Some 25 years ago, Todd Solondz had a hot hand, and he knew it. His film breakthrough, “Welcome to the Dollhouse,” was a Sundance sensation and a surprise hit — surprising, in part, because of its scabrous and brilliantly profane view of life among the petty thugs known as middle-schoolers.
So he set out next to write a script as close to unproduceable as he could. “I played with things that I would otherwise never be able to play with and get financed,” he says in a recent conversation over lunch near his apartment in Greenwich Village. The end result was a tough sell. “Virtually every door was shut, except one — but you only need one,” he says. October Films’ Bingham Ray signed on, and the finished product, a film called “Happiness,” played the New York Film Festival in 1998.
The title should be read ironically; the ensemble of characters, emanating outward from a family of three adult sisters, are seeking joy in their lives, but struggle with miscommunication and alienation. Dylan Baker plays the husband of the most picture-perfect sister (Cynthia Stevenson), with whom he lives in an idyllic suburban setup. Seemingly, they have everything going for them, and yet he’s a just-barely repressed pedophile who can’t help but give in to his desires. Still, we’re invited to care for him, even as we watch his crimes.
Before it came to New York, “Happiness” premiered at Cannes, where it generated controversy, harsh criticism and praise. Writing in Salon, the novelist Jonathan Lethem compared Solondz to a film-world Bob Dylan and called “Happiness” “a masterpiece”; Variety reported on its stellar box-office average after “wildly successful screenings” at the fest. It was Baker’s pedophile, though, sensitively portrayed and standing out in an ensemble that also includes Jane Adams, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Lara Flynn Boyle, who cemented the film’s challenging, intriguing reputation. “What’s difficult about the film,” Solondz says, “is that it’s fraught with ambiguity.”
Time has burnished the film, as its portrait of people trying to do the right thing in an unfeeling world has come to seem, well, quintessentially American. And time, too, may have softened Solondz. Since the “Happiness” days, the writer-director has made five more feature films, the most recent distributed by Amazon in 2016. He’s taught film at NYU’s Tisch School for the Arts. He’s now in his mid-60s, and a father. “I wouldn’t make the same movie today,” he says. “I wouldn’t write the script quite the same way. I’m not the same person — we change and evolve in ways that we can’t predict.” (As for his kids, he told them they can watch “Happiness” when they’re 35.)
But he still has that eye for the contrast between our best intentions and the harshness of the world that gave “Happiness” its special flavor, as well as its bite. And while similarly sharp observers of contemporary mores, from Mike White to Todd Field, have had career renaissances in recent years, Solondz has not. His brand of embracing risk — of making films fraught with “ambiguity” — runs headlong into an increasingly risk-averse cinema culture.
Even in the best of times, “you have to patch together” funding, he says. “And I think they would not finance it now. Because if the movie is successful, it will make $2 million, $3 million? That would be huge for me. And if it’s not successful, it would invite such a Twitter storm of ‘How could you?!’ and such a backlash – it’s just not worth it.”
There’s a piquant irony to Solondz’s challenges finding funding: America, with hatreds and vulnerabilities on full display, has come to seem a lot more, well, Solondzian. “It’s a sad, grotesque place,” Solondz muses, in the unaffected tone with which he tackles every question. (His voice remains a beautifully New Jersey honk, a tribute to his own suburban upbringing.) “How do you teach your children to be decent, respectful, kind people, when on the news, you see how savage the dialogue is?”
And yet the filmmaker represents a paradox of sorts. If his treatment of a soul-sick America felt urgent then, it couldn’t feel more pressing now. But finding a place for oneself is a challenge. “It’s not like I have a plan,” Solondz says. “I am grateful that I’ve had the quasi-career that I’ve had. And I hope that I’m still able to do it — to make another film after a series of setbacks.” Solondz is in process on a project about which he’s close-lipped, other than to say that “it’s a movie of our times. But then, anyone who’s serious about what they do, even if you’re making a Western, you’re speaking of your time in which you live.”
A good way to understand which way the cultural winds blow is to stand in front of students, as Solondz does at NYU. “I look at graduate students who are in their 20s and 30s as young people, and one of the challenges is that they tend to be timid,” he says. “That’s always been the tendency. That said, these are times that will make them more timid. Because there’s the fear of writing or saying something that will tarnish their social image. There’s the new social anxiety about saying the wrong thing, doing the wrong thing.” It’s a balancing act for a professor who, in his working life, finds redemption and flickers of joy in the wrong thing: “I know,” he says, “that as a teacher, I’m vulnerable. It makes me feel like a trapeze artist without a net. And that makes it more fun for me — how much I can push, or not push? I genuinely like getting them talking.”
This question — how much can he push? — received an answer 25 years ago, too. After Ron Meyer, then the CEO of October’s parent company Universal, saw the film, he intervened in its release, says Solondz. “He declared it morally objectionable,” and kicked it to the now-defunct independent distribution company Good Machine.
In September 1998, Lynn Hirschberg reported in the New York Times Magazine that Meyer had personally blocked Universal shingle October from releasing “Happiness,” protesting that he didn’t want to see the world through the point-of-view of a pedophile. Solondz buzzes with irritation as he addresses the imbroglio even now. “I wasn’t allowed to talk about this at the time, but where did the money come from to even release this movie?,” Solondz says. “It was all money that was borrowed from Universal so that they could, in fact, profit if the movie made money — from that ‘morally objectionable’ film.”
Via email, Good Machine co-founder James Schamus said, “That was quite a situation! As part of the workout with the studio, we negotiated a payment that certainly helped with at least the initial release set-up costs, but — and my memories of the details are vague — I think it would have been nearly impossible for the studio to profit, or even recoup, given the terms. So although the theatrical release was quite successful, it would be miraculous if the studio saw a profit — and I don’t believe in miracles.” He also recollected having the impression that it was Universal’s then-parent company Seagram’s, not Meyer, who had issues with the film’s content.)
Beyond the tempest around its release, though, Solondz speaks about “Happiness” with earnestness and evident love. It’s plain how much affection he has for these characters (ones that he revisited in 2009’s loose sequel “Life During Wartime”). When I remark how unusual it is that the film’s characters are “all miserable,” Solondz corrects me. “I’ve never looked at it that way,” he says. “Everyone has their struggle. And I can’t make a movie if I don’t have an emotional investment in my characters — if I don’t believe in that struggle, live with that struggle, be true to that struggle.”