Richard Gere in “Norman.” Phoro courtesy of Sony Pictures

Israeli-film director takes a leap with Gere and ‘Norman’

If you recall Richard Gere as the WASP-y hunk in “Pretty Woman,” it takes a mighty leap of the imagination to visualize him as Norman Oppenheimer, a New York shlub and small-time fixer.

But that’s the role he plays — and plays  superbly — in “Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer.”

Almost as unlikely is that the director and writer of “Norman” is Joseph Cedar, making his American movie debut. Though born in New York, his family made aliyah when he was 6 years old, and he has since made his mark as the director of some of the top Israeli movies of the past two decades. Two of his pictures have earned Academy Award nominations, “Beaufort” in 2007 and “Footnote” in 2011.

As Norman, Gere embodies that often annoying, sometimes pathetic and occasionally useful figure who will press his advice and services on you, whether you want them or not. He’ll tell you how to get the best deal at a store, find the best restaurant in town and knows — or pretends to know — the right person to fix your problems with city hall.

An inveterate name-dropper, Norman lives in the hope of attaching himself to an influential figure, whose real or imagined endorsement will earn him legitimacy and respect.

His lucky day arrives when he encounters an Israeli deputy minister of trade (Lior Ashkenazi) in New York, during a low point in his diplomatic career, and insists on buying him an exorbitantly expensive pair of shoes. Three years later, the shoe recipient has become the prime minister of his country and, at a reception, embraces Norman warmly. Suddenly, the fixer is perceived by New York’s Jewish elite as a man of real standing and influence, well worth cultivating.

But, as the full movie title indicates, Norman’s sudden rise is followed by an abrupt fall as he becomes the unwitting foil of a major political scandal.

This reporter first met Cedar, now 48, some 17 years ago in a very modest midtown hotel, when he came to Los Angeles to promote his first Israeli film, “A Time of Favor,” and was figuratively knocking on doors to establish some Hollywood connections. As an observant Modern Orthodox Jew, Cedar was an anomaly among the more hedonistic film colonies in Tel Aviv and Hollywood.

Later, when one of his films placed among the five Oscar finalists in the foreign-language film category, Cedar was asked to participate in the customary advance panel discussion among the five directors who had made the cut. Trouble was that the event was scheduled on a Saturday and Cedar wrestled with the problem of participating without violating Shabbat laws.

He didn’t mind walking a few miles from his hotel to the event venue — nearly unheard of in Los Angeles — but the question was whether he would be allowed to use a microphone during the panel discussion. Cedar phoned his rabbi in Israel and together they found a solution to the knotty problem.

The Journal reunited with the filmmaker again recently — this time he stayed at a fashionable Beverly Hills hotel and was in the company of Gere, still a strikingly handsome figure at 67. There, he considered how he managed the considerable leap from directing Hebrew-language Israeli films, with a necessarily limited international audience, to a major English-language American movie (though with some brief Hebrew conversations).

“In a sense, I was something like Norman and needed someone to open doors for me,” Cedar said.

Gere noted that when Jewish directors fled Nazi Germany and tried to gain a foothold in Hollywood, Charlie Chaplin gave them a leg up. In Cedar’s case, the door opener is Oren Moverman, an Israeli-American producer long established in New York, who also got Gere involved in the project.

The veteran actor of some 60 films, who was raised as a Methodist but now is a Buddhist, said of his role: “I never jumped as far away from who I actually am and from how I would react to the humiliations Norman endured. I have never remotely played a character like him.”

While the “fixer” persona, who attaches himself to someone in power, is certainly not a uniquely Jewish phenomenon, Jews as historically a small minority in host countries were more likely to cling to a more powerful protector, Cedar said, citing in particular the figure of the medieval court Jew.

Yet, there is a universal appeal — or revulsion — to the Norman character.

Gere recalled attending a film festival screening of “Norman” in Miami, at which the actor, asking for a show of hands, found that about 20 percent of the audience was Jewish and 80 percent Latino. Probing further, Gere concluded that “the Latinos got the essence of the Norman character just as clearly as did the Jewish audience.”

