FIDDLER ON THE ROOF was the #1 hit of 1971. Grossing over $100,000,000 worldwide, critically lauded, it won Oscars for Cinematography, Adapted Score and Sound, and pulled down nominations as Best Picture and for Actor (Topol), Director, Supporting Actor (Leonard Frey) and Art Direction. Producer-director Norman Jewison spent $9,000,000 to good effect (and modestly, compared to the absurd budgets musicals had been guilty of) filming on location in Croatia, at the time still wrapped into Tito’s Yugoslavia. A few flaws notwithstanding, it’s a solid, handsome, excellently acted, funny, frequently moving entertainment, a sympathetic and serious cultural and ethnic period piece, one whose big heart, folk humor and common humanity found and hold wide and lasting appeal. With some great songs!
In the Czarist Russia of 1905, the self-contained Jewish community in the shtetl of Anatevka, held together by the bonds and traditions of their faith, share the turn of seasons, and experience the implacable tides of history, which include periodic repression from the minions of the fraying Empire. Sunrise, sunset. Chiefly the story focuses on milkman ‘Tevye’ (Chaim Topol), blessed/tasked with his wife and five daughters.
35-year-old Israeli actor Topol (using only his last name in this film and for most of his career) nabbed a supporting role in the 1966 Kirk Douglas epic Cast A Giant Shadow, and had played Tevye extensively in stage productions but was otherwise unknown to international audiences. Jewison (who had to shyly inform everyone involved that he wasn’t Jewish) and United Artists picked Topol over Zero Mostel, 55, who’d made the role his lodestone on Broadway, but was notoriously just too difficult to direct with his outrageous hamming and ad-libbing. It was a smart move that probably ensured the movie’s success: Mostel can be exhausting and off-putting, and Topol is as subtle and winning as he is earthy and warm. Wry and forgiving, vexed but wise, shaken yet solid; as Jewison commented, Topol’s “Tevye never loses dignity and strength; he is a man who knows who he is and where he’s going.” A magnificent performance.
Joseph Stein did the screenplay, adapting Sholom Aleichem’s Tevye and his Daughters/Tevye the Dairyman stories he wrote between 1894 and 1914, those later turned to the long-running and continually revived plays, ergo the film.
Like most musicals of the day, its length—181 minutes—gets to be a chore; a few scenes could’ve been chopped, especially the gawd-awful “Tevye’s Dream”, a nightmare of screaming that feels like it lasts longer than the Russian Revolution, another one of those intrusive Let-Modern-Choreographers-Run-Wild inserts that played havoc in Oklahoma!, The King And I, South Pacific and others. Use it as an excuse to grab some food or drinks until the hurricane cacophony of noise and painful avant-garde leaping ceases.*
That one yuck number, a few others that are “meh” and some incidental conversation padding to the side, the essential material and smart scripting have enough depth to purchase a sense of involvement with the community as well with the central characters. The supporting cast are all on-point, especially Paul Mann as ‘Lazar Wolf’, the frustrated butcher. Michael Glaser, 27, gets in his first feature credit: he would become better known using Paul in front of Michael from 1975 to 1979 on Starsky and Hutch (later in life Glaser would play Tevye on stage).
The carefully constructed sets on unspoiled countryside locations and Jewison’s progressive season-by-season filming help greatly in conveying the dualistic sense of both a constant time and a vanished place. That captured atmosphere was achieved largely by cameraman Oswald Morris, who got the mostly warm, autumnal look by shooting the entire film with brown nylon pantyhose over the lens. Jewison’s direction is top-grade, earning this favorite inclusion with gems like West Side Story, The Sound Of Music, Oliver! and Cabaret.
Of the 17 numbers, the highlights are true emotional rousers: “Tradition”, “If I Were A Rich Man”, “Sunrise, Sunset”, “To Life” and “The Wedding Celebration/Bottle Dance”. Isaac Stern does beauty duty on violin (you’ll hum the theme tune for weeks).
With Norma Crane, Rosalind Harris, Molly Picon, Michele Marsh, Neva Small, Leonard Frey, Zvee Scooler, Louis Zorich (fine as the conflicted ‘Constable’), Alfie Scopp and Tutte Lemkow (the ‘Fiddler’).
* The only insertion of this sort of “Just-LOOK!-at-us-EXPRESS!-ourselves!” business that worked was the number “Cool” in West Side Story, because it fit with the contemporary setting. Drop that pretense-party onto the cowboys of the Panhandle, the canals of Siam or the plains of Ukraine and the preening peacock precocity only serves to pirouette period pieces off-purpose. It’s a given that this same stagy schlock makes every Oscar telecast a trial by gritted-teeth, year after year, as a cabal of boundary-averse Tharp-clones foist their soul-exposing experiments on audiences that are—who would guess?— interested in film clips and movie stars and not remotely giving a poodle poop about seeing dance interpretations of Schindler’s List or Saving Private Ryan. Now that I’ve gotten that hair suit off my bucket ralph, I humbly return my borrowed chest to a fuming Mr. Hemingway….OY gevalt, with such manliness!