This year’s Hollywood Chanukah gelt is the new film version of Mel Brooks’s Broadway smash The Producers, a wild romp starring Nathan Lane as “Max Bialystock,” a faded impresario who convinces his accountant “Leo Bloom” (Mathew Broderick) to help him mount a new musical called Springtime for Hitler. I called screenwriter Thomas Meehan (the Tony award-winning creator of Annie and Hairspray) in Los Angeles to ask him about the challenges of taking Jewish material like The Producers from stage to screen while making it meaningful to worldwide audiences.
“As much as we like to have fun, there’s a seriousness underlying The Producers,” he said, “and the attack on Hitler, it’s very real. See, the one thing comedians can do is turn someone into a subject of ridicule. It’s the one way someone like Mel Brooks, a little Jewish boy from Brooklyn, can get back at Hitler. But there are some people, they don’t get it. Reaching even a broader audience, the movie may run into more people who don’t get it. But we never ask, ‘Is this going to offend anybody?’ We just go straight ahead. Mel’s theory is: If there is a bell there, you walk up and you ring it. You don’t go half way.”
So you’re dancing on Hitler’s grave? “Exactly. Right. ‘Universalizing’ anything didn’t come into play. Time constraints were the main thing: step up the pace, move it along from scene to scene, and of course, there’s no intermission. Also, we have a lengthy credit sequence at the end now, fun, really crazy. We added a new song, and our fantasy is that it could get nominated, and then Nathan and Matthew could sing it on the Academy Awards show. It’s great for us to have these big performances that were so praised on Broadway memorialized on film…. Anyway, I have to get in my car and go find Mel; we’re working on Young Frankenstein.”
The Producers opens in metro Chicago on Friday, Dec. 16. For more excerpts from my interview with Thomas Meehan visit: www.films42.com/chats/Thomas_Meehan.asp
ALSO COMING SOON
While the lion’s share of press attention will go to all the “big movies” vying for Oscar nominations, several smaller films will also open in metro Chicago this month. For drama, seek out God’s Sandbox, a mesmerizing romance about a free-spirited woman who falls in love with a Bedouin. The recipient of five Israeli Film Academy nominations in 2002, God’s Sandbox will play at Facets Cinematheque on Fullerton from Dec. 16 through Dec. 22. For controversy, head to the new documentary Protocols of Zion, opening Dec. 9 at both local Landmark Theaters (Century Center in Chicago and Renaissance Place in Highland Park).
To read more about God’s Sandbox, visit: www.films42.com/chicago/asp
To read my interview with Protocol’s director, Marc Levin, visit: www.films42.com/chats/Marc_Levin.asp
Since we light our first candle on Dec. 25 this year, the number of Chanukah-specific programs is unusually small, but there’s at least one terrific option: National Public Radio diva Susan Stamberg will be at the Harold Washington Library Center on Wednesday Dec. 7 as part of Nextbook’s Writers Series. She’s promoting a new anthology called Hanukkah Lights: Stories of the Season, which is a collection culled from her 15 years of NPR holiday broadcasts.
The book itself, which contains 12 stories, is beautifully illustrated, printed on heavy paper, and clearly meant to last. There’s also a CD built into the front cover, with four additional stories. They’re all so good it’s hard to pick favorites, but I found myself going back to two again and again. Both Oil and Water by Dani Shapiro (in the book) and The Two Menorahs by Daniel Mark Epstein (on the CD), eloquent tales of misunderstandings and reconciliations, had me in tears. To make reservations, visit: www.nextbook.org/localprograms/chicago_writersseries.html
While on her way to a conference at Northwestern, Tel Aviv University Professor Linda Ben-Zvi made a stop at the Loop’s new University Center on Sept. 28 to do a program related to her recently published biography of Susan Glaspell. In addition to reading from her book, Susan Glaspell: Her Life and Times, Ben-Zvi also directed four students from DePaul University’s Theatre School in the presentation of scenes from three of Glaspell’s best-known plays: The Inheritors, Suppressed Desires, and Trifles. For more information visit: www.films42.com/witaswan/sept-05.asp
TZIVI’s DVD COLLECTION
Wentworth Miller, who plays “Michael Scofield” on Fox Channel’s Prison Break, is the brightest light of the TV season and TV Guide recently named him “Fall’s Sexiest New Star.” So the buzz has finally caught up with something serious film fans have known for two years now: this guy is hot!
Miller made his movie debut in Robert Benton’s 2003 adaptation of Philip Roth’s The Human Stain playing “Coleman Silk,” a young African-American man who decides to pass as white. Unfortunately, most critics who saw Stain were so angry at Benton for casting Anthony Hopkins as the elderly Silk that they missed two important points about the character: not only is Coleman light-skinned enough to pass, but he lives his entire adult life as an Ashkenazi Jew.
While I’m not a Philip Roth scholar, I have read most of his books and The Human Stain is by far the most successful of the three adaptations attempted to date. Admittedly, that’s not saying much since the film versions of Goodbye, Columbus (1969) and Portnoy’s Complaint (1972) have both aged badly and are almost unwatchable now. But if you come to The Human Stain as “a Wentworth Miller movie” rather than “an Anthony Hopkins movie,” I guarantee you’ll be impressed.
A “culture column” in a Chicago-based Jewish newspaper could have no better closure for the year than a few words from Philip Roth, reflecting here on Coleman Silk’s life, at the end of The Human Stain:
“So much yearning, so much plotting and passion and subtlety and dissembling, all of it feeding the hunger to leave the house and be transformed. To become a new being. To bifurcate. The drama that underlies America’s story, the high drama that is upping and leaving—and the energy and cruelty that rapturous drive demands.”
© Jan Lisa Huttner (12/1/05)
Tziviah bat Yisroel v’Hudah (Jan Lisa Huttner) is managing editor of Films for Two: The Online Guide for Busy Couples (www.films42.com). Send comments and/or suggestions for future columns to: Tzivi@msn.com