Saturday, August 5, 2017

Golden Oldies

Over the course of seven seasons and 180 episodes, The Golden Girls (portrayed by Bea Arthur, Rue McClanahan, Betty White, and Estelle Getty) became one of the most beloved sitcoms.
Poster art for The Golden Girls: The Christmas Episodes

In a world turned upside down, orange is the new black and 90 has become the new 70. Don't believe me? Consider Carl Reiner's words of wisdom.

The 2017 San Francisco Jewish Film Festival recently screened two fascinating documentaries focused on nonagenarians whose minds have remained as sharp as a tack even as their bodies followed a natural aging process. Watching these films resoundingly disproved the sentiments of the man I followed out to California in 1972.

As far as Chuck was concerned, "After you turn 30 you might just as well kill yourself because you will have done everything." A deeply conflicted man who had been trying to end his life for several years (and whose logic had been distorted by his steady use of poppers and PCP), Chuck finally committed suicide in his early thirties. There was no need to mourn my friend's passing for he had finally succeeded in achieving his goal.

* * * * * * * * *
In 1980, when Sherry Lansing became the first female president of 20th Century Fox at the age of 35, many saluted her achievement as breaking through Hollywood's glass ceiling for executives. For those in the know, Lansing rose on the shoulders of women who rarely got recognition for their contributions to the American film industry. Women like Marcia Nasatir.

Marcia Nasatir celebrates her 90th birthday in front of a poster for A Classy Broad

Marcia who? Born in San Antonio, Texas on May 8, 1926, the feisty subject of Anne Goursaud's impressive documentary, A Classy Broad, spent the early years of her career in relative obscurity. "I didn't need to watch Mad Men because I lived it," she recalls.

While Marcia may have been a voracious reader with excellent taste, what set her apart from many other women in administrative and creative positions was that she had a good sense of what she was worth. Nasatir also knew how to aim high when negotiations focused on salary and position. With an admirable list of achievements to her name (coupled with an extensive network of friends and contacts within the film industry), she was adamant about being recognized and compensated in the same manner as her male colleagues. More than willing to pick up her toys and seek employment elsewhere, she has always considered being fired from a job as a mark of honor.

While the talking heads who contribute to A Classy Broad include such industry folk as Glenn Close, Mike Medavoy, Rob Cohen, Tommy Swerdlow, John Dean, and Lawrence Kasdan, what shines through is the collective intelligence and passion shared by Nasatir and her friends. One of Marcia's most surprising regrets? That she was unable to sell United Artists on producing Star Wars. A Classy Broad is the story of a life well lived by a woman with an insatiable curiosity. Here's the trailer:

* * * * * * * * *
In an ironic turn of events this past February, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's words came back to bite him in the ass. “Senator [Elizabeth] Warren was giving a lengthy speech. She had appeared to violate the rule. She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted,” he stated. The tidal wave of shock and resentment that followed was perfectly summed by a tweet which stated "Thanks for the new battle cry." The rest, as they say, is history.

Sonia Warshawski celebrating her 90th birthday

A documentary by Leah Warshawski and Todd Soliday that was screened at the 2017 San Francisco Jewish Film Festival follows two overlapping narratives. Each tells the story of an elderly workaholic who stands 4'8" tall and drives an old gas guzzler around Kansas City, Kansas.

Holocaust survivor Sonia Warshawski

One story line describes how, after arriving in the United States in 1948, Sonia Warshawski and her English-born husband settled in a Midwestern city where John had relatives. After many years of running a small tailoring shop in a suburban shopping mall, John developed Parkinson's as well as Alzheimer's disease. Even though Sonia had no interest in sewing, following her husband's death she kept the business alive and made lots of friends who became loyal customers. With one store after another abandoning the mall, the time finally arrived when Sonia's lease was cancelled and, very late in life, she had to find another location in order to salvage her business. As you can imagine, in spite of everything, Sonia persisted.

Holocaust survivor Sonia Warshawski

The second story track describes Sonia's ordeal growing up in Poland. Born in Międzyrzec Podlaski in 1925, she was raised in an environment with a rich cultural life, whose local industries exported brushes and furs to cities all over Europe. After Hitler invaded Poland in 1939, the Nazis set up slave labor camps for 2,000 local Jews. Like many others, Sonia's family was forced into a ghetto where Jews were routinely shot and killed. As a teenager, she saw rabbis dragged through the streets, their beards yanked from their heads before they were killed. Although her younger sister managed to escape, her brother and father were shot and killed by the Nazis.

Photos taken of Międzyrzec Podlaski's Jewish Ghetto in August, 1940

The first mass deportation of Jews in cattle cars from Międzyrzec Podlaski began in August 1942. At the age of 17, Sonia and her mother were sent to the concentration camp at Majdanek because the Nazis could not kill Jews fast enough at Treblinka. One day, as she looked through a peephole, she saw her mother, Rivka, walking to the camp's gas chamber to be killed. From Majdanek, Sonia was subsequently taken to the concentration camp at Auschwitz-Berkenau. After being forced to walk on a cold, winter death march from Auschwitz to her third concentration camp, she managed to avoid being sent to her death by Josef Mengele. Ironically, Sonia was shot through the chest on the same day that British forces liberated Bergen-Belsen.

Nevertheless, Sonia persisted. Through most of the years in which she raised her family and worked with her husband in the United States, she didn't speak out about her experiences as a Holocaust survivor. Like many others, she did not want to frighten her children or burden them with the knowledge of their parents' wartime experiences. But after listening to a radio program in the 1980s during which Neo-Nazi skinheads claimed that the Holocaust never happened, Sonia could no longer remain silent.

Holocaust survivor Sonia Warshawski

Since then, she has spoken before numerous schoolchildren and community groups, providing them with details of her own experiences at the hands of the Nazis. One of the most powerful segments in Big Sonia documents her visit to a prison at Fort Leavenworth, where she speaks to a group of convicted killers.

At a time when anti-Semitism is on the rise in America (thanks to the viciousness of the Trump administration and alt-right policymakers like Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller), Big Sonia offers a stark reminder that those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Here's the trailer:

No comments: