July 22, 2004
Ode to a Great ‘Uncle’
Pearl Gluck sought her Chasidic forbears in "Divan"; Nathaniel Kahn pursued his estranged father in "My Architect," and now Lindsay Crystal unearths family stories in "My Uncle Berns," a quirky portrait of her wildly eccentric great-uncle.
For the 26-year-old director -- and daughter of Billy Crystal -- the subject isn't surprising.
"Family is everything to us," she said recently at her father's Beverly Hills office.
Seated next to the computer where she finished editing "Berns," she said she practically grew up on dad's sets and played his daughter in both "City Slickers" films. She noted the passion with which he reunited with Russian relatives for his TV special, "Midnight Train to Moscow," and commissioned 2003's Museum of Tolerance exhibit, "Finding Our Family, Finding Ourselves."
His hunger for family comes, in part, because when he was 15, his father, Jack, died of a heart attack.
"It was a subject we didn't really talk about, because it was so painful," his daughter said.
Then, in 2001, his mother died and Uncle Berns had to be evacuated from a nursing home two blocks from Ground Zero.
"I suddenly realized that Berns was almost the only relative left from that generation, and if I didn't capture his stories, they would be gone," Lindsay Crystal said.
So the NYU film school graduate focused her digital camera on Berns, an impish artist and jokester who wore outlandish masks to Thanksgiving celebrations, among other stunts.
"My initial intent was just to create a family document," she said. But then she learned of the death of his sister, in his arms, when he was 14; his horrific experiences aboard a torpedoed World War II transport ship; the encounter with Gen. Eisenhower that turned him into an artist, and how he used laughter to heal the family after Jack Crystal's death.
"He was the uncle you could play with," as Billy Crystal says in the film. "He was hats, coats, costumes, masks, wigs. I always felt he was incredibly responsible for me becoming a performer."
Lindsay Crystal credits her father, executive producer of "Berns," for helping to mentor her directorial debut, which he calls "a great love story between a young woman and her 88-year-old uncle."
It's also Lindsay's valentine to her father: "It's a way for me to honor our family," she said.
The film airs Aug. 5 at 7:30 p.m. on HBO. Additional airtimes include: Aug. 8 at 11 a.m.; Aug. 13 at 11:30 a.m.; Aug. 17at 2:30 p.m.; and Aug 21 at 8 a.m.