The Final Curtain

Movie mogul Menahem Golan’s career had a resonating impact on Israeli cinema

Movie mogul Menahem Golan’s career had a resonating impact on Israeli cinema. (photo credit: MOSHE MILNER / GPO)
Movie mogul Menahem Golan’s career had a resonating impact on Israeli cinema.
(photo credit: MOSHE MILNER / GPO)
In May, director and producer Menahem Golan returned to the Cannes Film Festival – this time as the protagonist in a movie about his heyday as a 1980s cinema mogul, when he and his cousin Yoram Globus, then the leaders of the independent production and distribution company Canon Group, were the unmistakable emperors at this annual celebration of the international film industry.
The cousins were greeted with standing ovations at the documentary’s screening.
Canon’s impact on the festival during the 1980s was so profound that it still resonates today, says Hilla Medalia, director of the documentary, titled “The Go-Go Boys,” reflecting the drive and ambition of the prolific Tiberias kids who conquered Hollywood.
“When I walked with Yoram and Menahem down the streets of Cannes,” she tells The Jerusalem Report . “I realized that everybody there recognized them. It was insane.”
On opening night, Golan, although confined to a wheelchair due to a damaged hip, and despite still being frail following a head injury he suffered last year, insisted on climbing the red-carpeted staircase of the Palais de Festival on his own.
“So, using a walker, he walked up all these stairs,” Medalia says. “He even managed to do some dancing.” On the stage, Medalia adds, the ever energetic and optimistic Golan told the audience to expect a new film of his to be debuted right there the following year.
He even had it titled, “Le Grand Festival.”
But, there will be no such film. On August 8, as he and his wife Rachel were waiting for visiting relatives at the family’s home in Jaffa, the 85-year-old filmmaker suddenly collapsed. He died in an ambulance shortly thereafter.
Some 200 people attended his funeral at a secular Jewish cemetery in Kfar Sava north of Tel Aviv. However, his daughter Naomi Golan said subsequently that hardly any of those at the funeral or of the hundreds who paid their last respects earlier that day at a farewell ceremony at the Tel Aviv’s Cinémathèque really cared for her father in his old age.
“In the last five years, when creating was not as easy for him as it had been in the past, my father was as lonely as a dog,” she told Walla, an Internet news outlet.
Medalia, who worked closely with Golan on her documentary during those final years, partly agrees with his daughter’s harsh assessment.
“Very few people came to visit him,” she confirms. “I think Naomi feels that way because she had been there to see how people  courted him when he was worth $1.2 billion and she was also there to see how no one bothered to check up on him when he lost his power in the industry.”
Medalia stresses, however, that “Menahem himself never felt that way. He always saw the bright side, and all he cared about was `the next movie,’ which he was convinced would definitely be his best.”
Indeed, the story of the boy from Tiberias who loved cinema and turned his passion into a prolific career of directing and producing Israeli movies throughout the 1960s and 1970s and who, together with his cousin, moved to America to pursue the Hollywood dream is unarguably epic material for a screenplay.
Not to mention the price his family paid for the success and the criticism at home. Golan, who sold and mortgaged the family assets more than once to finance his cinematic adventures, was always the first to admit that movie-making took precedence over everything else, including family.
Meanwhile, in Israel, despite being awarded the most prestigious honors, including the Israel Prize (1999) and numerous David Harps, Golan’s image emerged as the purveyor of low-level popular entertainment.
Yet, Golan’s life story is deeper than that of a Hollywood legend’s dramatic rise and fall. His influence on the Israeli filmmaking industry, specifically, and on Israeli culture, in general, still needs to be explored seriously, says Dr. Shmulik Duvdevani, a film critic and scholar at Tel Aviv University’s Department of Film and Television.
“In American, British or French cinema, popular cinema is an inseparable part of the academic discourse of the cultural and analytical discussion. But it’s quite weird that in Israel no such research on Israeli popular cinema has been conducted, let alone when it comes to the topic of Menahem Golan, who has directed and produced such a great number of films, many of which had a huge impact and an immense cultural effect on Israeli cinema,” Dr. Duvdevani tells The Report.
Golan was born in Tiberias in 1929 to Dvora and Noah Globus, who came to Mandatory Palestine from Poland at the beginning of that decade. Later, when he joined the army as the State of Israel was established and the 1948 war erupted, he changed his family name to the Hebrew.
After the war, he studied theater in London and, upon his return to Israel at the beginning of the 1950s, he successfully fitted into Tel Aviv’s lively theater scene as an assistant director and then as a director in theater companies such as Habima.
IN 1960, he went to the US to study cinema in New York, where he worked as an assistant to Roger Corman, the prince of B-movies who was known for both his low-budget, quicky productions and for nurturing future filmmakers, such as Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola. The latter, Duvdevani remarks, was working for Corman at the same time as Golan, adding that apprenticing for Corman “was the best cinema schooling you could think of.” Corman became a model that Golan followed throughout his entire career. Like Corman, Golan was an independent producer and director who worked fast, made two-penny films, and was known for providing opportunities for his protégés.
