He Found It at the Movies

If an actress wants to win the Oscar, she will do well to gain weight, uglify herself, adopt some sort of physical disability and appear in a film released in December. So says the Israeli-born film critic and researcher Emanuel Levy in his new book about the Academy Awards.

Avihai Becker
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Avihai Becker

"Excuse me, but this is the first time since I left Israel in August 1973 that I've lectured in Hebrew," the film critic and researcher Emanuel Levy said apologetically, and in a heavy American accent. He was addressing a handful of film students who came to hear his talk two weeks ago at Tel Aviv University. The title of the lecture was the same as his widely acclaimed book, "All About Oscar: The History and Politics of the Academy Awards" (Continuum, paperback edition November 2003). The current edition of the book, which is updated every decade, is its third version. The first version, which appeared in 1986, was called "And the Winner Is"; it was followed by "Oscar Fever," an expanded edition whose 400 pages are a treasure trove of knowledge and lore about everything related to the glittering prize.

Levy, from Tel Aviv in his distant past, is a visiting professor at the UCLA School of Film, Television and Digital Media, and a member of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. From 1991-2000 he was a senior critic for Variety, the bible of showbiz, the paper that no one in Hollywood starts his day without. After leaving the paper because he was not promoted to chief critic - or so the rumors say - he moved to the estimable Screen International, which is published in London. Two years ago he resigned from that journal and since then has been a freelancer.

In 2002 Levy was on the panel of judges at the Venice Film Festival. Last year he was one of the judges at the Sundance Festival and was involved in the choice of "American Splendor" as the winning film, terming it the "film of the year." He has twice served on the jury at Israeli film festivals, and both times - a matter of bad timing - came away deeply disappointed with the quality of the local product. In the Jerusalem Film Festival of 2000, the co-winners were Dan Wolman's "Foreign Sister" and Joseph Pitchhadze's "Besame Mucho"; and at the Haifa Film festival two years later there were again two winners: "Betar Provence," directed by Uri Inbar, and Yigal Burstein's "Zimzum." None of the four left a deep imprint on the history of Israeli cinema, to put it mildly. "When there's no choice but to split the prize, that reflects the weakness of the films," he says.

Even though Levy was not impressed by the winners in the festivals in which he served as a judge, he does not denigrate the Israeli film scene. The best film made here in recent years, he says, is "Broken Wings," a drama about a family coping with the death of the father, which was directed by Nir Bergman. "That's the most complete and most interesting Israeli film in the past 10 years," Levy asserts. He also likes "A Late Wedding," a 2001 drama directed by Dover Koshashvilli which is set within the Georgian community in Israel. "Excellent," he proclaims. "I give it an A minus. The presentation of the sex in the film is a rare achievement by any world standards. You don't have that in American cinema. I give `Broken Wings' an A, because I liked the multiplicity of characters and because the film reflected Israeli society more relevantly than `A Late Wedding,' which focused on one ethnic group."

As for "Walking on Water," the new Israeli film by Eytan Fox and Gal Uchovsky, Levy is not unequivocal. "It's a very ambitions film, but it has problems," he says of the drama that describes the relations that develop between a straight Mossad agent and a German homosexual, against the Nazi background of the German's family. "The plot is too dense, the characters aren't distinct and the end is foreseeable - B plus," he declares, a quite passable grade. Levy declines to take sides in the hot debate between Haaretz film critic Uri Klein - who savaged the film ("Muddy Waters," Haaretz Magazine, March 26) - and its makers, as he knows the dramatis personae on both sides of the debate. He takes a middle position: "If my book were subjected to the kind of lethal criticism that Uri Klein published about the film, I would be very offended," he says. "On the other hand, the article is very well grounded."

Levy is 57. His companion, a man who is a senior figure in the film industry, joined him for the visit to Israel. The two stayed with Levy's sister, who is today known as Aviv Pizmoni, and celebrated the seder with her and her family. For 11 days Levy returned to his old stomping ground, let nostalgia reign and practiced his Hebrew. Visiting the Tel Aviv building in which he grew up, he says, he met the shoemaker who worked there and who is now 90. The shoemaker was still sitting on his chair with the same hammer and the same nails. "I'm Emanuel, Matti Levy's son. We lived upstairs here," he told the aged man, but drew no sign of recognition.

