“Golda”: The Old Lady Gets her Due
Statistically, across much of Asia, Eastern Europe, North America and Oceania, the average number of cigarettes consumed by the typical smoker is around 20 to 25 cigarettes per day. After viewing the world premiere of the drama Golda at the 73rd edition of the Berlin Film Festival, it is obvious, statistics never met Golda Meir.
“She just was a heavy smoker,” laughed Helen Mirren during the film official festival press conference. The Oscar and Golden Globe winning actress was tasked to not only cinematically inhabiting the soul of the formal Israeli Prime Minister but to lighting up constantly, seen seemingly engulfed in clouds of smoke. “She literally had a cigarette in her hand all day and all night.”
Directed by Guy Nattiv, from a screenplay by Nicholas Martin, Golda focuses on the tension filled politics surrounding Meir during the Yom Kippur War in October 1973, that saw Egypt and Syria mount a devastating surprise attack on Israel that nearly brought the fledgling State to its knees. “She was an incredible person to enter into and to experience from within, if you like, which is obviously what we have to do. I came away from it with the deepest of admiration for her and indeed, a love for her. She was extraordinarily brave and with a commitment to Israel that was total.”
Mirren is no stranger to playing strong women throughout her career, from Cleopatra to Lady Macbeth, Catherine the Great and two Queens Elizabeth. She likens Meir to Elisabeth I, in that both had this utter commitment to their country above all else. Detailing what drew her to play the woman that was fondly called “the old lady” by Anwar Sadat, she explained that “she achieved it without being a power-mad dictator-y type character at all. She was very maternal.” So maternal in fact, that she not only baked a cake for her military commanders but insisted on serving Henry Kissinger borscht when he was playing diplomatic chess in negotiating a cease fire.
“This is something I have in common with her,” detailed Mirren. “She absolutely loved kitchen equipment, the latest mixer. I’m always buying the latest kitchen equipment. She had that wonderful domestic side to her. At her happiest, she was on the kibbutz, looking after the chicken, she always said that, really. But life took her in a different direction. And because of her love of Israel and her dedication to Israel, she took that path and went on it. It was an amazing character to inhabit.”
The Israeli born Nattiv, whose Skin won an Oscar for best short film at the 91st Academy Awards, is well aware the movie might re-open scars. Noting that as an Israeli, this war was viewed as Israel’s Vietnam War, and so the decision was made to take a tough and hard look at it.
“Every soldier that dies, getting killed, Golda takes it to her heart,” he said. “For me, it was going with my eyes open and hear all the comments, and it will evoke reaction. But also, Golda is not a super clean character in this movie. She has her faults. She did mistakes and she took responsibility, which leaders are not doing today. She did, and eventually she resigned. So yeah, I’m willing to start the discussion in Israel. Can’t wait for that.”
He got an early start on debates when some objected to Mirren’s initial casting, with claims that a Jewish actress should have been given the part. Nattiv was initially surprised by the reaction, feeling he simply cast the best actor for the part. “She’s got the Jewish chops to portray Golda. We spoke about Golda for four hours (when they first met). She totally got everything, every nook and cranny, everything in this character. I just found her so authentic.” But when exposing Mirren to the argument, she just replied, “Okay. So, let’s say only Jews can portray Jews. But what about Jews not portraying Jews? Is this not allowed anymore?”
The debate was settled when both of Meir’s grandchildren gave their stamp of arrival to Mirren. And for the filmmakers, that is not just blowing smoke.