As is fitting for a journalist who takes himself seriously, I will start with full disclosure. I will acknowledge my sins and my ignorance, and admit that actor Yehuda Levi’s work has mostly evaded my artistic radar.
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Yes – like every Israeli mortal, I was well aware that Yehuda (aka “Yuda”) is a mega-celebrity in the country, regardless of what he has or has not done. Yes – like everyone, I knew he started out in the Tel Aviv band Chich’s Neighbors; starred in “Ramat Aviv Gimmel,” Israel’s first soap opera; and then acted in various movies (including Avi Nesher’s latest effort, “The Wonders”).
But actually, Levi is best known for his roles in television series, such as in “The Champ,” in “Love Around the Corner” and, of course, in “The Arbitrator,” where he created the character of a local underworld kingpin navigating a thoroughly evil world.
In my own bailiwick, the theater, our paths crossed only once, when he played the role of Joseph in Habima’s 2008 production of “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,” directed by Tzedi Tzarfati. Here (once again in the name of full disclosure) is what I wrote about him then, after enumerating the production’s strong and weak points (with emphasis on the latter, I admit): “Yehuda Levi is a good-looking young man and the audience watches him, particularly his bare upper body. But his voice is small and cautious, and to ask him to sing ‘Close Every Door to Me’ twice is an act of cruelty. Even after a build-up like this one, he remains a television star.”
I am telling you all this because when I was invited recently to a closed press screening of the first two episodes of HOT TV's new series “Ish Hashuv Me’od” (“A Very Important Man") – which Levi helped create and in which he co-stars with Shirly Moshaioff – I decided to go, mildly intrigued. When Moshaioff said in her introductory remarks that during her four years of developing the series she had discovered that Levi, unlike his Sylvester Stallone-like image, was actually Woody Allen, my ears perked up and my eyes widened in great anticipation.
The lights in the screening room, which was full of TV reporters who are not impressed by anything anymore, went down a moment after Levi entered.
According to HOT's website, “In the series, Yehuda Levi plays a character similar to himself: a big star who grew up in the eye of the camera. At 35, after a well-publicized breakup, he is tired of keeping up the perfect image and disgusted by his need to please. His senses have been dulled by over-stimulation, and he fears the day when he will begin to fade away.”
What is not written is that Levi’s character in the series is named Yehuda Levi. The actor is the character. I do not know whether this was the original idea or an on-the-set brainwave (to me, the latter seems more likely), but it is a great idea.
In the first episode, Yehuda Levi the character is about to have a TV interview where he knows he is going to be asked about his personal life. Tense and depressed, he swallows sedatives, flees to a café, gets ambushed by a paparazzo, blames a waitress for alerting him, gets her fired, is struck by remorse, runs after the waitress to placate her, reaches her apartment where he rolls a joint, and the relationship eventually assumes a horizontal position.
The audience in the screening room laughed, and their laughter mounted. I began stealing glances at Levi, who was sitting not far away. It seemed to me that the more the episode progressed, the more he seemed to fold up in his seat, as if he were withdrawing into himself.
Suddenly it occurred to me that besides the plot that was unfolding before us, this might have been the first time Levi was seeing himself on the screen (which is usually embarrassing for any actor worth his salt) in a series where he was supposed to be deconstructing his own image with his own hands (with the essential help of Moshaioff, who came up with the idea of the screenplay and wrote it), for all to see, in front of people who were not part of the production.
I could be mistaken, but my impression was that this was the first time Levi was feeling how this “selfie” series of his was being received – a series that in a way would have made Narcissus a paragon of modesty.
One fig leaf over another
"A Very Important Man" is, in its essence, the combination of a wild ego trip – a celebrity doing a revealing series about how difficult it is to be a celebrity, and to meet the demands of a public of all ages that has no mercy and is insatiable, although he thinks he has other qualities that they are not seeing but is not sure what they are and is actually fearful that they and he himself don't even exist – and a bungee jump into the abyss, even as he knows that the bungee cord that is supposed to stop him from falling apart is frayed from overuse and could tear, making him crash into smithereens.
In harsher terms that occurred to me when I heard the reporters’ laughter in the screening room, I would say that a delicate and dangerous game is going on here between an artist-writer-performer-celebrity “laughing at himself,” something that seems worthy of admiration, and what we see as an artist-writer-performer-celebrity “making a laughingstock of himself”: In other words, appearing ridiculous, exposed, pathetic, an emperor wearing no clothes. A fig leaf is lifted by the viewers, with the help of a person who's using it to cover strategic places on his body and soul, and beneath it they find – contrary to their expectations – nothing but another fig leaf.
I do not know how the series will develop, the direction Moshaioff and Levi has taken it, or how it will end. My impression as a viewer is that Levi embarked on a public scrutiny of his image with the feeling that he controls the image and its exposure, but was not completely aware that his feeling of control over the image (by deliberately and defiantly crushing it) is misleading and deceptive. He may not have considered that people watching would not regard his series as a fiction created for the viewers’ experience, but rather as an autobiographical story of a person exposed in all his embarrassing weakness.
To return to the beginning of this article, ever since I watched the two episodes of “A Very Important Man,” and even though Yehuda Levi the character and the actor are not part of my artistic and emotional world, that character, that man and that series fascinate me. That was doubly true when it seemed to me that Levi was leaving the screening room quickly, a moment before the lights came back on, paying no attention to the urging of the PR people that he stay and schmooze afterward, walking away quickly, his shirt soaked with sweat (despite the strongly air-conditioned screening room).
As I watched, I was writing a play in my own fevered mind about the real Yehuda Levi revealing himself to everyone, and discovering to his surprise that he had revealed more than he had intended and did not know how to deal with that – a play that I am not sure has anything to do with reality.
In any event, I have something personal to say to Yehuda Levi, after many years of self-examination and watching performers and people on the stage and in life: The feeling of the disparity between the image and what you “really” are – the fear that people are seeing something inaccurate that forces you to be something you do not like, the feeling that you are something else whose identity and value you yourself do not even know – this is not unique to a celebrity or a TV star. It is a basic, fundamental human experience – one that it is not easy to accept or live with; nor is it easy to realize that you are both the image of yourself and yourself, whatever that may be. This is what we deal with as human beings.
Congratulations, Yehuda Levi. I say that without a drop of cynicism. You have discovered your humanity and perhaps are starting to get to know your “self,” whatever that may be. I wish both of you a long and interesting life. And maybe you will try a bit of real theater. It is different from film and TV, and forces you to deal with yourself and your images more directly.