Helen Mirren’s ‘Golda’ comes to life at Jerusalem Film Festival
Oscar-winning actress says portraying iconic Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir is one of the ‘most extraordinary characters’ she’s ever played
Ohad Zwigenberg/AP Photo
Oscar-winning British actress Dame Helen Mirren arrived in Israel on Thursday for the screening of her historical biopic, “Golda,” at the opening of the 40th annual Jerusalem Film Festival.
Directed by the Tel Aviv-born Guy Nattiv, “Golda” which hits movie theaters on Aug. 24, offers an up-close look at the role of former Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir during the Yom Kippur War in 1973 and the controversial — and tragic — decisions that were made at the war’s onset.
“Undoubtedly this is one of the most extraordinary characters I have ever played,” Mirren, dressed in white and accessorizing with a turquoise scarf, told journalists at a press conference in the Inbal Hotel in Jerusalem. “Her history, her commitment to her country, her character in general; she was an amazing person to investigate and live in a small way in her mind and in her skin.”
To play the role of Israel’s first and only female prime minister, Mirren, 77, not only closely studied the distinct characteristics and mannerisms of Meir, who was born in Ukraine but grew up in Milwaukee, Wis., before making aliyah in 1921, but also donned heavy prosthetics to appear as the iconic leader’s mirror image.
Mirren, who faced some criticism for being picked to play a Jewish-Israeli character, also had to learn how to perpetually chain smoke – the sad signature of the Israeli leader who ultimately succumbed to cancer in 1978. The actress, who has played an array of British queens and other powerful women in history, mimicked Meir’s gestures so uncannily throughout the film that even her co-stars, which include Israeli actors Lior Ashkenazi, Dvir Benedek, said they almost believed that the former prime minister was there with them each day on the set.
The film also stars Liev Schreiber in the role of U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who in one scene is obligated to eat a bowl of fresh borscht as he tries to convince Meir to accept a cease-fire deal with Egypt – Meir, instead of responding to his request, delights in watching him eat every bite like a doting grandmother.
“If you are talking about the history of feminism and women in power, Golda is an interesting example,” Mirren observed during the press conference. “She had immense power and there was a reason why [her government was sometimes] referred to as “Golda’s kitchen cabinet.”
“She would toddle around the kitchen and try to make everyone happy by playing a grandmotherly role,” Mirren continued. “It is a very different attitude to power than what maybe you think of the male Netanyahu type of power to the Golda kitchen power, yet it is still immense power,” she said, referring to Israel’s current prime minister. “It just comes from a different emotional place, a psychological place but it is equally powerful.”
The film takes viewers back to the early 1970s and explores events in the lead-up to and aftermath of the Yom Kippur War. Despite the intelligence warnings, Israelis were caught by surprise on the holiest day of the Jewish calendar as the armies of Syria attacked from the north and Egypt from the south.
Throughout the 21-day conflict, Israel suffered heavy casualties – more than 2,600 Israeli soldiers were killed – and, as the movie shows, its military leaders, including Defense Minister Moshe Dayan, struggled to put together a cohesive strategy that would turn around their fortunes. Eventually, it was Meir’s diplomatic and political prowess that helped Israel enlist greater support from the U.S., and win, even though she ultimately took the blame for a war that many Israelis see as the country’s worst military failure.
“The fact is that she [Meir] took responsibility and resigned at the end of the day, whereas so many leaders today do not,” said Nattiv, who won an Academy Award for Best Live Action Short Film for “Skin” in 2018. “She took the death of every soldier very personally and tried to lead her commanders, even as they all fell apart.”
“Maybe she [Meir] wasn’t a great soldier but she was a great diplomat,” noted Nattiv.
Ashkenazi, who plays then-IDF Chief of Staff David Elazar in the film, told Jewish Insider after the press conference that the depiction of events, including Mirren’s portrayal of a tense and tragic Meir, were all very accurate.
“I read through all the protocols of the war very closely and, like all Israelis, I grew up with this war, I know it very well,” said Ashkenazi, who has appeared in an array of Israeli films and shows, including the Netflix series “Hit & Run.”
Of Mirren, Ashkenazi said, “It was amazing to be on set with her, she really is a legend.”