I saw two films this weekend that both featured oppressed groups struggling to find their place within the larger culture. “Born into Brothels” is a beautiful Oscar-nominated documentary about the children of sex workers who grow up in the red light district of Calcutta. A photographer named Zana Briski went to India to photograph the lives of women there. While visiting with some prostitutes in one of the most squalid parts of Calcutta, she immediately formed a bond with many of the young children who were living in the brothel. These kids tend to be left for dead by the rest of Indian society, even the local charities seem reluctant to help. Briski decided to organize a photography class in the brothel. She gave each of the kids an inexpensive camera and set them loose in their neighborhood. The results were truly amazing and their photos ended up being exhibited in galleries and auctioned off by Sotheby’s. Most of the adults these kids come into contact with have nothing but disdain for them so it was heartwarming to see how the attention of one outsider made such an impact on their lives.
Many of the young girls in the film know they are approaching the age when they will be expected to “join the line” and their sad acceptance of that fact just breaks your heart. The boys face other problems but certainly are heading to a life of misery unless they can get some kind of education. Some of the mothers do their best, but they are victims themselves of this societal system. In several cases the grandmothers and great-grandmothers were also prostitutes in the brothel. Briski makes it her mission to get some of the kids into boarding schools to give them a shot at life outside of the red light district. Overcoming all odds including the complex Indian bureaucracy which makes it almost impossible to get these kids papers because they are the children of “criminals,” she is finally able to place a number of the children. The real heartbreak of the film comes during the end titles when we learn which of the kids were removed from the schools by their parents to go to work in the brothel.
If ever you needed proof of how the arts can transform lives, I implore you to watch this film and see how the creativity they are allowed to express gives these kids an entirely new lease on their seemingly hopeless lives. I hope this film wins the Oscar. All the money Briski is making from the film, as well as all proceeds from the sale of the children’s photos goes towards getting kids in similar situations into good schools. Check out the website for Zana Briski’s nonprofit organization, Kids with Cameras. This woman should get a Nobel Prize in addition to her Oscar.
Yesterday Leah and I went to a special screening of “Fiddler on the Roof” at the Cinematheque here in Hollywood (you can see what fans we are of the Super Bowl!). I first saw the film in 1971 at the Lincoln Village Theatre. The film was a Huge Deal among the North Side Jews of Chicago. It was the first time I remember ever getting reserved seats for a movie and ticket prices were an unheard of $3.00! I’ve seen the film many times since then on video and DVD and always enjoyed it, but part of me dismissed it as a fun but schmaltzy icon of the 1970s. That was not my experience last night. Far from seeming dated, the story of Tevye the Milkman and his five daughters resonated more with me now than ever, it was like I was seeing it for the first time. It didn’t hurt that we were watching a gorgeous 70mm print on the huge screen at the Cinematheque’s Egyptian Theatre and that Production Designer Robert Boyle was there answering questions. Boyle also art directed films such as "North by Northwest" and "The Birds." I always get uncomfortable when people talk about the “universality” of stories such as “Fiddler on the Roof” and “The Diary of Anne Frank” because to me it always seems like a marketing ploy to make sure the Gentiles aren't scared away, but you really could make a connection between the Jewish inhabitants of Anatevka and the beleaguered residents of troubled spots the world over, from Armenia to Zagreb.
Leah was also deeply moved by the film. During the pogrom that takes place during Tzeitel’s wedding, she gripped me tightly. Seeing the tears running down Leah's cheeks made me cry as well, and we were both infuriated by the wanton destruction at what should have been such a happy event. I did have to give her some background about the Jews in Czarist Russia since Leah kept thinking it was the Nazis who were wreaking such havoc. They'd arrive on the scene soon enough, I thought. As if the Jews of Europe didn't have enough problems dealing with our "Allies," the Russians.
