Tuesday, November 22, 2011

A Timeless Love Story

The following is an article I wrote for the blog Edward Copeland on Film (for which I am a regular contributor) commemorating the 20th anniversary of the release of Beauty and the Beast.

I was recently playing the board game Loaded Questions with my wife, her brother and his wife. It was my brother-in-law's turn to guess. The card asked the rest of us to name our favorite animated feature film. His wife picked Beauty and the Beast. I selected The Hunchback of Notre Dame (although I could just as easily have gone with Pinocchio, The Secret of NIMH, The Prince of Egypt or The Nightmare Before Christmas). Being fairly familiar with my wife's tastes in animated films, I suspected she would name either Sleeping Beauty, The Lion King or Hunchback of Notre Dame as well. To my surprise, she also named Beauty and the Beast. I knew she loved the film, but was not aware that it was her favorite. After her brother correctly guessed all of our answers, I told her I was surprised by her choice because I always was under the impression she favored these other animated films. "I admire aspects of the other ones," she informed me. "I think the backgrounds and music in Sleeping Beauty are beautiful and I like the story and themes of Hunchback, but with Beauty and the Beast, I just love the whole package." I not only learned something new about my wife that day, I was reminded of something that I guess I had forgotten: namely, that Beauty and the Beast (which celebrates its 20th anniversary today) is deservedly one of Disney's most beloved animated features because, unlike numerous others (which can be very uneven), it excels in ALL of its areas. It is arguably the perfect Disney movie.

Beauty and the Beast came at a time when Disney was experiencing a real renaissance in animation. Throughout the '70s and early '80s, some decent movies such as The Fox and the Hound, The Great Mouse Detective and The Black Cauldron were produced, but they failed to achieve the kind of critical or commercial success that had come to be expected from a Disney product. To make matters worse, the live-action arm of the studio (which was churning out such "clunkers" as The Black Hole, Tron and Return to Oz) wasn't faring much better. The studio was finding it tremendously difficult reaching contemporary audiences with its somewhat antiquated material. Their attempt to produce something more "modern" and "cool" with the pop song-heavy Oliver and Company only reeked of desperation. Meanwhile Disney's competitors (including former Disney animator Don Bluth's An American Tail and The Land Before Time) were gaining a lot of ground. So, in the mid-1980s some "new blood," in the guise of former Paramount executives Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg, was brought in to change things at the struggling studio and special attention was paid to the once-great animation department. Their plan was to try to recapture the essential elements of Disney's golden age: good stories simply but expertly told with gorgeous animation, interesting characters and memorable music.

The result was The Little Mermaid, an enormously entertaining creation that seemed to include all of the classic characteristics of Disney fairy tales as well as a few new qualities that made it resonate with both children and adults alike. I remember seeing it in the theater with my family in junior high and just being utterly charmed by it. It even went on to win two Academy Awards: one for the score and one for that catchy little tune "Under the Sea," proving that the music was a major ingredient for the film's success. That music came for the imaginative minds of the composer Alan Menken and his lyricist Howard Ashman, the team responsible for the subversive yet immensely melodic off-Broadway hit-turned 1986 movie Little Shop of Horrors. Thus, when Mermaid earned hundred of millions of dollars (much of it from the home video release, the first time a current Disney animated feature appeared in that format) and marked a real return to form for the endangered studio, it seemed only natural that its successor would try to build on the same foundation that it had laid (including the Menken/Ashman songs). Expectations were understandably high and whatever it was to be, they would have to make it something really special.

Disney decided to go with the well-known French fable of a beautiful woman (whose name was wisely changed from "Beauty" to "Belle") who stays in an enchanted castle run by a monstrous beast. Although she is repulsed by him initially, she eventually learns to see the kind, tormented and beautiful person hidden beneath the hideous veneer and in the process warms his own cold heart. In the end, she declares her love for him which transforms him back into the handsome prince that he was before being bewitched by an evil spell and the two live happily ever after. The story had been told onscreen before (most famously in Jean Cocteau's stunning 1946 adaptation La Belle et la BĂȘte) but never in feature-length animation. Borrowing several elements from the Cocteau film (such as furniture within the castle coming to life) but adding quite a few touches of their own (including the heroine's rescue from a pack of wolves by the beast), the animators fashioned a colorful, sweet, funny and at times scary product. Not surprisingly the animation is gorgeous. The design of the beast is a particular standout. Whereas in other incarnations the beast usually resembles a really hairy human, this beast is fully animal with equal parts buffalo, lion, bear and various other carnivorous creatures. Despite all this, an undeniable humanity still comes through loud and clear in the character's facial expressions and body language.

