WRITERS ON SCREEN: CHINESE COFFEE–Not So Much A Beverage, As A State Of Mind.


You can’t sleep in Bohemia and commute to the real world. – Jerry Orbach as Jake Manheim, in the film Chinese Coffee (2000)

chinese_coffee_filmTo be totally honest, I did not think a movie about two aging New York schmucks who love literature and whose respective bullshit has caused them both to be figuratively waiting at the airport while down at the dock their ships have come in, but Chinese Coffee is now one of my favorite movies. Released in 2000, Chinese Coffee was adapted from his one-act play, of the same name, by Ira Lewis. It premiered at Circle in the Square Theatre on Broadway in 1992. Al Pacino starred in the original stage production as the pivotal character, hapless writer Harry Levine, and he reprises his role in the film, which he also masterfully directs.

The original production paired Pacino with Charles Cioffi as Harry’s best bud Jacob (Jake) Manheim. Cioffi is most remembered for his riveting portrayal of the small town executive with a big city secret, in the 1971 crime-thriller Klute, which starred Jane Fonda and Donald Sutherland.

When the production moved to the Rich Forum for the Stamford Center for the Arts (Stamford, CT) in 1993, Pacino as Harry was opposite the immortal Ben Gazzara as Jake, and despite what New York Times theatre critic Alvin Klein had to say about this run, I really regret not seeing these two master craftsmen, Pacino and Gazzara, going at it live on stage, however, when I saw that Jake Manheim in the film adaptation of Chinese Coffee was being portrayed by the late Jerry Orbach of Law and Order fame, I was not  at all disappointed.

 A writer’s primary activity is promoting. Look at Norman Mailer. – Jake Manheim

Orbach’s Jake Manheim oozes charm and glibness, but underneath his insouciance is a river of venom, fed by tributaries of would, could, and should haves. He is in fact the worst possible friend a writer can have: a wannabe writer. You know the kind. You give them your work to read, they never read it, but somehow they always have some criticism of your writing at hand. Oh, yes and they had something published once, and they could have been a writer if only…fill in the blank. If you point out that being a writer means you actually write every day, or close to it, no matter what—well, what do you know, anyway.

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Jerry Orbach as Jake and Al Pacino as Harry in Chinese Coffee (2000)

And yet, Jake is Harry’s best friend. The man whom Harry turns to in the middle of a cold New York night after Harry’s been fired from his gig as a doorman at a faux-French Manhattan restaurant for not being subservient enough. Harry is no wannabe. He has had two novels published to acclaim, received several fellowships and of course has benefited from the cherished financial advance from publishers. But when we meet Harry his books are out of print and he’s out of that thing that produces the luck and good fortune of the next publishable novel: self-belief.

 I’m not one of those privileged brats from West Chester who thinks that living down and out in Greenwich Village is cool. – Harry Levine, Chinese Coffee (2000)

It’s important to back-track for a moment here to that 1993 New York Times review about the play Chinese Coffee. Here’s what Mr. Klein had to say: The playwright’s fitfully amusing off-center observations for one or the other of his lost souls are too slight to accommodate the range of such fine actors. His details — of the women in their wretched lives, of guilt, of an endless preoccupation with a lack of money — are not interesting. In a 105-minute intermissionless play, talk fills time but does not illuminate character. Mr. Lewis says little about the creative spark — a serious omission. He charts a course of progression, but the play does not progress; it simply ends.

 The film, under Pacino’s direction, is much more expansive utilizing the medium of film to amplify and emotionally explore the underpinnings of Harry’s and Jake’s relationship to each other and the women in their lives through a series of flashbacks. These flashbacks, deftly rendered, work because the duologues are bursting at the seams with innuendo, nuance, vitriol and passion. The things Mr. Klein found so uninteresting like, “details — of the women in their wretched lives, of guilt, of an endless preoccupation with a lack of money…” become gut-wrenching.

