A Woman Called Golda (1982)

A Woman Called Golda (1982) Poster

Israel’s first (and so far only) female Prime Minister, Golda Meir, was also one of the most important founders of Israel in 1948 as. She may have looked like someone’s grandmother, but there was a steely unflinching streak that allowed her to deal firmly with her hostile Arab neighbors and even stare down the United States, Israel’s strongest ally when Israel did what it was told.

Meir died in December 1978, having outlived the short run on Broadway of William Gibson’s “Golda,” a flattering portrait of the respected leader, which ran from November 1977 to February 1978 with Anne Bancroft the title role.  As a footnote, Goldman rewrote the play so he could add in information previously unavailable, including the revelation of Israel’s nuclear capabilities, which changes the whole story of Meir’s years as a leader.  Starring Tovah Feldshuh in the performance of a lifetime (and then Valerie Harper, who did a terrific job) it ran just over a year from October 2003 to January 2005.

In between, there was a miniseries.  Airing in 1982, ” A Woman Called Golda” stars the unlikely Ingrid Bergman as Meir.  The performance, and the whole miniseries, were lauded and given a bunch of Emmy Nominations, winning three. The one that people remember is Outstanding Lead Actress.  Unlike Meir, who outran the play about her, Ingrid Bergman died three weeks before winning an Emmy.  The Emmy people were careful to say that all ballots had been counted before her death, but they need not have worried about accusations of a fix because she was a legend playing a legend or because she had just died.

Plainly put, Ingrid Bergman deserved this Emmy and alive or dead, it’s hard to imagine her NOT winning it.  Swedish Ingrid Bergman could not have been the obvious choice to play Meir (of all Meir performers, only Jewish Feldshuh, the original Yentl, seems an apt choice), who grew up in Milwaukee and then devoted the rest of her life to Israel.  No, not an obvious choice at all, but she had won a late-career Oscar for “Murder On the Orient Express,” and despite never hiding her accent, she was extremely versatile.  Watch Bergman as Meir and you would never know she was ailing in the least.

The American miniseries was obsessed with flashbacks, so the movie starts in 1977 as Golda Meir is back in Milwaukee to visit her elementary school alma mater with her lifelong friend Lou Kaddar (Anne Jackson).  The latter reminds her to stop smoking the closer they get, but Meir wearily asks “what’s the matter, you’re afraid I’ll die young?”  Inside, the dowdy Meir (and Bergman, for that matter) is enchanted by the predominantly black school singing Israel’s national anthem.  If Bergman does not quite nail the accent, at least she tries hard.  Very rarely in her career did she even attempt anything but her natural sound.  However, it’s immediately obvious that she has Meir’s mannerisms down, as well as the special twinkle in her eye that was noticeable even in the worst times.

The trigger for jumping to Meir’s history is a question by a student, asking why Meir ever left the US, her home for many years.  “If I had been born in the United States, I would have stayed,” she tells them, but she was actually born in Russia.  Like most Jews living in Russia at the time, Golda and her family were frequently terrorized into silence, and although her father advocates keeping quiet and staying out of the way, her sister is determined to do more, to become a Zionist.  “Where is Palestine?” young Golda asks.  “It’s the promised land…where we used to live,” she is told, referring to Jews millennia ago.  “Can we go there now?”

“Why Milwaukee?” one of the kids asks.  Dad was a carpenter “and this is where he found work.”  Makes you kind of wonder what the other choices were that Milwaukee was the winner.  In quick succession, we find that no, she did not want to be a Prime Minister at eight years old (“I didn’t even want it when I was elected,” she jokes, looking at Lou), she wanted to be a teacher and she had boyfriends.  We slip into the Wilson years (with Judy Davis playing Golda).  She meets Morris Meyerson (Leonard Nimoy), a fan of high art and extreme formality, especially to a girl who only cares about her new hat.  In a conversation that only needs cadence to nail the two as Jewish, Golda initially refuses because she’s not easy, she’s “intransigent,” as her father calls her.  Morris raises and eyebrows to that one, the Russian immigrant  and the ten cent words, so Golda says, “what he really says is I’m as stubborn as an ox.”  However, Golda is hell bent on a homeland for the Jews.  She believes in the Balfour Declaration as a literal realistic solution, but Morris doubts it will happen.  After all, that little thing called World War I is raging.  The ultimatum comes from Golda: me or the Jewish homeland.

One pesky world war down, we’re off to Palestine in 1921.  I guess Golda and Morris got under each other’s skin, because not only does he travel there with her, they are married.  Once there, Morris is even more reticent about the whole situation, mitigated only by his precious record player and the comforting sounds of his snarky complaining.  The kibbutz that denied them membership changes its collective mind when the hornless phonograph player draws crowds in the middle of the night.  Even more exciting on that first night is being targeted by “Arab snipers” wearing white.

After explaining what a kibbutz is to the kids, she’s asked if it was hard.  “Oh, boy, was it!” she tells them.  Neither Golda nor Morris are at all suited to farming.  Golda is a one-woman revolution, questioning everything and even climbing on a roof to fix a water valve, something only the men had done previously.  “It’s the American girl,” it’s noted, building on the main theme of Golda-as-Independent-Iron-Woman.

