BEST BOY, 1979
Cast: Zero Mostel, Philip Wohl, Christine O'Connor, Frances Reiss
Portrait of a family in transition: a mother, a father, and their son, their "best boy." Pearl and Max Wohl live in Queens with Philly, their cheerful, engaging, and mentally-disabled son. For 50 years Pearl and Max have provided a loving home for Philly, but they're aging, Max is ailing, and they must figure out what's to happen to Philly when they can no longer care for him. Are there options besides an institution? Philly's cousin is Ira Wohl, whose camera follows the family as Philly takes steps into the wider world.
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REVIEW: In today’s seemingly more accepting world, it becomes harder to remember a time when tolerance was not so expected. For anyone who was different, racially, religiously or otherwise, life could be hell. One group that had to endure years of neglect and abuse were the mentally handicapped. Often misunderstood, they were commonly thrown into sanitariums, given electro-shock treatments or, worst of all, lobotomized. Beginning in the late 1960s with the founding of the Special Olympics by President Kennedy’s sister Eunice Kennedy Shriver in response to her own mentally challenged sister having been lobotomized years earlier, things began to change for the better, though they obviously did not change overnight. In the 70s, a filmmaker named Ira Wohl made a documentary about his handicapped cousin, Philly, chronically his struggle to become self reliant when his parents became too old and enfeebled to care for him any longer. The resulting film, Best Boy, shot over three years, was instrumental in helping to change American society’s impressions of the mentally handicapped.
While Best Boy is, on the surface, about a man finally finding the strength to become his own person, the film has deeper implications which have allowed it to rise above other documentaries on the same subject. The film is especially warm toward Philly, but is also very intimate in certain respects; there is never a feeling that Philly or any of his family members are being anything but genuine. This most likely can be attributed to the fact that the director is a member of the family, allowing them to feel comfortable enough to open up. Philly’s mother, Pearl, is resistant to Philly learning to live without her; she acknowledges that she will not be there forever, but also finds it hard to concede to living alone, especially after the death of her husband, Max, who passes away during the making of the film. As he begins to develop, she comes to realize that she needs Philly more than he needs her. Pearl passes away six months after Philly enters the home.
The theme of mortality is impossible to get away from in this film. Not only does Max pass away, but there is a lot of mention of Philly’s brother, Honey, who died only a few years before. When asked how he feels about Honey’s death, Philly reacts like a child would; he knows that Honey is dead, but does he fully understand what that means? When told of his father’s death, Philly has almost no reaction. It is just a simple fact to him: Daddy was here, now he is not.
Despite the overarching theme of life and death, the film is in no way depressing. As we watch Philly grow and have new experiences, the audience learns to care for him as his cousin obviously does. Two highlights are when Ira takes him to the zoo, the first time he is allowed to go out without his parents. The second is when Ira takes Philly to see the revival of Fiddler on the Roof, where he is able to take Philly backstage to meet the star of the show, Zero Mostel, and sing a duet of If I Were a Rich Man with him. Philly, despite all of his limitations, is a genuinely sweet person and so we root for him to succeed.
Best Boy is a very moving film. It is so intimate and real that the audience really feels like a part of the family. When Max dies, it is especially sad, despite his gruff demeanor. The Wohls are like any other family, dealing with their problems as best they can. That they care for Philly so much is what really helps deepen the understanding of the plight of the mentally handicapped. He is not a pariah on the family, but a functioning member on whom they have come to depend. The film was influential enough to win the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature.