Skip to main content

I know, I know, we are the chosen people. But once in a while, can’t You choose someone else?

Fiddler on the Roof
(1971)

(SPOILERS) When I say the appeal of Fiddler on the Roof is all about Topol’s performance, that’s not to suggest I might not have similarly rated Zero Mostel had I first seen him as Tevye (although I’m guessing that’s unlikely). And it’s not a slight on Joseph Stein’s adaptation of his stage play, or the clutch of great songs peppering the picture, or Norman Jewison’s unobtrusive direction and Oswald Morris’ fine earthy cinematography. But Topol makes the film, in the same way F Murray Abraham is the pulse of Amadeus.

I guess I mention Abraham because both are a case of an actor singularly identified with one role, regardless of whatever else they may have done since. And both were nominated for Best Actor Oscar for that role. Abraham, of course, won, while Gene Hackman’s Popeye Doyle in The French Connection beat Topol for (other nominees were Peter Finch, Walter Matthau and George C Scott). Further, the success of William Friedkin’s film at the awards – even though Fiddler on the Roof was the year’s biggest box office hit – reflected the changing landscape of Hollywood at that point. A few years earlier, Fiddler would surely have swept the board (a few years earlier, Oliver! pretty much did). Now, it had to make do with Best Score, Best Sound and Best Cinematography (it was nominated for eight, along with The French Connection and The Last Picture Show).

Fiddler on the Roof was up against solid competition, though. Even now, four of the Best Picture nominees stand the test of time; Nicholas and Alexandra was the expensive period bomb whose devoted publicity campaign managed to win it an undeserved nomination. The French Connection and A Clockwork Orange remain most indelible, and I’d suggest The Last Picture Show might have lost some of its lustre, but Fiddler on the Roof still stands as one of the great Hollywood musicals. And that’s despite having maybe only four standout numbers (If I Were a Rich Man, Miracle of Miracles, Matchmaker, Matchmaker and Tradition).

There’s another connection to Amadeus. While that film is about a man tragically bemoaning a God who does not respond to him personally, and who has been brought to the lowest of low states through that perceived neglect, Fiddler on the Roof concerns a man cheerfully, irrepressibly bemoaning a God who does not respond to him personally, and yet who soldiers on despite it all. Topol’s bear of a father and husband is outwardly temperamental and combustible, but has a heart of gold, one that melts when each of his daughters successively buck tradition in one way or another: arranged marriages, failing to ask his permission to marry, marrying a gentile. Even in the latter case, the worst of the worst, he’s unable to maintain an unbending line.

And Topol, then thirty-five but playing twenty years older, is so effortless in his intimacy with the viewer, it’s no chore to spend three hours with him. His misapplication of Bible verse, attempts to maintain his patriarchal authority and little chats with God are warm and witty, as are his asides of contemplation as he ponders the ins and outs of each new attack on his preserved values; one of Jewison’s few directorial flourishes is to give Topol the close up, the subject of his thoughts suddenly set in the far distance.

The intermission is notably placed at the musical’s downturn in tone, from feisty and upbeat to tragic displacement, as the pogroms turn out Tevye and his village. Jewison resists the urge to over sentimentalise this, though, and the dark wit that has laced the picture throughout is still in abundance (“Maybe that’s why we always wear our hats” ponders Tevye of their moving on). Fiddler on the Roof’s great skill is treading a line between thoughtfulness and the frivolity of the musical form.

There are elements here that are perhaps less than essential; the “dream” sequence never really takes flight, and while the Do You Love Me? track, as Tevye and Golde (Norma Crane) recognise that despite their arranged relationship they do love each other, is rather sweet, there’s a prevailing feeling that Golde is given insufficient time to underline their relationship.

But elsewhere, there are some very nice performances, not least Paul Mann as the wonderfully named Lazar Wolf (the butcher), who fails to forgive Tevye for reneging on the agreement to marry his eldest (and whom Tevye initially thinks he is talking to about selling a cow). Zvee Scooler plays the Rabbi – he’d pop up in Love and Death a couple of years later – Paul Michael Glaser is the Bolshevik suitor of Tevye’s second daughter Hodel (Michaele Marsh) and Tutte Lemkow, Old Gorky in The AvengersLegacy of Death, is the title character.

Fiddler on the Roof stands as one of the last gasps of the traditional Hollywood musical, thanks in part to a glut of ill-conceived bombs in the wake of the all-time-champ The Sound of Music. Unlike many, though, it concludes on a bitter-sweet note of perseverance in the face of an uncertain future. As such, it isn’t perhaps the anomaly it might at first appear when compared against the new Hollywood fare surrounding it. And Topol’s dancing is mighty.



Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

You know, I think you may have the delusion you’re still a police officer.

Heaven’s Prisoners (1996) (SPOILERS) At the time, it seemed Alec Baldwin was struggling desperately to find suitable star vehicles, and the public were having none of it. Such that, come 1997, he was playing second fiddle to Anthony Hopkins and Bruce Willis, and in no time at all had segued to the beefy supporting player we now know so well from numerous indistinguishable roles. That, and inane SNL appearances. But there was a window, post- being replaced by Harrison Ford as Jack Ryan, when he still had sufficient cachet to secure a series of bids for bona fide leading man status. Heaven’s Prisoners is the final such and probably the most interesting, even if it’s somewhat hobbled by having too much, rather than too little, story.

They wanted me back for a reason. I need to find out why.

