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[Only IN Hollywood] Helen Mirren adds Golda Meir, the Iron Lady, to her list of powerful women roles

Ruben V. Nepales
[Only IN Hollywood] Helen Mirren adds Golda Meir, the Iron Lady, to her list of powerful women roles
The actress sinks her teeth into playing the late Golda Meir, the Iron Lady of Israel, the first and only female head of state in the Middle East

LOS ANGELES, USA – Helen Mirren has brilliantly played powerful women, from Catherine the Great to Queens Elizabeth I and II. Now, the actress sinks her teeth into playing the late Golda Meir, the Iron Lady of Israel, the first and only female head of state in the Middle East and only the fourth elected female head of state in the world, according to Wiki.

Film critics who saw Golda in the recent Berlinale may not have been enthusiastic about the film itself, but many praised Helen’s portrayal of Israel’s fourth prime minister, who served from 1969 to 1974.

Variety’s Owen Gleiberman wrote, “There’s been controversy about the casting of Mirren since she is neither Israeli nor Jewish. But why quibble when it comes down to a great actor giving a performance that’s this authentic?”

“The way Mirren plays it, Meir’s humanity is always there — the distress she feels at losing even one soldier is the current of her being — yet so is her ruthless pragmatism.”

IndieWire’s Ben Croll declared this verdict: “Mirren is unsurprisingly terrific, but Guy Nattiv’s film is frustratingly superficial.”

Boldly following in the footsteps of Anne Bancroft and Ingrid Bergman, who have played the Kyiv-born, Wisconsin-raised leader, Helen plays the title role in the film which premiered at the just concluded Berlin International Film Festival.

Helen and the filmmakers make it a point to clarify that Golda is not a biopic. Rather, the film focuses on the Yom Kippur War of 1973, specifically the events before, during, and a portion after the battle between Israel and several Arab countries, led by Egypt and Syria. While Israel ultimately won the armed conflict, an estimated 2,600 plus Israeli soldiers died.

Director Guy Nattiv’s historical drama concentrates on Helen as one of the most notable and influential leaders of the 20th century, making very difficult strategic decisions and grappling with high-stakes responsibilities during the Yom Kippur War.

Golda also stars Liev Schreiber (Henry Kissinger), Rami Heuberger (Moshe Dayan), Lior Ashkenazi (David “Dado” Elazar), Zed Josef (Adam Snir), and Rotem Keinan (Zvi Zamir).

“In a weird way, it was a bit like playing Elizabeth I of England not because she (Meir) had the regality or anything but her utter commitment to her country. The absolute total dedication of her life to that,” Helen was quoted as saying in the transcript of the Berlinale press conference for the film with the actress, director Guy Nattiv, screenwriter and producer Nicholas Martin, and actor Lior Ashkenazi.

Helen Mirren. Photo by Ruben V. Nepales

Helen added about the icon who emigrated with her family from Ukraine to Milwaukee, where she finished her education, then moved with her husband Howard Meyerson to Palestine: “She was an incredible person to enter into and to experience from within, if you like, which is obviously what we have to do. I came away from it with the deepest of admiration for her and indeed, a love for her. She was extraordinarily brave and with a commitment to Israel that was total.”

In Israel, Golda, who had two children, rose from the kibbutz to become a leader. The actress, married to filmmaker Taylor Hackford since 1997, said, “She achieved it without being a power-mad dictator-y type character at all.  She was very maternal. This is something I have in common with her – she absolutely loved kitchen equipment, the latest mixer. I actually have that in common with her.”

The winner of one Oscar and three Golden Globes (two in one year, 2007) continued, “I’m always buying the latest kitchen equipment. She had that wonderful domestic side to her. At her happiest, she was on the kibbutz, looking after the chicken. She always said that, really.”

“But life took her in a different direction. And because of her love of Israel and her dedication to Israel, she took that path and went on it. It was an amazing character to inhabit.”

On her preparation to play the leader, previously portrayed by Anne Bancroft (Golda’s Balcony, a Broadway play) and Ingrid Bergman (A Woman Called Golda, a TV miniseries), Helen answered, “I did watch some of Anne Bancroft playing Golda and especially Ingrid Bergman, who was quite wonderful. But then from that point on, you make it to your own. And we were very specific – it’s not a biopic. It’s not her whole life.”

“It’s just this little section of her life when she was most challenged. I thought that was a marvelous idea. Guy’s idea – just to take that section and really concentrate on that.”

Screenwriter Nicholas Martin, for his part, shared his research to come up with a script: “A tremendous amount has been written about Golda. I think there may be 100 biographies and I started with them. But the story that we ended up with is quite a new take on her leadership journey, the Yom Kippur War.”

“Much of the story that we’ve told is really from some quite new documents that have been declassified in the last 15 or 20 years. I ended up with my Golda library piled up on the floor. It got to my knee and then it got to my waist.”

