To Israelis, the premise of Joseph Cedar’s latest film might seem achingly familiar: It tells the story of a New York Jew who does exorbitant favors for an Israeli prime minister.
“Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer” features many tropes from classic Jewish tales. And it features Richard Gere — the famed, one-time American gigolo and “Pretty Woman” suitor — as the hapless, frumpy Norman Oppenheimer, the has-been New York fixer, who has some cringe-inducing personality traits.
The sense of familiarity generated by the character is potent, even for Cedar, who is arguably Israel’s most celebrated director of the last decade.
“I’m really attracted to this guy, who is a mystery to me precisely because I know him so well,” said Cedar at a press conference at the Jerusalem Cinematheque Thursday, following a screening of the film.
“There’s nothing that Norman does in the movie, there’s nothing that I think Norman can do in some other story, that I can’t see myself, in a weak point, doing. While I’m kind of embarrassed of things that Norman does, I’m not going to apologize because I think there’s a lot of good that comes of Norman’s special skills,” he added, sitting between Gere and actor Lior Ashkenazy, who plays the Israeli prime minister, Micha Eshel.
It was discombobulating to see Gere in the role of Norman, outfitted with a camel-hair coat and scarf, wheeling and dealing while apparently living out of an upper West Side synagogue and chewing on Mike and Ike fruit-flavored candies for lunch.
And yet he successfully embodies the character, his usually proud shock of white hair slightly oily and straggly, his briefcase slung across his chest as he trudges around the city, earbuds firmly in place as he makes repeated calls in an effort to close his deals.
The story begins with Norman taking notice of Ashekanzy’s character, then a deputy minister in Israel’s cabinet, as a potential means of boosting his own connections.
Norman uses Eshel, buying him an exorbitantly priced pair of designer shoes, and in one key scene — one of the longest in the film, said Gere, at “15 pages of script” — bonds with him to establish a friendship that lasts beyond Eshel’s eventual election as prime minister.
When Norman places the shoes on Eshel’s feet — a “Cinderella ” moment that was improvised by the two men during the rehearsal period, according to Gere — he forges a bond, making it impossible for Eshel to turn down the shoes, and by extension, Norman himself.
“The love was there,” said Gere. “The audience could see it, and that’s magic.”
The character of Norman, he continued, has “a deep-seated need to help. There’s almost a childlike holiness about him. He’s a holy idiot. He doesn’t fall back on anger or revenge.”
He’s an enigma, said Gere, but a likable one.
“I can’t really parse him as a human being because there are so many things I don’t understand about him as a human being,” he said. “I play him and it was instinctive and it wasn’t like I had to think about it when I was playing him, but there’s something so counter to human nature in him: his utter lack of anger or revenge, his ability to almost immediately rise above humiliation and slight, his deep-seated need to help, albeit he wants his 7 percent.”
In the film, Gere’s character weaves a complicated web encompassing the prime minister and a pair of fabulously wealthy, connected New York Jews, as he attempts to give each what they need in order to make them more dependent on him.
Cedar said he distanced himself from any specific story in Israeli politics in writing the film, despite its resonance in the present political atmosphere and its evocation of past scandals. The plot, he insisted, is quintessentially “Jewish.”
“There are many, many Normans and many Eshels,” said Cedar. “But for every Eshel, I can think of at least six or seven vying for top spots in the Israeli government, and there are at least 100 Normans that have given him something at some point, hoping that they may enter his close circle and hopefully, if this potential Eshel reaches power, be brought into his inner circle. I was attracted to that dynamic — it relies on a classic plot, which is a Jewish plot.”
“It’s a good story structure because the Norman character isn’t all good. I think he has many flaws, but he’s never the person who can determine his own destiny,” said Cedar.
“He’s not Iago,” added Gere. “He’s not dark — it’s not his emotional makeup. He is the sad sack. He is our sad sack, he’s not the other. He can face his humiliations.”
He acknowledged that there was something incongruous about him landing the role of Norman.
