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Saturday, December 5, 2020

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

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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. 

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