Upon his return to Israel in 1963, Golan directed his first film, “El Dorado” – a crime movie based on a play by the author and playwright Yigal Mossinson, who also wrote “Kazablan,” Golan’s huge 1973 cinematic musical hit.
By the following year, he already had directed “Dalia and the Sailors” and produced “Sallah Shabati,” Ephraim Kishon’s bittersweet comedy, starring Chaim Topol, about the hardships confronting Sephardi immigrants at the hands of the Ashkenazi elites in the 1950s. “Sallah” won a Golden Globe and was nominated for an Oscar. But according to Duvdevani, it is viewed by some as a racist film that mocks Sephardi Jews.
“It was no coincidence that Golda Meir, then foreign minister, argued that the movie should not be screened abroad because it slanders the country,” he says. “The film discusses the problematic relationships between native-born Sabras and the immigrants in a manner that had not been presented previously. It talks about the patronizing attitude of kibbutzniks toward these newcomers and it focuses on the ‘little man’ who realizes that for him, such a social structure could only be dealt with by cheating and manipulation. Indeed, Sallah’s character is hardly shaped in a politically correct manner, but let’s remember that this term was not exactly prevalent at that time,” he contends.
That same year, Golan teamed up with his cousin Globus, who took on the task of raising money for the business, and in the next couple of decades the cousins created dozens of films.
They were mainly Israeli movies, but there also were international productions including “Trunk to Cairo” (1964), “Diamonds” with Shelley Winters (1975) and “Sahara,” directed by Andrew McLaglen and starring Brooke Shields (1983).
Duvdevani, who, a few years ago, together with Marat Parkhomovsky of Tel Aviv University, conducted 15 hours of in-depth interviews with Golan, explains that the filmmaker’s initial dream was to bring Hollywood to Israel, aspiring to turn the state into a major player in the global film industry.
As the materialization of that dream  oeuvre is largely perceived, he says, as vulgar and superficial, but his “‘EL Dorado’ was not just the first Israeli film noir, it was also a film that discussed the gaps between classes in Israeli society.”
Furthermore, although Golan did not refrain from heroic films (he received an Oscar nomination for his 1977 “Operation Thunderbolt,” which was based on the 1976 IDF operation to free Israeli hostages hijacked to Entebbe, Uganda), Duvdevani notes that he was the first to dissolve the pattern of Israel’s pompous national cinema.
“‘El Dorado’ was undoubtedly a film that used a language totally different from the slogans and pathos that characterized Israeli cinema of that time.”
Golan’s protagonists in films, such as “El Dorado,” “My Margo” (1969), “Fortuna” (1966), and many others, Duvdevani adds, were by no means heroic figures, who sacrificed their lives for the nation, but rather were individuals who came from the Israeli periphery, be it geographic, social or both.
In addition, while Golan is often identified with the emergence of the “burekas movie” – melodramatic comedies about ethnic tensions among Israeli Jews in which ethnic stereotypes are often crudely used to characterize protagonists or produce punch- lines – Duvdevani says his body of work actually was diverse.
There is much to say in favor of these comedies, Duvdevani asserts, noting that despite their problematic traits and escapist happy endings, these films were also brave enough to tackle social tensions and place Sephardis as their main protagonists. Yet, he continues, Golan, who was deeply influenced by Italian neo-realism, also made dramas and melodramas about these topics.
As a producer, Duvdevani relates, Golan also produced director Moshe Mizrahi’s “I Love You Rosa” (1972) and “The House on Chelouche Street” (1973), “which were films that approached issues of ethnicity in a much more sensitive and direct manner.”
Golan’s Hollywood collection is loaded with films that not only idolize violence, but also tend to degrade women. An archive segment in Medalia’s “The Go-Go Boys,” for instance, mocks “Bolero” (1984) for having actress Bo Derek spend most of her screen time naked.
In Israel, Golan produced the “Eskimo Limon” series, director Boaz Davidson’s recollection of his urban 1950s youth. These films, though immensely popular, are also known for widely confusing sex with sexism.
Nevertheless, Duvdevani contends that, in fact, in Golan’s Israeli oeuvre as a director women were treated differently.
“He was one of the first male directors in Israeli cinema to do films about women. And, again, he did so in an era that had focused on male, heroic protagonists,” Duvdevani says.
“His female protagonists very often dreamt of an escape, though usually could not break the patriarchal, geographic or ethnic barriers and were thus tragic heroines of Hollywood-spirited melodramas. That kind of representation puts them in a position of a victim, but it is certainly not a degrading one.
And there were other representations, too, such as that of ‘Aliza Mizrachi’ (1967), the simple yet sharp and vivid woman who was clearly smarter than anyone else around her.”
Overall, Golan directed 44 films and produced more than 300. His last production was a musical adaptation of “El Dorado,” which he staged for theater last year, investing his and his wife’s pension savings into the production. Although he fell during rehearsals and suffered a severe head injury, the production enjoyed a run in front of full houses across Israel – “against all odds,” as Medalia puts it.