Looking over Roy Scheider’s filmography, it was a challenge to settle in on a first-time watch… few performers pack so many essentials throughout the peak of their stardom. However, over such a long and varied career, it’s just as interesting to look at the movies which might not get as much love. They can’t always be contemporary classics. It’s with that, that I jumped into the 1975 dramedy Sheila Levine is Dead and Living in New York. Besides, how can you ignore that amazing title? Here’s everything you need to know!
Sheila Levine is Dead and Living New York is an age-old tale. Sheila (Jeannie Berlin) moves out of her relatively cushy middle-class existence to make it in the big city. It’s a timeless tale, really. There’s a quirky roommate (Rebecca Dianna Smith) and a sexy young doctor (Roy Scheider). He’s great on paper… except for one… not so little…problem. Will Sheila find love? Heck, will she be able to ‘Make it on Her Own’? Sidney J. Furie directs the movie from a script by Gail Parent.
As mentioned, Sheila Levine is Dead and Living in New York is an example of a story that transcends the decades… every generation has its own equivalent. This one, coming out of 1975 (showing New York at its grittiest) is a particularly interesting, low-budget example. There’s no glamour. This movie is as grimy as the ‘New York in Trouble’ films without showing any of the city’s real problems. Aside from just looking a bit dirty, there’s little sign of the real social struggles (crime, poverty, etc.) of the era.
This gritty, dramatic aesthetic is at odds with other elements of this movie, leading to a confusing push-and-pull. In particular, Jeannie Berlin brings a very colorful, almost over-the-top performance as Sheila. Someone like Roy Scheider fits into this movie, Jeannie Berlin doesn’t. Her performance counteracts the grit of the aesthetic, leaving this film feeling very disjointed and trapped somewhere in the no-mans-land separating over-the-top comedy and social drama. Ultimately, the film fails on both accounts leaving it floundering frustratingly in the middle.
The script (and source material novel for that matter) comes from writer Gail Parent. The fact this script comes from a woman, particularly during this era, is important to celebrate. At this point, Parent was still gaining a foothold in the industry, having come up as a comedy writer throughout the late 1960s. A look over her IMDB filmography shows early credits on The Tim Conway Show, The Steve Allen Comedy Hour, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and The Many Sides of Don Rickles. She really found her foothold writing for TV in the 1970s. She receives creator credit on Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman as well as Fernwood Tonight. 1980s babies might recognize her name from her work on The Golden Girls as well as Tracey Takes On.
To have a woman authoring a story about a woman living in New York, Sheila Levine is Dead and Living in New York brings something special in the pairing of Berlin’s performance and Parent’s writing. Watching the movie from the perspective of a 35-year-old woman, there were moments of the film which really resonated with twenty-year-old me. The quest for love, the desire to be cool, the yearning to not be a typist. This is a real (and flawed) depiction of a young woman. At the same time though, while it’s easy to identify with the thoughts and feelings, identifying with Sheila proves more of a struggle. Berlin would have been roughly 25 years old at the time of filming, but in her hands, Sheila doesn’t feel like a young girl. She’s certainly naive, but not young. And this ultimately pulled me back from the narrative, particularly as it related to some of Sheila’s decisions. She really should know better…
This is where we get to the dashing elephant in the room… Roy Scheider. This article is of course a part of our Roy Scheider birthday tribute, so I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention him. Scheider plays Doctor Sam Stoneman, the sexy resident, and local love interest for not only Sheila but also her roommate Kate.
When digging through the IMDB posting for this movie, there is a mention that Scheider was a last-minute replacement in this role, and speaking honestly, this makes a lot of sense. He doesn’t feel quite right in the part of a young medical resident. By this point, Scheider was solidly in his 40s and he does feel noticeably older than the two women. He brings a very different sensibility which certainly stands out. Scheider feels like a “grown-up” while his character (Sam) feels very much like a headstrong young physician. As with my struggles with Berlin above, he’s too old to be making some of these decisions. It doesn’t gel on-screen. Now, this isn’t to say that Scheider is bad in the role, but he can only do so much with what’s on paper.
The role of Sam Stoneman sees Scheider hitting his recognized peak. Coming in 1975, this was his follow-up to The Seven-Ups and it was the role he finished immediately before shooting Jaws. He would then jump into films like Marathon Man, All That Jazz, and Blue Thunder. These are the works most envision when they think of Roy Scheider.
While yours truly does get the Roy Scheider “thing” his presence here really doesn’t gel with what this film is hoping to achieve. This begins as early as his first scene when Sheila meets him at a bar and he proceeds to pout over having to perform an abortion (he is a doctor) and he vows to never do it again. His ethics, after all! This, of course, is not the first time this discussion is had and while there must be a certain amount of credence given the setting, it’s difficult to believe that a young woman in New York, on her own at this time would be particularly excited to “get with” this guy… even if he does look like Roy Scheider in a lab coat. Well, let me rephrase, the 20-year-old in me gets it… the 35-year-old in me thinks that Sheila needs to focus on herself and not let her ovaries take the driver’s seat.
Sheila Levine is Dead and Living in New York was a first-time watch for yours truly and it was a challenge to nudge myself much beyond ‘luke warm’ on my scale. Ultimately, the film is fighting an uphill battle thanks to a scant budget and it leaves the movie feeling awkward and disjointed. There are multiple fragments of good movies here, but they don’t work well together. The movie is doing too much and it shows.
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