TELL ME THAT YOU LOVE ME, JUNIE MOON (Otto Preminger, 1970)

Old devil hate, I knew you long ago,
Before I learned the poison in your breath
Now when I hear your lies my lovers gather round
And help me rise to fight you one more time . . .

     — Pete Seeger, “Old Devil Time”

Otto Preminger’s Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon, whose script Marjorie Kellogg adapted from her novel, distills the passion, soulfulness and wisdom of Pete Seeger’s song “Old Devil Time,” which Seeger himself performs, out on the earth amidst towering trees, before and after the film proper and in between. This powerful film, a heartfelt plea for tolerance, revolves around a community of social outcasts who are renting a tiny house together, “pool[ing their] disabilities”: Arthur, who has epileptic-like seizures that have eluded medical diagnosis but, to us at least, seem linked to feeling unloved and unloveable; wheelchair-bound Warren, who keeps secret the incident that put him there, and who is gay; Junie Moon, whose face is disfigured because the date her mother warned her against poured battery acid on it when he mistakenly felt she is questioning his manhood. Minnie, who is close to death from a melanoma, briefly visits from hospital. She is black, the peeping next-door neighbor remarks, with her husband throwing in, “They’re all black to me.”
     Minnie (Clarice Taylor, endearing) drifts in and out, drawing brief comfort from friends before drifting to death. We see Junie Moon’s mother in a flashback, never to see her again: a perplexing estrangement helping to explain Junie Moon’s desperate need for new ties. Warren’s flashback shows his doting adoptive father; almost as soon as we meet Guiles (Leonard Frey, unforgettable—and Motel in Fiddler on the Roof, 1971), though, Warren’s voiceover reveals that he died a week later. People come and go, not once thinking of Michelangelo.
     The best performance is beautifully delivered by Ken Howard, all skinny 6’6” of him. Arthur is stuck in his past, bedeviled by it. Arthur, wandering throughout the night, feels lost and abandoned after he is fired before even starting his job at a fish market. (The next-door neighbor has anonymously branded him a sex pervert.) Well, he half-wanders, haunting the scene of his greatest humiliation, the state institution where as a child his parents deposited him. Devising expressive visual forms, Preminger shows a pack of boy-furies—transmutations of the taunting peers from the state institution—seemingly swooping from nowhere to assault Arthur en masse in the street. But Arthur’s flashbacks conflate present and past, with Arthur even at his full-grown height pleading with his parents not to put him in the institution, that he is not “retarded.” At the institution, his grown self amidst the taunting children conveys how out of place he always felt there, how impossible it became for him to reconcile himself with his lot and his life. Preminger has the flashback of Arthur’s arrival at the institution lensed so that the image is scrunched, distorted; the life has been squeezed out.
     Arthur finally takes the risk and reaches out. “Tell me that you love me, Junie Moon.” Junie Moon hesitates. Should she take the risk? “I love you,” she answers with all her heart. Arthur is in her arms under a tree at night. He dies there.
     Liza Minnelli is good as Junie Moon. She is capable of projecting both a screech of physical pain early on and, looking the cosmos in the eye, a very different tragic howl near the end.

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