Fiddler on the Roof (1971)

Dir. Norman Jewison. Starring Topol, Norma Crane, Rosalind Harris

It’s been more than forty years since they made this movie, and with the possible exception of Moulin Rouge!Fiddler on the Roof stands as the last good live-action Hollywood musical. I vividly remember Hugh Jackman saying during the filming of Les Miserables he did not always want to go for the pretty interpretation, that sometimes it was more important to meet people emotionally with cracking voices. Les Miserables picked up people with good voices and then asked them to sing down often as not. The reason Aaron “I Loved Him Before You Did” Tveit and Eddie “Whimpering Goaty Tenor” Redmayne work in that movie is because they’re not pretending their voices are something they’re not. (Nor do the legion of Broadway and West End Les Miz vets they squeeze into the background of those scenes!) Fiddler on the Roof works on that same principle. No one in this movie, Topol included, has an excellent voice, but they fit together and they make sense in their roles. No one has to pretend his voice is something it isn’t; no one has to dance beyond his ability. Fiddler on the Roof the movie is much more interested in a realistic setting than Fiddler on the Roof the Broadway show, and its performers are appropriately realistic as well. In their shabby little village in shabby little shanties, people who look like people walk around. The French Connection, which won Best Picture for this year, gained raves for casting actors (Gene Hackman, Roy Scheider) who looked like they fit the cold mean streets of New York City; The Last Picture Show, which is probably the best American movie of 1971, gained raves for doing much the same thing (Timothy Bottoms, bluebonnet-pretty Cybill Shepard, Cloris Leachman). Fiddler on the Roof transplants that same sensibility into that most unrealistic of all movie genres to great effect. None of Tevye’s daughters are movie star gorgeous. Motel (Leonard Frey) looks like a young Spielberg, but unlike Spielberg grew out of it eventually. Topol himself has a roguish charm—and is probably the most handsome actor in the movie—but is not the man girls pin their dreams on. We don’t have to be distracted wondering how Steve McQueen or Katharine Ross landed in this shtetl; Fiddler on the Roof gets to work on its own terms.

Tevye may spend much of his time on his own, but he gives the impression from the very beginning of a man who is never lonely. He is glad to stop in the town square to hear the news from Avram (Alfie Scopp), the only literate fellow in his cohort. The home is not his sector—the opening song dictates, of course, that the home is the wife’s zone for the man to have final say over—but when he’s there he seems constantly to be fending off his wife. (Watching Topol feebly ask his wife to stop clapping, complete with hand motions, as he fights off his hangover is one of the movie’s understated gems.) But there are other places where Tevye seems to be more or less on his own; it is here that we come to know him best. His conversations with his consistently lame horse are a mixture of chiding and concern. He makes a habit of talking to himself (“On the other hand…”) in important moments; Jewison smartly puts his protagonist so far away from people who are, in reality, standing in front of him, that we cannot recognize them anymore. No one is a more constant companion for Tevye than God; few characters in film have so clearly believed that God is somewhere within earshot as this milkman. He will set down a conversation with God when he hears his wife’s voice from across the yard (“I’ll talk to you later”) and pick it up later with a finger pointed at the sky. At the end of the movie, when the Jews of Anatevka are expelled because of an imperial edict, some of his peers have outlandish ideas. One man says they should join up with other Jews in the district who are being banished and see what their plan is. Another even shouts that the Jews of Anatevka will fight; the constable (Louis Zorich) firmly tells that man that he wouldn’t advise it. (The constable is one of the movie’s most interesting characters, a collaborator who does bad things to good people for his mortgage; even when he oversees a pogrom or an expulsion, he does it without malice. Of course, a lack of malice hardly excuses him; it only hardens Tevye toward a man who he used to think of as a friend.) Motel appeals to the rabbi. We’ve been waiting for the Messiah all our lives, he says. Wouldn’t now be a good time for him to come? The rabbi (Zvee Scooler) kindly tells Motel that they had better begin packing. Tevye is as angry as anyone else, but true to form, that rage gives way to his philosophy. “Maybe that’s why we always wear our hats,” he murmurs; even in the midst of the greatest tragedy he is likely to have, God finds a way in. Traditionally religious people would tell you that’s basically how it works.

