In Hollywood, Jewish men can get away with almost anything.
At least that’s true in the film “Barney’s Version,” based on the semi-autobiographical novel of the same name by Canadian Jewish author Mordecai Richler.
Take, for example, the way in which the title character, Barney, meets the love of his life: He spots her across a crowded ballroom after he’s just danced the horah and thrown back a few shots at the bar. It’s his wedding day. To his second wife.
I probably don’t have to tell you that Barney gets the girl.
Jewish women, on the other hand, don’t fare as well.
Barney’s first wife, Clara Chambers, played with bohemian brio by Rachelle Lefevre, is a free-spirited liar. She lies about Barney’s paternity of her unborn child, forcing him into wedlock and, at their shotgun wedding ceremony in Rome, lies about her real last name — Charnofsky — so ashamed is she of her Jewishness. Clara, an artist, draws portraits of Barney with devil’s horns, and still she wants him. After the wedding, she gives birth to a stillborn whose skin pigmentation is decidedly not Barney’s and promptly kills herself.
Wife No. 2, known only as “The 2nd Mrs. P,” is the quintessential Jewish American Princess; shallow, screechy and snooty. The presence of her rich and powerful father permits her to emasculate most other men, even as she incessantly rags on them. Given shades of depth and hints of vulnerability by the (half-Jewish) actress Minnie Driver, The 2nd Mrs. P is still exasperating. She whines and commands and complains like it’s her job (of course, she has no job). When by chance she discovers a suspicious receipt in Barney’s wallet, she suspects the worst — and without spoiling the plot, suffice it to say, she uses all her feminine wiles to retaliate.
It’s a credit to the actors who play these women that they aren’t entirely loathsome in the film. Immensely flawed, they make wonderful characters. Director Richard Lewis said as much during a Q-and-A I moderated at the Museum of Tolerance (MOT) last week.
“I don’t believe either of these [women] are stereotypes,” Lewis said, sitting on a panel with actors Paul Giamatti, Rosamund Pike and producer Robert Lantos.
He was quick to defend their “nuance”:
“I think they’re deep, they’re textured, they’re rich. They are women we know that we’ve seen in our lives. And because we’ve seen this ‘type’ before, we feel they’re stereotypes.”
The argument can be made that as characters, they’re compelling, but still, we’re not meant to love them.
It is Miriam — the third wife — who steals Barney’s (and our) heart. It is she who embodies a feminine ideal so elegant and soft, she transforms a smug curmudgeon into a hopelessly besotted romantic. Played with pitch-perfect subtlety by the British actress Rosamund Pike, a modern incarnation of Grace Kelly, Miriam is a dream. She is so magnanimous, she not only overlooks Barney’s adulterous courtship, she cleans up his vomit after he over-imbibes on their first date. Just how does such a lovely woman wind up with someone so uncouth?
“[It’s] just so simple as to why she falls in love with him,” Pike told the MOT audience. “Because he’s sort of eminently lovable and adorable and romantic.”
And sometimes selfish, drunk and jealous.
“[Miriam] tolerates everything,” Pike admitted. “She tolerates his drinking, she tolerates his staying out late, she tolerates his sort of rudeness with her friends.”
In reality, a wife like Miriam might draw upon some spiritual strength in order to endure those marital disappointments, but in the film Miriam’s religious identity is a bit of a mystery.
Is it possible Miriam is Jewish? As if it weren’t triumphant enough that the shlubby Jew gets the Grace Kelly goddess, perhaps Jewish women can also exult?
While the film is unclear about Miriam’s Jewishness, the filmmakers are not. They note that in Richler’s book, Miriam’s last name is “Greenberg,” but for the film it was changed to “Grant.”
“We had a choice to make,” the film’s (Jewish) producer Lantos explained. “Either stay with the character as written by Mordecai in the book, or go with the real person on whom the character was based, who was his wife — Florence Richler, who is not Jewish.”
With “Barney’s Version,” verisimilitude wins out over new cinematic ideal.
“Richler was more of a secular Jew,” Lewis said, adding that when it comes to Jewish women, “he’s commenting on how he feels about this particular ‘type’ of Jewish person.”
Richler may not have been terribly fond of the Jewish women ‘types’ that populate his novel, but in the end, as Pike pointed out, Barney doesn’t choose a ‘type.’ He chooses a person.
After their first date, while Barney sleeps off his hangover, “[Miriam] spends a bit of time in the environment of this man, finds his crib notes, finds, you know, however many ties he laid out,” Pike said. “And realizes that his obsession with her was for her as an individual and not women in general.”
Lantos agreed: “Everything about this character except that name he gave her — Greenberg — was Florence.
“Right from the way they meet — because Mordecai and Florence met at his [first] wedding.”
Like I said, Jewish men can get away with almost anything.