Double Feature

Veteran actors Moshe Ivgy and Alon Abutbul have been privileged to experience - and to help provoke - a change in the attitude of local cinema toward Mizrahi men. Now, in their latest film, they're sharing top billing.

Actors Moshe Ivgy and Alon Abutbul are in their prime, at the height of their careers. Both have appeared in dozens of films, television series and theatrical productions. Both have won an abundance of prestigious acting awards, have been interviewed extensively in the media, have starred in gossip columns and have been recruited to appear in commercial advertisements.

Stars? In Israel we have "talents," laughs Abutbul, 43, who recently appeared in Ridley Scott's "Body of Lies," alongside Leonardo DiCaprio. Movie stars, he adds, exist only in Hollywood. "There, an actor earns $20 million for a film and the moment you earn that much, the industry is dependent on you. There are lots of excellent screenplays, but if Tom Hanks agrees to work with [Steven] Spielberg, then Spielberg will have a film. That's how it works. An entire economic system is based on the star: He, in effect, 'leverages' films. Thus, there is an individual who becomes terribly important to everyone, and therefore everyone tries terribly hard to please him. To my mind, this is the essence of stardom."

Nevertheless, Ivgy, 55, who defines himself as "an actor and only an actor," believes that inklings of stardom are beginning to be felt here as well.

"Because in recent years the Israeli film industry has been enjoying extraordinary success, and everything has already become global, here, too, the 'star' is suddenly becoming significant. Many films that I've been in have been distributed and screened worldwide. And I imagine this applies to him as well," Ivgy adds, with a glance at Abutbul. "And when people abroad know they are being offered a film with a well-known actor, whose films have already been distributed internationally - that definitely does the trick."

Over the years the two actors have participated in an especially large number of films and TV series, but collaboration between them has been limited until now. Though both of them appeared in "The Battle of the Chairmanship" with the Hagashash Hahiver comedy trio in 1986; in "Every Time We Say Goodbye," starring Tom Hanks and directed by Moshe Mizrahi; in Spielberg's "Munich"; and in last year's "Shiva" ("Seven Days"), directed by Ronit and Shlomi Elkabetz - they played small or supporting roles in all these films. But last week "Etzba Elohim" ("Out of the Blue") premiered locally - the first film in which, at long last, Abutbul and Ivgy appear together, in the two leading roles.

"We have often asked ourselves when at long last we will be able to work together, because it just doesn't happen much," says Ivgy. "Actors of this standing don't come together very frequently because usually we are each working with others."

In "Out of the Blue," written and directed by Yigal Bursztyn, the actors play two unsuccessful but good-hearted buddies - penniless junk dealers who ride around town on a dilapidated cart, encounter a beautiful princess (Dorit Bar-Or), and are swept after her into a surprising adventure. Led into the heart of the world of glamour, they flirt with the possibility of abandoning their difficult gray life in favor of a glittering fantasy of wealth and happiness - life in the world of TV stars and other celebrities.

Their sweeping performance in this comedy led the jury in the prestigious Wolgin competition at the last Jerusalem Film Festival to award them jointly the prize for best actor.

Although Bursztyn was already thinking of Ivgy as he was writing the role of Herzl, Ivgy hesitated because he thought he might already be too old to play a man in love with a teenaged girl (played by Zehavit Passi). Abutbul, too, was not enthusiastic initially about stepping into the shoes of Shabtai, who in the script was described as an overweight redhead. In the end, however, slight changes in the script enabled their joint appearance which, in retrospect, was extremely enjoyable for both of them.

Today, Ivgy and Abutbul insist there were no "ego conflicts" between them.

"In fact, this is the first time we ever really got to know each other while working. It was great fun knowing we were playing two characters who depend on each other," Ivgy explains. "Art isn't competition, and acting especially isn't competition because if you are a real actor, you know that to perform well, you need your partner to be the best in the world."

Cinematic injustice

Watching Bursztyn's film, which is set in a poor neighborhood and depicts people on the margins of Israeli society, one is cognizant that Ivgy and Abutbul belong to a generation of actors who have been privileged to experience - and to help provoke - a change in the attitude of Israeli cinema toward men of Mizrahi (Middle Eastern Jewish) origins. Up until the 1980s, Mizrahim primarily starred in slapstick-type "bourekas" films, in which they were depicted in a stereotypical way as poor and primitive, and often as drunks or criminals.

