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Hipster Holy Grail: Sheila Levine Is Dead and Living In New York (1975)

The Hipster Holy Grail is my ongoing quest to review an obscure movie before it becomes cool to talk about it. Good, bad, doesn't matter.  It just has to be at least 10 years old and have less than 1,000 ratings on IMDb. This week, I watched....

The Short Bit for People Who Don't Like to Read Reviews

If you can look past the overall datedness, obsolete gender politics, and more than a few questionable character choices, you'll find a terrific performance by Jeannie Berlin as the titular character in Sheila Levine is Dead and Living in New York.  Check it out if you have two hours to kill and you'd like to see a 1970s era "quirky introvert tries to figure shit out" romcom drama.

My Rating: 3.5 / 5

The Plot Summary

The film opens with Sheila Levine (Jeannie Berlin) driving into New York City with her mom.  Sheila is moving into an apartment with an aspiring actress / unapologetic gold-digger named Kate (Rebecca Diana Smith).  Sheila's mom is less than thrilled - aside from her humdrum background and the fact that the apartment building is a total dump, she's not even sure if Sheila has any kind of career plans.

But Sheila is undeterred.  Now that she's a college graduate, she's eager to find her way in the world and believes that NYC will be a haven of opportunity.  After shooing her mom away, Sheila sets about a rigorous cleaning of the apartment and finishes moving in.

Later, she and Kate catch up and Kate insists on taking Sheila to a club to meet some guys.  Sheila is reluctant to go because she doesn't know how to dance.  Kate tells her to pretend that she's just mopping a floor - since that's what she's been doing all day - and she'll look fine, because nobody actually cares what you're doing as long as you're moving.  This leads to the first of several scenes where Sheila dances like an idiot for far too long, leading you through the three stages of empathy: laughter, heartwarming admiration for her determination, and finally, awkward terror that she hasn't stopped yet.

Cut to a club.  Kate is dancing up a storm, but Sheila, ever the introvert, mills about awkwardly and takes a seat near the bar.  There she has a chance encounter with Sam Stoneman (Roy Scheider), a doctor who has just performed his first abortion.  Sam tipsily and angrily recounts the experience, booming that he will never do it again because every life is sacred.  He's about to start screaming at Sheila until he realizes that she has been timidly agreeing with everything he's been saying about abortion, and then he buys her a drink and invites her to the dance floor.

(Quick side note: this would make Sheila Levine an interesting double feature with Obvious Child, since both are romantic dramedies about awkward young Jewish women living in NYC who meet their love interest in a drunken stupor at a bar and whose relationships are kicked off with a terse conversation about abortion.  Sheila Levine obviously goes in a much more conservative direction.)

Sam makes fun of Sheila's shitty mop-dancing, and then invites her to go back to his place for some quiet time and conversation.  She agrees, and soon they're having sex.  Sheila relaxes in the cool, sensual aftermath and tells Sam that it was a new and amazing experience for her, and she's so happy he's in love with her... which Sam awkwardly sits up and goes, "Uh, wait a minute."  They have a stilted argument about whether the sex even had to mean anything, and then Sheila grabs her stuff and runs out into the night.

Sheila switches gears and decides to put some focus on her career.  She goes to a placement agency where her sole demand is that she not have to do any typing (wow, the '70s were a different time) and eventually she is matched up to Wa-Wa Records, a company that produces albums for kids.  Wa-Wa is a quirky and hectic little place where the employees regularly stop what they're doing whenever they hear an alarm ring, and then rush into a cramped studio booth to record a more-or-less improvised musical number.  Or something.  Y'know, it seems like a poor business model, but whatever, I won't question it.  The point is, the boss of Wa-Wa loves that Sheila has a college degree in education, so he hires her immediately.

Sheila comes back home to share the good news with Kate, but Kate's got problems of her own.  Apparently she has committed to a blind date, but she doesn't want to go on it now.  Oh, and there's the doorbell - her date is here!  What's a girl to do?

(Kate kinda sucks, by the way.  I get that she's an archetype and represents a repressed class of women from the pre-liberation era where finding a man to marry was basically the most acceptable option young ladies had for their lives, but even so, she's just a flat and uninteresting little harpy character.  I really hope that was the point or else it speaks volumes of ignorance.)

Anyway, it's time for Sheila to come to the rescue.  She agrees to go to the door and shoo the date away.  But wouldn't you know it it, the date is none other than Mr. Sam Stoneman!  Wow, New York sure is a small town.

Sam and Sheila have a stilted, but playful conversation that leads to her inviting him up to the kitchen to hang out for a bit, which then leads to him offering to cook dinner for her, which sets the stage for a date between the two of them.  Sheila goes into Kate's bedroom to concoct a scheme to help her escape the apartment without giving away the fact that she was trying to get rid of Sam, but as soon as Kate sees noted beefcake Roy Scheider, she drops all pretenses and starts flirting with him like a half-wrapped Christmas present.

