Last Sunday night, actor Paul Giamatti received a Golden Globe Award (Best Actor in a Comedy/Musical) for his performance as “Barney Panofsky” in Richard Lewis’ new film Barney’s Version. In my January ’11 Spotlight for the JUF News, I wrote: “I truly enjoyed Barney’s Version. Dustin Hoffman (as Barney’s father ‘Izzy’) and Rosamund Pike (as Barney’s wife ‘Miriam’) provide Paul Giamatti with excellent foils, and the plot ripens nicely as Barney ages.”
Barney’s Version opens locally today (1/21/11) at the CineArts in Evanston and the Landmark Century in Lincoln Park (Chicago).
Tzivi: Okay, Richard, let’s start by getting the 800-pound gorilla off the table. You’ve turned Mordechi Richler’s character “Miriam Greenberg” into “Miriam Grant,” so is Barney Panofsky’s third wife Miriam still Jewish?
Richard J. Lewis: I didn’t want to make the film too parochial. Love comes in all shapes and sizes, so I didn’t want this idea that Barney was just chasing Jewish girls… Actually there is some equivocation because I didn’t really want Barney running after, like, “a blonde bombshell.” So we did go out of our way not to make Miriam Grant “not Jewish.”
Tzivi: OK, new question: Is Barney “a mensch”?
Mordecai Richler was a mensch, but Barney? I’m not so sure Barney Panofsky is a mensch.
What happens in Richler’s book is that Barney says: “I was looking for the monster and the monster was me.” You read that in the book, and I think that’s a brave admission and a mensch-like admission. Does Barney get that in the film? I don’t know, does he? Does he get that sentiment? Does he understand what he did?
Tzivi: Yes, Richard, your Barney is certainly flawed, but he never stops trying.
Then maybe you’re right; maybe you’re right.
What is a mensch? That has to do with how to negotiate the terrain of your life. How do you negotiate that terrain while living inside contradictions and various aspects that are both good and bad in yourself, actions that can be deemed noble and hateful, choices that you make that are both black and white, gray, whatever…
In modern cinema, you have characters that are very two-dimensionally defined. But the full scope of Barney’s life is essentially unveiled for the audience with all its warps.
A man to me is a combination of so many different things. Your identity is not fixed until that tombstone at the end. Up to that point, you’re just trying as hard as you can. What makes a mensch? Well, I guess it’s doing your best.
Tzivi: OK, last question: You grew up in Montreal, then you came here to Northwestern for college, and now you live in LA. What’s unique about “Jewish Montreal” for you?
Montreal Jewish culture is not that different from Chicago Jewish culture—a “Jewish American Princess” and a “Jewish Canadian Princess,” not that different. There are “Urban Jewish Princesses” that exist in both places. Of course the more you find yourself in deeper waters…
The French provide a fairly full on cultural experience in Quebec, so your Montreal Jews have come to a place where there’s already a very deep culture. So you have to make your imprint. You have to be a little more forward.
The Montreal Jews are much more forward than the Toronto Jews. Montreal Jews feel more like New York Jews than Chicago Jews. They’re just a little pushier, more full of chutzpah.
It’s quite a fine line, balancing assimilation with maintaining your identity, and I think Jews have done it pretty deftly through the ages.
Giamatti as “Barney Panofsky” & Pike as “Miriam Grant”
Photo Credit © Sabrina Lantos/Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics