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Fiddler on the Roof isn’t quite as bad as you fear it would be. Certainly not what you’d call a melodic musical, and it doesn’t have anyone you’d hail as a powerhouse musical star, though Topol, winning the movie role over Broadway originator Zero Mostel, tries damned hard to be the house of power. Creating a conundrum, as a viewer favoring touches of reality in musicals where sustainable, I fought my conflictions in the way director Norman Jewison pivots the production to overstress the ghetto settings and straggly Orthodox beards as pointers to the constancy of pogroms and forced exile. That and photographer Oswald Morris having to contend with weather conditions in the Croatian cities of Zagreb, Gorica, Lekenik and Mala providing all the unintended cloudy backgrounds, there’s an unusually depressive atmosphere bucking against musical form. The many exteriors looking as if they’re about to be hit with one kind of storm or another, with Topol looking like an ice-packed Omar Sharif coming off the tundra, and Russian military horsemen once again slashing away at scapegoats, I ended up wanting to escape to Lean’s Zhivago Heights. The displacement caused by the visual also misdirects the emotional which, of course, doesn’t happen on the stage: Jews more than commiserating Gentiles line up to see the folksy Fiddler as theatre because being there facilitates a deeply satisfying sense of community, of ethnic camaraderie. Despite the blockbuster the movie became, and excepting the frenzied “Bottle Dance” and viewers mellowed by a tiny triple, I wonder how many left with the same unified exhilaration. Boorishly enacting paternal authority Topal creates alienation; camouflaged by the movie’s introduction, the estrangement very clearly explains why Tevye’s daughters, who love him, want to get the hell away from him. Charging through the role as if on offense, achieving the impossible by making us miss Mostel’s brand of pre-Barney-on-tiptoes schmaltzy vaudeville, Topal’s determination to stay in grating chauvinist character, maintaining chilling control over his wife, is not only false to the story’s family values—in spite of fears of censure, no mother would not rush to hug a daughter whose departure (to Krakow) might mean they’ll never see one another again—it’s also a betrayal to Jewish musical tradition, which abhors sandbagging seriousness. Topal’s potency is in being an intransigent schizoid, an Ariel Sharon channeling Benjamin Netanyahoo, yet he has one “powerful” moment when a daughter’s wedding is interrupted by Russian anti-Semites: to God, he gestures “WTF?” just before intermission. (He’ll be a part of another wedding some years later in The Winds of War.) As the stifled wife, Norma Crane speaks as if just about all her lines have been post-dubbed, and probably were and, given the way she looks, she could be Suzanne Pleshette’s mother or older sister. The daughters are at least adequate, with one of them an off-off Broadway Streisand. When Leonard Frey enters some of us fight extra-hard even after all these years to get past the creep he played in The Boys in the Band. His innate effeminacy isn’t successively entertaining, not in the way it would be with, say, Kevin Kline, or young Bob Hope or Danny Kaye, or Sean Hayes, all of whom could get away with sitting in front of a sewing machine. Considered the last successful movie roadshow. In Panavision, with 70mm blowup. (Opening 11/10/1971 at the McClurg Court, running 57 weeks. I’ve created the marquee aninmation because real pictures of it are inadequate for adaptation.)

Oscar wins for best cinematography (Morris), sound, scoring: adaptation and original score (John Williams); Oscar nominations for best film, actor, director, supporting actor (Frey), art direction.


Text COPYRIGHT © 2003 RALPH BENNER  All Rights Reserved.