Sheila moodily sulks and awkwardly waits on the sidelines to see where it's all going - I think part of her is just morbidly wondering if she's ever going to get dinner.  But when it becomes clear that Sam is into Kate's advances, Sheila leaves in a funk. Turns out she kinda sorta likes Sam after all.

There's a few more scenes here of this love triangle playing out, some of which are pretty funny.  But I'm going to skip all that and get to the next big part, which is when Sheila finds out that her younger sister is getting married.  This sets off a realization of her mortality and social failures, so Sheila temporarily moves back to her mother's house in Harrisburg, PA to resume the humdrum life she knows best.

It doesn't last long.  She briefly works a gig at a school, but she's fired when she tries to relate to some kids by telling an awkward anecdote about a time she wet her pants and the principal freaks out.  (Ha!  You 1970s types crack me up.  Back when I was teaching, I somehow got on a tangent with my students about inappropriate condom use and whether or not Paris Hilton was hot, and the only reason I got fired was because of budget cuts.)  After learning through the grapevine that Sam and Kate are going to get married, Sheila decides she's got to step up her game and try harder at the whole New York thing.

She goes back to the city and tries to reinvent herself as a fashionable bombshell, and this leads to a scene that I'm honestly not sure how to read.  Y'see, she dolls herself up in new clothes and a new haircut that look completely ridiculous and stops by her old apartment to visit Sam and tempt him her way with a really stupid new dance she's learned.  From my callous, naive young eyes, the joke is that Sheila looks like a fool.

But... uh... I mean, she also kinda just looks like Kate.  So... somebody who saw this as an adult in 1975 is going to have to set me straight.  Was she supposed to sincerely look like a reinvented woman, sexy and seductive and all that?  Or am I right that the joke is how ridiculous she looks because short-term trends in fashion normally don't take ridiculousness into account?

Whatever the meaning of that scene is, it ends with Sheila seeing a double bed in Sam and Kate's apartment, which drives home to her the point that they are, in fact, getting married.  Sheila realizes she's foolish to try to drive a wedge between them at this point, so she apologizes and leaves.

True to form, now that she's feeling rejected, she focuses on her career again - and guess what?  Not only was Wa-Wa Records happy to take her back, the boss listens to Sheila's pitch for a new series of kid's recordings and promotes her to producer so she can start putting them together right away.  Things are looking up!

Sheila bumps into Kate again later, but she's a horrible mess.  Kate's pregnant, which is the only reason that Sam proposed to her - but what Sam doesn't know is that the baby isn't his.  She wants an abortion, but when she mentioned the word to him before, Sam freaked out and gave her the speech he was going to give to Sheila back in the bar at the beginning of the movie.  Now she's not entirely sure what to do, because she knows she doesn't actually love Sam, and she realizes her options are limited.  She comes right out and says that she doesn't have any legitimate career options other than finding a nice man and marrying him.  It's a heartbreaking scene that comes out of nowhere, and Sheila caps it off with the perfect, "Yeah, this sucks for you, but I'm so full of schadenfreude right now" half-smirk.

Sam and Kate's relationship gets rockier until one afternoon when Sam goes to visit Sheila at work.  He has a bit of a heart-to-heart with her and helps her out a bit with her new project, and then later that same day he breaks off his engagement with Kate.  That evening, he goes to visit Sheila at home and picks up his heart-to-heart where he left off.  He gives a pretty typical romcom speech about how he used to avoid commitment because he was afraid of getting hurt, but he totally loves Sheila.  Then he asks her to marry him, and the camera pans out to the city to start the end credits.

What I Liked / Didn't Like

I'm going to bookend this by opening and closing with the best part of the movie, which is (by far) Jeannie Berlin.

The character herself is a great one, with a struggle that's perennially relevant.  It's a tale of loneliness and perseverance that appeals to dorks like me no matter what our age.  Just like Sheila, I too am an awkward idiot introvert who longed to live in the city out of a semi-vain hope that I could be part of something bigger and more spectacular than my dull life, and just like Sheila, I too have had any form of success only through a combination of self-respect and humility.  Berlin takes a solid character and runs with it expertly.

I fear I might oversell it, but you know what?  Who cares.  Berlin is simply incredible.  She wrenches every ounce of empathy she can possibly get out of each moment her character is on screen, and she does so with such beautiful nuance and grace that I'm baffled she wasn't even nominated for so much as a Golden Globe, or whatever the hell the "not-quite-an-Oscar" was in 1975.  This is the kind of performance that, if it happened today, would be considered career-making and would permanently lift somebody into the A list.  Why Berlin didn't go on to do anything between 1975 and 1990, I don't know.  (I'm going to guess she had a baby.  Which means Diane Keaton and Meryl Streep better have sent that baby some awfully nice birthday presents.)

Hang on a sec.  Going to see what Google says about this.

...okay, I'm back.  Seems like Sheila Levine was a borderline-infamous bomb when it came out, and critics in 1975 thought Berlin was hamming up her performance too much.  Huh.  What a bunch of morons.  I mean, I get why the movie would have been maligned - I'm going to get there shortly - but putting any ill will on the movie's one saving grace is stupid.

