The painful rippling effects of a clandestine love affair are explored in the movie “My Old Lady,” which marks the film directorial debut of noted playwright Israel Horovitz, who also wrote the screenplay. The film is based on Horovitz’s play of the same name, which has enjoyed productions on Broadway and worldwide.
In a recent interview, Horovitz recalled watching a performance of “My Old Lady” in Russia and thinking that, onstage, the work is merely three characters in a room, so the audience doesn’t see anything of Paris, where the action is set. He decided that Paris should be more evident as a character in the story, and it was then that he began to imagine the movie.
“At the same time, I knew I was heading toward my 75th birthday, and I thought, ‘I really want to do something that scares the living hell out of me,’ ” Horovitz remembered. “I don’t want to just keep doing the same thing over and over — not that doing a new play isn’t exciting. Of course, it is, but it’s not terrifying. And so I thought about writing the movie and directing the movie.” The playwright worked on the film with his daughter, the accomplished movie producer Rachael Horovitz (“Moneyball” and “About Schmidt”).
“I boiled my play down to its essence,” he said, “and that was an American guy who’s down on his luck, who’s alcoholic, estranged from his [now deceased] rich father, inherits an apartment in Paris, and he goes there to liquidate it, to pay off his friends and maybe commit suicide, who knows. He’s really in trouble.”
When the man, Mathias Gold (Kevin Kline), arrives in Paris, he learns he has inherited a viager, a property sold according to a common French real-estate arrangement through which the buyer of a house or apartment pays the seller, but the seller is allowed to continue to occupy the property, as a rental, until his or her death. Mathias discovers that his newly inherited apartment remains the residence of its previous owner, 92-year-old Mathilde (Maggie Smith), and her daughter, Chloé (Kristin Scott Thomas). Having nowhere else to go, Mathias arranges to live with the mother and daughter.
“While he’s trying to sell his contract, he discovers that this old lady and his father were lovers over 50 years, and she’s the reason his mother committed suicide,” Horovitz explained.
It soon becomes clear that both Mathias and Chloé were emotionally damaged by the liaison between his father and her mother. At one point, Mathias says, “Anytime anyone follows their heart, someone else gets their heart broken,” a theme Horovitz acknowledged is very much at the heart of his story.
As he discussed his film’s core issue, Horovitz was reminded of an experience he’d had years ago, in Florida, while sitting on a plane stuck on a runway. He found himself making conversation with the little old Jewish lady sitting next to him.
He asked if she lived nearby, and, when she said she did, he remarked that it must be hot in Florida in the summer. She answered that when her husband was alive, they used to go to Sweden in the summertime. Horovitz asked why they went to Sweden.
“She said, ‘Well, when my husband was alive, he won a big prize in Sweden.’ It was Isaac [Bashevis] Singer’s widow. So, you never know who you’re sitting beside,” Horovitz observed. “I kept in touch with her — her name was Alma.”
He also learned about the backstory of the Singers’ marriage. “They met each other — they were married to other people, and they had kids. And they had this torrid love affair, and they wanted to get married. And they decided they would leave their spouses, but they’d also leave their children, that this love was taking them to a brand-new place. And so off they went, and they had their marriage.”
According to Horovitz, the liaison between Isaac and Alma was irreparably damaging to the children involved. “Their story must have influenced me with this movie,” he realized. “I never thought of it before.”
Although the film’s damaged protagonist, Mathias Gold, is Jewish, it’s not a factor that is particularly germane to the film. Horovitz said that, in the play, Mathilde talks about the Nazi occupation of Paris and what the Germans did to the Jews, but it didn’t occur to him to put that in the screenplay, which includes several new characters.
“It’s not hidden that he’s Jewish, it’s just not an issue in the movie. I’ve written tons of plays that are about being Jewish. I wrote a trilogy called ‘The Growing Up Jewish Trilogy.’
“I’ve written 70-something plays, so that’s not my only subject at all. It’s a piece of that character the way it’s a piece of my life,” Horovitz said.
Even as he is making his film-directing debut with “My Old Lady,” Horovitz’s first volume of poetry, “Heaven and Other Poems,” is being published by Three Rooms Press. Among the advance praise for the poetry are statements by actors Kevin Kline and Dustin Hoffman, as well as writers Neil LaBute and Gay Talese.
“My Old Lady” opens Sept. 10.