November 19, 2019

Israel’s ‘grande dame’ grows up on the big screen

There is a scene in Dina Zvi-Riklis’ award-winning drama, “Three Mothers,” in which Gila Almagor, once a popular singer, stages a comeback concert to raise money for her sister, Yasmin, who needs a kidney transplant. At the start of the concert, she introduces herself as one of three sisters. “Sixty years ago, my sisters and I were born in Alexandria, in Egypt. We’re triplets,” she says, with a coy smile. “Triplets are like twins, but a lot harder.”

In that moment, Almagor is Rose, a still-attractive, 60-year-old woman who has lived a remarkable life, full of mystery and adventure and an unusual bond with her sisters. It’s only when the movie ends that the viewer can detach from this vision of Almagor as Rose, a has-been cabaret singer who refuses to be daunted by what she and her sisters did to help one another.

For despite some similarities, Gila Almagor herself is anything but a has-been. This 67-year-old actress is at top of her game, working on several movies, the stage and two television series. She will be presented with a lifetime achievement award on Tuesday, March 6, at the Los Angeles Israel Film Festival, which runs March 7-22. But, perhaps, like Rose, Almagor is a woman who is able to focus on her own gifts while remaining dedicated to a force larger than herself. For Rose, that force is her sisters. For Almagor the actress, it is the world known as Israeli cinema.

“I started as a very young actress,” Almagor said in an interview. “When I was 18 or 19, I was already participating in Israeli films, and it was the beginning of the Israeli film industry. We’ve been working together ever since, and I feel more like a servant of Israeli cinema. I’m so happy that I’ve been here [from] the beginning and survived until now, when I see it flourishing.”

Almagor was a teenager when she first fell in love with the stage. She was living in a children’s home — her mother was mentally ill; she never met her father, a policeman in the British Army, because he was killed by an Arab sniper when her mother was five months pregnant with her. Her mother later remarried, but by time Almagor was 13, she was sent away to school. She wasn’t yet 17 when she moved to Tel Aviv, rented a room near the Habima Theater and took the entrance examinations for the drama school.

Her debut performance was on her 17th birthday, in the Thornton Wilder play, “The Skin of Our Teeth.” After working at both the Habima and Cameri theaters, Almagor studied acting in New York, returning in 1965 to Israel, where she has remained, performing in dozens of plays, movies and television shows.

“In acting and content and contribution as an actress, Gila is the most prolific actor in Israeli cinema; her contributions have been utterly fantastic,” says Katriel Shory, director of the Israel Film Fund. “You can’t think of Israeli cinema without Gila Almagor. You just can’t.”

For Almagor, the last year has been one of intense work, on stage and on small and large screens. Besides acting in “Three Mothers” and “Tied Hands,” both being screened at the festival, she also participated in Steven Spielberg’s “Munich” and Assaf Bernstein’s “The Debt.” She has performed in several plays and in two television shows, “Our Song” and “Therapy” (HBO recently bought the rights to create their own version of “Therapy,” which will be called “In Treatment”).

Almagor loves to work, particularly when the different roles demand versatility as an actor. For Almagor, this is the essence of being an actor: the challenge to change physically and mentally for the look and feel of each character.

During her early years as a young actress, she says, she was “cast only as a pretty face, with empty roles, empty characters and I had to fight against the stigma. They dyed my hair blonde for three years. It was torture to be a good-looking young actress when I wanted to become a very versatile actress. I knew I could do comedy [and] drama. I did so many things to fight against the stigma and to make sure that I could become the actress that I dreamed of. ”

In “Tied Hands,” Almagor plays a mother caring for her dying son, attempting to make up for a lifetime of benign neglect. The movie revolves around one night when Almagor goes on a journey to find marijuana for her son and discovers different aspects of his very different world in her search. Critics have called Almagor’s performance masterful, as she balances the mother’s stern, proper exterior with the expressions of a woman who is confused and despairing over her son’s terminal illness.

To Almagor, the best part of last year’s work was the range of roles she played: tortured mother and sometimes selfish sister in “Three Mothers;” retired psychologist in the series “Therapy;” police investigator in the fourth season of “Our Song;” as well as her ongoing stage work in both “Abandoned Property” and the Israeli version of playwright Eve Ensler’s “The Vagina Monologues.”

“Work is my open university,” Almagor says. “I learn by working on my characters or dealing with a period by doing research. But I try very carefully not to be affected by the roles I play – I know how to draw the line between my work and my life, otherwise I would have to be hospitalized.”

Then again, that has always been Almagor’s gift as an actress — her ability to physically and mentally morph into the look, sound and soul of the character that she is playing.

“For me, this is the essence of being an actress,” Almagor says. “It’s like being a comedian.”

What many people don’t know about Almagor, says the Film Fund’s Shory, is her commitment to the development of Israeli cinema, her dedication to the battles over what constitutes Israeli cinema.