Saturday, July 7, 2012

1971 - Fiddler on the Roof

As New York suffers through its current heat wave, being inside a theatre is a pleasantly cool place to be. On July 4th, Kat and I, along with a few friends visiting from out of town, took in a show, and what better show for Independence Day than Gore Vidal's The Best Man. The play itself was a little long and static (they still found time for two intermissions) but the star-studded cast made it all worth it. At 81 and 86 respectively, James Earl Jones and Angela Lansbury are as captivating as ever. And they share the stage with a veritable who's who of the sitcom universe - Will & Grace's Eric McCormack, Night Court's John Larroquette and Murphy Brown's Candice Bergen.

Meanwhile, in an air-conditioned apartment, I take a look at 1971's next contender for Best Picture...

Fiddler on the Roof
Norman Jewison
Joseph Stein
(adapted from his book of the Broadway musical, which was based on stories by Sholem Aleichem)
Topol, Norma Crane, Leonard Frey, Molly Picon, Paul Mann, Rosalind Harris, Michele Marsh, Neva Small, Paul Michael Glaser, Ray Lovelock
Academy Awards:
8 nominations
3 wins

In the small rural Russian town of Anatevka, a local Jewish milkman named Tevye (Topol) and his wife Golde (Crane) eke out a poor but relatively happy existence. One by one, their daughters begin to fall in love, causing Tevye not a small amount of angst, since his traditional views only allow for arranged marriages. His eldest daughter Tzeitel (Harris) wants to marry the poor tailor Motel (Frey) instead of the rich butcher Lazar Wolf (Mann) to whom Tevye has promised her. Tevye eventually relents, giving his permission, but when his second daughter Hodel (Marsh) doesn't even ask his permission to marry radical Perchik (Glaser), Tevye has more trouble accepting it. Finally, his third daughter Chava (Small) has chosen a non-Jewish man, Fyedka (Lovelock), for her partner and Tevye's limits are tested.

Watching Fiddler on the Roof immediately after fellow nominee Nicholas and Alexandra allowed for a fascinating comparison. While the two films are vastly different in genre and style, they both take place in early 20th century Russia during a revolution, albeit two separate revolutions. However, more fascinating is the fact that, despite their perspectives being on opposite sides - one from the Tsar's point of view, the other from a peasant's - the general theme of the story is strikingly similar. Both focus on a protagonist who struggles to hold on to tradition amid a changing world.

Regular readers may recognise my aversion to heavy religious content, yet I found Fiddler on the Roof pleasant and somehow comfortable, no doubt a result of my Jewish upbringing. Although, the affinity I have towards Jewish culture is definitely less to do with the religious elements and more so with the traditions, which, of course, this picture relishes. Plus, I have a strong familiarity with the soundtrack - probably more than any other musical - having grown up hearing those catchy tunes, so there is undoubtedly a nostalgic effect at work here, too. I don't mind admitting that I felt goose bumps as the music swelled for "Tradition".

Along with its outstanding music - which, incidentally, won prolific film composer John Williams his first Oscar, for Scoring Adaptation - the film also delivers some beautiful images, earning the Academy's Cinematography award as well. The sweeping Eastern European landscapes are featured heavily, but the campy dream sequence is particularly unique, looking like something from Rocky Horror.

For a stage musical, the song sequences are cleverly presented here on film, often making good use of the medium. Especially effective is Sunrise, Sunset, which is sung in voice over, the lyrics being treated as the inner thoughts of each of the characters. Similarly, Do You Love Me? proves the power of a well-written song coupled with clever direction. It is essentially a simple and genuine scene in which a man asks his wife if she loves him, only they both happen to be singing. Very touching.

Despite the many, many touching moments, including the penultimate scene, don't expect a traditional showstopping number to conclude this musical. The actual ending is a bit of a downer, truth be told, not just because of the plot, but because, after all the emotion and humour of the past three hours, it just sort of peters out.

It's hard to imagine anyone but Topol in this role. He is charming and passionate. I had the good fortune of seeing him on stage in this role in Sydney during his Australian tour a few years ago. His performance then was a little tired, which is perhaps forgivable since he had been playing the role for almost 40 years. However, in the film here, he is fresh and vibrant, garnering a Best Actor nomination from the Academy. Leonard Frey received the film's other acting nod for his effective portrayal of the timid tailor, Motel. And for the TV trivia buffs, yes, that's the original Starsky himself (Paul Michael Glaser) as the radical Perchik. Or if you're a Mad About You fan, you might recognise Burt Buchman (Louis Zorich) as the cowardly Constable.

1 comment:

  1. Fiddler on the Roof was the third of the five films Norman Jewison directed that earned a Best Picture Nomination – an impressive accomplishment. In his commentary, he quickly addresses the controversy of casting Topol as Tevye, the patriarch, over Zero Mostel, Broadway’s original Tevye. He basically said that the tone of the film pointed to an old world, Eastern European interpretation rather than a Seventh Ave. one, and the Tel Aviv born Topol fit the bill. There’s no doubt that Mostel would have injected some Max Bialystock into Tevye. Topol did a fine job in a larger than life performance in the mode of Anthony Quinn’s Zorba, although I found much of it consisted either of his kibitzing with God or yelling at everyone else.

    I had mixed feelings with the rest of the cast. I liked the trio of daughters, all of whom had excellent voices. Paul Michael Glaser injected passion into his role, but perhaps his TV notoriety lent him an anachronistic contemporary air. I can’t say that Norma Crane as Golde stood out much. Sadly, she died only two years later at a young 44. Molly Picon was Molly Picon, the definitive Yente.

    Overall, while being a bit longish, Fiddler was a moving, beautifully filmed story, with many lovely tunes. It held my interest more than Nicholas and Alexandra. Hard to please Pauline Kael called it the most powerful musical ever made.