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Viewer Guide: “Fiddler on the Roof” and “Maude”

May 10, 2023 | Richard Peña


Fiddler on the Roof (1971).

This week’s classic is Fiddler on the Roof, the 1971 adaptation of the beloved Broadway musical based on the stories of Sholem Aleichem, adapted for the screen by Joseph Stein with a tuneful score of audience favorites by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick, directed by Norman Jewison.  

An unprecedented cultural phenomenon with its groundbreaking depiction of Jewish life, Fiddler on the Roof recounts the now classic story of Tevye, an Orthodox milkman in 1905 eking out an existence in the fictional Ukrainian shtetl of Anatevka. Played by Israeli star Topol, Tevye’s meager circumstances are further challenged by his five daughters, with the lack of dowries for any of them creating unexpected dilemmas as his three eldest daughters reach a marriageable age. Wryly lamenting his plight in one-way conversations with God, Tevye finds himself increasingly challenged as each daughter finds romance outside the traditions that hold the tightknit community together. And if that wasn’t enough “tsuris” for one man, looming over it all is the constant threat of harassment from the Czarist regime, with violent “pogroms” periodically staged to keep Jews in their ghettoized place—or worse yet, force them to leave. How Tevye or anyone else in Anatevka finds any joy in life is indeed a “miracle of miracles,” yet somehow they do, always managing to keep their footing like a “fiddler on the roof.”  

Premiering on Broadway in 1964, Fiddler on the Roof surpassed all expectations to become one of the Great White Way’s greatest successes, its story of generational conflict and change resonating with audiences of the turbulent sixties. Yet despite becoming Broadway’s longest-running show of the time, adapting the musical for the big screen was a delicate business. director Norman Jewison faced considerable pressure to cast Zero Mostel, who had created the role of Tevye with a legendary Tony Award-winning performance. However, Jewison felt Mostel’s performance would be too big for the screen, opting to cast the 35-year-old Topol instead after seeing him play Tevye in the London production. Wearing padded costumes, Topol’s old age makeup regimen included supplementing his eyebrows with gray hairs, which Jewison plucked daily from his own beard. Shot on location in Yugoslavia, the large-scale production ran into a number of problems, but an unspoken recognition among the cast and crew that the film would be a monument to a Jewish community ultimately eradicated by World War II kept everyone pulling together. A box office hit, the film was nominated for eight Academy Awards, including Best Actor and Best Picture. For the complete story of Fiddler on the Roof’s enduring universal appeal, be sure to check out the documentary Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles, currently streaming on PBS Passport. 


Maude (2016).

This week’s double feature continues with Maudie, a 2016 biopic on the life of Canadian folk artist Maud Lewis, directed by Aisling Walsh. 

Sally Hawkins stars as Lewis, more commonly known as “Maudie,” a Nova Scotia native born with physical defects who also endured a lifelong struggle with progressively debilitating rheumatoid arthritis. The film picks up Maudie’s story in the late 1930s after the death of her parents, when she is living with a disapproving aunt at the behest of her brother Charles. Treated as a bothersome charity case who can’t fend for herself, Maudie realizes she has reached a crossroads when Charles sells their parent’s house without her knowledge…or sharing the profits. Furthermore, Maudie remains traumatized by memories of the illegitimate baby Charles took from her after birth, telling her that it was deformed and soon died. Finally ready to claim her independence, Maudie answers a “help wanted” post from Everett Lewis, a curmudgeonly fish peddler played by Ethan Hawke, who’s looking for a live-in cleaning lady. Arriving at Everett’s house to discover it’s barely more than a shack, Maudie struggles to adjust to Everett’s harsh and sometimes abusive temperament. But with nowhere else to go, Maudie perseveres with Everett, and somehow an improbable relationship begins to form. Decorating the walls of her tiny new home with childlike paintings of flowers and birds, Maudie’s artwork eventually catches the notice of one of Everett’s customers visiting from New York City, and she soon finds herself becoming the focus of a brand new kind of attention.  

When director Aisling Walsh read screenwriter Sherry White’s script for Maudie, she immediately thought of Sally Hawkins for the title role, having worked with Hawkins on the BBC miniseries Fingersmith. Sean Bean was originally set to play Maudie’s husband Everett but had to drop out due to scheduling conflicts. Ethan Hawke happily took over the role, motivated by the opportunity to work with Hawkins as well as by his love of Nova Scotia where he already owned a home; however, the production was actually filmed in Newfoundland and Labrador due to superior co-production financing. Nonetheless, Hawke drew inspiration for his characterization of Everett from the Nova Scotia fishermen he had observed during his visits there. An amateur painter herself, Sally Hawkins studied Maud Lewis’ work to convincingly emulate her style on screen. Interestingly, Everett Lewis also took up painting in his retirement years, but in a tragic turn of events he was murdered by a burglar on January 1, 1979, nine years after Maudie’s death. Everett and Maudie’s original house was only 10 by 12 feet, and in 1996 it was moved to the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia in Halifax to be restored, where it remains on display with an exhibit of Lewis’ work. The replica of the house built for the film was somewhat larger to accommodate the film production crew. Premiering at the 2016 Telluride Film Festival, Maudie went on to many festival screenings as well as theatrical distribution in the U.S. and Canada, garnering critical acclaim for Sally Hawkins and Ethan Hawke’s performances. 

Richard Peña is a Professor of Film Studies at Columbia University, where he specializes in film theory and international cinema.  

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