I don’t think I ever fully appreciated the intricate emotional layers of Topol’s Tevye, all the more remarkable considering he was only 34 when the movie was made. I remember hearing director Norman Jewison (who is not Jewish—go figure!) say that he used to pluck his own gray hairs out every morning on the set and have them glued onto Topol’s beard and eyebrows to make him look older! Molly Picon was the perfect choice for the matchmaker Yente with her singsong voice that exactly mirrored Yiddish inflections: “Right? Of course right!” Leonard Frey was the definitive Mottel the Tailor. Frey’s other big role in the 1970s was Harold in “Boys in the Band”—the first mainstream American film about gay people. Sadly, he died of AIDS in 1988. Who couldn’t relate to Mottel’s timidity and the life-changing moment when he finally stands up to Tevye? His “Even a poor tailor is entitled to some happiness!” is a line I shout to the world whenever I feel particularly downtrodden. I found Paul Mann’s Lazar Wolf the Butcher very poignant during this viewing. It’s funny how our perceptions of certain characters change as we get older. In the 70s I’m sure I was thinking “Yuck! Tzeitel’s parents arranged for her to marry that old fat guy?” and now I’m thinking “Damn Tzeitel! How dare she spurn that wonderful, kind man! She would have been better off with the butcher!”
I was always surprised that the actresses who played Tevye’s daughters did not go on to big film careers. Rosalind Harris (Tzeitel) bore such a strong resemblance to Barbra Streisand that even Leah commented on it. Francis Ford Coppola must have noticed it too because he cast her as Fanny Brice in “The Cotton Club.” Decades after the movie came out Harris toured as Golde in a stage production of “Fiddler” with her screen papa Topol. From daughter to wife—what’s a little incest between shtetl Jews? Leah declared Michele Marsh’s Hodel (above, with Paul Michael Glaser) as the prettiest of the daughters and I had to agree. I then worried that Leah would interpret pretty as “the least Jewish-looking” since Marsh was the only Gentile actress so I made it a point to say how pretty I thought Tzeitel and Chava were too which was true but then I worried that I was sending the wrong message by commenting on the girls' looks at all. Oy, it’s hard to maintain the right politically correct stance when you’re watching a 1970s movie with a ten-year-old! Neva Small (Chava) made very few other films but appeared in several episodes of “Law and Order.” The cast member who became the most famous, oddly enough, was Paul Michael Glaser, who played the revolutionary Perchik and soon went on to “Starsky and Hutch.” Frankly I thought he was a little too Starsky-ish in “Fiddler” but, of course, I have only admiration for the Pediatric AIDS Foundation he created with his late wife Elizabeth.
May I reserve my most lavish praise for Norma Crane’s Golde? Where I once saw a stereotypical shrieking guilt-inducing Jewish mother, I now sat awestruck, watching a complex woman with the strength of 10 men and a capacity for love that enabled her large family to thrive in their bleak hand-to-mouth existence. Besides being the funniest character in the film ("So, my Lord and Master has decided to return home!" I am a slave to Jewish-style sarcasm, Golde’s primary method of communication), Crane delivered some of the film's most poignant moments such as when she mutters “Another blessing!” with a little shrug to mask her panic at adding yet another guest to their meager Sabbath table. The way she slowly and wordlessly walks back to the house after Tevye rejects their daughter Chava for marrying outside the faith should have won her an Oscar. Golde’s back is to the camera but Norma Crane could say more with her back in a long shot than many actors are able to convey in a well-lit close-up. Let’s hear it for all the strong Goldes of this world—the women who may be yelling at their loved ones and dripping with sarcasm but without whom Jewish families could simply not exist. What a shame Norma Crane died of cancer a few years after "Fiddler on the Roof" was made. She was 45.
Kendall and I recently saw the revival of “Fiddler on the Roof” on Broadway but unfortunately star Alfred Molina was sick that day. Last week Harvey Fierstein and Andrea Martin took over as Tevye and Golde, interesting choices indeed. I think they are both perfectly suited for the roles! Did you know that Bea Arthur was the original Yente the matchmaker (isn’t she a full three feet taller than Molly Picon?) and her “Maude” daughter Adrienne Barbeau appeared briefly as Hodel. Bette Midler made her Broadway debut as Tzeitel and even Pia Zadora played one of Tevye’s daughters during the show’s eight-year run.
Oy, I’ve droned on about this film longer than Paul McCartney’s halftime show at yesterday’s Super Bowl. I guess that’s the beauty of stream-of-consciousness blogging. What if Tevye and Golde had blogs? Maybe then it wouldn’t have taken them 25 years to express their love for each other.
Tevye: Do you love me?
Golde: I'm your wife!
Tevye: I know...but do you love me?
Golde: Do I love him?
For twenty-five years I've lived with him
Fought with him, starved with him
Twenty-five years my bed is his
If that's not love, what is?
Tevye: Then you love me?
Golde: I suppose I do.
Tevye: And I suppose I love you too.
Both: It doesn’t change a thing
But even so
After twenty-five years
It's nice to know.