By John H. Foote
29. MOSCOW ON THE HUDSON (1984)
This gentle love story between two people, countries and their ways of life as they integrate into America was directed by Paul Mazursky, who gave audiences the superb An Unmarried Woman (1978) and eventually Enemies – A Love Story (1989). For me, Mazursky knocked it out of the park with this lovely comedy about Russian saxophonist, Vladimir (Robin Williams) on tour with the Moscow Circus who decides to defect while shopping in Bloomingdale’s.
Williams had by this point in his career made Popeye (1980), the underrated The World According to Garp (1982), and The Survivors (1983), none of which really showed his versatility as an actor, neither comic or dramatic. It is often forgotten Williams was classically trained at the Julliard School, an elite acting school in New York, but within Moscow on the Hudson for the first time his dramatic talents were displayed. Let me be clear, this is often a comedy just as often as it is a drama about a gentle man who has left his country, knowing he might never see his family again, for the loneliness of New York City.
The film opens with Vladimir’s life in Moscow, a drab and uncolorful place where people automatically line up when they see a line, even not knowing what it might be for. Vlad lives with his mother and father, grandfather and sister in a cluttered too small apartment, working with the celebrated Moscow Circus as a musician. His great love is his music, jazz, and he shares this with his loving grandfather, a mischief maker who despises the communist rule of Russia, knowing the lies the government tells the people. Vladimir has a girlfriend, they meet in his friend’s apartment for sex, but she is starting to demand that he join the party so they do not have to sneak around. Vladimir’s biggest problem is the constant threats of his best friend Anatoly (Elya Baskin) talking about defecting in New York. He hates Russia, more he hates what Russia has become under Communist rule and longs to be free as a bird.
They arrive in America staring in wonder at the magnificent sights of New York City, the colors, the energy of the city, the people, a virtual wonderland to them. The group with the circus is permitted one hour in Bloomingdale’s to shop for souvenirs and they run through the store like uncaged animals. Jeans, jeans and blue jeans are what they seek, and this is where Anatoly decides he will defect.
But he cannot. He is afraid.
Incredibly when his friend decides not to defect is the moment Vladimir decides he will. As the Russians are being corralled back onto the travel bus, their bags of treasures clutched closely to them, Vladimir tells a salesclerk “I defect” and all hell breaks loose. The KGB pursue him through the massive department store, he finds refuge in various places, including under the perfume counter, very nearly up the mini skirt of a pretty young woman he will come to know intimately. The police arrive and Vladimir is threatened by the KGB who know their humiliation will come when they return home having allowed such a thing to happen. It becomes official, Vladimir stares down the KGB and with proud defiance says again, “I defect”. He then realizes he did not say goodbye to his friend Anatoly, already on the bus, leaving Vladimir to rush to the sidewalk to wave to his friend, who sits near weeping on the bus that his friend is finally free. He will never see him again, but is happy for him.
Invited by a kind security guard, Lionel (Cleavant Derricks) to live in his crowded apartment with his family, identical to Vladimir’s at home in Russia, he begins the process of assimilating, though a bout of stress hits him buying coffee. No lines, a multitude of choice, complete freedom and everyone seems to be from somewhere else he muses. Gradually Vlad learns English and begins working enough that he can rent his own apartment, and begins dating the luscious salesclerk from the perfume counter Lucia (Maria Conchita Alonso). He works as a street merchant, a McDonalds cashier, a limo driver, and sells vitamins from the limo, anything to get ahead and stay ahead. But though he loves America he comes to see the country has its own problems – racism, poverty, unemployment – and when Lucia, now an American citizen, rejects his marriage proposal he is heartbroken. Returning home one night he gets a letter from home, smuggled out of the country by his sister telling him his beloved grandfather has died. Unable to cope, he gets drunk, gets mugged, and ends up in a diner where he realizes that despite the issues in his life, everyone has them, but they’re here for a better one.
Lucia returns, having missed him very much, telling him she is not ready for marriage just yet, but would be proud to live with an immigrant.
Beautifully acted, Robin Williams deserved an Academy Award nomination for his grounded, perfectly lovely performance as Vladimir, mastering the difficult Russian language and bringing a depth of sadness to the role I am not sure another actor could have handled. It was one of the great Oscar morning shocks of my life when he, for this, and Steve Martin in All of Me (1984) were snubbed. Though happy in New York, the despair at leaving his family follows him everywhere, and though he knows they are happy for his freedom, he misses them terribly. Bearded, Williams resembles a burly Russian bear until America gets ahold of him and eventually he shaves. Watching he and Lucia naked in the tub surrounded by stars and stripes is really an authentic scene of two people falling in love. There is something intensely erotic when he wraps his hairy arms around her sexy body, something not seen often enough in movie love stories, real heat between them. Though I believe Williams was astonishing in Awakenings (1990), his finest performance, his work in Moscow on the Hudson is not far behind and though well reviewed, never ever got the acclaim it so deserved. What could have been just another fish out of water story goes much deeper, and explores the consequences of his choices, for both he and his family.
Alonso was a Latin beauty in her country, a pop star making her acting debut in this film. She was sensational and went onto work in Colors (1988) with Robert Duvall and Sean Penn which she once called the greatest acting class one could have. Sadly, she did not do a great deal of acting in anything of real consequence after the eighties. She worked often through the nineties, and 2000’s, often on television, but in nothing of consequence, despite her talents.
Mazursky very wisely cast his film with a diverse cast, including the black security guard Lionel and his family, Lucia, the lovely Italian beauty who longs to be a sportscaster, and every single person in the cast. It works, perfectly, though Williams carries the film.
The early scenes in Russia are bleak, depressing, as they are meant to be. A line forms, you fall in not knowing what it might be for. Gas is purchased on roadside black markets, and toilet paper is as highly prized as rubles themselves. Life is hard, but there is genuine joy in the apartment Vlad shares with his family, watch them bop and sway to the jazz music Vlad loves to play, and the sheer joy between he and his grandfather. Yet being in New York alters Vlad, and when it comes time to leave, he cannot, knowing he will never get another chance to be entirely free. Finding his wings, he makes a life decision that is for him, he does something for himself by defecting and instantly betters his life.
At the end of the film when he is finally working in a jazz club, Lucia is his girl, Lionel remains his best friend, his life is complete. The only false moment in the entire film comes when he encounters his former KGB handler selling hotdogs on the street. Thinking it is a trap, Vlad looks around, but the handler assures him he had to defect too after losing Vlad on their trip. He thanks him and offers him his hot dog for free, telling him “best in New York.” It feels tacked on, silly even after the purity and honesty that has transpired before it.
Paul Mazursky wrote the film after thinking about the struggles of his grandfather when he first came to America. In many ways Vladimir is his grandfather, though in more modern times.
Moscow on the Hudson is among the true unappreciated treasures of the decade, not to be missed.
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.