“And then when you get onto Henry Kissinger, that man really writes a lot and he has a lot to say. Just the Henry Kissinger chunk is from about my knee up to my thigh.”

“It was really trying to find a story within this massive information and then condensing it down into the essence of what Golda did during those fateful two weeks. And really to try and capture.”

“I felt that was the story I wanted to tell. That’s the story we told because it was the story that really captures who she was, her toughness and indefatigability. I looked at everything I possibly could and talked to everyone I could, and that’s the story that emerged.”

Helen said, “Yes, I read a lot of books. I, obviously, watched a lot of videos but I always find playing these characters…I like to look at their life up to the age of 20. It’s really how they were as children and how they were created as children.”

“It’s very interesting and I love the fact that Guy references that in this film, as we just saw her talking about growing up in Ukraine and what she experienced. Those experiences are the ones that form you, I believe.”

Guy, an Israel native whose Skin, depicting a man who rejects his Nazi background, won the 2018 Academy best short film, talked about demystifying Meir. “For me, she was a myth [in the beginning]. She was like the Iron Lady of Israel. And then she became a 50-shekel bill icon.”

Helen Mirren on portraying Israel’s Iron Lady in ‘Golda’: ‘It always rather surprised me at the end of the day when I took it (make-up, prosthetics, and costume) all off and I was me again because I got so used to looking in the mirror and being that person.’ Photo by Jasper Wolf

“After that, I didn’t know anything about her rather than all the official war stories, until 10 years ago. Then the secret came out and all the stuff from the war room. I discovered that she was sick and she fought through the war, and all the anecdotes that I didn’t know about her. That’s what kept us wanting to tell this story.”

“Because she was flesh and blood, suddenly. She was human and I don’t think that Israelis have this vision of Golda, who she really was. I think this movie will open [their eyes]…. Because people didn’t know she was sick.”

The filmmaker added about the efforts to keep her hospital stays secret: “She was hiding it. And this handkerchief operation that sneaked her into the hospital, through the dead, it’s just stuff that I didn’t know and it fascinated me. She became a real powerful woman to me.”

Helen addressed the deaths of many Israeli men as a result of the turbulent war: “What I didn’t understand, or I didn’t realize until we made the film, was the impact of the loss of this generation of young men on Israel. Because there were so few young men in Israel. It was a very young country and it hadn’t really dawned on me until we made the film.”

“It was the loss of a generation for Israel. It was a small country with not a lot of young people. So, to give such a comparatively huge number over to a war and to lose them in this war was just absolutely traumatizing for this little country. Golda took the weight of that on her shoulders, unfairly, actually, as it turned out.”

“In Israel after the war, [she was] absolutely vilified. And it actually wasn’t ultimately her fault. It was in the sense that she was the one in charge, so of course, the buck stops here, so to speak.”

“She never tried to put the blame on anyone else. She squarely faced it which was another element of her courage and her character.” After the Yom Kippur War, the Agranat Commission, which was tasked with investigating the failures in the Israeli Defense Forces, cleared Meir of “direct responsibility.”

In April 1974, Meir announced her resignation.

Reviews touted the prevalence of smoke in the film as a metaphor. Meir and her commanders were chain smokers. Helen remarked, “We’ll just quickly say yes, she just was a heavy smoker. She literally had a cigarette in her hand all day and all night.”

Guy said, “First of all, the smoke is a metaphor for the smoke in their eyes. They couldn’t see what was in front of them. They couldn’t see the truth.”

“They smoke themselves to death. So, it’s like, is the smoke over an inner physical situation but also the smoke of the commanders? The smoke is a metaphor for the entire movie.”

“Well, [the smoke represented] the difficulty of making the kinds of decisions that Golda had to make at that point in time,” the actress interjected.

Golda Meir. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Guy stressed, “Golda was not a soldier. She was more of a stateswoman and she relied on the commanders around her. But the problem is that the commander around her lost his shit, in a way.”

“So, the entire war, she didn’t know what to do. One told her 50,000 soldiers, the other one, 20,000, so she was trying to make decisions, control the situation and calm everyone down.”

“It was a very challenging situation for her. Also, she didn’t want to be prime minister because she was like, they told her, ‘Just go.’ ‘It’s not something I want to do.’ She found herself at this junction. It was very complicated for her but she managed to somehow balance everyone.”

The Jerusalem Post’s Hannah Brown, in her review, cited a scene with Liev as Henry Kissinger: “The movie also includes one of Meir’s most famous quotes, which was part of a conversation with Kissinger, when he said, ‘Golda, you must remember that first I am an American, second I am Secretary of State and third I am a Jew,’ and she responded, ‘Henry, you forget that in Israel we read from right to left.’”

Helen gushed about the casting of Liev as one of the most famous and controversial American diplomats (Meir herself served as Israel’s first ambassador to the Soviet Union and then became a foreign minister). “We were very excited when Liev signed up for the film. Because for a long time, we had no Henry Kissinger, did we?”

