Mildred Kirschenbaum is convinced that if only her 61-year-old never-married daughter Gayle would get a nose job, she’d finally find a husband. Mildred is sure Gayle’s nose is the problem. Well, that and also that her eyes look washed out and could do with some tattooed eyeliner.
Mildred, a critical, overbearing Jewish mother par-excellence, co-stars with her daughter in “Look At Us Now, Mother,” a biographical documentary feature film that opens April 8 in New York and Los Angeles.
Emmy Award-winning filmmaker Gayle Kirschenbaum put herself both behind the camera — and in front of it — to chronicle what for many years was a toxic relationship with her mother. She believed her personal story had to be told for the sake of her own healing, and also for others’.
In turns painful and playful, “Look At Us Now, Mother” takes audiences on a journey back in time as Gayle discovers the life events and family circumstances that shaped her parents’ childhoods, and ultimately their relationships to one another and to their children. The film is also forward looking as it follows Mildred and Gayle today as they do therapy and travel together, trying to work through some of the issues that have made their relationship fraught for so long.
“You’d be amazed at how many people are holding onto their anger because they had mean mothers,” said Gayle, who knows all to well what it’s like to have one.
Thanks to therapy she did on her own over the years, the New York-based filmmaker was able to get to a point where she could forgive her mother for always making her play second fiddle to her two older brothers. Mildred, now 92, was consistently critical of Gayle, never giving her the breathing space to be herself.
Difficult memories brought up by Gayle in the film include her mother putting her atop the fridge so she couldn’t get down, and cutting her an embarrassingly thin slice of ice cream cake at her birthday party because she thought she was getting too fat.
“The slice was so thin that the ice cream melted the second it hit the plate,” a girl’s voice reads from Gayle’s childhood diary.
Gayle’s frizzy hair and ethnic nose (her mother likens it to that of the Indian on the Buffalo nickel) never bothered her. In fact, they still don’t. Yet, Mildred —who has had multiple cosmetic procedures herself—incessantly implores her daughter to surgically alter her appearance.
Gayle has long known that her looks are not what have prevented her from marrying.
“I grew up not feeling loved, and lied to all the time. Intimacy, trust and abandonment are my issues. That’s why I’m not married at 61,” she said.
Thick-skinned, self-centered and possessing an obvious lack of self-awareness, Mildred is a compelling character. Audiences will simultaneously love her for her uninhibited humor and charismatic presence, and hate her for her lack of sensitivity toward the feelings of others — especially her daughter.
Sympathy toward Mildred grows when it is revealed that she grew up the daughter of poor immigrants, and that her depressive father tried to commit suicide more than once. And as a young newlywed, she suffered a separation from her husband when he served as an enlisted soldier in the South Pacific during World War II.
‘You’d be amazed at how many people are holding onto their anger because they had mean mothers’
Given her family background and the times she grew up in, it is not all that surprising that she has shut out memories and emotions. She habitually answers “I don’t know” and “I can’t remember” to questions posed to her about her past by either Gayle or therapists.
“Mom is happier in her life now. She’s mellowed out. When you look at her life, you realize that she was of a generation when smart women were without opportunities, especially to work. She could’t live an expressed life,” the filmmaker noted.
“She’s also a first-generation American so she had on her a lot of pressure to blend in and assimilate,” she added in reference to her mother’s obsession with rhinoplasty.
Gayle’s ability to empathize with her mother is one of the ways in which she has come to heal herself and her relationship with Mildred. In fact, putting herself in her mother’s childhood shoes is one of “The Seven Healing Tools” that the filmmaker has come up with as a guide to overcoming having a mean mother — Jewish or otherwise. These tools are the basis of seminars on transforming difficult relationships that she offers.
“I’m not a trained psychologist. I’m only a person with a challenging childhood and I figured it out. I’ve become the accidental therapist,” she said.
Reliving her childhood in making “Look At Us Now, Mother” was the hardest thing the filmmaker has done. But positive and emotional audience reactions to the film make her think it was worth it.
“I realized: ‘Oh my God, people are hurting.’ That negative voice in our heads comes from our growing up, and we need to render that voice powerless over us,” she said.
‘Oh my God, people are hurting’
Gayle envisions the film as the centerpiece for a movement of forgiveness and healing between mothers and daughters, to include a podcast series, a website and app, books and a one-woman show.
Mildred is pleased with the film and happy for her daughter’s success with it. She trusted Gayle completely in telling their story, never asking to see the film before it was finished.
Gayle invited 100 people to view the film together with her and her mother at a private screening before it started playing at festivals last year. Mildred watched it and then shared her reaction.
“I never knew I was such a bitch,” she said.