Half an hour in, the film’s subject, a 52-year-old developmentally challenged man named Philly, is taken by his parents to Broadway where they catch a 1976 revival of… yep, Fiddler on the Roof. The screen blazes with incredible, colorful film footage of Zero Mostel in his signature role as Tevye singing Philly’s favorite song, “If I Were a Rich Man,” and afterwards we see Mostel meeting Philly backstage and complimenting him on his singing ability. It’s a sweet, touching moment, just one of many in a film that turned out to be a really wonderful surprise.
The film was shot over a three-year period by Philly’s cousin, Ira Wohl, who was in attendance today for a post-screening Q&A from the audience along with his 13-year-old daughter, Anastasia, who had never seen it before. BEST BOY also became a surprise Oscar winner in 1980 and inspired a feature-length 1997 sequel, Best Man, as well as a short film, Best Sister. Beating the odds, Philly is actually still alive at the age of 86 and enjoying a happy life, and Wohl shared some great stories about his life since and described him as “the Jewish Buddha” for his ability to make people smile with his mere presence.
Though he stays off camera for most of the film, Wohl played a pivotal part in this film as he shot the progression of events involving Philly and his two parents, whose declining health challenges their ability to keep him living with them at home. Gradually Philly takes steps to becoming more independent, going to a nearby center five days a week and finding out how to live outside of his home. Then he goes off to a camp in the Castkills for three weeks, leading to a final third that had more than a couple of audience members audibly choking back tears.
The film has since gone on to become a valuable teaching tool and a kind of cinematic social outreach, with attitudes and accommodations involving the mentally and physically disabled changing dramatically since then and hopefully continuing to evolve for the better. Even 35 years later, it still works as so much more though with tough, sometimes uncomfortable questions raised about what it means to be a parent, how valuable a human life can be under challenging circumstances, and how much the bonds of family can steer people in unexpected directions like the creation of this little gem of a film.