Born to be a New Yorker

Matilda and Avraham Levy and their children, Aviv and Emanuel - he was then a year old - left their native city of Sofia in December 1948, as part of the large wave of emigration that all but emptied Bulgaria of its Jews. The family first settled in Jaffa. Levy's mother was a kindergarten teacher, and his father established a small metal-toy factory that produced "The Young Builder," a construction set that was the Israeli version of the Danish Lego. But the business did not last, and when it failed, Avraham Levy turned to interior design. In the meantime, he and Matilda had separated; the children remained with their mother, who moved to Tel Aviv. After completing high school in the city (at Ironi Heh), Levy entered the army and served as an infantry instructor at Bahad 3 training base, which was then located in Dora Camp, in Netanya. He went through the 1967 Six-Day War in Ramallah, in the West Bank.

He was a student at Tel Aviv University, serving as a teaching assistant in the department of sociology and anthropology, when he decided to go to New York in August 1973, two months, as it happened, before the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War. The purpose of his trip was to earn a doctorate at Columbia University, with the encouragement of the late Prof. Yonathan Shapiro, who was then head of the department and had been Levy's supervisor for his master's thesis, on "Career Patterns of Doctoral Students."

His basic plan was to get the Ph.D. and then return to Israel. "I'm the only one who was surprised by the fact that I stayed in the United States," he says. "My friends and family were positive I wasn't coming back. They said I was `born to be a New Yorker,' and it turns out they weren't wrong."

A childhood at the movies

Levy fell in love with movies from childhood. "My father liked westerns and beautiful women," he recalls. "John Wayne, Gary Cooper, Ava Gardner, Susan Hayward, Lana Turner - I got to know that whole glorious group from the age of 3, sitting on my father's lap in a park."

During school vacations, he and his sister were sent to relatives in Kibbutz Ginegar. There Levy saw the finest European films, including Ingmar Bergman's "Wild Strawberries" and "The Virgin Spring," which were etched deeply into his memory.

As a teenager, he watched films obsessively and also made it a point to get into films restricted by the censors to age 16 and up. At times, the usher would shine his flashlight in Levy's face and remove him from the theater in the middle of a film. He remembers exactly when and why he was forcibly evicted. "I was removed from `Suddenly, Last Summer,' which was playing at Noga Cinema on Jerusalem Boulevard in Jaffa," he relates. "The actors were Elizabeth Taylor, Katharine Hepburn and Montgomery Clift, and the film touched on cannibalism and homosexual relations. Another case was in the middle of `Strangers When We Meet,' with Kim Novak and Kirk Douglas, which was at the Mugrabi, and the plot revolved around matters of adultery."

He was and still is a movie freak. It's no accident that he says that "the cinema is the only stable thing in my life." At the age of 8 he attended the festive premiere of "Hill 24 Doesn't Answer" (1959), and when the crew of "Exodus" arrived in Israel for the largest Hollywood production ever mounted in this country, he had the distinction of being part of a youth delegation that was invited to the King David Hotel in Jerusalem to meet the director, Otto Preminger, along with the film's stars, Paul Newman, Sal Mineo and Eva Marie Saint, people whose existence he had been aware of only from the pages of an Israeli movie magazine. Such thrilling events are engraved in the heart and never forgotten, and for Levy they were all formative experiences.

Thirteen years later, less than 70 days after landing in the United States, Levy was already scrounging for tickets for the New York Film Festival. He was fortunate enough to be present when Martin Scorsese, almost a complete unknown, introduced from the stage his groundbreaking film "Mean Streets," the first in an acclaimed trilogy he made with the actor Robert De Niro (the others being "Taxi Driver" and "Raging Bull").

Levy says he knew that if he returned to Israel in 1973 for the war, his career at Columbia would be delayed, and upon the advice of his supervisors he stayed in New York. His doctoral dissertation - published in 1979 by Columbia University Press as "The Habimah, Israel's National Theater, 1917-1977: A Study of Cultural Nationalism" - had nothing to do with the cinema but was devoted to Levy's second love, the theater. In his youth, he says, he was such a devotee of Habimah Theater - the Russian company that later became Israel's national theater company - that he would frequently wait by the stage door and greet the great actresses of the period, Miriam Zohar, Orna Porath and Hanna Meron.

