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Polarizing filmmaker Henry Jaglom juggles compassion and intolerance in a new play for Santa Monica’s Edgemar Center for the Arts

By Michael Aushenker

 Henry Jaglom and Tanna Frederick fool around outside the Edgemar between rehearsals for “Train to Zakopané” Photo by Frank Capri

Henry Jaglom and Tanna Frederick fool around outside the Edgemar between rehearsals for “Train to Zakopané”
Photo by Frank Capri

Wearing his signature hat and scarf like protective armor despite the warm weather, Henry Jaglom sits on the rustic Montana Avenue patio of Kreation restaurant with a biography of Elia Kazan, a glass of water and a large plate of halved lemons.

“My plays are very tight; my films are very loose,” he says, nibbling on the citrus, a comfort food since childhood.

If there’s anyone who can make lemonade out of lemons, it’s Jaglom — a polarizing filmmaker who is no stranger to negative criticism, industry indifference and even accusations of sexism though, unlike Hollywood, he frequently casts middle-aged actresses in starring roles.

And yet something funny happened along 76-year-old Jaglom’s journey to becoming one of independent cinema’s most prolific and unique voices: He became an acclaimed playwright.

Best known for such estrogen-freighted, semi-improvised indie circuit hits as “Eating,” “Déjà Vu” and “Festival in Cannes,” Jaglom debuts his latest play — “Train to Zakopané: A True Story of Hate and Love,” starring his actress wife Tanna Frederick alongside actor Mike Falkow — next Friday, Nov. 21, at Santa Monica’s Edgemar Center for the Arts.

Santa Monica residents, Jaglom and Frederick have had a lasting relationship with the venue. In 2007, the Jaglom-written play “Always, But Not Forever” (adapted from his 1985 film of the same name) premiered at Edgemar. Two years later, Jaglom mounted another piece he wrote, “Just 45 Minutes from Broadway” (made into a film in 2012), and has since produced stagings of A.R Gurney’s “Sylvia” and N. Richard Nash’s “The Rainmaker” — both starring Frederick — in 2011 and 2013, respectively.

Based on events from the life of Jaglom’s father, Simon Jaglom, as he crossed Poland in 1928, “Train to Zakopané” takes place as anti-Semitism is growing throughout Europe prior to Hitler’s rise. In the play, a successful Jewish businessman (Falkow) falls for a captivating Polish army nurse (Frederick) while train-bound for Warsaw but faces a moral dilemma during a weekend stop-over in the resort town of Zakopané when the nurse, who doesn’t know he’s Jewish, turns out to be vehemently anti-Semitic.

Drawn from stories recorded before his father’s death in 1992 at 96, Jaglom’s “Train to Zakopané” explores both the human condition and its playwright at their darkest.

Jaglom says he wrote “Train to Zakopané” out of necessity, being unable to find an existing work he wanted to produce for the venue as a follow-up to “The Rainmaker” and “Sylvia.”

“When I can’t find one, I figure I’ll write one,” he says matter-of-factly.

But Jaglom’s wife explains that the material is deeply personal to him.

“He’s much more terrified than he cares to admit,” Frederick says. “He’s never done a story about his father. He’s never done a story about the Jews.”

In real life, the Nazis appointed Simon Jaglom a high-ranking minister of trade in the free state of Danzig — “They wanted to make him an honorary Aryan,” Jaglom says — but fled to London with his family before World War II erupted.

Frederick shares a story not incorporated into “Train to Zakopané” of how Jaglom’s paternal uncle found his grandfather dead with a sock in his mouth.

“There was an unwritten agreement where soldiers could stay at the homes of predominant families,” Frederick says. “After the grandfather had caught the soldiers trying to steal, he [protested] and they ended up tying him up in the kitchen and gagged him. He choked on his own tongue that night.

“These are the kind of the experiences the Jagloms have survived.”

A Movie House Divided

Film critics have been tortured over Jaglom for years.

Across four decades, Jaglom’s contemplative ensemble dramedies have either been the toast of critics or toasted by them. He was even been the subject of a 1997 documentary titled “Who is Henry Jaglom?”

Depending on the critic, Jaglom is either a savvy maverick indie or cinema’s long-running bête noire, a dilettante who just won’t go away.

Love him or hate him, the Jaglom machine keeps rolling.

Since his first feature films — 1971’s “A Safe Place,” starring Jack Nicholson, Tuesday Weld and Jaglom’s friend and ally Orson Welles (their Ma Maison restaurant discussions were published last year in Peter Biskind’s book, “My Lunches With Orson: Conversations Between Henry Jaglom and Orson Welles”), and 1977’s “Tracks,” featuring late Venice resident Dennis Hopper — Jaglom has written and directed scenery-chewing scenes for high-caliber actors including Vanessa Redgrave (“Déjà Vu”), Melissa Leo (“Venice/Venice”) Martha Plimpton (“Last Summer in the Hamptons”), Sally Kirkland and Seymour Cassell (“Hollywood Dreams”), Karen Black (“Can She Bake a Cherry Pie?,” “Hollywood Dreams”), Noah Wylie (“Queen of the Lot”) and Ron Silver (“Festival in Cannes”).

Larry David’s first film role was in 1983’s “Can She Bake a Cherry Pie?” while a pre-“X-Files” David Duchovny made his debut full-frontal naked in 1989’s “New Year’s Day.”