If you want to blame anybody, blame the guy in charge, who seems to have been doing all he could to sabotage it. I'm referring to Sidney J. Furie, the prolific and eclectic director best known for making Ladybugs, Superman IV, and previous HHG entry / megaturd The Rage.

Part of me feels bad for calling out a single individual like this because I don't want to sound like an asshole, but let's face it - the technical elements of this movie suck.  You can't have a movie look and feel this bad unless the director was sloppy.

It's poorly lit, for one.  It was made in the '70s, an era where dim lighting and various shades of brown and dark green were considered sexy - which means that if you were directing at the time, you better have put some goddamn lights in your interior sets or else everything looks drab and vaguely hellish.  The ambiguously dark sets give the movie a strange sense of depression and foreboding throughout that I highly doubt was intentional - especially since it continues well into the scenes where Sheila is getting her life on track and should be elated.

Pictured: A moment of levity.
Worse, the shot composition just isn't particularly interesting.  Everything is flat and two-dimensional and claustrophobic.  I'm not asking for much here - Sheila Levine is a low-key drama, so it's not like you really could do a whole lot with the framing without it being distracting.  I just want it to not look lazy.  Every scene just kinda feels like they walked into a room, put the camera on the tripod in the center, and said, "Fuck it, we're losing daylight.  Get to your markers!"

(Full disclosure: this happens to be my method, too.  I am not a good director.  There's a reason I don't make shorts any more, and it's not because I don't have time for it.)

The word I'm looking for is "lazy."  There's such a lackadaisical attitude toward everything.  Hell, even the soundtrack is basically just two songs repeated over and over.  First up is a swelling 1970s orchestral theme that plays any time Sheila is pensive, which I actually don't mind so much because it's the film's main theme and it should be repeated.  But there's no excuse for the second one, a half-wretched, half-catchy piece of pseudo-funk, pseudo-blues pop called "Love Me or Love People."

I am not exaggerating when I say that it is played no less than a dozen times.  It is quite literally the only song that plays whenever the movie needs diegetic music.  It's like every musician in the world died from a horrible music-related illness the week before the movie began, and somehow there's a huge copyright debacle preventing radio stations from playing anything else, so they got the janitor and some asshole off the street to come into a booth and scream "Love me or LOOOOOOOOVEE people WHOYOUGONNALOVE?!" into a microphone for thirty seconds so they could fill in all the dead air.

Fuck this song, is what I'm saying.  It was kinda funny and catchy the first time, but not after two hours.  Especially not when you're trying to sell it to me as a crux upon which Sheila's attempts at personal transformation might hang.

Shots linger for far too long, the editing is clumsy, and there is overall an unnatural attitude toward the human experience that comes across in the awkward silences that follow any admission of genuine emotion - all of which were complaints of mine about The Rage.  Really, I should be telling you how bad this movie is.

...except that Jeannie Berlin is really, really good in it.  Too bad critics of the 1970s didn't agree.  (Like, what was the problem, guys?  Did quirk not exist before 1989?  And this is the same country that made Liberace famous?)

She single-handedly takes this from being a rightly forgotten bit of dreary melodrama and turns it into a captivating character piece about somebody whose social ineptitude ranks them among the most charming protagonists of all time.  The fact that you can root for Sheila amid all the drab and weirdness is telling.

Roy Scheider deserves a bit of a special mention, too.  It's not one of his better performances, but he works well off of Berlin and he always finds a way to complement her nuance with the exact right form of cold stare or sarcastic leer.

I wish somebody could go back in time and make this exact same movie with all the same cast and crew, but just replace the director and see what happens.  Hell, get another Sidney.  What was Lumet doing at the time?  Oh, Dog Day Afternoon?  Shit.  Well, they coulda made Sheila Levine in 1976.  It woulda been fine.

How Much Hipster Cred Is It Worth?

First up, the obscurity bonus: 40 points for having under 200 ratings on IMDb.

Pedigree bonuses?  Well, I think I gave one to Furie back when I reviewed The Rage, so it would only be fair that I give it to him again this time.  But to hell with that.  You screw up a movie this badly, I can't give you hipster cred no matter how kitschy The Quest for Peace was.

Actually, you know what will get a bonus, as much as I hate to admit it?  How about "Love Me or Love People?"  It's a hooooooorrible song (mainly just because of its repetition), but it's also a perfect little time capsule of 1970s pop that will draw hipsters like flies to honey.  That's worth 10 points.

I'll give it another 10 because of Berlin's performance, plus the fact that she was in The Heartbreak Kid and you can name drop this movie to one-up anybody who talks about that movie (especially if you mention it as being the follow-up that killed her career, but which you think is even better than THK).  Finally, I'll give it a partial recommendation bonus of 15 points - not the full 30 because I think the film is technically not very good, but partial credit nevertheless.

That all adds up to a total of 75 hipster cred out of a possible 100.

Where You Can Watch

Fortunately, Paramount was nice enough to release this one on Youtube as part of their Vault channel, so you can (legally) watch this online completely for free.