Writing for Oscar

Screenwriter Ronald Harwood on how his Jewish identity informs his work.

Ronald Harwood 88 224 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Ronald Harwood 88 224
(photo credit: Courtesy)
"I am an unsentimental Jew. I am aware of our suffering, but I don't wallow in it," says Ronald Harwood, the British screenwriter, playwright and novelist. The self-appraisal seems odd for a man whose credits include two of the most penetrating screenplays probing the extremes of human suffering. In The Pianist, for which Harwood won an Oscar for best adapted screenplay, the title character observes the extermination of his fellow Jews while hiding in the rubble of Warsaw. Harwood has a good shot at another Oscar on Feb. 24 for The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, based on the autobiography of Parisian editor Jean-Dominique Bauby, who is completely paralyzed by a stroke and can communicate only by blinking his left eyelid. The film's director Julian Schnabel and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski are also in Oscar contention. "Sentimentality means manipulation. I try to stay true to the experience and not milk the emotions," continues Harwood, sitting at the poolside terrace of the Four Seasons Hotel. Given his last name, looks and accent, Harwood is easily taken for a well-bred Anglo-Saxon Englishman, but, he says, "I make it a point to work in my Jewishness early in a conversation, to avoid later embarrassment." Harwood, now 73, was born in Cape Town, South Africa. His father, born in Lithuania, eked out a precarious living as a traveling salesman, and his London-born mother was of Polish-Jewish descent. His homelife, he recalls, was unhappy, with frequent frictions over the family's poverty, religious observance and social status. "My father came from an Orthodox family, while my mother was what they used to call a 'freethinker,' and her mother-in-law used to refer to her as a 'Jewish shiksa,'" says Harwood. In turn, his mother's highly cultured Polish family, which was related to the Nobel Prize-winning immunologist Paul Ehrlich, looked down on the "Litvaks," which made up a substantial portion of South African Jews. Young Ronald did not particularly suffer from anti-Semitism in school, but was early struck by the rigid racial apartheid of his country's "totalitarian regime." He was five when World War II started and 11 when the extermination of six million European Jews became public knowledge. "The Holocaust dominated my adolescence and it has dominated me ever since," he says. At 17, Harwood left for London to become an actor and on arrival was advised to change the family name from Horwitz to Harwood. "That was customary for Jewish actors in those days," he recalls. "Zvi Mosheh Skikne became Laurence Harvey and Leslie Howard Steiner simply dropped his last name." After studying at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and joining Sir Donald Wolfit's Shakespeare Company, Harwood changed career paths and soon emerged as a perceptive and prolific writer of plays, novels, non-fiction books and movie adaptations of his and others' works. Among his best known theatrical and screen plays are A High Wind in Jamaica, The Handyman, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, The Dresser, The Browning Version, Cry, the Beloved Country, Oliver Twist, and, of course, The Pianist. Conceiving the screenplay for Diving Bell presented an unusual challenge because the central character is unable to speak or express his interior monologue. In addition, all the film's dialogue is in French, as translated from Harwood's script, and the only way to get his original version is by reading the English subtitles. HARWOOD IS rarely lost for words, but he hesitated when asked to define himself as a Jew. Though hardly a scrupulously observant Jew, "I go to synagogue on High Holidays and on the yahrzeit of my parents and siblings," he says. "I want to be buried as a Jew and treated as a Jew in death. "Of course, being Jewish is an accident of birth, but after that you go ahead and make the most of it." Then he adds with a laugh, "You may also spend your whole life recovering from the accident." Asked about the large number of films on Holocaust themes, Harwood responds, "In the context of six million Jewish victims, this has not been overdone. There will be more such films when they are needed." He agrees wholeheartedly with a Los Angeles survivor, who said, "If there were a memorial to the Holocaust at every street corner in this city, it wouldn't be enough." Harwood was in Los Angeles to take part in a luncheon for Oscar nominees, while honoring the strike of his fellow American screenwriters. In London, two of his new plays are opening shortly, both reaffirming his fascination with the choices people made during the Nazi era. An English Tragedy deals with the fate of John Amery, son of British cabinet minister Leopold Amery, who broadcast Nazi propaganda from Germany during the war, pleaded guilty to high treason and was hanged in Britain. "It was later revealed that John's father was half Jewish, which increased my curiosity about the case," says Harwood. The second play is Collaboration and reexamines a notorious incident of the early Nazi years, when the opera The Silent Woman, composed by the Aryan Richard Strauss with libretto by the Jewish Stefan Zweig, was suppressed by Hitler. Summarizing his attitude toward his work, Harwood observes, "I approach everything as a writer, but everything I write is informed by my Jewish heritage. I am very proud of being a Jew."