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Tuesday night, on the one-month anniversary of the October 7 Hamas attack on southern and central Israel that sparked the nation’s biggest conflict in 50 years, an audience gathered at the Linwood Dunn Theater of the Pickford Center for Motion Picture Studies in Hollywood for a packed industry screening of – and panel discussion following – the powerful biopic “Golda” starring Helen Mirren in the title role as former Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir. The eerie timeliness of the film couldn’t have been known when it was released in the United States on August 25, nor in the UK on October 6 (the day before the conflict was launched).
“Golda” tells the story of how Meir, ill with malignant lymphoma, runs interference during the tense 19 days of the Yom Kippur War in ’73. Mirren, thanks to a masterful make-up job by the Bleecker Street movie’s hair, makeup and prosthetics designer Karen Hartley-Thomas, is transformed into the chain-smoking Israeli leader for the duration of the film’s 100 minutes. Mirren and Hartley-Thomas along with the Israeli-born “Golda” director Guy Nattiv all were present Tuesday for the post-screening panel talk that was made possible by the fact the film was made internationally (in London) and not under a SAG contract as the SAG-AFTRA walkout continues.
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The relevance of the film during such a cataclysmic moment of bloodshed and turmoil in Israel and Gaza hung over the screening and discussion. Director Nattiv said, “I must say that waking up on October 7 and seeing the exact thing that happened to us in ’73, times ten, I was gutted as was everyone else on our crew. We met with every single general (who was there in ’73) and all the people that wrote books, and everyone told us, ‘Listen, it was a debacle, but it’ll never happen again…(But) it happened again, even worse. It’s like the blindness and deafness of the (current) regime that couldn’t see what was going on, couldn’t hear the people. And I feel that this movie, it has a double-meaning now, hurting even more.”
Asked what she hopes people will take away from Golda in this critical moment, Mirren offered, “Well, I think we have to learn from history. One of the reasons that I’ve always supported Israel and felt for Israel is because of the Holocaust. And as a child growing up in post-war London, the growing awareness of what had actually happened in the Second World War in terms of the Holocaust was so devastating, and I still can’t quite grasp it. It’s ungraspable…It was so monstrous, so inconceivably inhuman that I’ve always felt that we must never forget. And the great danger is forgetting. People forget and it disappears slowly into history and becomes this amorphous thing that history is…Above all, we must not forget.”
Nattiv added that he hopes people who see “Golda” will carry awareness that it’s the dysfunctionality of the current Israeli government that’s helped lead to the current conflict. “We have Palestinian friends,” he said. “People are paying the price, just as the people paid for price during the Yom Kippur War…Hopefully, like in ’73 when we got a peace treaty (in 1978), we will have the same with the Palestinians with a different regime.”
However, part of the reason Nattiv wanted to have a hand in making “Golda” was to help clear Meir’s name after decades of her being a pariah in Israel and absorbing the blame for all that went wrong in 1973. The film shows her acting decisively with a skeptical Israeli cabinet as well as with then-U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger (played in the film by Liev Schreiber). “It was very easy to blame an older lady who is not a sabra,” he said. (A “sabra” is a Jew born in Israel; Meir was born in Ukraine and raised in Milwaukee.) “There wasn’t any garden, school, junction or street named after her name, and growing up, I didn’t understand why. She paid a price for the (1973) debacle, but it wasn’t only her. Part of the whole journey for me was to bring justice to Golda and to see other sides, more human sides, and to understand that this woman was a revolutionary. For me, it was (to make) more of a character piece about an older woman surrounded by dysfunctional men.”
For her part, Mirren was drawn to play Meir not for political or personal reasons but simply because it was a juicy part.
“As a greedy, selfish, egotistical actress, I knew it was a great role and we want great roles,” she said, truthfully but with tongue planted in cheek. “I knew it would be an incredible challenge, a dangerous challenge, because if you take on board that transformation – tanks to (makeup artist) Karen who helped make that happen – it’s a tightrope. You can fall off of it very easily.”
That Mirren didn’t fall off the tightrope is obvious to anyone seeing the film and her astounding metamorphosis into the Israeli prime minister in all of her cigarette smoke-choked glory. She and Nattiv actually had discussions about her trying to pull it off without significant makeup and prosthetics, but ultimately it was decided that her physical transformation was essential to the role. “It pulled me into her inner being,” Mirren believes. “It’s funny, the outward appearance pulled me into the inner story in a way that to this day I don’t quite understand, but it was incredibly important.”
Makeup and hair maestro Hartley-Thomas said that despite appearances, her instinct to keep things “as natural as possible” and not do too much. Turning to Mirren on Tuesday night, she noted, “In fact, I think you’ve got five or six pieces on, small pieces. We did the minimum we could for maximum effect, I would say. And the wig, eyebrows, contact lenses, a lot went into it. But we had the pieces made so that they could be independent of each other. Normally, it’s just one look, but we thought we’d just use the cheeks or we’d just use the neck or we’d just use the wig. I wanted it to be easy for Helen, without it inhibiting her.”
Getting into her hair and makeup was a 3 1/2-hour daily process for Mirren, beginning each day at 4 or 5 a.m. “When we came to set,” Nattiv said, “you just came out as Golda. I didn’t see you as Helen for 35 days.”
“It was very strange,” Mirren recalls. “It never felt awkward. It just absolutely became me.”
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