As part of the research for the dissertation, which was financed by a grant of "100,000 Israeli pounds," authorized by Leah Porath, the chair of the Public Council for Culture and the Arts, he interviewed the old guard of Habimah, including the actors Shlomo Bartonov, Shimon Finkel and Raphael Klatchkin. In its early period the theater operated as a collective that made decisions in an assembly of the members, and Levy drew on the minutes of those meetings, which were made available to him. (In 1981 a Hebrew version of the dissertation appeared in book form, though it was abridged due to a budget shortfall.)

After completing the study, Levy bade farewell for good to the theater. His next book was about an American - an all-American - institution named John Wayne. For Levy, this book, entitled "John Wayne: Prophet of the American Way of Life," was his symbolic induction into, well, the American way of life.

"I was interested in getting to the bottom of why, in my childhood, I so much liked John Wayne, who was a limited actor but excellent. I wanted to find out how he became a myth of an entire nation despite the ultra-right, not to say fascist, aspect of his character," Levy explains. "A great many people in the film industry were blacklisted and lost their jobs only because of him. By the way, did you ever notice that all the heroes of the action films are Republicans? Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis, Clint Eastwood, Sylvester Stallone, Gary Cooper, Ronald Reagan - it's a long list and one that definitely makes you think."

Critical opinions

The next step in Levy's American odyssey was the book about the Academy Awards, in the wake of which he also moved to the other side of the continent, settling in Los Angeles. For the next 13 years, until January 2000, his academic home was ASU - Arizona State University in Phoenix. In the course of time, along with teaching and his job as a critic for Variety, he added to his record several other books, among them "Small-Town America in Film: The Decline and Fall of Community," which discussed the work of the director Frank Capra, and "George Cukor, Master of Elegance: Hollywood's Legendary Director and His Stars."

Levy's sixth book, and his pride and joy, was "Cinema of Outsiders: The Rise of American Independent Film." The hefty tome (601 pages, published by New York University Press, paperback edition 2001) is a comprehensive account of the subject, based on about 1,000 films. It deals with the directors David Lynch, Jim Jarmusch and Spike Lee, who are the forerunners that paved the way, and with the Coen brothers and Quentin Tarantino, with black film, women's films, gay-lesbian films, the Sundance Festival phenomenon, and more. The book is dedicated "in memory of my mother, Matilda Levy, who instilled in me a passion for film."

And there's more: Levy is also the editor of "Citizen Sarris, American Film Critic: Essays in Honor of Andrew Sarris," issued to mark the 70th birthday of the influential film critic. Levy first met Sarris at Columbia. "Sarris was the competitor of Pauline Kael," Levy notes. "Each of them had droves of fans. She wrote for the New Yorker, and Sarris published his articles in the Village Voice from 1960 to 1989. Quite a few people bought the paper just to read him."

For the past four years Levy has been working on a biography of the director Vincente Minnelli and at the same time on an encyclopedia of the Oscars. By any criterion, this is a prodigious output.

You were a senior critic for Variety. Whatever its importance for the industry, what influence does the paper have in regard to the general public?

"What Variety says, whether good or bad, about `Spiderman,' `Lord of the Rings' or `Superman' doesn't really matter. However, when it comes to foreign films, be they independent or documentaries, it definitely has an impact. A positive word about them in Variety will help them sell tickets. In the case of a bad review, the prospect, which wasn't great to begin with, becomes negligible."

Asked about cases in which he found himself in the minority as a critic, Levy says, surprisingly, "I find `Gladiator' old-fashioned, and I gave `Chicago' a B minus. `Titanic' is a very middling film - of its three hours, I found only the last 50 minutes, when the ship is sinking, to be of interest. `Schindler's List' is mediocre, and if the director were an unknown rather than Spielberg, I doubt whether it would have received the Oscar. I would say the same about Clint Eastwood's `Unforgiven.' `The Hours' was a major disappointment, a C plus, and `Gangs of New York' gets a C, even though it was made by the director I like best, Martin Scorsese. `Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon' left me with reservations. I saw `Erin Brockovich' twice and will probably see it again, because it's very enjoyable - but to say it's a good movie? I thought `Moulin Rouge' was brilliant - an A."

