Thanks to a series of independent films that cumulatively could be best described as disturbing, writer-director Todd Solondz courted controversy and outrage among audiences and critics while leaving an indelible mark upon the filmmaking world. Solondz made his official debut following a debacle first film with "Welcome to the Dollhouse" (1995), a heartbreaking yet hilarious chronicle of junior high school life as seen through the eyes of a put-upon young girl. This auspicious debut garnered the filmmaker much attention, which he parlayed into his next film, "Happiness" (1998), a truly dark and twisted film that generated controversy and scorn, mainly due to his sympathetic presentation of a pedophile. Regardless of its hard-to-stomach elements, "Happiness" forced audiences and critics to take note. But Solondz squandered any leftover goodwill from "Welcome to the Dollhouse" with "Storytelling" (2002), which caused critics to lash out over his alleged disdain for his characters - a criticism he wholeheartedly embraced. He confused the few moviegoers who saw his nearly self-financed "Palindromes" (2004), an avant-garde dramedy that focused on a lead character played by 10 different actors of varying ages, races and genders, while handling tough subjects like abortion, child molestation and statutory rape. But by the time he directed "Life During Wartime" (2010), a companion piece to "Happiness," Solondz had re-emerged as a hailed filmmaker once again, back in the good graces of critics and audiences.
Born on Oct. 15, 1959 in Newark, NJ, Solondz was raised by his father, Philip, an M.I.T. graduate who worked in construction, and his mother, Gaby, a former pianist by way of Julliard who gave up being a musician for motherhood. After his family moved to the more suburban Livingston in the 1960s, he began pursuing his artistic talents, starting with learning how to play the cello and piano. He also had ambitions to become a rabbi, which propelled him through a succession of religious, public and private schools. Eventually having decided against the ecclesiastical life, Solondz eventually landed among the humanistic literary set, studying English at Yale College. Though a mediocre student, he did receive an invaluable education through countless screenings of movies from past and present, largely due to his anemic social life. Following graduation in 1981, Solondz headed west to Los Angeles, where he worked as a messenger at the Writers Guild of America while writing screenplays in his spare time. He even aspired to become a stand-up comic, but his mother ended that ambition when she informed him that he was not funny.
While Solondz managed to get an agent on the strength of his first script, he eventually lost his representation when the agent expressed his dislike of a second. Frustrated by his lack of success, Solondz moved back East and settled in New York City, where he enrolled at NYU's highly regarded film school. While there, he made several promising short films, most notably "Schatt's Last Shot" (1985), a 12-minute comedy about a teenager who must pass gym in order to graduate high school. Based on the strength of this little movie, Solondz won a high-powered agent and a highly coveted three picture deal with 20th Century Fox. But he did not want to direct Hollywood movies, so instead he wrote and directed his feature debut, "Fear, Anxiety and Depression" (1989), a barely remembered would-be comedy about struggling twenty-somethings trying to make it on the trendy New York art scene. Solondz also played the lead character, writer Ira Ellis, who is so desperate that he sends his latest play to his idol Samuel Beckett in hopes of a collaboration. The filmmaker found the experience so dispiriting that he decided to quit Hollywood altogether.
Solondz returned to New York, where he failed to be accepted by the Peace Corps. Instead, he accepted a job as a teacher of English as a Second Language to newly arrived Russian immigrants, an experience he described as deeply rewarding even though he spent the next two years without much ambition. School lay-offs were looming on the horizon when a lawyer friend announced that she could raise financing for his next feature. The lawyer remembered a screenplay Solondz had written right after the debacle of "Fear, Anxiety and Depression," which went on to became the director's official first feature, "Welcome to the Dollhouse" (1996), a dark comedy about an 11-year-old bespectacled doormat of a girl (Heather Matarazzo) who faces unbridled abuse at every turn. The unrelenting film won the hearts of reviewers and audiences, while introducing a cast of talented newcomers, including Matarazzo, Brendan Sexton III and Eric Mabius. Hailed for its realism, emotional truth and unsentimental humor, the elegantly composed low-budget film won Solondz major prizes at the Berlin and Sundance Film festivals, the latter of which rewarded the film the Grand Jury Prize for Best Dramatic Feature. Most importantly, Solondz had tasted success entirely on his own terms.
Solondz followed up with the controversial but widely well-received "Happiness" (1998). Both exceptionally funny and wildly disturbing, "Happiness" caused quite a stir following its award-winning Cannes debut, and was subsequently dropped by October Films when Universal Pictures and parent company Seagram's forbade the subsidiary to distribute it, citing moral outrage. An ensemble film focusing on the lives of three sisters and the people with whom they interconnect, "Happiness" included among its characters an obscene phone caller (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) and a pedophile (Dylan Baker) who drugs and rapes his son's 11-year-old friend during a sleepover, all of which are portrayed in an irreverently sympathetic light. In fact, it was Solondz's humanizing, three-dimensional look at the ultimately unrepentant pedophile that produced the most howls among critics, not to mention churned a few stomachs in the audience. While unsettling, most agreed that his highly controversial work - finally released by a specially formed distribution annex of the independent production company Good Machine after October Films was forbidden by corporate parent Universal Pictures to release it - was more morally exploratory than bankrupt. But the controversy did buy the film and the director a great deal of press, undoubtedly bringing in moviegoers who may not have otherwise seen the film, while forcing everyone to take notice of Solondz, whether they wanted to or not.
