You don’t have to have been adopted by your own brother to develop a sharp eye for family madness, but in Tamara Jenkins’ case, it sure has helped. Her heavily autobiographical 1998 cult hit, Slums of Beverly Hills, offered a fictionalized version of the writer-director’s childhood, in which she and three siblings were shunted by their whacked-out father from one decrepit 90210 address to another in pursuit of quality public schooling. When the family fell apart and Jenkins became, by her own account, a “lost-soul teenager,” her 25-year-old brother assumed legal guardianship of Jenkins and her younger brother, raising them in Harvard student housing while completing his doctorate. Coming almost 10 years after Slums of Beverly Hills — a decade Jenkins, speaking over breakfast at Chateau Marmont, refers to as her “Bermuda Triangle period,” when one project after another fell through — her new movie, The Savages, mines not the domestic reconfiguration of Jenkins’ teens but a difficult time in her early 30s, when she saw both her grandmother and her father succumb to senility. Jenkins’ mother, formerly a hat-check girl in her husband’s Philadelphia strip clubs (“She called herself a seating hostess,” the director says wickedly), was pretty much out of the picture early on, and like Slums, The Savages is about siblings trying to rise to the occasion of family crisis — in this case, a middle-aged, walking-wounded brother and sister (played by Laura Linney and Philip Seymour Hoffman) whose domineering father gets thrown out of his retirement community for smearing his own feces on the bathroom walls. During the year that it took her to write the screenplay, Jenkins read Bruno Bettelheim’s essay on fairy tales, The Uses of Enchantment, and she drew on his analysis of Hansel and Gretel as lost children rejected by their parents and wandering through the dark forest that introduces them to mortality even as it prompts them to “individuation,” also known as growing up.
Among Jenkins’ other literary sources, from the groaning shelves of senior-care self-help manuals, were Sherwin Nuland’s How We Die and the rather less philosophical Elder Care for Dummies, an incongruous mix that’s reflected in The Savages’ adroit weave of antic outrage with wistful longing for emotional completeness. A born provocateur, Jenkins perfected this tonal blend doing performance pieces about her family in Cambridge, Massachusetts, fringe theaters during the 1970s. At 45, Jenkins, whose mixed heritage (Italian peasants from Abruzzi on one side, Lithuanian Jews on the other) shows in her lustrous black hair, emerald-green eyes and magisterially curved nose, is voluble, articulate and every bit as tartly funny as you’d expect from someone who sees hilarity in what was, by any yardstick, a bizarre childhood. Whatever else was lacking in Jenkins’ upbringing, though, it wasn’t cultivation: Her three brothers, like Hoffman’s character in The Savages, are all college professors, while Linney’s neurotically overcompensating sister is a failing playwright who tries to upstage her morose brother by laying false claim to a Guggenheim grant both of them covet.
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Jenkins remains very close to her own brothers and insists that, unlike the Savages, they don’t quarrel much. But they share “the dark humor of siblings” who have been through hell together, and though The Savages is “highly fictionalized,” Jenkins concedes that “at some point, I realized that I had made a movie about this needy woman dealing with all these different men, who are based on all the men in my life — my husband [she is married to Jim Taylor, Alexander Payne’s writing partner and, with Payne, an executive producer on The Savages], my brothers, my ex-boyfriends. All blunt, brutal realists who wear their inexpressiveness as armor for their inner vulnerability.” To her, Jon and Wendy Savage are emblematic of the denial of death in American culture — people so busy with funerals and BlackBerrys and all the rest of the delaying tactics with which we ward off reflection that they give themselves no time to grieve. Yet if The Savages is in many ways a dark vision of what we do to our elders, shoving them from one draconian, institutionalized “solution” to the next until they end up on the top floor in the sky, the movie has its euphoric interludes — “many of them brought on by pharmaceuticals,” says Jenkins with satisfaction. And it ends on a note of tentative hope — the hard-won, provisional optimism of a director who knows from lemons, and keeps brewing them into lemonade, with a kick.