Aside from the perpetually invisible God, there’s another character who we only see through Tevye’s eyes. There’s something wraithlike about the fiddler on the roof (Tutte Lemkow), who shows up sparingly. He is in the opening credits, appearing after Tevye has said that “without tradition, our lives would be as shaky as…as a fiddler, on the roof!” Tevye, after getting splendidly drunk one night, needs a little boost from the fiddler to get home safely; however, he only appears after the constable has warned Tevye that there will be some demonstration against the Jews in Anatevka based on some orders he’s received. The fiddler appears again as an unusual guest at Tzeitel (Harris) and Motel’s wedding, looking down on their canopy from his lounging position on the low point on a roof. He finally shows again as Tevye and his family leave Anatevka for New York—the fiddler, looking a little sheepish, is invited along by Tevye—and he brings with him whatever fell power he possesses. Tevye’s motto is “Tradition!” but the presence of the fiddler does a great deal to circumvent that warm, broad term. It’s hard to say what tradition gets the milkman in the last couple years he spends in Anatevka. Tradition does not insulate him from a brutal pogrom the night of Tzeitel’s wedding. He is removed from his home by a hateful government he cannot resist, his three oldest daughters are married to men they love in spite of tradition, and the middle one, Chava (Neva Small) commits familial suicide by marrying a Christian. (“If I bend that far,” Tevye thinks to himself as he looks his pleading daughter in the face after her elopement, “I’ll break.”) In the “Chava Ballet,” an exceptional scene on its own merits and the only non-diegetic dancing in the movie, Tevye can see his wife and first three daughters in the distance. They are bathed in a pinky-orange that has been absent from the movie before this, perhaps the amplification of the deeper earth tones Fiddler has used for the previous two and a half hours. (Oswald Morris, the movie’s DP, isn’t exactly Gordon Willis. However, he has a fascinating list of credits which includes a number of post-peak John Huston movies, Carl Reed collaborations, and, gloriously enough, The Great Muppet Caper.Fiddler on the Roof is addicted to double exposure and extreme close-ups of eyes; both come to a head here as Tevye’s stricken eyes watch Chava turn away from the fiddler, wheedling with his entire body and his frenetic playing, and run toward Fyedka (Raymond Lovelock) instead. Tradition is rejected. Chava has found security in something new. Romantic love, maybe, like her two older sisters, or the relative safety of falling backwards into the national religious majority. (She and Fyedka move to Krakow at the end of the movie, unwilling to live in a place which has silently accepted the expulsion of the Jews; one wonders if Chava has not unknowingly signed her own death warrant thirty-some years in the future. Fiddler on the Roof is coy about the future of its characters, to say the least.) It may not be unimpeachable, but Chava won’t wake up one morning while she’s in her forties, ask her husband if he loves her, and be received with a “Do I what?”

Fiddler on the Roof is capable of getting dark at a moment’s notice, but Tevye’s dream is one of the funniest seven minutes ever put into a movie musical. Topol does not get to pull out that glorious smirk he has in his back pocket very often, but he does it twice in this sequence, looking just as pleased with himself as a cat who has located an abandoned can of tuna. Topol also does a brilliant over-the-top wheeze that’s the soundtrack for Golde’s turnaround on Motel. The graveyard that Tevye’s “dream” takes place in has a pleasantly kids’ horror movie vibe about it, down to the people who are obviously dead but not like, rotting or even creepy; honestly, there are some freshman college students who haven’t slept or seen the sun in a while who look worse than the ghosts of the dream. (Tevye tells Golde that her grandmother Tzeitel is there. “Grandmother Tzeitel!” Golde says, pleased. “How did she look?” “Well,” Tevye replies, “for a woman who is dead thirty years, she looked very good.”) The chorus of the dead frequently turns into a bunch who resemble nothing so much as the chorus from a Marx Brothers movie. The appearance of Fruma Sarah (Ruth Madoc) scares them behind headstones and cenotaphs, but they still pop out from behind their rocky shields to echo the last two or three words of whatever Lazar Wolf’s dead wife has been singing. There are horn rips. Fruma Sarah leads this gloriously campy conceit—the only thing funnier than the dream is the fact that Golde buys Tevye’s absurd plot. Nor does the movie set it down for good once it’s ended. Tevye’s second daughter, Hodel (Michele Marsh) tells her father that she and the young radical Perchik (Michael Glaser) will get married with or without her father’s consent. (Perchik, incidentally, seems like a cinch to support the overthrow of Nicholas II before being purged by Stalin in the ’30s.) Tevye has his heart to heart with himself, bellowing about tradition, bringing out a Hopkins-esque accent to mock Perchik’s address of him as “Papa,” but eventually consents to give them his blessing and his permission. He stops. “What am I going to tell your mother?” he says. “Another dream?” What will happen to Tevye and his distant children and his scattered neighbors is left to chance—or, as he might say, it is in God’s hands—but there’s no doubt that for this stubborn milkman there will always be another dream.

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