Grosbard received a three-second acknowledgment in the necrology that aired on the Oscars this past Sunday, but I think he’s deserving of far more than that. I never saw any of his stage productions, but four of his seven films have stuck with me for many years, thanks to their emotional honesty (he was quoted as saying the theme he sought in the works he directed was “human behavior in crisis”) and absolutely superb acting by his stars.
Born Israel Grosbard in Belgium (Ulu was a nickname his brother gave him), he moved with his family to Havana in 1942 to flee the Nazis. He worked as a diamond cutter (!) in Cuba, after which his family moved to America, where he studied at the University of Chicago and the Yale School of Drama, before joining the U.S. Army (he became a U.S. citizen in ’54).
Grosbard’s first film credits were as an uncredited assistant director on a trio of early Sixties classic dramas, The Hustler, Splendor in the Grass, and The Miracle Worker.
But his most accessible legacy for most of us are his films. His debut, The Subject Was Roses (1968) is a gorgeous piece that, although it is primarily a filmed play, is a marvelous reflection on father-son difficulties that features three perfect performances by Jack Albertson, Patricia Neal, and a young Martin Sheen.
His next four films all featured brilliant lead work by top-notch actors in their prime — two with Dustin Hoffman (Who is Harry Kellerman and Why Is He Saying Those Terrible Things About Me? (1971) and Straight Time (1978)) and two with Robert De Niro (True Confessions (1981) and Falling in Love (1984)).
Georgia came during a very long run of absolutely exemplary performances by Jennifer Jason Leigh, and it is definitely one of her finest moments onscreen. The films was scripted by her mother, Barbara Turner, and reworks a classic dilemma — the “good” sibling vs. the “bad” one — in a very intelligent way, focusing on the fact that the wholesome sib (Mare Winningham) has a beautiful singing voice but seems to have little passion for her music, whereas her drug-addicted sister (JJL) feels music to her very core, but is not a very tuneful singer.
And then there is Harry Kellerman…, a wildly underrated masterwork from the early Seventies that was out briefly on VHS, but is now “MIA” in the U.S. The film boasted the only original screenplay by the great Herb Gardner (whose other scripts were adaptations of his plays), its source being a Gardner short story that was anthologized in 1968.
These days the film is best remembered (if at all) for its Shel Silverstein soundtrack, written for Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show. What makes it so unforgettable, though — besides its slips from reality to fantasy and back again — is its magnificent dialogue by Gardner. No scene better encapsulates that than the showcase moment for the absolutely perfect Barbara Harris.
He also spoke with great fondness of the sequence below, noting that much of it is a first take for Harris — the fact that Hoffman’s head is in frame in certain shots is not an “artistic effect,” but rather Grosbard making use of her first, gorgeous rendition of the material.
Harry Kellerman… was thought of as bewildering and self-indulgent. It certainly isn’t linear, but with Gardner, Grosbard, Silverstein, and an absolutely sterling cast, it remains a must-see picture that is pretty hard to see. Thus, I offer Harris’s absolutely moving and beguiling sequence in its entirety (she appears in a few more short scenes, but is then called by “Kellerman” and her relationship with Georgie is ended):