“This character is pretty far away from me,” said Gere. “I’m so not connected,” he added, having apologized at the beginning of the press conference for not speaking Hebrew.
“You learned how to say Micha,” offered Cedar.
The film’s Jewish characters didn’t necessarily require Jewish actors, Cedar said. It was “a really beautiful acting challenge.”
“So many things in ‘Norman’ are exact opposites — not only of Richard, but of movie characters — that it almost became a tool,” he said. “What would Richard Gere do in a certain situation? Norman will do the exact opposite.”
Ironically, said Cedar after the press conference, Gere offered to help bail out the Conservative Shaare Zedek synagogue on New York’s West 93rd Street. In the film, the synagogue’s address is listed on Norman’s business card, and his rabbi, played by Steve Buscemi, needs him to help raise $14 million for the building.
The Upper West Side synagogue was initially slated for demolition last year due to financial constraints, and was to be replaced by condos.
Even if the Norman character was unfamiliar to him, Gere — despite being raised in a small American town where he attended Sunday school at the local Methodist Church — has more than a passing familiarity with Israel and Jerusalem, he said.
During the press conference, he was asked about his statements to the Ynet news site criticizing Israel’s settlements, and spoke about his meeting Wednesday with the activist group Women Wage Peace.
“I’m interested in human beings, and so, the people that I’m meeting are also people who are primarily involved with relationships and bridging the problems between human beings,” he said.
“I’m coming from a country that is in deep anxiety and chaos right now, and we’re all majorly confused by it,” added Gere. “But the good thing that has come out of it is the women’s movement, and it’s not one of anger but of joy and possibility and commitment, and it’s my hope this impulse will have continuity and grow larger and larger, and so large that it can’t be ignored by anybody.”
He also spoke of earlier visits to Jerusalem, and the realization that it is in fact a small city, where everyone knows one another.
Unlike in Ceder’s previous film, “Footnote,” Jerusalem doesn’t figure prominently in “Norman,” except as the location for the Knesset and Prime Minister Eshel’s residence. But always in the backdrop is the relationship between Jerusalem and New York, said Cedar, “a tale of two cities” that are the cruxes of Jewish life.
In Jerusalem, said Cedar — who lives in Tel Aviv and stayed in New York while writing and filming “Norman” — he can walk down the street and be called by his mother’s maiden name, because “they knew her from camp.”
He also spoke of his own family connections to the plot of “Norman.” His uncle by marriage is Morris Talansky, the American Orthodox rabbi and businessman who was one the main witnesses when former prime minister Ehud Olmert was investigated for bribery.
Talansky and Olmert were longtime acquaintances who knew each other before Olmert was elected mayor of Jerusalem, and Talansky famously gave the prime minister “cash-stuffed envelopes” on various occasions. Eight months of Olmert’s prison sentence were due to a conviction in that affair.
But the film, Cedar insisted, is not based on that episode.
“It doesn’t tell the story of Olmert and Talansky; it’s a different storyline, and the storyline in the film could just as easily connect to what’s in the news now, or five other stories,” he said.
“I love my uncle,” Cedar continued. “He’s had a great influence on me; he is a colorful character, a fantastic storyteller, someone who is tireless, and as a child, he was extremely generous to me.”
He said he felt Talansky was taken advantage of in the Olmert bribery case, which ultimately was “a love story” of the two men’s friendship.
“I think my uncle felt that he was fulfilling an important mission by helping an Israeli politician do something good,” he said. “It may be naive, but it’s what I believe.”
Gere was asked about Arnon Milchan, the producer of two films he starred in — “Pretty Woman” and “Sommersby” — who is currently providing testimony for a police investigation of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, after having allegedly supplied him and his wife, Sara, with expensive cigars and champagne for years.
“He’s a very charming and very pleasant, decent guy,” said Gere. “I know very little about the history giving him infamy. And I don’t smoke cigars and I don’t drink pink champagne.”
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