This is no doubt due to the fact that his design was supervised by the eminent animator Glen Keane who has a track record of making huge, lumbering creatures look strangely graceful (see the bear in The Fox and the Hound and Professor Ratigan in The Great Mouse Detective). In fact, all of the characters in Beauty and the Beast, from the leads right down to the minor characters, are beautifully rendered with with distinct looks and interesting personalities. This is especially impressive when one considers that most of the characters in the film are sentient household objects such as clocks, teapots, candelabras, etc. The only other animated film I can think of that so effectively turns inanimate objects into living, breathing beings (not including the Toy Story trilogy) is the woefully underrated Brave Little Toaster. Of course, the believability of the characters is aided in no small way by the bravura vocal performances of the excellent cast. Beauty and the Beast followed another wise Disney tradition in that they decided to hire talented actors to give voice to these characters and not A-list movie stars. At the time I saw it, the only voice I really recognized was Angela Lansbury. Even though I was somewhat of a teenage movie buff, I had no idea who Jerry Orbach, Paige O'Hara, David Ogden Stiers and Robby Benson were and I suspect most audience members were like myself. Their ignorance of the actors working behind the scenes helped make it easier to merely accept the characters on screen at face value. Unfortunately, ever since Robin Williams was cast as the Genie in Disney's next animated blockbuster Aladdin, this turned into a practice that seemed no longer viable. Feature animation now appears to be populated primarily with celebrities (which is no doubt why so many distinguished voice actors such as Maurice LaMarche, Frank Welker and Rob Paulsen all have to work in television) and it creates a bizarre disconnect between the figures we see moving on screen and the voice we hear coming out of their mouths. We know that it's Cameron Diaz we are hearing but it is not Cameron Diaz that we are seeing (at least Pixar is trying to continue the tradition of casting the right actors for the roles regardless of their celebrity status).

Another significant development in the history of animation that occurred in Beauty and the Beast was the combination of hand-drawn characters with a completely three-dimensional CGI environment in the now iconic ballroom sequence. It wasn't the first time such a thing was attempted (the climactic clock tower scene from The Great Mouse Detective did the same thing) but this was the first time such a feat was accomplished so seamlessly. Though it may not be quite as impressive to us now, the sight of the "camera" gliding around the characters, swooping down toward them from above and even moving between them as they danced (almost as if we are dancing right along with them) really helped draw audiences even further into what was already an emotionally-charged scene a) because of what was happening in the story at that point and b) because of the lovely title song that was being sung by Angela Lansbury's matronly Mrs. Potts during it. As corny as it may sound, it really is a magical sequence that somehow seems to transcend all of the numerous technical achievements that helped make it so. One would have to be pretty jaded and heartless to not find themselves in some way touched by it.

Like The Little Mermaid, the songs that Howard Ashman and Alan Menken collaborated on for Beauty and the Beast are superb. Clearly modelling their work on Broadway showtunes, every song just pops. There is not a weak tune in the bunch. Also, every song either furthers the story or develops character. The opening number "Belle," for example, introduces the protagonist, establishes how the townspeople feel about her, acquaints us with handsome but obnoxious Gaston who is pursuing her and just generally sets the "stage" perfectly for everything that follows. Gaston even gets his own song wherein the townsfolk sing about how great he is and he in turn agrees with them mentioning all of his accomplishments and hilariously pointing out that every last inch of him is "covered with hair." The big show-stopping number of the piece, however, is "Be Our Guest," a massive extravaganza showcasing a parade of food and cutlery led by a spotlight-hogging candelabra named Lumiere (voiced and sung by the multi-gifted Jerry Orbach). Seriously, Joel Grey's Master of ceremonies from Cabaret has got nothing on him. Finally, the darker and more sinister "Kill the Beast," wherein Gaston reveals his true colors, rounds out an already impressive collection of melodies. It was a no-brainer that the film would receive Oscar nods for its music. The songs "Belle," "Be Our Guest" and "Beauty and the Beast" were all nominated but it was the title song that took home the statuette. What was unexpected, however, was that Beauty and the Beast would become the first animated feature film to ever be nominated for best picture. It was a milestone in the history of animation and made everyone who worked on it very proud. Alas, one individual who never got to see the awards, the critical acclaim or the commercial success that the film garnered was Howard Ashman. During production of Beauty and the Beast it became painfully clear that Howard was dying of AIDS and although he continued to work very hard on the film (helping with the script as well as with the music), on March 14, 1991, Howard died and what was perhaps the most auspicious musical teams since Rodgers and Hammerstein came to a sudden and tragic end. The film's final credits featured one of the most poetic dedications I've ever seen: "To our friend Howard, who gave a mermaid her voice and a beast his soul, we will be forever grateful."

