By John H. Foote
Paul Mazursky was a fascinating director-screenwriter who emerged in the great American cinema explosion of the seventies. His finest films were humanist dramas sprinkled with light comedic moments, slice of life films. Best of all his films was the exquisite An Unmarried Woman (1978), a raw and stunning work about a suddenly single woman, portrayed with luminous power by Jill Clayburgh, which earned Oscar nominations for Best Picture and Best Actress, and to Mazursky for his script.
In 1984 he earned rock solid reviews for his superb fish out of water film Moscow on the Hudson that was bolstered by an astonishing, unexpected performance of emotional purity by rising star Robin Williams. After box office flops Popeye (1980) and The World According to Garp (1982), Williams needed a film that might showcase his gifts as an actor. The Survivors (1983) turned loose his wicked improvisational skills and, while very funny, it was less a film than a series of Williams comedic explosions.
The first time I screened Moscow on the Hudson, the performance of Williams took my breath away. As Vladimir Ivanoff, he is a Russian citizen, employed as a musician with the famous Moscow circus. Dressed in dour greys, blacks and browns, he moves robot like through the streets of Moscow, dutifully lining up whenever a line is formed. This was Russia before the fall, a communist country where the KGB could be, and were, everywhere. Freedom did not exist, and whatever your dreams might be, it was dangerous to voice them.
He lives in a crowded apartment filled with his mother and father, sister and his beloved grandfather, a feisty old man who loathes the communists. Though crowded, the apartment is filled with the love of a very close, loving family. Vladimir is particularly close with his grandfather, an elderly maker of mischief, who adores his grandson, and encourages him to do whatever it takes to be free, to fly like a bird.
Vladimir is forced to borrow his good friend’s apartment to have sex with his curvy, lovely girlfriend. He struggles with his friend who openly defies the government and talks more openly about defecting. The circus is going to New York City, and to have a citizen defect on their watch, is a black mark on the officers of the KGB.
Yet when in New York, during a shopping excursion in Bloomingdale’s, it is Vladimir who suddenly decides to defect, nearly fainting with the overwhelming decision and life choice he is making. He does indeed defect, and the police protect him at once from the furious KGB officers. Offered a place to stay with Lionel, a smiling young black man, Vladimir discovers that his new friend has a family not unlike his own, all living in a crowded apartment. “Everybody here from somewhere else” Vladimir muses as he becomes acquainted with his new home, overwhelmed in a grocery store by the sheer amount of choices, with no lines forming anywhere in sight.
He becomes friends with Lionel’s’ grandfather, a cranky old rascal not unlike his own, and gradually settles into his new life in America, even dating a beautiful young immigrant from South America, portrayed with sexy charm by Maria Conchita Alfonso.
But how he misses his family, longing to see their faces again. He sees them everywhere, on the streets, all around him but knows he will not ever see them again.
Vladimir comes to understand his family, even his grandfather who passes away in the time he has been gone, wish him well, hoping he finds happiness in the freedom that is America. He is finally at peace with his act of defection, and ready to move on with his life, possibly even as a musician.
Robin Williams slips under the skin of Vladimir and disappears, becoming the melancholy Russian man with an ease that was alarming. This was a great actor shining through. It had been forgotten that Williams had trained at the esteemed Julliard Institute before finding TV beckoning and Mork and Mindy. He is simply breathtaking as Vladimir, from the perfect Russian dialogue and accent, to the sad eyes of a man who has lived in repression with a free heart. Like the songbird in a cage, when freed from Russia he is stunned by all that America offers, and like any immigrant wants it all. But Williams captures the terrible homesickness that comes when one leaves their entire culture and family behind, a sadness about him is portrayed beautifully. This was a major performance in 1984 that should have brought the actor his first Academy Award nomination, as well as a host of other awards. So good was Williams I am conflicted in trying to decide that if he was nominated, would he not have bested F. Murray Abraham who won the Oscar in Amadeus (1984)? Williams was that good. Did he ever surpass this performance? Just once I think as the gentle doctor in Awakenings (1990) for which he was again snubbed for an Oscar nomination he deserved.
Beautifully acted, directed, written and scored, the film is a wonderful testament to the power of the human spirit, a gentle love story and, America, the free.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.