her his dream girl but that is one dream that we know from the start will never come to pass.
Tralala is the one character in the entire film that has the greatest chance to leave this neighborhood without being in the custody of police. By the end of the film we see that possibility. After her soldier leaves, she is at first disappointed that he only gave her a love letter instead of cash. Later she visits a couple of bars where she starts to see herself as everyone else, except the soldier, sees her and she snaps. What she does is clinically insane, but it was therapeutically her hitting rock bottom. The neighborhood boy defending her was like an angel pulling her from a fire. We will never know what became of her but I believe that was the start of her new life. At least that is how I saw it.
Even though I better understood the characters this time around, I felt like I needed to bathe after watching Last Exit to Brooklyn. Viewing this film is like finding cum in your beer. You want to know how it got there but you sure as hell do not want to drink it.
Photos © Copyright Allied Filmmakers (1990)