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Viewer Guide: “Fiddler on the Roof” and “The Lincoln Lawyer”

November 17, 2021 | 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.


The Lincoln Lawyer (2011).

This week’s indie is The Lincoln Lawyer, a 2011 legal thriller based on the novel by Michael Connelly, directed by Brad Furman. 

Matthew McConaughey stars as Mick Haller, a slick LA defense attorney, who—thanks to a few too many DUI arrests—runs his office from the backseat of his chauffeured Lincoln Town Car. Mick uses his impressive legal skill to defend an array of commonplace criminals, regardless of the crime—or probable guilt—so long as the price is right. Mick’s mercenary pragmatism doesn’t sit well with his ex-wife Maggie McPherson, played by Marisa Tomei, but her job as a state prosecutor ensures that the couple still crosses paths in the courtroom. After getting an inside tip from a bail bondsman played by John Leguizamo, Mick takes on an atypically high-class client named Louis Roulet, a wealthy playboy played by Ryan Phillippe who’s been accused of nearly killing a prostitute. Discovering that Louis’ defense is funded by the deep pockets of his mother Mary Windsor, an LA real estate tycoon played by Frances Fisher, Mick is surprised to learn that Louis had in fact requested Mick’s services himself. And when Mick starts to notice disturbing connections to a prior client named Jesus Martinez, played by Michael Peña, an uncomfortable realization begins to dawn on Mick that he’s been maneuvered into a dark legal web. 

Also featured in supporting roles are Josh Lucas as a new DA, William H. Macy as a loyal investigator, and Bryan Cranston as a suspicious detective.  

If The Lincoln Lawyer seems like an update on the “California noir” crime fiction stories of author Raymond Chandler, that’s no coincidence; Lincoln Lawyer novelist Michael Connelly was inspired to become a writer after seeing Robert Altman’s 1973 adaptation of Chandler’s The Long Goodbye. Changing his major to journalism and reading all of Chandler’s novels, Connelly’s writing success eventually allowed him to rent the High Tower Court Los Angeles apartment that Altman used as a location in The Long Goodbye as his writing office. In addition to the character of Mick Haller, Connelly’s other best-selling creation is LAPD detective Hieronymus “Harry” Bosch, Haller’s half-brother who is the central character in the hit Amazon TV series Bosch that premiered in 2014—the same year that Matthew McConaughey won the Best Actor Oscar for his performance in Dallas Buyers Club… and also became the TV commercial spokesman for Lincoln Town Cars. Talk about coincidences! 

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

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