Although some could argue it was The Lion King that represented the pinnacle of Disney's "renaissance period" (a time when Disney seemed to have the Midas touch, well before Eisner drove Katzenberg away and then proceeded to wreck the very company he had once saved), I think Beauty and the Beast is the true supreme achievement from that era. Everything just came together in such a way that the film managed to catch that ever elusive lighting in a bottle. Twenty years later it still looks, sounds and feels great. Recently it was released on DVD/Blu-ray in a "special edition" which included such notable features as a newly animated music number which was excised before the film's original release (the song was called "Human Again" and it's a charming little tune but I think they made the right decision cutting it as it sounds to my ears too similar to "Be Our Guest") as well as the "work-in-progress" version which the studio courageously premiered at the New York Film Festival. Though it gave birth to several inferior direct-to-video sequels and a successful Broadway show, its true legacy will be as one of the greatest (if not arguably the greatest) animated features that Disney ever produced. The word "masterpiece" gets thrown around a lot, but I feel it truly is a masterpiece, not just of animation but of cinematic storytelling. It is also the last time that a genuine fairy tale was depicted on the big screen. In our increasingly cynical culture, feel-good stories of princesses, monsters, villains, magic and, most of all, happy endings are becoming increasingly rare. Even when a film does attempt to bring a fairy tale to theaters it has to be done in a very sarcastic, self-aware manner (a la Shrek, Enchanted and Tangled); more of a "meta" fairy tale than an honest-to-God "true" fairy tale. Beauty and the Beast is a timeless love story with an enduring message, but it is also in some ways a relic of a bygone era. Unless Pixar's upcoming Brave can reinvigorate the genre, it may be a long, long time before we see another bona fide fairy tale told with such unapologetic enthusiasm and sincerity.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Stealing History

The following is an article I wrote for the blog Edward Copeland on Film (for which I am a regular contributor) commemorating the 30th anniversary of the release of Time Bandits.

Time Bandits, which celebrates its 30th anniversary today, marked a significant turning point in Terry Gilliam's career. Gilliam first made his mark as the co-writer and animator for the now iconic British comedy troupe known as Monty Python. His directorial debut, which he shared with fellow Python member Terry Jones, was the hilarious Monty Python and the Holy Grail. His second film (the abysmal Jabberwocky) was another medieval spoof which featured Python members Michael Palin and Terry Jones as well as a whole host of typical Python gags. His third film, however, though it still has "Python-esque" moments (and features Michael Palin and John Cleese in small roles), was the first time Gilliam attempted to put on the big screen an actual story full of drama, action, horror and emotion as well as comedy. It was an important transitional point between Gilliam "the American Python member" and Gilliam "the serious filmmaker who tells stories such as Brazil and The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus." Time Bandits was Gilliam's "breaking out" work. Naturally I didn't know any of this as a kid when I used to watch the film often. I didn't know about Monty Python and I certainly didn't know who Terry Gilliam was. All I knew is that it was a dark and imaginative fantasy adventure that I loved. Needless to say, I still do.

It tells the story of an intelligent young British boy named Kevin (played with a refreshing lack of precociousness by Craig Warnock) whose parents would rather sit on their plastic-encased furniture watching game shows on TV and lusting after the latest electrical appliances than spend time with their son. Kevin, on the other hand, occupies his time reading history books about ancient warriors and great adventurers. One night, while sleeping peacefully in his bed, six strangely dressed dwarfs emerge from Kevin's wardrobe (as if it were Lewis' gateway to Narnia) and drag him with them on an arduous trek through time and space. Kevin soon discovers that these dwarfs were former employees of the Supreme Being who helped assist in the process of creation (specifically designing things such as trees and shrubs), but eventually grew tired of their job and wanted to use their knowledge of the flaws inherent in the fabric of the space-time continuum to their financial advantage. Stealing from God the only map that charts the location of all the holes in existence (which can be used as doorways leading from one time to another), the dwarfs inform Kevin of their plan to rob some of the wealthiest and most famous figures in human history and invite him to join them, which he agrees to do. This endeavor brings them into contact with the likes of Napoleon Bonaparte (portrayed by Ian Holm who had previously played the famous Frenchman in the 1974 TV miniseries Napoleon and Love and would play him again in 2001's The Emperor's New Clothes), legendary Greek ruler Agamemnon (Sean Connery) and even Robin Hood (played as a jolly nice fellow by John Cleese) before ending up on the RMS Titanic (although they mistakenly refer to it as the S.S. Titanic in the film) where they get a little more ice in their drinks than they requested.

