The Schmooze

Israel Horovitz on Paris and the Movies

Israel Horovitz is the author of over 70 produced plays, most famously “Lebensraum,” his “Fountain Pen” trilogy, and “The Indian Wants the Bronx.” But, as he explains, “I was turning 75 and I thought that would scare the hell out of me.”

The “that” that he refers to is directing the film version of “My Old Lady.” One of his plays, “North Shore Fish,” was filmed in 1997. He’s written original screenplays. And he’s directed a documentary that ran on Bravo. But this is first time he’s taken on all the forms at once.

“My Old Lady” is set in France, where Horovitz spends much time. He is kind of a literary Jerry Lewis, whose work is appreciated and much honored there, including the recent award of a Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters.

Here, Mathias Gold (Kevin Kline), a down-on-his luck New Yorker, inherits a lavish Paris apartment from his estranged father. He intends to sell it, but discovers he has tenants, Mathilde Girard (Maggie Smith) and her daughter Chloe (Kristin Scott Thomas), who can block the sale under a complicated French real estate law known as viager.

With nowhere else to go, Mathias moves in as well, and uncovers secrets about his family and theirs. The film is funny, intense, romantic, and the principal actors are exceptionally well cast.

Horovitz spoke to the Forward about how the film came about, the anti-Semitism he faced growing up and why some of his children were raised secular and some Jewish.

Curt Schleier: When you write, do you think of your plays cinematically?

Israel Horovitz: Every play is different. I’ve written over 70-something produced plays and some are very cinematic. This one wasn’t particularly. I worked on it in France where it got quite a big production. I got invited to Moscow where they were doing this in repertory. I was day dreaming one day, watching it in a language I didn’t speak, and I just thought this play should be a movie because Paris is the missing character. When I originally started writing it, it was supposed to be a love letter to Paris, because I spent so much of my life there. It turned out to be something else.

So I approached my daughter Rachael [who produced “About Schmidt” and “Moneyball,” among other films]. We’d talked about working together. I wrote a very quick draft of a screenplay, which won a prize. Kevin Kline is an old friend and he did lots of readings of it. I didn’t want to shoot a movie when I’m 74 years old with totally unknown actors and Maggie was my absolute first choice.

Are you thinking about turning more of your plays into films?

I don’t normally like adaptations of plays into films. This wasn’t a play. It wasn’t a movie. I was determined to write something that was a movie.

You’ve come a long way from your upbringing in Wakefield, Mass. What was that like?

Wakefield was not a hotbed of Jewish thought. There were six Jewish families in town. My sister married a kid from one of the other families and they just celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary. To become a bar mitzvah we had to find someone who taught Hebrew. Everyone went to a high school teacher in Gloucester. I have a strong memory of my family driving us to his car, where we would sit chanting this ancient language on the side of the road. I always felt that I was a bogus Jew. That Saul Bellow and all those guys were real Jews. We were kind of outsiders.

Was there much anti-Semitism there?

Nothing but. I was born in 1939 and [as I was growing up] people were very open saying things like “why are we in this war? It’s all about the Jews. We should give Hitler the Jews.”

According to Wikipedia, some of your children were raised secular and some Jewish. Is that true, and if so how did that happen?

My first wife was Irish Catholic and she just hated religion. My kids with her (Rachael, TV producer Matthew, and Beastie Boy Adam) were Jewish but not bar mitzvahed. My second wife felt there should be religion in the house. She was Anglican, and there’s much Church of England here, so they (writer Oliver and daughter Hannah) were raised Jewish. I went back for the High Holy Days, but I’m not tremendously observant.

Living in Paris as much as you do, have you been subject to much anti-Semitism?

I’m a playwright and well known. Therefore I don’t get it and I don’t see it. But I know the history of Paris and its relationship with the Jews, in World War II especially. It’s hurtful in this place I love so much and from which I get a lot of love.

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Israel Horovitz on Paris and the Movies

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