For his next film, "Storytelling" (2002), Solondz delved deeper into the sexual depravity and suburban ennui that occupied his previous work. This time, he heaped scorn upon his critics and fans with a film told in two halves: The first, "Fiction," a scant 30 minutes long and considered the better of the two, told the story of Vi (Selma Blair), a creative writing student at a third-rate college whose relationship with a fellow student (Leo Fitzpatrick) stricken with cerebral palsy falls apart, prompting her to pursue an affair with her African-American professor (Robert Wisdom). When the professor takes her home, however, Vi discovers she is forced to perform a humiliating sexual act - which the director blocked out with a red box marked "Censored," after the MPAA threatened to slap the film with an NC-17 rating. Meanwhile, the longer half, "Nonfiction," depicted a teenaged slacker, Scooby Livingston (Mark Webber), whose life in a typical Jewish family is documented by a filmmaker (Paul Giamatti) and ultimately exploited for laughs. In the film's most poignant scene, Solondz shows an eavesdropping Scooby at an exclusive premier of his film, where a hipster audience howls with laughter at his dream of becoming Conan O'Brien's sidekick - a direct smack in the face of Solondz's avant-garde audience, who have been accused of relishing their intellectual superiority. Some critics claimed that "Storytelling" was cruel and mean-spirited, and Solondz too derisive toward his characters. The director accepted such criticism, saying that his "movies are not for everyone."
With "Palindromes" (2004), his most politically charged film then to date, Solondz sought to offend and repulse as many people as possible. The director spared no one: abortion activists, fundamentalist Christians, disabled children - nothing was sacred. A 13-year-old Jewish girl, Aviva, from suburban New Jersey longs to have a baby. She has quick, awkward sex with the son of a family friend and gets what she wanted, but her mother (Ellen Barkin) forces her to have an abortion which ends up going wrong. Aviva runs away and finds a Christian commune of disabled children run by the film's only sympathetic character, Mama Sunshine (Debra Monk), and later gets involved in a plot to murder an abortion doctor. Critics complained the film was disjointed and confusing, especially because Aviva was played by eight different actors of varying age, race and gender for no apparent reason. Five girls, one 12-year-old boy, a rather large African-American adult (Sharon Wilkins) and even Jennifer Jason Leigh all played the young runaway searching for love. Even those who had enjoyed his past work panned the movie, as Solondz continued to simultaneously irritate audiences and as well as provoke thought.
Six years after "Palindromes," Solondz returned to directing with "Life During Wartime" (2010), a sequel to "Happiness" that featured several characters from that film - and a few from "Welcome to the Dollhouse" - even though they were all played by different actors. In fact, Solondz threw away the idea of continuity altogether, making some characters age more than others while even changing one's race. The story followed the three sisters from "Happiness" - Trish (Allison Janney), Joy (Shirley Henderson) and Helen (Ally Sheedy) - as they struggle to find love, forgiveness and meaning to their lives. Also starring Ciaran Hinds, Michael Kenneth Williams and a rejuvenated Paul Reubens, "Life During Wartime" featured a compelling cast while earning critical kudos following its premiere at the Venice Film Festival in September 2009, where it won the Golden Osella award for Best Screenplay. Solondz also earned an Indie Spirit nod for Best Screenplay.
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Wrote and directed first student short, "Feelings," at NYU
Wrote and directed second student short, "Babysitter," at NYU
Wrote and directed his breakthrough 12-minute student film, "Schatt's Last Shot"
Debuted the short, "How I Became a Leading Artistic Figure in New York City's East Village Cultural Landscape," on NBC's "Saturday Night Live"
Made feature acting debut playing a bit part as the Zany Reporter in Jonathan Demme's "Married to the Mob"
Featured as an interview subject on "SST: Screen, Stage, Television," an ABC documentary special about show business stories
Wrote, directed and starred in debut feature, "Fear, Anxiety, and Depression"
Wrote, produced and directed the indie hit, "Welcome to the Dollhouse"; first shown at Toronto International Film Festival (released theatrically in March 1996)
Made cameo appearance as a bus passenger in James L. Brooks' "As Good As It Gets"
Helmed the controversial, "Happiness," a searing character study of three sisters and the men and women in their lives
Premiered fourth feature, "Storytelling," at the Cannes Film Festival (released theatrically in 2002)
Helmed the unrated film, "Palindromes"
Wrote, produced and directed, "Life During Wartime"
Nominated for the 2011 Independent Spirit Award for Best Screenplay ("Life During Wartime")