From Rhoda to Golda

Seventies television star Valerie Harper portrays the prime minister in the role of a lifetime.

By NATHAN BURSTEIN
May 15, 2007 13:17
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valerie harper golda 88 . (photo credit: )

It would be a stretch to claim she's ever been a source of Hollywood fascination, but after an absence of nearly two decades, Golda Meir is making something of a comeback on the big screen. The central heroine of Zionist history has been an important part of at least four movies in recent years - including Steven Spielberg's controversial 2005 drama Munich - but only now is Israel's fourth prime minister getting the posthumous star treatment such a rich historical character deserves. One of the iconic faces of the 1970s, Meir has been brought back to the big screen by another familiar face from the period, though one from a distinctly different professional milieu. Actress Valerie Harper, best known for playing the brassy Rhoda Morgenstern on The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Rhoda, arrived in Israel earlier this month for the world premiere screening of the new film, a one-woman piece based on the Tony-winning Broadway drama Golda's Balcony. A featured selection at the Eilat International Film Festival, the movie debuted on what would have been Meir's 109th birthday, and was introduced with the help of Aharon Yadlin, a minister in Meir's famed "kitchen cabinet" and the secretary-general of the Labor Party during Meir's years at the head of the government. "I'm old, I'm tired, I'm sick, I'm dying," the film's Meir declares in its opening moments, striking a match and lighting one of the signature cigarettes associated with her five years in power. But though the character claims she's growing weak - and in real life would have been dying of leukemia - the film's ensuing 95 minutes depict her as a powerful, articulate and still lively figure, even after the national traumas that led to her resignation. The movie's producers are currently concentrating on efforts to market it to American distributors - they hope for a limited theatrical run in major US cities, and TV broadcasts later on HBO or PBS - but its first Israeli screening could hardly have been more timely, with large sections of the public once again calling for the resignation of a prime minister charged with overseeing a failed war. "I begin with the redemption of the human race," Meir says at one point, referring to efforts at re-establishing a Jewish homeland, "and end up buying arms." The balcony of the film's title refers to her perch at the secret Dimona facility where Israel produced its undeclared nuclear arsenal, as well as to the outlook that led to Meir's desperate decision - rumored but still unconfirmed by historians - to speed American aid in the Yom Kippur War by loading IDF A-bombs onto planes. "Never again," the film's Meir says, is the message written on the side of the bombs. THE MODESTLY budgeted film, shot against a green screen in New York City, zooms in and out on Harper, who plays 16 characters during its crisply edited duration. Among those figures are Henry Kissinger and leaders of the Arab world, as well as Meir's own children, whom she often left at home to pursue her socialist Zionist agenda. Speaking again for herself, the dying leader recalls her first memory - her carpenter father nailing boards across a doorway to keep out a pogrom - and the doubts of her husband, who wonders if it's really so much better for Jews to be killed in Jerusalem rather than in Pinsk. It's a compelling story, passionately brought to life by the excellent Harper. (Previous Goldas have included Ingrid Bergman, whose final 1982 film was A Woman Called Golda, and Anne Bancroft, who won a Tony in another Broadway play, Golda, the same year the real Meir died.) Because Harper's best known for her sitcom roles - the actress smiled each time she was introduced in Eilat as "the legendary Rhoda" - people tend to forget the considerable talent and skill she brings to her work. In Israel for a second time, the actress - also an accomplished stage performer - answered modestly when asked to confirm the remarkable eight Emmy nominations she's accumulated, one for each season she played Rhoda. (She won four times, and also has six Golden Globe nominations, including one statuette, on her resume.) Her investment in her latest role is evident both on screen and off, with Harper giving an alternately poignant and humorous performance in the film and speaking energetically about the shoot one evening until well after midnight. (The interview started late, beginning after a long day the actress spent visiting the ruins of Petra, Jordan, with other foreign guests at the Eilat festival.) The 66-year-old Harper first visited Israel in 1976, during her Rhoda run, and though she didn't meet Meir during the trip, she recalls sharing tea with one of the prime minister's colleagues, legendary diplomat Abba Eban. The actress declares "the creation of this state one of the crowning achievements of the 20th century," reeling off the names, speeches and historical turning points she became familiar with in her research for the new film. "Jews everywhere are massively safer because of Israel," she says, but also notes the question underlying her film and the country's ongoing existential dilemma. "How many people do you destroy," she asks, "in order to save yourself?" It's not a question the film tries to answer, but one that makes for an arresting screenplay (based closely on but altered slightly from the stage version by Tony winner William Gibson). Watching a dying woman worry about the fate of her people - a people she saw gassed in Europe and resurrected in the Middle East - is weighty stuff, and the residual gloom from last summer's war only added to the film's heft at its Israeli premiere. The Israeli public settled on different responses after the Yom Kippur War and last summer's fighting, re-electing Meir 34 years ago rather than rallying for her removal. And the leadership of each period appears to have been different, too, with the country's lone female prime minister recusing herself despite being handed the opportunity to hang on to power. ("I will not fire [defense minister] Moshe Dayan and make him the scapegoat," Harper says, summarizing her understanding of Meir's response.) The period since Meir's death haven't been kind to her. Since arriving in Israel, Balcony director Jeremy Kagan says, "I've been reminded that her status in current history is that she's responsible for the failure of the war, and so she's a negative figure." Left aside, he continues, are Meir's 60 years of service to the Zionist cause, including the once warm relations she fostered between Israel and African nations and her vital fundraising efforts in the lead-up to the creation of the state. Those achievements - accompanied by Meir's failings - form the core of the new film. And with Israel again groping for an appropriate post-war response, the multi-layered view presented by the film may in fact be reassuring. "Dictatorships are neat and clean," Harper says, sounding a bit like her character in the film. In real life, she adds, "democracies are a mess."


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