After all these years, I think Richard Gere is one of the most underappreciated actors working in movies today. Sure, he’s been a movie star for years, having appeared in such classics as “An Officer and a Gentleman” and “Pretty Woman,” but I wonder if people in general see him as more than just another pretty face after all this time. Seriously, he has pulled off a number of unforgettable turns in “Primal Fear,” “Chicago” and “Arbitrage” which had him portraying morally duplicitous characters whom you cannot help but root for. The fact he has never been nominated for an Academy Award is baffling as he has more than earned his place among the best, and it seems like he still has to keep reminding us of how good an actor he is.
The latest example of this is “Norman” in which Gere plays Norman Oppenheimer, a humble New York fixer who lives a lonely life in the margins of power and money. He is a would-be operator who dreams up financial schemes, and he strives to be everyone’s friend as he networks with anyone who can elevate him in society. In the process, he gains the attention of Micha Eshel (Lior Ashkwnazi), an Israeli politician who has yet to fully advance in his career, by buying him a super expensive pair of shoes. When Micha becomes Prime Minister of Israel, he remembers Norman’s generous gift and brings him into his inner circle. This gets Norman to set up the biggest deal of his career, but it all threatens to end in an international crisis no one can walk away from in one piece.
“Norman” was directed by Joseph Cedar. His previous films include “Campfire” which earned him Ophir awards for Best Director and Best Screenplay, “Beaufort” which won him the Silver Bear award for Best Director at the Berlin International Film Festival, and “Footnote” which earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Language Film. “Norman” was inspired by the archetypal tale of the Court Jew which involves a Jew meeting a man with power when his resistance is very low. The Jew gives the man an incredible gift, and the man remembers him when he ends rising in stature. The Jew then becomes a consultant to the man, but when the man becomes subjected to endless antagonism, he has no choice but to get rid of the Jew because the Jew is far too easy to get rid of.
The tale of the Court Jew is one I was not familiar with, and it was fascinating to hear Cedar talk about it when he joined Gere for an interview at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel. Yes, this was the same hotel Gere romanced Julia Roberts in “Pretty Woman,” and the irony of this fact was not lost on any of us. Anyway, Cedar got more specific about this tale with us.
Joseph Cedar: Aside from the type of personality that the Court Jew has to do what a Court Jew does, which is a combination of brilliance because otherwise he is not essential to whoever has power, and a flexibility which allows him to sell out. These are complicated characters that are in the gray area of many moral questions, and it’s part of what allows them to be of influence. But there’s another aspect to it that I think is extremely interesting me. I think all of modern progress is the result of some Court Jew, or at least in Europe. If you look at the great European monuments, none of them would have been possible without that relationship between a king, a duke, a prince or someone in power, and a Jew is able to finance things that the township or the common person, the farmers of whatever area they were in, would have never agreed to do. So rulers needed that function in order to do things that, in retrospect, we are all enjoying right now: art, culture in general, architecture. And then there are some things that are considered negative but are also important: armies, bridges. But it’s a combination of things which are objectively good together with things that are questionable. There are many taxes that Jews convinced their rulers to put up, so those taxes were seen as something bad for the people who have to pay them. But 500 years later, those taxes created beautiful cities.
Ben Kenber: Was there anything specific about the Court Jew tale which you really wanted to get across in this screenplay? It sounds like a tale many other writers are familiar with, and it has been told a number of times, but was there something specific you wanted to address?
Joseph Cedar: I don’t know. It was something I was attracted to in a very sincere way. It’s not that I was looking for this tale.
Richard Gere: Is it the fact that the Court Jew who would be sacrificed in the end and the easiest one to let go?
Joseph Cedar: I think that’s what makes this tale, this journey, this narrative so involving.
Watching Gere as Norman Oppenheimer reminded me of his great work in “Arbitrage,” “Primal Fear” and “Internal Affairs” as he is so good at playing immoral characters who somehow manage to bring you over to their side despite their duplicitous ways. But while Norman is trying to get the upper hand in a way which benefits him, we see he is a desperately lonely man who longs to be accepted by others. Deep down, we want to see Norman succeed, and you can see his lonely desperation in his eyes. This is what I asked Gere about.
Ben Kenber: The thing I love about your performance Richard is we can tell when your character is playing with peoples’ emotions and trying to get what he wants, and then there are other moments where you can see in his eyes that he is being truly honest with others. How challenging is that for you as an actor to pull off?
Richard Gere: Not so hard because he believes it every time. When he’s lying, he believes it. When he’s telling the truth, he believes it. As soon as he starts or if something happens, he has got to fix it. Someone confronts him and he’s got to make it sound like, “Well my wife babysat him…” Whatever the story is, but once he starts it, his fantasy life is so vivid to him that he totally believes it. Totally. So, to him there’s no difference.
Joseph Cedar: I believed you believing it.
Richard Gere: Well that was important.
I want to thank Richard Gere and Joseph Cedar for taking the time to talk with me. “Norman” opens in theaters on April 14, and it is a very good movie worth checking out.