Indeed, in his book "The Israeli Cinema," Meir Shnitzer wrote of Jacob Goldwasser's "Big Shots" (1982) - one of the first films in which Ivgy appeared - that, "among other things it points to the injustice done by the bourekas films to people from the Mizrahi communities and the poor suburbs, by insisting on depicting them as primitive and colorful types. Here, the filmmakers once again succeed in sketching these characters, without the loss of their self-respect." Nevertheless, in "Big Shots," Ivgy played a criminal who uses drugs.

"When I made 'Big Shots,' many people thought I was good because [they thought] I was really like that - a drug addict - not because I'm a good actor," he recalls. "No one knew my background, where I come from, but everyone assumed that because I am Moroccan and probably came from some outlying town, I must be familiar with that world, definitely be part of it, and therefore I am good in the film.

"Nowadays, there is practically no such thing as a 'Mizrahi actor,' because today an actor like that is already playing every role," Ivgy continues. "I've played [Menachem] Begin and many more characters who have no actual connection to my origins. It used to be that the Ashkenazi would play the Mizrahi and the Mizrahi would play the criminal."

At present, Ivgy is portraying a Russian street musician in a Gesher Theater production. "I asked myself how it happened that with all the Russian actors they have there at the theater, they in fact took this Moroccan to play a Russian," he says. "But this shows that an actor has abilities far greater than those attributed to him. And I insist that acting is a profession, not a matter of type-casting."

Abutbul: "'Shiva' is a film which, in its declaration of intentions, is artistic. That is, it is at the other end of the scale from the bourekas and the 'central bus station' films, and therefore its success is fascinating. There is a French artistic influence there - the concept of a room, a home, a camera that doesn't move, lots of participants, the presence of a theatrical world in the home, a statement about contemporary cinema. Along with this, there is a depiction of 'Mizrahiness,' of Moroccans who tell a story that could be an Ingmar Bergman family drama. I think that through them, it is possible to see the development of this ethnic group, Moroccan or Mizrahi in general, and the way the cinema reflects it."

Ivgy and Abutbul are now in great demand in the local film and television industry, each appearing simultaneously in any number of TV programs, films, plays or commercials. Many people believe the two are suffering from overexposure. Indeed, a 1999 article in Haaretz, headlined "Ivgy Again," tried to uncover the secret of his success and appearances in such a large number of productions, by means of conversations with various industry sources. Ivgy himself, it emerges, thought the article was "appalling."

"Other people said to me, 'Oh, what a flattering article,' but after I read it, I suggested to my wife that we leave this country," he relates. "The writer asked people why they thought Ivgy is so successful - and suddenly everyone who was asked thought that this came about at his own expense, so people spoke in such a stilted, apologetic way. I felt terrible. I felt they were holding me aloft just to push me out. I have never felt that I do more than others. On the contrary. From then on, at every 'Israeli Oscar' ceremony, there were a few Ivgy jokes and they started to make an Ivgy skit - how he wins the prizes for best actor, best wardrobe mistress and best makeup artist. It was unpleasant. I had this terrible fear that ... the producers wouldn't want me for any role."

Abutbul: "I can identify with Ivgy, because they seem to be saying, 'Okay, enough. Go away for while.' The problem is that I have little control over this. You can do five things in three years and in the end, they all come out in the same month. Recently, I have again felt that from my perspective, a situation of excess had developed, like a glass that overflows. I suddenly felt that I was on the screen too much, and that I don't like this feeling. It is much more comfortable for me when things are trickling out. I think I am now undergoing a process of distancing and alienation in a Brechtian sense, of contraction and expansion, which arouses longing, spurs interest and balances things out: After all, this is a profession in which one earns a living, but it is also my art."

Ivgy: "Now I don't care what they say, as long as I know that I am doing things with sincerity. It's like saying to an excellent cardiac surgeon, who has practiced so much during his life, has invested a lot and reached the top: 'Sir, stop performing surgery, we have a young surgeon here to whom we have to give a chance now.' This isn't the way it works.

"Beyond that, acting is something that develops with age. At every age you do different things: At one time you played someone's son and today you're playing someone's father. Different ages mean different roles, and these are new and amazing opportunities that you don't want to miss. That's why you are in the profession. This is your life. You don't want to say, 'Okay, guys, I've blown you away, so now I'm going home.' I am not going home. I do things all the way. That's the way it works."