Autism gets a new frame in family film
BY TRACY CONNOR
DAILY NEWS STAFF WRITER
Lizzie Gottlieb (r.) hugs brother Nicky Gottlieb, who stars in her documentary about Asperger Syndrome.
Most of what the average person knows about autistic adults with special abilities probably comes from the movie "Rain Man."
But New York filmmaker Lizzie Gottlieb hopes to change that with a documentary about her brother, Nicky Gottlieb, who has an autism-related disorder known as Asperger Syndrome.
The 28-year-old is the star of "Today's Man," a one-hour feature which will be shown Friday at the Margaret Mead Film and Video Festival at the American Museum of Natural History. It's a loving yet unflinching look at the paradox of Asperger: Nicky can memorize whole calendars but can't hold a 9-to-5 job; he's a whiz at foreign languages but struggles to communicate with his peers.
It also follows his parents - former New Yorker magazine editor Robert Gottlieb and actress Maria Tucci - as they encourage their son, with mixed results, to lead a more independent life.
"Physically, I'm a man," Nicky says as the movie opens with his 21st birthday party. "But mentally and emotionally I'm a boy."
Though it was obvious from infancy that Nicky was different than other children, he wasn't diagnosed with Asperger until after Lizzie started filming the documentary.
"Nicky had been this sort of strange and mysterious child," she said. "He was the most interesting, unique, odd person I knew."
He exhibits many of the hallmarks of Asperger: peculiar speech, social awkwardness - and obsessive interests. He's fixated on television, compelled to watch certain soap operas. He can recite the date of every Easter Sunday since 1900 and pinpoint the day of the week for anyone's birth date. He blithely blurts out inappropriate comments.
He gets fired from a theater company for telling subscribers one of the shows is a dud. He gets his own apartment, but soon moves back in with his parents because he enjoys the "perks," including a big television.
"Today's Man" premiered at the Nantucket Film Festival, where celebrity-loving Nicky relished the applause and his moment in the spotlight. "As he said to the audience in Nantucket, he enjoys being a star," Lizzie said. "He went up to Heather Graham at the film festival and said, 'I'm the star of a movie here, too.'"
Nicky is looking forward to the documentary, which is being pitched to TV companies, debuting in New York. "I imagine a lot of people feel like Asperger's is a real disability," he said. "But at the same time you have some extraordinary abilities - math, foreign languages, dates. I don't mean to flatter myself, but that seems like real genius."