Kevin Kline and Maggie Smith in Israel Horovitz’s My Old Lady. (photo from Cohen Media Group)
Arobust 75, the award-winning playwright, theatre director and screenwriter Israel Horovitz isn’t in the market for a new career. Too bad, for his moving debut as a filmmaker, My Old Lady, is a rewarding, beautifully acted story of adults overcoming loneliness and bitterness.
“[The late, great Jewish director] Sidney Lumet once said to me about directing, ‘Get the best actors you can on the face of the earth and then get out of their way,’” Horovitz said. “And that was, in a sense, a directing style for me.”
Adapted by Horovitz from his stage play, My Old Lady begins with a rather unlikable New York Jew named Mathias Gold (Kevin Kline) primed to claim the Paris apartment left him by his perpetually despised and recently deceased father. Mathias thinks his luck has finally turned, and that he’s landed on Easy Street after a lifelong stretch of failed marriages and unpublished novels.
Alas, the apartment is a viager, which means the elderly Englishwoman (Maggie Smith) residing there with her unmarried daughter (the always-great Kristin Scott Thomas) retains tenancy until her death. Mathias’ actual inheritance, in the meantime, is the monthly payment contractually owed to the old lady. You don’t need to imagine his frustration and anger, for Mathias makes no effort to hide it.
My Old Lady, which screened at the Toronto International Film Festival last month and is in wide release this month, spills many poignant secrets that expose the characters’ long-concealed connection, and the scars from the past that they still bear. It makes for powerful drama, even though Horovitz excised a chunk of the original play dealing with the treatment of Jews during the Nazi occupation.
“I found that I had to boil the whole thing down into a kind of ‘guy walks into a bar’ story,” Horovitz said, “then write a film as though I had never written [the] stage play. In the first draft of the film, which was enormously too long, all of the talk about the Nazi occupation of Paris was in. As I boiled it down to what I thought the real theme of the film was, the real spine, it wasn’t that. It was about Mathias, his relationship with his father, and his ultimate forgiveness of his father. [Mathias] doesn’t renounce being Jewish, he doesn’t hide being Jewish. It’s just not what the movie’s about.”
Horovitz is the author of more than 70 produced plays, including such Jewish-themed works as Park Your Car in Harvard Yard and Lebensraum. He also penned the screenplay for Sunshine, István Szabó’s epic 1999 film about a Hungarian Jewish family spanning the 20th century.
“Being Jewish is part of my life, but it’s not my only subject,” Horovitz said.
The writer has garnered several shelves’ worth of awards, including two Obies, France’s Commandeur de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres and a lifetime achievement award from B’nai B’rith. The writer is as famous and respected in France as he is in the United States, which allows him a unique perspective on the increase in French antisemitism.
“I have some Jewish friends [in Paris], some of them in high places, who are grievously alarmed, and some Jewish friends who are kind of in denial,” Horovitz said. “And then I have me, in my own skin, and when I’m in Paris I’m, quite frankly, a very highly regarded playwright, so I may not get the same kind of experience or the same kind of antisemitism [as] some French Jew going to synagogue in a [small] town. You couldn’t have a more Jewish name than mine unless your name was Israel Jew, so there’s no question in anybody’s mind when they meet me that I’m Jewish. Do I personally experience a lot of antisemitism? Almost none; almost none that I see.”
However, Horovitz can’t say the same about growing up in Wakefield, Mass., a town about 12 miles north of Boston, in the 1940s and ’50s.
“Did I as a kid experience antisemitism? On a daily basis. The overriding sentiment in my town was, ‘Why did we go to war and lose all of these American boys? We just should have given Hitler his Jews.’ Now that wasn’t everybody, but it was some people, and they were quite vocal about it. I can’t, in my wildest imagination, think that all of France or all of Paris is antisemitic, but the people who go out in the street with their fists in the air and do Hitler salutes are certainly visible.”
For his next film project, Horovitz is working on a screenplay based on Park Your Car in Harvard Yard, his play about an old Jewish man (and retired high school teacher) and his younger housekeeper (and former student).
“I have had offers to direct other films,” Horovitz confided. “That doesn’t interest me. Really, I’m not trying to build a hot career. But I think I’ve got a couple more movies in me and I’d like to make a record of what I consider to be my best work onstage.”
Michael Fox is a writer and film critic living in San Francisco.