“We had started the film already and we still didn’t know who was going to be playing Henry Kissinger. So we were very anxious about who we might get. It was a great day when Liev signed up for it.”

“Yes, Golda and Henry Kissinger did have – I wouldn’t say a close friendship – but clearly, there was some sort of chemistry between them, that they understood each other on some level.”

“I’m sure that Henry Kissinger respected Golda enormously and certainly, vice versa. Obviously, America was so important to Israel.  One of Golda’s great achievements in the early days of Israel was going to America, long before she was prime minister, to collect money for Israel, to try and get Israel going.”

Henry Kissinger. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

“She was enormously successful as a fundraiser. She had this relationship. Oh, obviously, she was American anyway, actually. Yes, they (Meir and Kissinger) did have, I think, a very good relationship. It was challenging because they were also both pragmatic and people fighting for their own points of view. It wasn’t plain sailing, far from it.”

Some critics blasted that the British thespian was buried in all this make-up and prosthetics. While some reviewers praised that Helen’s eyes are as expressive as ever in Golda.

“Yes, I did have makeup,” the British actress replied dryly in answer to a question. “Obviously, a lot of makeup there.”

Guy said, “She’s humble. Four hours in the makeup room. Every single day. And [a long time to] take them off as well.”

Helen credited the team behind her daily transformation into the Iron Lady, a term coined for the Israeli leader before it was also used for Margaret Thatcher. “One, an incredible makeup team (led by Karen Hartley). Instantly. Two young girls who are just wonderful. And also, costume – incredibly important. Those elements, whatever character you are playing, the costume and the makeup are very important.”

“It’s a part of the creation of the story, really. So very important and a great tool to enter into the character. It always rather surprised me at the end of the day when I took it all off and I was me again because I got so used to looking in the mirror and being that person.”

Guy commented to Helen, “I actually didn’t see you. For 35 days, I saw Golda.”

Helen disagreed with a reporter’s comparison of Meir with Queen Elizabeth II. “I don’t think Golda was really like the Queen. No. As I said earlier, if there was an equivalence, it would’ve been probably Elizabeth I in that sense of utter dedication. Of course, Elizabeth II had that as well so I guess on that level.”

“But no, I think Golda was a more emotionally expressive person maybe than Elizabeth II. She had the ability, which all leaders have got to have, of being contained within a public sphere. You can’t be emotional all over the place.”

“But I think she was a very passionate person but very practical as well. Enormously practical…and compassionate, yes. Passionate, compassionate, and practical.”

On the debate sparked by actress Maureen Lipman who told the Jewish Chronicle that she questioned the casting of Helen, who is not Jewish, Guy answered, “I can tell it from my point of view as a director. When I met Helen in my house, I felt like I’m meeting a family member, like an aunt.”

“I felt that I’m meeting someone from a Jewish person. Because for me, she’s got the Jewish chops to portray Golda. We spoke about Golda for four hours.”

“She totally got everything, every nook and cranny, everything in this character. And for me, other than the fact that I adore Helen…. Close your eyes. Close your ears.”

“I think she’s one of the best actresses in the world. I just found her very authentic to me. Now, one of the terms for me to direct this movie, was to surround her with an Israeli cast, to bring an Israeli editor and to bring more people from Israel, to make it more so I would feel I’m making an Israeli movie.”

“And that helped a lot to have Lior and all the team here. But I told it from my end. There’s no doubt for me and that’s why I was so surprised to see this reaction.”

“Helen said something very smart. She said, ‘Okay. So let’s say only Jews can portray Jews. But what about Jews not portraying Jews? Is this not allowed anymore?’ It’s limiting us in such a way.”

President Nixon and Henry Kissinger in the Oval office during a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir. November 1, 1973.

“And I think that Israeli and Jews, Jewish actors, they have no limitations and they have no problems to portray. Around the world, you can see that. Israeli actors are in international shows. And so for me, as a Jewish Israeli director, I had no problem with that.”

Lior remarked, “Can I give my 50 cents on that? Let’s say it was a movie about Jesus Christ. Who’s going to play Him, a Jew or a non-Jew?”

Helen quipped, “Well, it won’t be me.”

Writer Nicholas Martin, noting the presence of two of Meir’s grandsons at Berlinale and that they have seen Golda, shared, “They’re absolutely thrilled that Helen played their grandmother. I think that counts for a lot.”

In 2021, there were reports that Barbra Streisand will produce and/or direct The Lioness (another epithet for Meir), a limited series with Unorthodox star Shira Haas tapped to portray the leader. There have been no new updates about the projects since then.

In 1978, Meir, who penned a bestselling autobiography, My Life, died in Jerusalem. She was 80.

Golda is scheduled to be released in August this year. – Rappler.com

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Ruben V. Nepales

Based in Los Angeles, Ruben V. Nepales is an award-winning journalist whose honors include prizes from the National Arts & Entertainment Journalism Awards, a US-wide competition, and the Southern California Journalism Awards, presented by the Los Angeles Press Club.