Hailed by some as a cinematic genius, a feminist voice and the only true maverick of American cinema, dismissed by others as a voyeuristic, egomaniacal fraud and the “world’s worst director,” Henry Jaglom (Eating, Babyfever ) obsessively and hilariously confuses and abuses the line between life and art, challenging the boundaries of filmmaking with his unorthodox style. Filmmakers H. Alex Rubin and Jeremy Workman weave together an offbeat spectrum of opinions from friends, family, Hollywood notables and even an annoyed waitress to answer the question: Who Is Henry Jaglom? The program will air nationally Tuesday, July 8 at 10 PM ET on PBS (check local listings) as part of the POV series, broadcast television’s only continuing showcase for independent non-fiction film. Celebrating its 10th anniversary season, POV moves into its next decade of innovative, independent and interactive programming beginning Tuesdays June 3 through August 5.
Since picking up his first 8-millimeter camera as a boy to compulsively record his life, Jaglom has prided himself on weaving reality into his films and letting material unfold organically. He often works without a script or rehearsals in an impromptu arrangement that, he says, allows him to spontaneously “shape” and “evoke” performances. For example, in his 1985 film Always, dubbed by one critic as “the greatest home movie ever made,” viewers witness the painful break-up of his marriage recreated on screen, with Jaglom and his ex-wife playing themselves.
To explore Jaglom’s unique approach, Rubin and Workman signed on as production assistants on his latest film, Last Summer in the Hamptons. Tossing the camera to each other between takes, they turned the table on the director and filmed him at work. Who Is Henry Jaglom? includes startling behind-the-scenes footage from three Jaglom productions, exposing his seemingly simple laissez-faire style as a more layered, complex and sometimes tyrannical process that often ends up psychologically entangling itself with real life.
“The [Hamptons] shoot was like an insane high-wire act with no net,” recalls Rubin. “Since Jaglom only had nine days to shoot a movie with no script, a giant ensemble cast and only he knew what was going on, he’d be screaming at everyone all the time, especially us. Actresses would cry and run off the set,” Workman explains. Rubin adds, “Of course, Henry loved it all and seemed to savor the talk of mutiny.” Martha Plimpton, one of the “Hamptons” actresses says, “He’d scream at you for 10 minutes, and then you’d finally go, ‘Fine, okay. You said do anything!’ And he’d say, ‘Anything but that!’ And then you’d do something else, and he’d scream at you for that. That’s not freedom. It’s absurd.” But others in the film, like actresses Lee Grant and the late Viveca Lindfords have embraced his style and applaud the “trust” he places in actors.
Though he remains firmly outside the mainstream, Jaglom has been a fixture on the Hollywood social circuit since the 1970s, and everyone who is anyone seems to have a strong opinion about him and his work. Who Is Henry Jaglom? offers a Rashomon-style approach to its complicated, controversial subject, with candid interviews from friends, fans, and detractors. Critic Michael Medved imitates a common reaction to Jaglom films, “Oh I hate them…I’d rather be held prisoner in Beirut for three years by Hezbollah than watch another Jaglom film!” The late director Louis Malle adds dryly, “He improvises almost completely. But excuse me, it shows.” Others like theatre director André Gregory will tell you that this is the point: “Henry likes to go into the unknown…he enjoys the danger in the process.” Actress Candice Bergen calls Jaglom aggressive, confrontational, but also hugely supportive: “If I had had Henry as a father or as a husband,” she jokes, “I could probably have taken Poland.” Actors Dennis Hopper and Ron Silver praise his innovative methods. The documentary also includes never before seen material of one of his most notable fans, Orson Welles, who spent an enormous amount of time with Jaglom in the last decade of his life. “Henry and I are girlfriends,” Welles jokingly told the press.
Who Is Henry Jaglom? explores Jaglom’s life and sheds light on his work, with candid interviews ranging from ex-girlfriends, actress Karen Black and singer Andrea Marcovicci, to his wife and actress Victoria Foyt and his older brother Michael, who insists that it was Henry’s greatest luck to become a director because “that allows him to live out what he needs to, which is to direct people and control people.”
Making this film was no easy task for Rubin and Workman, who encountered endless hang-ups at the mere mention of Jaglom’s name. “He’s truly reviled by many working in the industry, but I think that it’s strangely to his merit. His films are not always easy to enjoy because we feel like we’re eavesdropping,” explains Workman. “Ultimately, whether you love or hate him or his films,” says Rubin, “you’ve got to give him credit for his stubborn commitment to remain outside of the mainstream and his refusal to compromise.”