What they don't realize is that they are being watched by none other than Evil himself (played with delicious wickedness by David Warner). Incidentally, this is apparently a point of confusion for some critics. Warner does not play Satan. He is not the "father of evil." He is evil incarnate, a personification of the abstract concept. His plan is to overthrow creation itself with the intent of fashioning a world based solely on technology, which allows for his character to make some great speeches ("God isn't interested in technology. He knows nothing of the potential of the microchip or the silicon revolution. Look how he spends his time. Forty-three species of parrots. Nipples for men. Slugs! He created slugs? They can't hear. They can't speak. They can't operate machinery. I mean, are we not in the hands of a lunatic? If I had created a world I wouldn't mess about with butterflies and daffodils. I would've started with lasers. Eight o'clock. Day one!"). Although it is never made exactly clear how or why this is the case, Evil presumably needs the map to accomplish all of this. Using their own greed against them, he lures the seven mini-explorers to the Fortress of Ultimate Darkness where he dwells. He steals the map and imprisons them, but they manage to escape.

All of this builds to a colossal climactic showdown between the forces of good and evil where each of the dwarfs (with the aid of reinforcements they gathered from numerous historical eras) attempt to destroy Evil once and for all only to be humiliatingly thwarted each and every time. In the end, it is God himself who shows up and defeats Evil, freezing him in stone. He then manifests himself in the form of a fastidious old Brit in a three-piece suit (a marvelous Ralph Richardson). Just as Evil had some wonderful lines elaborating on his own nature, God has some humdingers of his own ("I am the supreme Being. I'm not entirely dim."). As he enlists the help of the little thieves to help him clean up the disarray, ("If there's one thing I can't stand, it's mess.") he informs them that, in spite of their attempts to escape him, he was in full control of everything that was happening the whole time. In reality, they didn't steal his map. He gave it to them, because he needed a way of testing his own handiwork and, as he observes, "Evil turned out rather well." In the end, he invites them all back to creation again ("We mustn't waste anymore time. They'll think I lost control again and put it all down to evolution.") but leaves Kevin behind along with one overlooked piece of Evil which starts to smoke. As the smoke starts to engulf Kevin, he cries repeatedly for help only to awaken in his own bed still surrounded by smoke. Two firemen burst through the door and drag him from his burning home. His parents are already outside debating whether to run in and retrieve their beloved appliances. Kevin concludes it must all have been a dream until he discovers photographs he took during his adventure in his bag and realizes that one of the firemen looks exactly like Agamemnon. Eventually the cause of the fire is discovered. What looks like a burnt piece of charcoal is revealed cooking in their toaster oven. Although his parents are confused, Kevin recognizes it as a chunk of Evil and warns his parents not to touch it. Ignoring him, they both reach in to touch it and immediately explode leaving Kevin alone to fend for himself.

Terry Gilliam ostensibly wrote the script to Time Bandits over a weekend and it is a work of incredible originality. Filled with memorable sequences (the giant with the ship on his head, the magic act performed for King Agamemnon, the large disembodied head of God chasing the dwarfs down the long corridor) and combining dry, satirical British humor (or "humour" rather) with exciting action sequences and some fairly nightmarish images, Time Bandits is a truly unique film. Gilliam clearly made the film for children (even shooting it, as Spielberg would do a year later in E.T., from low angles to capture the diminutive perspective of the film's main characters) and as a child I absolutely loved it. I may not have understood or appreciated a lot of the social commentary or philosophical/theological dialogue in it, but I enjoyed the madcap ride through various lavish set pieces and familiar faces including Shelley Duvall, Katherine Helmond and Sean Connery (whose appearance in the screenplay was written simply as a joke until someone sent him the script and he, astoundingly, wanted to do it). It actually reminded me a lot of the kind of dreams I used to have as a youngster, with the outrageously random associations, the "stream-of-consciousness" storytelling and arbitrary transitions that seem to make total sense at the time. Time Bandits was Gilliam's first foray into putting dream-like imagery onscreen and he proved so proficient at it that he has duplicated that practice throughout his career. He is, in my mind, one of the few filmmakers who does that convincingly.