Zack Snyder’s Justice League (2021) (SPOILERS) I wasn’t completely down on Joss Whedon’s Justice League (I had to check to remind myself Snyder retained the director credit), which may be partly why I’m not completely high on Zack Snyder’s. This gargantuan four-hour re-envisioning of Snyder’s original vision is aesthetically of a piece, which means its mercifully absent the jarring clash of Whedon’s sensibility with the Snyderverse’s grimdark. But it also means it doubles down on much that makes Snyder such an acquired taste, particularly when he has story input. The positive here is that Zack Snyder’s Justice League has the luxury of telling the undiluted, uncondensed story Snyder wanted to tell. The negative here is also that Zack Snyder’s Justice League has the luxury of telling the undiluted, uncondensed story Snyder wanted to tell (with some extra sprinkles on top). This is not a Watchmen , where the unexpurgated version was for the most part a feast.

I mean, I am just a dumb bunny, but, we are good at multiplying.

Zootropolis (2016) (SPOILERS) The key to Zootropolis’ creative success isn’t so much the conceit of its much-vaunted allegory regarding prejudice and equality, or – conversely – the fun to be had riffing on animal stereotypes (simultaneously clever and obvious), or even the appealing central duo voiced by Ginnifier Goodwin (as first rabbit cop Judy Hopps) and Jason Bateman (fox hustler Nick Wilde). Rather, it’s coming armed with that rarity for an animation; a well-sustained plot that doesn’t devolve into overblown set pieces or rest on the easy laurels of musical numbers and montages.

Oh, I love funny exiting lines.

Alfred Hitchcock  Ranked: 26-1 The master's top tier ranked from worst to best. You can find 52-27 here .

Don’t be ridiculous. Nobody loves a tax inspector. They’re beyond the pale!

Too Many Crooks (1959) (SPOILERS) The sixth of seven collaborations between producer-director Mario Zampi and writer Michael Pertwee, Too Many Crooks scores with a premise later utilised to big box-office effect in Ruthless People (1986). A gang of inept thieves kidnap the wife of absolute cad and bounder Billy Gordon (Terry-Thomas). Unfortunately for them, Gordon, being an absolute cad and bounder, sees it as a golden opportunity, rather enjoying his extra-marital carry ons and keeping all his cash from her, so he refuses to pay up. At which point Lucy Gordon (Brenda De Banzie) takes charge of the criminal crew and turns the tables.

Well, it must be terribly secret, because I wasn't even aware I was a member.

The Brotherhood of the Bell (1970) (SPOILERS) No, not Joseph P Farrell’s book about the Nazi secret weapons project, but rather a first-rate TV movie in the secret-society ilk of later flicks The Skulls and The Star Chamber . Only less flashy and more cogent. Glenn Ford’s professor discovers the club he joined 22 years earlier is altogether more hardcore than he could have ever imagined – not some student lark – when they call on the services he pledged. David Karp’s adaptation of his novel, The Brotherhood of the Bell is so smart in its twists and turns of plausible deniability, you’d almost believe he had insider knowledge.

What do you want me to do? Call America and tell them I changed my mind?

  Falcon and the Winter Soldier (2021) (SPOILERS) The demolition – at very least as a ratings/box office powerhouse – of the superhero genre now appears to be taking effect. If so, Martin Scorsese will at least be pleased. The studios that count – Disney and Warner Bros – are all aboard the woke train, such that past yardsticks like focus groups are spurned in favour of the forward momentum of agendas from above (so falling in step with the broader media initiative). The most obvious, some might say banal, evidence of this is the repurposing of established characters in race or gender terms.

Now all we’ve got to do is die.

Without Remorse (2021) (SPOILERS) Without Remorse is an apt description of the unapologetic manner in which Amazon/Paramount have perpetrated this crime upon any audiences foolish enough to think there was any juice left in the Tom Clancy engine. There certainly shouldn’t have been, not after every attempt was made to run it dry in The Sum of All Our Fears and then the stupidly titled Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit . A solo movie of sometime Ryan chum John Clark’s exploits has been mooted awhile now, and two more inimitable incarnations were previously encountered in the forms of Willem Dafoe and Liev Schreiber. Like Chris Pine in Shadow Recruit , however, diminishing returns find Michael B Jordan receiving the short straw and lead one to the conclusion that, if Jordan is indeed a “star”, he’s having a hell of a job proving it.

I don't think this is the lightning you're looking for.

Meet Joe Black (1998) (SPOILERS) A much-maligned Brad Pitt fest, commonly accused of being interminable, ponderous, self-important and ridiculous. All of those charges may be valid, to a greater or lesser extent, but Meet Joe Black also manages to attain a certain splendour, in spite of its more wayward impulses. While it’s suggestive of a filmmaker – Martin Brest – believing his own hype after the awards success of (the middling) Scent of a Woman , this is a case where all that sumptuous better-half styling and fantasy lifestyle does succeed in achieving a degree of resonance. An undeniably indulgent movie, it’s one I’ve always had a soft spot for.

I’m sorry to be the one to tell you this, but you got yourself killed.

Bloodshot (2020) (SPOILERS) If the trailer for Bloodshot gave the impression it had some meagre potential, that’s probably because it revealed the entire plot of a movie clearly intended to unveil itself in measured and judicious fashion. It isn’t far from the halfway mark that the truth about the situation Vin Diesel’s Ray Garrison faces is revealed, which is about forty-one minutes later than in the trailer. More frustratingly, while themes of perception of reality, memory and identity are much-ploughed cinematic furrows, they’re evergreens if dealt with smartly. Bloodshot quickly squanders them. But then, this is, after all, a Vin Diesel vehicle.