Three film festivals are the bread and butter of an American film critic, Levy explains: Toronto, Sundance and Cannes. Attendance is mandatory at each of them. From this point of view, the festivals in Berlin, Venice and all the other venues that Israeli critics attend without fail are no more than recommendations. It's at Cannes that he meets his Israeli colleagues and they exchange reports about what's happening in their respective locales.

Priority for paraplegics

Levy has no illusions about the taste of the audience he writes for. "Most Americans go to the movies in order not to think. European films are barely attended [in the U.S.]. Even though there are about 300 screens in Los Angeles, the variety of films shown there is immeasurably narrower than what you get in Tel Aviv. For example, Lars Von Trier's `Dogville' has only now begun to be screened. On top of that, the ethnic diversity of American society is not reflected in the cinema. My students, for example, are overwhelmingly from the middle class and above. With tuition fees at the good universities running at least $100,000 [for a bachelor's degree], which is a lot of money, the price is under-representation of blacks, Latinos and Asians."

How does that affect the quality of the films?

"The formative experience of these young people, who are leaving home for the first time, is high school - which accounts for the large number of dumb sex comedies such as `American Pie,' which are characterized mainly by toilet humor. That's also Adam Sandler's audience. In the end, those who support the industry are the 12-20 age group, and they have to be satisfied. So if that's the reality, intelligence or complexity are not necessarily an advantage. People of your age and my age don't go to the movies unless there are films that are considered an event. The American perception is that if you're already going out and buying a ticket, which costs $10-12, it had better be some huge production packed with special effects that runs a minimum of three hours, otherwise you haven't made back your investment. In this reality, films that are defined as `small' don't stand a chance from the outset."

This situation also affects Oscar prospects. The tables Levy shows prove without a doubt that the longer a film is, the better its chance of winning an Academy Award: "Marty" (91 minutes), "Annie Hall" (94 minutes) and "Driving Miss Daisy" (99 minutes) are the exceptions that prove the rule, which is that preference will always be given to "Gone with the Wind" (222 minutes), "Lawrence of Arabia" (216 minutes), "Ben-Hur" (212 minutes) and the like.

"The members of the Academy are a body that absolutely does not represent the feelings of the market" - this is the major argument in Levy's book about the Oscars. "In too many cases, the age gap between those who are part of the voting body and those who make films is a full generation, and between them and the people who go to movies it can even be two generations. I would estimate that 15 percent of the members of the Academy are 70 or more. At one of the Oscar ceremonies a clip was screened of all the major films that failed to win any prizes, and they were masterpieces one after the other. That custom was quickly terminated, because the result was very unflattering to the Academy." In another table, he shows how poor the memory of the voters is: the later the film is released in the year, the better its chances, "with preference for November-December."

Another chapter of the book discusses representation of females vs. males in the Oscars. "The men get the prize for authority roles, the women for roles of pleasing others and of sacrifice. Mainly prostitutes. Charlize Theron in `Monster' is a classic example of what sits well with the Academy," Levy says. "Alcoholism, heavy make-up, eccentric behavior, a pronounced accent, illness, disability - it's no wonder that the proportion of paraplegics among the Oscar-winning roles is so high. A role based on a real person doubles the chances; glamorous stars who wear schmattes and transform themselves is a sure springboard to the prize; one must to suffer on the screen, mentally or physically and it's also preferable to be hysterical and to switch gender identities - the story isn't just one of good acting. Actors don't like to admit it, but contrary to what they declare, they definitely choose roles in accordance with their potential of winning an Oscar, which just goes to show how important the prize is for them."

Levy writes about the Oscar with love, but at the same time tells it like he thinks. On the front cover he asserts his independence by stating that the book is not funded or supervised by the Academy. After his lecture at the university, the students milled around him for another half hour or 45 minutes. He was obviously delighted to listen and to speak his mind for as long as they wanted. This latest visit to the homeland was clearly a good thing. n

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