One of the most revealing, eloquent and well-received films at the
festival, a documentary about two elderly women called “Martha and
Ethel,” still sounds awful on paper.
The film, by Jyll Johnstone and Barbara Ettinger, is about the two
nannies who raised them. Martha, a German refugee, worked for the
Johnstones for 30 years, then retired to an apartment in Queens. Ethel, a
black woman who brought up the Ettinger children, still lives with Mrs.
Ettinger. This idea sounded so bad on paper that the film makers
applied for more than 50 grants to help with the budget and were turned
down every time.
But what sounds like a narrow view of a privileged world is ambitious
and emotionally deep. An affectionate portrait of two completely
different women — the stern, well-meaning Martha and the loving,
self-assured Ethel — it deftly becomes a history of social change over
40 years, and a meditation on motherhood and family. Martha and Ethel
themselves, interviewed in their late 80’s, are such rich screen
presences that one viewer asked, in a question-and-answer session with
the film makers here: “Does Ethel have an agent yet?”
Ms. Johnstone, a former actress, and Ms. Ettinger, a former photographer, may be first-time film makers, but they are not naifs.
Originally published in The New York Times By JEANNETTE CATSOULIS Published: March 28, 2008.
Widowed at 65 by a husband who left only unpaid bills and fond
memories, the indomitable Ms. Weddell saw an opportunity to follow her
passion. “I love illusion,” she says, describing an acting career that
has paid her bills for almost three decades. From “Law & Order” to
“Sex and the City,” from vampire movies to cheese commercials, this
remarkable woman has compiled a résumé that defies the industry’s
rampant ageism. And while her aristocratic looks and powerhouse
personality — and an elegant way with a cigarette holder — have no doubt
contributed to her success, so too has a willingness to work 14-hour
days and fight for roles.
“Mimi’s driven,” says her son, Tom, who shares his mother’s East Side
Manhattan apartment along with his sister, Sarah Dillon, and other
family members. And as the filmmakers, Jyll Johnstone and Michael Arlen
Davis, strive to keep up with their subject’s punishing schedule of
dance lessons, gym workouts, auditions and even a sightseeing trip to
Florence, their movie seldom flags. For Ms. Weddell, standing still may
be life’s only remaining terror.
Opens on Friday in Manhattan.
Directed by Jyll Johnstone; edited by Kate Stilley Steiner and Bill
Weber; music by Frankie Spellman and Stevie Buzzell; produced by Ms.
Johnstone and Michael Arlen Davis; released by Canobie Films and
Abramorama. Running time: 1 hour 24 minutes. This film is not rated.