The film adaptation of the Edgemar-debuted play “Just 45 Minutes from Broadway” co-starred Frederick and Judd Nelson. Jaglom’s most recent film, “The M Word,” paired Frederick with Frances Fisher and Michael Imperioli.

The septuagenarian Jaglom and Frederick, 35, met in 2001 and married last year.

Frederick has long been aware of what she described as an “Is he a lover of women or sexist pig?” rhetorical hanging over Jaglom.

Despite Jaglom’s penchant for giving actresses of all ages his juiciest roles, there are those who have dismissed his portrayals of women as patronizing or even exploitive.

Frederick recalls how, while watching a Robert Altman film in which French actress Anouk Aimee appeared, Jaglom quipped, “‘I did her so much more justice in my film.’”

“I would never have taken a second look at her [in Altman’s movie],” Frederick says. In “Festival in Cannes,” “Henry made her a sexy siren at her age, capturing her essence in a way I don’t think many men have captured her.”

So what does Frederick think of working with her husband on plays or in film?

“When we make movies together, we get to laugh,” she says. “We get to solve problems together. I get to make stuff up on the cuff that I didn’t even know what was in me. There is a sort of high that is awesome that I didn’t get in a theater.”

And yet, she loves the sweet ritual of Jaglom showing up every night for his wife’s curtain call: “I’m so honored that he does that. What director would do that?”

Laying ‘Tracks’ for ‘Train’

Born in London, Jaglom grew up in New York City and attended the University of Pennsylvania before studying with Lee Strasberg at the Actors Studio.

He guested on TV shows “Gidget” and “The Flying Nun,” but after losing the role of Benjamin Braddock in “The Graduate” to Dustin Hoffman, Jaglom switched to filmmaking. In 1969, producer Bert Schneider hired Jaglom as an editor on Hopper’s “Easy Rider” after seeing a Jaglom documentary on Israel’s Six Day War. Schneider then financed “A Safe Place.”

Frederick was a struggling actress from Iowa waiting tables before a friend advised her to write Jaglom a letter and drop it off at the accessible director’s Sunset Boulevard office. Jaglom cast her in “Hollywood Dreams” (2006) and “Irene in Time” (2009) before they fell in love, Frederick said.

“I just want to make plays and movies with this girl,” says Jaglom, who insists his wife acts “better than Katherine Hepburn … she gave me a whole new inspiration.”

Jaglomphiles know the filmmaker’s “muse” phenomenon is nothing new. Jaglom’s first wife, Patrice Townsend, starred in his 1985 divorce drama “Always” after they had divorced. Second wife Victoria Foyt (1991 through 2013), mother of Jaglom’s two children, co-wrote and starred in four of his most well-known films, including “Babyfever.”

Relationships have always had a significant influence on Jaglom’s work, whether it was superstar Natalie Wood — whom he dated in the 1960s — or his older brother Michael Emil and character actor Zack Norman, both of whom he has utilized in several movies.

“He’s always a good quality, a good color,” Jaglom says of old pal Norman, who, outside of Jaglom’s oeuvre, played in “Cadillac Man” and “Romancing the Stone.”

“Natalie was a terrific girl,” says Jaglom, who last spoke to Wood two nights before her tragic death, which he believes was accidental. “She was a survivor in many ways but self-destructive. If she hadn’t drunk so much, she’d still be alive.”

While Jaglom was born Jewish, cinema is his true religion.

“Watching a movie with Henry, the lights must be off, you must not shift your feet, you must not get a drink,” his wife says with a laugh.

While 1980’s “Stardust Memories” remains Jaglom’s favorite film from the equally prolific Woody Allen, he also digs Wes Anderson movies, Alexander Payne’s “Nebraska” and binge-watches “The Sopranos,” “Extras,” “Downton Abbey,” “Sex and the City,” “The West Wing.”

“He is such a study of contradictions, that Henry Jaglom,” Frederick said, laughing.

“He’s an interesting, creative genius. He’s like no one that I’ve ever worked with. He’s very improvisational. He’s just fascinating to watch. He’s a show in itself,” says “Train to Zakopané” producer Alexandra Guerney, who has overseen all of Jaglom’s Edgemar plays.

All five of Jaglom’s Edgemar productions have also shared the same director, Gary Imhoff.

Making movies independently has afforded Jaglom to realize nearly all of his projects except one doozy: Nicholson famously lived next door to Marlon Brando on Mulholland Drive, so Jaglom outlined a buddy comedy featuring the neighbors. Nicholson was interested, Jaglom says. Brando, however, wasn’t.

Jaglom’s latest play officially rides through mid-December. But if history repeats itself, this will be a long-running “Train.” And despite the serious subject matter, Guerney believes theatergoers will get onboard.

“It’s not just about anti-Semitism back then. There’s still anti-Semitism to this day,” Guerney says, before adding: “I don’t feel that it’s dark; I feel that it’s a love story. I think it’ll be very entertaining.”

“Train to Zakopané: A True Story of Hate and Love” debuts next Friday,
Nov. 21, and runs through March 29 at the Edgemar Center for the Arts, 2437 Main St., Santa Monica. Showtime is 7:30 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays and 5 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $25 to $34.99.
Call (310) 392-7327 or visit edgemarcenter.org.

michael@argonautnews.com