Easter with Tevye

I grew up in the kind of Jewish home where Santa Claus came on December 25 and a certain pagan rodent arrived on a seemingly random Sunday in the Spring, often accompanied by matzoh brie for breakfast if it was Passover.  Over the years, my inevitably confused interest in my Hebraic roots increased, and I quickly understood that the three holiest texts in Jewish scripture were the Torah, the Talmud, and Broadway’s Fiddler on the Roof.

With a book by Joseph Stein, music and lyrics by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick and drawn from stories by pseudonymous Yiddish author Sholem Aleichem, often called “the Jewish Mark Twain,” no Jewish wedding or bar/bat mitvah was complete without half the score. A particular must for even a lot of the non-Jewish weddings I’ve attended remains “Sunrise, Sunset.” The song, a succinct expression of the bittersweet feelings involved with watching beloved children turn into adults, remains the most effective technology for extracting tears from parents known prior to the release of “Toy Story 3.”

The tale of a goodnatured, deeply religious milkman trying to marry off his three daughters in the face of pogroms and the onslaught of history in early 20th century Tsarist Russia did roughly what “The Godfather” did for Italian-Americans (ethnic controversy notwithstanding) and “Roots” did for African-Americans, create a sense of history during a time when present day changes often seemed overwhelming. If you hadn’t seen “Fiddler,” as my mother’s friends inevitably called it, on the stage, you were suspect. If you missed the movie, you might as well get baptized.

All of which is just a longwinded way of saying that, when we the 40th Anniversary Blu-Ray edition of director Norman Jewison’s 1971 film of “Fiddler on the Roof,” genetics pretty much forced me to raise my hand for it, though it hasn’t been a favorite since the day I got my cinephile magic decoder ring. The slightly grainy and slightly gauzy film — director of photography Oswald Morris shot it entirely through a woman’s stocking and won one of the film’s three Oscars — looks as good as you can probably hope for on Blu-Ray, naturally, and John William’s solid but occasionally too-pretty adaptation of Jerry Bock’s score sounds nice, too, but the movie remains problematic for this viewer.

It’s not so different from a lot of other awkward stage-to-film musical translations of its time. Chiefly, Canadian director Jewison tries to adopt a realist approach to try to sell the highly theatrical material in the unforgiving medium of film, which might have been next to impossible regardless. Though Jewison retained much of the choreography by the legendary Jerome Robbins (“West Side Story”), setting it in real or real-looking locations is a doomed strategy. The best strictly musical scenes, like the famous “bottle dance” wedding sequence and the rousing “L’Chaim,” were shot on a London soundstage.

A solid cast led by Israeli actor Topol as Tevye, the milkman, and featuring Yiddish theater legend Molly Picon and future “Starsky and Hutch” star Michael Glaser (he’d add “Paul” to his name later) among many others, helps. Chaim Topol, who played the part on stage in London and Tel Aviv, is a better choice than the brash and notoriously difficult to control original Broadway Tevye, Zero Mostel, would have been. Among other issues, Woody Allen in “Annie Hall” was not the first movie Jew to break the forth wall and address the camera directly. No one would accuse Topol of underacting, but if it had been Mostel talking and singing at us about the importance of “Tradition,” the audience would have been forced into a defensive crouch.

Of course, there’s much more to than issues like cinematic style and acting to the ongoing appeal of “Fiddler on the Roof.” It remains popular not only in the U.S. but is still performed even in Japan, where the story of the breakdown of ancient traditions has had an oddly logical resonance. No amount of quibbling is going to kill the film version of “Fiddler,” nor should it.

Oh, and happy Easter if that’s your thing. Have a chocolate bunny for me.

  

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RIP Robert F. Boyle

It’s one of those days. Another Hollywood craftsman has left us, though Robert F. Boyle got to be about as famous as production designers/art directors ever get and he also lived to the ripe age of 100.  Responsible for the gorgeously stylized sets and backgrounds you’ll see below, Boyle was probably best known for the few films he did with Alfred Hitchcock, particularly “North by Northwest” as well as with Norman Jewison on the first, amazing, version of “The Thomas Crown Affair.” Since both movies have great trailers that really show off Boyle’s work, we’ll show you those.

I’ve got a bonus video after the flip.

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Your post-Good Friday movie news dump

A few remaining items worth mentioning this late evening/early morn…

* RIP John Forsythe. The watchably stolid actor with a nice touch at both melodrama and low-key comedy and a memorable voice passed away at 92 late Thursday. He worked a great deal on stage and in kept his hand in at the movies, but he’s did most of his work in multiple television series and, ironically, is probably best known today as the disembodied voice of Charlie from “Charlie’s Angels.” Still, he was a strong presence in a number of notable movies, including playing opposite a very young and very adorable Shirley Maclaine in Alfred Hitchcock‘s black comedy, “The Trouble with Harry” and as a vicious judge taunting a youngish but far less adorable Al Pacino in Norman Jewison’s “And Justice for All…” He also dealt with a murderous Robert Blake in “In Cold Blood” and fended off a nasty, nasty Ann Margaret in, yes, “Kitten with a Whip.”

* Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg — the Jewish-American twosome who struck a blow for the depiction of Asian-Americans as actual human beings, albeit hilariously stoned ones, by creating “Harold and Kumar” — are set to reboot the “American Pie” franchise with a film that is also a sequel. Also, the third go-round with ‘Roldy and Kumar is in motion, even if Kal Penn is currently employed outside of Hollywood. I mean, good roles for Asian American males should not so rare that they are all forced to go to work at the White House.

* The lovely and talented Emily Blunt will not be romancing “Captain America,” according to the Playlist’s Edward Davis. I’m not sure why he’s so convinced it won’t be a very good movie except for the fact that, of course, most movies aren’t very good and the bigger the budget, the more often that turns out to be true. But even so, I don’t quite get it.

On the other hand, I completely agree with the premise of another post by Davis: Yes, the thought of Tom Cruise uglying himself up in a major way to play Phil Spector really does have some demented genius to it. I’m not Cruise’s biggest fan but, well cast, he can be brilliant and playing lunatics seems to work for him. I have no idea why that might be the case.

And, yes, I like a third Davis post about a long-delayed movie being labored over by Cameron Crowe about the equally great and equally demented Marvin Gaye. Re: casting, I’m rooting for Jesse L. Martin of “Law & Order” — a terrific actor and the physical resemblance is pretty eerie.

* Another comic book adaptation for Ryan Reynolds.

* Don’cha just hate it when a star and director team up, get plenty of compliments, and then just repeat themselves? Well, fresh off their mostly good reviews and general decent business on “Greenberg,” about the personal travails of a bitter forty-something musician-cum-carpenter,  the two are simply rehashing the same basic premise with “Mr. Popper’s Penguins.” Oh, wait…

* From a couple of days back, Anne Thompson nicely summarizes the spreading conventional movie-geek wisdom on the making and consumption of 3-D films. Shorter version: really, not every movie should be in it, it’s worth a little extra to see movies actually shot in 3-D in 3-D, but the conversions from 2-D to 3-D are pretty much best ignored and may even end up ruining the fun.

* Sharon Waxman writes that a mystery bidder has entered the fray to purchase the studio original named for the Weinsteins’s parents, Mira and Max. Could it be Harvey and Bob W.’s long lost older brother, Mogul X, who fled in shame after his first producing effort sold exactly three tickets at Sundance, and vowed only to return only after he had become the world’s greatest movie executive? It’s a thought.

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