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Susan Floyd as Harry’s girlfriend Joanna and Al Pacino as Harry in Chinese Coffee (DVD release 2007)

When Harry shows up on Jake’s doorstep after midnight looking like a cold, homeless Richard Lewis, he’s there not just for comfort, which he usually gets from his strolls down to a Chinatown diner for coffee, he’s there because Jake owes him several hundred bucks and Harry’s in desperate need. However, Jake is dealing, or not, with his own desperation. He’s sick with the virus of failure and self-loathing and he wants to infect Harry, who despite himself, still has a hopeful heart.

 What ensues is Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf meets Waiting for Godot with a little Neil Simon and Woody Allen thrown in for good measure. In true Aristotelian fashion the main characters are revealed to be the complete opposite of our initial perception of them. Jake’s heart is not like the sacred heart of Jesus, but more a heart of endless darkness seeking its own terrible end in a tiny cramped apartment where the windows have been nailed shut.

  I didn’t steal your life I just put it to imaginative use. – Al Pacino as Harry Levine

Did you read my book?  Harry wants to know after Jake reveals all he has is a jar of pennies. Yes, Jake has read his book and there is the rub. The book is very good, so good Jake has been telling Harry that he hasn’t read it; so good Jake keeps the well-read pages in his freezer, so good Harry might have a vehicle to drive him out of poverty and into the literary lime-light again. The book is so good that Jake will do or say anything to stop Harry from trying to get it published because, as Jake sees it, Harry has stolen Jake’s life in order to write this book.

OK, let’s face it, if you are friends with a writer, if you are related to a writer, if you are or have been a writer’s lover or spouse — one way or another you WILL end up as grist for the writer’s mill. It’s inevitable. It comes with the territory, and as Dracula said to Jonathan Harker –“Be forewarned.” I doubt if most writers would be as considerate as Harry Levine, who has discussed the premise of the novel in question with his buddy Jake while alerting Jake to the fact that the novel is a fictionalized memoir Jake, Harry and Harry’s long lost love Joanna and their days in New York.

 The fact that Harry reminds Jake of this only serves to arouse Jake’s professional jealousy because after years of making a decent living as a nightclub photographer, Jake has spent the last six-months as a free-lance “headshot” photographer for aspiring actors. He quit the nightclub circuit, branched out on his own only to realize that he too could have been a writer if his estranged wealthy wife (who’d take him back in a New York minute) hadn’t bankrolled and pampered him. If not for her that novel in the freezer could have been his novel.

 What do you want to be in ten years, one of those brilliant, autodidactic, Greenwich Village dishwashers? –- Jake Manheim, Chinese Coffee (2000)

But you’re not a writer, you’re a photographer. You were always a photographer, Harry says. Jake tells Harry that this is America. You are what you say you are. Harry counters with the irrefutable—a writer writes. See, you’re not really what you say you are—you are what you do: a writer writes.

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Harry Levine (Pacino) at the Chinatown diner

 I am now, from experience, very choosy about whom I let read my work before it’s published. I’ve found that some people’s personal unresolved bullshit about themselves and about me as a person can come into play, and it’s just not worth the heartbreak of losing a friend or losing my resolve as a writer. Many times I refuse to even answer what to me is the worst thing you can ask a novelist: “So, what’s your book about?” It’s about 300 pages jerk-wad. Reducing years of work into a couple of sentences is demeaning–to me and the work, because most of the time this question isn’t asked because the other person wants a real answer; it’s asked as a challenge, a prelude to a put-down. Yeah, it’s about 300 words jerk-wad.

 All I ever wanted to do was write what was in my heart. –- Harry Levine

 Too bad Harry’s soul was too tender for this kind of retort. Harry has faith, but he’s placed it in Jake and not in himself. If you’re a writer, it’s very important who your friends are, and what you choose to share with them while it’s still a thing in progress, a fragile thing that you are gently and painstakingly coaxing into life. Harry finally says to Jake maybe we were never really best friends. Write on Harry, just write on.