Cedar plans to helm at least one more American movie, he said, but Gere vowed that he had no interest in playing another Norman character. “Norman is so far out,” he said. “He is the most unique character I’ve ever met.”

“Norman” opens April 14 at the Arclight Hollywood and The Landmark and on April 21 at Laemmle’s Playhouse 7 in Pasadena and the Town Center in Encino. 

Hollywood Reminisces With Jewison

Norman Jewison is not Jewish, though his name quite literally begs the question. In fact, the association of “Jewison” and “Jewish” is so strong there is a section in his Wikipedia entry devoted to debunking the myth: “Notwithstanding his alliterative surname … Norman Jewison is not Jewish. He was raised in a Protestant family.”

But the legendary director has been telling Jewish stories his whole life. And for one in particular, he deserves an “honorary Jew” certificate. That film is “Fiddler on the Roof,” part of a canon of Jewish films (if not the preeminent one) that American Jews cherish as if it were a story from the Bible. It was a seminal movie in the Hollywood Jewish lexicon and to this day is adored and watched and mimicked like some sacred vestige of Jewish history. (How many have tried to imitate Topol’s “If I Were a Rich Man” shimmy with the belief that it might actually induce gold to drop from the sky?)

So when the man who made “Fiddler” is being honored at a star-studded gala at LACMA, you go.

Joining him on stage for the April 17 retrospective of his career were colleagues and collaborators Carl Reiner, Eva Marie Saint, Faye Dunaway, Oscar-winning songwriters Marilyn and Alan Bergman, cinematographer Haskell Wexler and the incomparable Cher, who was as lively and lovable as the “Moonstruck” character that won her a best actress Oscar. The tribute was sponsored by the Canadian Film Centre, which Jewison helped co-found 20 years ago, and Los Angeles’ Film Independent.

In his work, Jewison has followed the Jews from ancient Israel (“Jesus Christ Superstar”) to the Russian shtetl, to Nazi Germany (“The Statement”). And if his “Moonstruck” had substituted Italian Americans for Jews … well, you get the point. Jewison’s films have repeatedly explored various facets of religion, ethnicity and race: “The Hurricane,” the racially charged story of boxer Rubin Carter’s false conviction for triple homicide in the 1960s, is a shining example of Jewison’s unique sensitivity to the plight of the marginalized.

Prompted by moderator and film critic Leonard Maltin, Jewison recounted one of his formative experiences as a newbie in Hollywood: He went to the home of Edward G. Robinson (born Emanuel Goldberg), whom he was set to direct in his breakthrough feature, “The Cincinnati Kid,” starring Steve McQueen. Jewison had to explain to Robinson why he had cut several of his scenes from the film.

“Edward G. Robinson, when I met him, was this tiny little Romanian Jew, but to me he was larger than life…. I was so frightened.”

“‘You’re emasculating my role,’” Jewison said, recounting Robinson’s response. Instead of trembling, Jewison said he demonstrated some chutzpah: He attempted to buffer Robinson’s spirits by aggrandizing a vision for Robinson’s presence on screen. A close-up. A singular entrance in a hazy cloud of smoke …

“‘That’s good, kid,’” Robinson had replied.

Jewison regaled the packed house crowded in LACMA’s Bing Theater with tales of classic Hollywood. He talked about Judy Garland, Frank Sinatra and Tony Curtis (the man who got him his first film job), Katharine Hepburn, Jack Lemmon and Paul Newman.

The talent who shared the stage with him recalled numerous stories from their past together: Reiner recounted a dangerous helicopter ride in which he thought Jewison flew out of the plane; Cher reminisced about freezing on the set of “Moonstruck”; and on a more serious note, the Bergmans told Jewison that he is one of only two directors who truly understand the role music can play in film (the other was Sydney Pollack).

The group was so caught up in their reminiscing that the panel ran almost three hours. Hardly anyone was left to watch the screening of “Moonstruck.” The night was more about storytelling and remembering, two things Jews are really good at.