Another one of Gilliam's intentions in making the film was to, for a change, prominently feature dwarf actors. In this regard, Time Bandits was ahead of its time. Years before Warwick Davis did Willow or Peter Dinklage did The Station Agent, Gilliam recognized that it was rare in big-budget studio movies that dwarfs were made the leads. Instead they were usually relegated to minor roles in sci-fi/fantasy films (usually as fairies, goblins, elves or other mythical creatures). Although Time Bandits is a fantasy film, the dwarfs are not buried under mounds of make-up nor are included just for the sake of "bizarreness." They are fully fleshed-out, flawed, interesting characters. Each one has a distinct personality and distinguishing appearance. Particular standouts are David Rappaport as the unofficial leader Randall (who sadly committed suicide years later), Jack Purvis as the angry but athletic Wally and Kenny Baker as the lovable Fidget. To this day, roles in movies and TV are relatively scarce for dwarfs, but Gilliam still proves to be one of the most consistent directors in casting dwarf actors in his movies.

Time Bandits was very successful upon its release, earning $40 million at the box office and establishing Gilliam as a uniquely creative and visionary artist with enormous potential ahead of him. Time Bandits has also been referred to as the first entry in what is considered Gilliam's "fantasy" trilogy, a series of stories that highlights the pros and cons of the different periods of a person's life/maturity: the first (Time Bandits) being about childhood, the second (Brazil) focusing on adulthood and the third (The Adventures of Baron Munchausen) dealing with old age. In the 30 years that have elapsed since the release of Time Bandits, Gilliam has become a very significant (if very divisive) filmmaker whose work has been at times inspired (12 Monkeys, The Fisher King) and at other times embarrassing (The Brothers Grimm, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas). While it may not be his best film (that honor I would probably award to Brazil), it is in some ways his "purest" movie. It is arguably his least pretentious, his most fun and entertaining and, by far, his most innocent and least cynical. Made by a director who barely grew up himself, it is (as the clichĂ© goes) a film for the child in everyone…especially if that child happens to be a somewhat naughty or troubled kid.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Scratching Out a Tune Without Breaking One's Neck

The following is an article I wrote for the blog Edward Copeland on Film (for which I am a regular contributor) commemorating the 40th anniversary of the release of Fiddler on the Roof.

Anyone who knows me fairly well is aware of the fact that I not only have a tremendous love of cinema but of theatre. My infatuation with the stage came in high school when I was cast in four (count ‘em, four) roles in a production of Nicholas Nickleby. That’s when I was, as the saying goes, “bitten by the bug,” and ever since I’ve taken as many opportunities as I can to participate in local plays as an actor or director. One of the highlights of my theatrical “career” was playing Motel the tailor in a production of Fiddler on the Roof during my mid-twenties. It was not the first time I’d been involved in a staging of this show, having helped out with a production done by my old high school a few years earlier. It was also not the last time I would ever see it performed on stage since my fellow cast members and I attended another production of it about a year later. Needless to say, it’s a show with which I am very familiar. It has been, for a long time now, one of my favorite musicals, and it all began with my exposure to the 1971 film. I watched it at a young age and fell in love with it immediately. It has become one of my favorite movie musicals and in celebration of its 40th anniversary today, I thought I’d share a few thoughts on it.

Fiddler on the Roof began as a series of stories written by the “Jewish Mark Twain,” Sholem Aleichem, and published in 1894. They told of a poor milkman named Tevye and his hardships dealing with his six daughters. The stories served as the basis for several plays in both English and Yiddish as well as a 1939 film simply entitled Tevye. However, in 1964 playwright Joseph Stein, along with composer Jerry Bock and lyricist Sheldon Harnick, created what would be the most popular incarnation of this story as well as the most successful and beloved Broadway musical of its day. It was a foregone conclusion then that it would eventually become a big-screen musical (in a time when Hollywood was still making those), and so in 1970 United Artists hired director Norman Jewison to adapt the musical. Having directed such gritty, mature films such as The Thomas Crown Affair, In the Heat of the Night and The Cincinnati Kid, he seemed an odd choice to bring such family friendly fare to the screen. (Indeed, the story goes he was chosen because the producers mistakenly thought he was Jewish.) As luck would have it, however, it was an inspired choice. People tend to forget that while the first half of Fiddler is bright and joyous, the second half is darker and more melancholy, and while the tone of the second half seems more in keeping with Jewison’s sensibilities, he actually handles both halves with incredible deftness.

