Home Opinions Ideas The disappointing duds of Richler’s novels on the screen

The disappointing duds of Richler’s novels on the screen

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Mordechai Richler by Taymaz Valley. FLICKR

Most of us don’t get the opportunity to visit a movie set. Parts of Las Vegas used to seem like one, but the iconic Rat Pack neon hotels have been torn down in favour of new kinds of spectacle. In Krakow, Poland, visitors take what’s known as the “Schindler’s List Tour,” a faux-historical procession through parts of the old city that were used by Steven Spielberg to approximate wartime scenery. And not too long ago, the set pieces from Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments were unearthed in the California desert, presenting film buffs with the weird opportunity to create a site-specific exhibition of Hollywood’s cast-off plaster of Paris Egyptiana.

One Mordecai Richler movie set exists, fully preserved, as it was when it was used for a series of terrific scenes in the 1974 film adaptation of the 1959 novel, The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz. This is the restaurant Wilensky’s Light Lunch, established in 1932 by the family that maintains it today on the corner of Clark and Fairmount in the part of Montreal known as the Plateau. When Richler was young, this was the heart of the city’s Jewish working-class quarter.

Wilensky’s website rightly claims that the place “has not changed much since it was opened,” adding that part of the restaurant’s fame comes from the fact that it inspired the neighbourhood hangout portrayed in Richler’s best-known novel.

The restaurant — as it appeared in 1973 — stood in for the 1940s version, which was on St. Urbain Street. The shoot called for a repaint and a reconfiguration of the interior furnishings. A continuity man scoured the books that were on display, to remove anything anachronistic. The owner, Moe Wilensky, bit his lip as his life’s work was treated to a cinematographer’s makeover.

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Today, Wilensky’s is a distillation of different periods of Montreal’s Jewish history — it’s a film set waiting for its next close up. It also serves as a reminder of its own history: the wall display with news clippings recalling Richler’s “old haunt” was put together by the restaurant’s present owner when she was a teenager.  The truth, it turns out, is that after Moe Wilensky was gone, Richler no longer haunted the place.

When Richler wrote about the experience of shooting The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, he reminisced about his long-standing friendship with Ted Kotcheff, their formative years in late-1950s London bedsits and Kotcheff’s promise to return to Canada to direct a film based on the novel. The screenplay that was initially considered was set aside in  favour of a Richler adaptation, and though the Canadian Film Development Corporation offered to make a substantial investment in the project, the CBC dropped out at the last minute.

Richard Dreyfuss, Kotcheff’s choice for Duddy, was a relative unknown who had just completed work on George Lucas’ American Graffiti.

The shooting script made use of the full complement of local sites from Richler’s youth: the park known as Fletcher’s Field, which sat across from the mountain; the streets and picturesque back alleys surrounding St. Urbain Street; and one of the still-extant Laurentians hotels where Jews summered from the 1940s on. Wilensky’s closed for a week, in order to serve the variety of shots required in its interior.  It appears in the movie undisguised, its name painted on the front window that Duddy gazes through as he seeks his lay-about father.

Some of the movie’s sets were peopled with locals as extras who stood in for themselves. The outcome was terrific:  The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz is the only great film made from Richler’s work.

It includes no weird casting choices, no incomprehensible plot changes from the original fiction and no key corners cut due to budget constraints (a friend needled the director about the use of a ’70s-era sewing machine in one of the sweatshop scenes, but how many viewers caught that slip?).

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The reception of The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz was wholehearted: it was an early English-language Canadian cinema success; it won a Golden Bear award at the Berlin Film Festival; and Richler was nominated (along with the excised but still acknowledged writer of the first adaptation) for an adapted screenplay Oscar.

Such complimentary tales cannot be told about the rest of the cinematic oeuvre based on Richler’s fiction. For a writer whose intimates’ main goal has been to burnish his posthumous reputation, this must stand as a substantial disappointment.

Weird adaptations of Richler’s fiction were an outcome of his success. As early as 1960, the CBC TV venue “General Motors Presents” produced a one-hour version of Duddy Kravitz that was adapted by Richler himself. Today, the work seems both cinematically strange and woefully outdated. One wonders if budget considerations led to the decision to tell Duddy’s story entirely in the context of a Laurentians summer hotel.  The novel’s sharp urban portrait of 1940s Jewish St. Urbain Street — arguably its reason for being — falls away entirely.

Early 1960s Canadian TV productions were an odd mixture of British kitchen sink drama, Brandoesque method acting and a constant impression that the viewer was looking at theatre that someone had decided to film. In the films made of Richler’s work, actors make an effort to “sound Jewish” and the viewer feels for the performers as they simultaneously present and undercut contemporary Jewish stereotypes of the most shallow variety.

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Richler was given an opportunity to introduce a 1964 dramatization of an excerpt from The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz on the CBC show Q for Quest. Looking a bit discomforted in the role of dramatic guide, Richler informs his audience that Canadians have become “tiresomely articulate” about the subject of minority suffering.  His interest in his own community has, he admits, landed him in “hot water.”  And to account for his own departure for Europe in 1951, he adds that he and his “friends were embarrassed to be Canadians.”

When rabbis criticized adaptations of Richler’s work (a notable target was the 1974 CBC production The Bells of Hell, in which a patient is treated to a rectal exam at the same time as a pledge pitch for the United Jewish Appeal), their criticism was misplaced; the CBC was producing bad cinema, not anti-Semitic popular entertainment.

Later, substantial film productions of Richler’s work were independent, in the sense that Richler worked with friends as producers, directors and investors. Still, from The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz forward, federal funding agencies picked up substantial pieces of each budget. In the case of Joshua Then and Now, this put peculiar pressure on the project to hire Canadian actors, in exchange for public investment. Whether Richler liked the cultural bureaucrats he dealt with or not, these deals undercut the constant sniping and satire he aimed at Canada’s cultural funding bodies, which helped bring his novels to the screen.

Richler’s biographers detail the complicated problems associated with filming Joshua Then and Now and Barney’s Version, but they don’t offer an overarching explanation for why this became a repeated pattern. Scripts were rewritten; an actor was cast and then dubbed when her accent proved unworkable; the intrinsic Parisian backdrop of Barney’s Version was shifted to Italy, ostensibly to catch the tailwind of Barneymania, the love affair with Richler that swept Italy after a translation of the novel was published. Playing to the converted had a successful outcome: most of the movie’s worldwide box office was earned in Italy.

In each case – with the exception of The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz — the filmed outcome was notably less effective than the novelistic originals.  Critics and biographers note this again and again, as if the character of Richler’s fiction conjures some sort of Fata Morgana – a vision of storytelling on the screen that has eluded each creative team’s better instincts.

Joshua Then and Now reunited Kotcheff and Richler, but to lesser effect than their maiden project. The choice of James Woods to play the movie’s lead seems an obvious mistake from the first shot in which he appears. One gets a feeling for the film’s offbeat and downbeat character by listening to Philippe Sarde’s intriguing soundtrack, with its intimations of early jazz and edgy classical motifs.