September 29, 2005
‘Call Waiting’ Rings Emotional Bell
There's pain and then there's the big pain.
Pain is what happens in a regular life -- the predictable illnesses, disappointments and aggravations. The big pain is something like the Holocaust and the aftermath of surviving it.
The larger pain makes the regular mode of suffering seem unworthy, even whiny.
Coming to terms with someone else's anguish is one subject of "Call Waiting," a new film about the bedridden daughter of Holocaust survivors. The film stars Caroline Aaron, who recreates her successful turn from the stage version. Aaron can relate to the material, both because she is Jewish and because her family has its own significant pain.
"It's odd how life morphs into art," Aaron said.
In the film based on Dori Fram's play, the fictional Judy Baxter (played by Aaron) is paralyzed not only by her excruciating bladder disease, but also by her inability to write her parents' Holocaust story. There's also a wartime secret that threatens Baxter's relationship with her sister.
"So she represses her feelings, which makes her ill," said playwright Fram, who also wrote the movie.
Aaron performed the hilarious, poignant play to rave reviews in 1994 and 2001. And she could personally identify with her character's belief that as the daughter of Holocaust survivors, her own suffering doesn't count.
Aaron's late mother was a survivor of another sort. A Virginia civil rights activist, she had to endure cross-burnings on her front lawn and, more tragically, the loss of her husband and both parents at the age of 38.
"You don't feel entitled to your pain when you come from the big pain," Aaron said.
Aaron also related to the movie character's sibling rivalry, because she, too, had a difficult relationship with a strong-willed older sister, Josie Abady -- a prominent director. Abady resisted employing her sister because they were related.
"I wanted nepotism to be on my side, but it was not," Aaron said.
Her resentments melted away when Abady was diagnosed with terminal cancer some years ago.
"I realized I didn't have time for sibling rivalry, because the luxury of growing old together was off the table," she said.
The Los Angeles-based actress often flew to New York to spend time with her sister, attending every medical procedure and caring for Abady in the months before her death in May 2003.
She'd already been cast for the film version of the play, but had second thoughts after her sister died, because the material hit so close to home. Aaron was uncertain about whether she wanted to proceed when she met with director Jodi Binstock ("Boy Meets World") and producers Dan Bucatinsky ("All Over the Guy") and Don Roos ("The Opposite of Sex").
"I thought the film would either give me a safe, constructive place to express my sorrow, or it would expand it into a gaping wound," she said.
In the end, Aaron decided to use her anguish. She believed her performance would be more convincing, because she connected to the material in a new way: "For the first time, I understood what it meant for Judy to challenge her sister and risk losing her forever," she said. "I knew the stakes, and it heightened and intensified my work."
The 48-year-old Aaron ("Crimes and Misdemeanors" and "Bounce") recently discussed the movie -- which has won awards on the festival circuit -- in her homey Hancock Park living room, surrounded by photographs of Abady and other family members. She exudes the same manic Jewish humor and melodramatic flair as her character, and like her character, also seems addicted to the phone, cocking her head each time the answering machine picked up (which it did four times in a half hour).
Dressed in black sweats and heavy silver jewelry, she recalled how she was startled when the producers said they wanted to shoot "Call Waiting" as a one-person movie. She had assumed that they would hire other actors to portray the characters on the other side of her character's phone conversations. After all, one-person films are rare (one example is Robert Altman's acclaimed "Secret Honor" (1984) starring Philip Baker Hall as Richard Nixon).
The producers believed such a movie would work, because "Caroline's conversations in the play are so vivid, it feels more like a show with a dozen characters," producer Roos said. Even so, the producers planned to make the monologue more cinematic by adding several scenes with one new character, who also is played by Aaron.
The new character is "desperately afraid to admit she's needed by others, while Aaron's character is scared to death to acknowledge that she needs her sister," producer Bucatinsky said.
For Aaron -- who often talks about how much she misses Abady -- the film did not provide any kind of emotional catharsis.
"I don't feel like I'll ever completely work through the loss of my sister," she said. "But at least the movie gave me a safe place in which to express those feelings."
"Call Waiting" screens Oct. 5 at the Arpa International Film Festival. Other Arpa Jewish films include the documentaries "Between Two Worlds," about a Jewish World War II pilot, and "American Holocaust," which draws parallels between the Nazi and Native American genocides. For information, go to www.affma.org
"Call Waiting" will also screen Oct. 7 at the Majestic Crest Theater in Westwood: www.westwoodfilmfestival.com.