Jewison’s first stroke of genius was casting the Israeli actor Chaim Topol in the lead role of Tevye. The choice was somewhat controversial because, although Topol had played the part in London, the great Zero Mostel originated the role on Broadway (even winning a Tony for it) and was expected to reprise it for the film just as he had done with the reprisal of his other Tony Award-winning performance of Pseudolus the slave in 1966’s A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. Jewison, however, felt that Mostel’s style, though perfectly suited for the stage, would’ve been too broad and unrealistic for film. He was absolutely right. Mostel was, of course, pretty disappointed with the decision; in fact, two years later, when Jewison directed the film version of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar and wanted Zero Mostel’s son Joshua to play King Herod, Mostel’s reaction was, “Tell him to get Topol’s son!” Topol is a revelation in the part of Tevye, displaying a warmth and wisdom well beyond his years (only being 35 at the time). Indeed, he was rewarded with a Best Actor nomination for his performance. Much of the rest of the cast also comes from the stage and are uniformly good (including the Oscar-nominated Leonard Frey, Norma Crane, Molly Picon, Rosalind Harris and a “pre-Starsky” Paul Michael Glaser, billed simply as “Michael Glaser”).

Jewison’s shrewdness extends beyond casting, however. Wanting to give the film an earthy “period” look (something that is commonplace now but back then was more innovative), Jewison and cinematographer Oswald Morris made the unconventional choice of shooting the entire picture with a stocking over the lens; it can even be seen in a sequence where Tevye is remembering his second oldest daughter as a little girl. Another brilliant decision on the part of Jewison was to get a relatively unknown composer named John Williams to adapt the music for the film. Most of the songs from the show are incredibly memorable (“Tradition,” “Matchmaker, Matchmaker,” “If I Were a Rich Man,” “Sunrise, Sunset”) but when Williams brings his intimate knowledge of the orchestra and bombastic personality to the melodies, helped in no small part by the virtuoso fiddling of the late Isaac Stern, the result is thrilling. Williams won his first Oscar (Best Adapted Score) for the work he did on the film, and it was a harbinger of things to come for the composer.

The story to Fiddler is by now quite well known. In a little village in tsarist Russia called Anatevka, a close-knit community of Jews lives in safety and solitude, trying desperately to preserve their way of life in the face of persecution and socio-political change. This struggle is typified in Tevye, who finds himself constantly warring internally over what to do regarding his five daughters and whom they wish to marry. He expresses these struggles in numerous monologues, songs and prayers to God, usually in the form of an “on the one hand, on the other hand” debate. He often finds himself in precarious situations that he likens to the image of a fiddler on a roof, a musician who is trying to scratch out a pleasant, simple tune without breaking his neck in the process. By the end of the film, Tevye’s three oldest daughters are married (one to a poor tailor, one to a Marxist revolutionary and one to a Catholic) and everyone in the village is driven out by the Cossacks. In the film’s final shot, Tevye invites the symbolic fiddler to follow him and his family to America, indicating that wherever the Jewish people go they bring their traditions, their heritage and their rich cultural and religious identity with them.

When I saw Fiddler on the Roof, I didn’t know much about Judaism and the film served as more or less my introduction to it, but I still connected with the humanity of the characters and their obstacles. One of the things that makes Fiddler work so well is, paradoxically, its universality. Although it is a distinctly Jewish story, all societies can relate to the ongoing battle to hold on to more “traditional” values in the face of an ever-changing world, and this has no doubt contributed to the film’s enduring popularity. (Norman Jewison has said that he is surprised how well the film has been received in various, culturally diverse countries.) The film tends to be absent from “100 Greatest Films” lists that critics, cinephiles and bloggers compile, but then so are a number of other films that are almost universally beloved. (I’ve never seen Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory on these lists either but I’ve yet to meet someone who doesn’t love that film.) To this day it remains a staple of community theater and high school drama productions all across the land. Topol has become indelibly associated with the character of Tevye and continued to play the role on stage for decades after the film’s release. In fact, a good friend of mine, Bob (the fellow who beautifully portrayed Tevye in the production where I was Motel), got to go see Topol in his farewell tour two years ago. After the show he told the aging actor that Tevye was one if his favorite roles and that he was soon going to be auditioning to play it yet again in another local production. Topol simply said to him, “Be good.”