Menahem Golan, who died on Saturday at the age of 85, loved movies with every particle of his being. Wishing to pass that love on to the audience, he gave it expression in his films, good and bad, clever and inarticulate alike. Considered the founder of Israel’s film industry, Golan stamped it with his vision, which he directed at Hollywood and at Europe, at the genres of entertainment and art.
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His significance in the history of Israel’s film industry is enormous and researchers of his effect on the industry will have to deal with that fact; assessing both his contribution and the damage he may have caused - how he helped or hindered Israeli cinema.
Born in Tiberias in 1929, Golan fell in love with the movies in early childhood. After the War of Independence, in which he fought, he traveled to London to study theater and began directing in theater when he returned to Israel.
In 1960, Golan went to New York to study cinema and in 1963 he directed his first film, “El Dorado,” based on the play by Yigal Mosenzon. The first crime film to take place in the big city of Jaffa, “El Dorado” portrayed the attempts of a criminal operating in the area, played by Chaim Topol, to rehabilitate himself.
The film got mixed reviews. Some disliked it because it was an Israeli film that did not deal with a historic national event (back then, many people still believed that Israeli films should deal with crucial national events) and gave an unflattering picture of Israeli society, dealing as it did with ethnic issues and the disparity between socioeconomic groups. Those are precisely the reasons why “El Dorado” makes fascinating viewing today.
In 1964, Golan produced the film “Sallah Shabati,” directed by Ephraim Kishon — one of Israeli cinema’s seminal works for better and for worse, some would say. It was the first Israeli film to be nominated for an Academy Award and it won a Golden Globe Award. There is not enough space here to enumerate all of Menahem Golan’s Israeli films, but they included “Shemona be-ikvot ahat” and “Dalia ve-ha-malahim” in 1964; “Trunk to Cairo” and “Fortuna” (his best Israeli film) in 1966; “999 Aliza: The Policeman” in 1967; “Tevye and His Seven Daughters” in 1968; “Margo Sheli” in 1969 and “Lupo!” in 1970; “Malkat ha-kvish” and “Katz ve-Carasso” in 1971; “The Great Telephone Robbery” in 1972; and “Kazablan,” one of his biggest hits, in 1973. Among the films he produced — some of which were better than the ones he directed – were three prominent Israeli films by Moshe Mizrahi, “I Love You, Rosa” (1972,) “The House on Chelouche Street” (1973) and “Daughters, Daughters” (1973.)
In the late 1970s, Golan and his cousin Yoram Globus, also an enthusiastic film aficionado, moved to Hollywood, where they acquired Cannon Films, a small company on the verge of bankruptcy. Previously, in 1975, Golan had directed the gangster film “Lepke,” in which Tony Curtis played the role of Louis “Lepke” Buchalter, the head of an organized crime family. The film was successful and got good reviews.
After a slow start, Cannon Films became a successful company and produced dozens of films, most of them action films and some of them high-quality movies. The story of the company — its rise, period of prosperity and fall — was an instructive cinematic parable that was made into a book and later an Israeli documentary film. Titled “The Go Go Boys: The Inside Story of Cannon Films” abd directed by Hilla Medalia, the film was screened at the latest Cannes Film Festival.
Golan’s often ostentatious and callous behavior was a model - and almost a parody - of that of the big studio executives, such as Louis B. Mayer and Harry Cohen, who were already history when Cannon was in its heyday. His behavioral model, which operated in a Hollywood that had been built on the ruins of the classic Hollywood of decades gone by, was simultaneously fascinating and entertaining.
Golan worked as a director and producer with several of the biggest stars of the time, including Charles Bronson, Robert Mitchum, Rock Hudson, Faye Dunaway, Julie Andrews, Elliott Gould, Katharine Hepburn, Nick Nolte, Sylvester Stallone, Jon Voight, Mickey Rourke and Meryl Streep — to name only a few. He employed Israeli directors, such as Boaz Davidson and Joel Silberg, as well as admired second-string directors such as Michael Winner, and directors whose careers were on the decline, such as J. Lee Thompson. Among the films Golan himself directed were “The Magician of Lublin” (1979,) based on the original Yiddish novel by Isaac Bashevis Singer. This was followed by “Over the Brooklyn Bridge” (1984,) “Over the Top” (1987) and “Hanna’s War,” about World War II heroine Hanna Szenes, in 1988.
Even as he produced Cannon’s effective or forgettable films, Golan’s love for cinema was such that he also left room for films by directors he admired and who he felt represented cinematic art at its finest. For example, during the same year that “Delta Force” was released, he produced Franco Zeffirelli’s film version of Giuseppe Verdi’s opera “Otello” and several films by the Russian-born director Andrei Konchalovsky (including “Maria’s Lovers” in 1984 and “Runaway Train,” which was nominated for three Academy Awards in 1985).
In 1984, he produced “Love Streams,” directed by John Cassavetes, who had difficulty obtaining funding for his films, and in which Cassavetes starred together with his wife, Gena Rowlands. In 1985 he produced Robert Altman’s film “Fool for Love,” which was based on a play by Sam Shepard, and in which Shepard starred together with Kim Basinger. In 1987, in what would become one of the best-known anecdotes about Golan and Cannon Films, he signed a contract in a cafe with French film director Jean-Luc Godard to produce Godard’s adaptation of “King Lear,” which starred Peter Sellars, Molly Ringwald, the French director Leos Carax and Godard himself.
I became acquainted with Golan’s love for cinema and art in general many years ago, when I attended a press conference that he held in Tel Aviv in which he laid out his plans for Cannon over the next several months. He said, among other things, that Cannon would produce film adaptations of literary works, including Dostoyevsky’s “Crime and Punishment” and the children’s book “Kofiko.” (Golan himself directed an adaptation of “Crime and Punishment” in 2002.) This literary combination seemed laughable, but there was also something refreshing about it, something that did not recognize the difference between highbrow and lowbrow, between the classics and popular literature. Golan’s non-recognition of such differences hurt his career but also made it into one of the major adventures in local cinema and beyond.
We will continue giving thought to the story, memory and legacy of Menahem Golan as long as we think about the development of Israeli cinema. They cannot be ignored. Although only a few of Golan’s films are on my list of the best Israeli films of all time, and although Golan’s role has been pushed to the fringes in recent years, his influence on the history of Israeli cinema, his range of genres, the topics of his films and their style continue to resonate in the development of local cinema, both as a source of inspiration and a source of revulsion. The legend of Menahem Golan is that of an artist who was sometimes willing to sacrifice everything for what he loved, and stories of the price he and his family paid for this love are many. That love is done now, together with the adventure that it inspired.