The equivalent of the kibbutz condo board meets to discuss Golda, the main touch points for the women are that she irons her dresses before dinner and wears stockings to dinner.  The men, however, are charmed and they win the discussion.  Morris is as cranky as the women.  When Golda says she wants to have a child, Morris sarcastically questions if the board has picked a day and time for them to start trying.  Even after three months, he’s not growing any fonder of the place and would not want a child of his “to be raised by someone else,” meaning the rest of the kibbutz gang.  Morris, ailing, is not cut out for kibbutz life, and since he has malaria (news to Golda), and that is his ticket out.  “You don’t want to leave the kibbutz.  I didn’t want to leave America, so maybe this time you’ll change your mind,” he wonders and surprisingly, Golda agrees.

The next years, in Jerusalem, “were the worst years of my life,” according to Golda, in reply to a question from one of the kids.  So far, if I were one of these schoolchildren, I would think this woman had the dreariest life imaginable!  Jerusalem brought the couple two children, but no money.  She has to shop in an Arab market because none of the Jewish ones will take her credit anymore.  When the proprietor finally refuses anything but cash, she grabs her stuff and bolts, causing a near riot.  To the rescue comes her old kibbutz pal Ariel (Jack Thompson), and the proprietor, upon accepting Ariel’s money, gives Golda an orange and a smile.  “You are a born diplomat,” Ariel opines.  Ariel offers her a job, but it’s in Tel Aviv.  Golda has the logistics of it all figured out before she tells Morris, who does not factor into her plans very much unless he can get a job in Tel Aviv.  “How many more years am I supposed to throw away arguing with shopkeepers.  I came here to work and to build a homeland.  This is not something I feel like doing.  It’s what I ought to do with my whole life, and nothing’s going to stop me…any more,” she tells Morris, patiently but firmly.  Our narrator Lou tells us the marriage was over in all but name by this point anyway.

Now we get to Ingrid-as-Golda, writing a letter about her choices.  She wonders mainly about her kids and “what they feel in their hearts, because there’s no doubt I neglected them.”  However, in the ten ensuing years, she has become a major figure in the political movements.  In mid-1939, the British declared in The White Paper they did not want Israel to be a Jewish homeland, undoing the Balfour Declaration.  As you can imagine, Golda and her cronies are not happy about this.  The timing is particularly bad because Hitler has European Jews on the run and the natural place to run would be Palestine.  It’s not that easy because when war comes, the Jews in Palestine would be on the side of the British, who have just dropped them.  “We will fight the White Paper as if there were no Hitler and we will fight Hitler as if there were no White Paper,” says David Ben-Gurion (David de Keyser), the grandest and savviest politician of the group.

During the war, we meet Major Wingate (Barry Foster) and Moshe Dayan (Yossi Graber) as the Palestinian Jews train and work with the British.  Wingate has been sent by the British to train 500 men in case the Germans should blast through Egypt (unlikely, he says, because they don’t have long enough supply lines).  However, Golda concocts a plan that would have Wingate training many more men for the future.  He readily agrees.  When the war ends, hoards of refugees from the concentration camps flock to Palestine, only to be turned away by the British.  “That’s when we learned we had to take our future into our hands,” we hear from Golda.

Golda is not a woman with a honey tongue and not a flirt.  When she asks the British to let all children under a year old out of the temporary camps made to hold them (most on the island of Cyprus), the military man in charge agrees.  “And of course their parents, if they still have any,” she adds, both knowing her craftiness just won another round.  Harder to convince are the refugees, many who have had enough of camps!  Many don’t care about the children as they don’t have any, or the parents of those kids, because they have been waiting too long already.  She has to face the camp committees and lays it all out with more than a dollop of pushy Jewish guilt.  It’s also telling that when Bergman delivers this speech, she barely looks anyone in the eye, true to the character, who must have hated begging people to allow her plan.

While waiting for the decision, Golda is greeted by a group of the camp’s kids presenting her fake flowers.  “Is this what flowers look like in Israel?  I’ve never seen one,” a little girl says.  “You’ve never seen a flower?  Dear God,” Golda says, the wind knocked out of her.  Her plan is adopted and she is overwhelmed, not only because of this good news, but because she’s “frightened of children who have never seen a flower.”

In the history of bungled attempts to please the world, the United Nations’ 1947 decision to divide Palestine between Jews and Arabs is one of the more short-sighted and ridiculous, though not surprising.  The United Nations was a young organization then and it was faced with innumerable post-war decisions.  At the time, this decision did not strike the world at large as a potential nightmare that would dominate world order far beyond its borders.  Certainly the Jewish political leaders understood the ramifications, and Golda notes that every Arab country voted no, the US voted yes, with the majority, but the British abstained.  The way Golda relates this all but asks the viewer to reading between the lines.

On a radio address, Golda is choked up, focusing on the fact that there is a Jewish state, and then addressing neighboring Arab countries by telling them “a Jewish state can be a state for everyone…we hold out our hand to you.  Let’s live in friendship and peace.”  Politically adept, yes.  Realistic?  Of course not.

Of all people, Morris shows up at the celebration.  He and Golda are friendly, but it crushes Golda to hear that her children have grown up without her.  He tells her that everyone notes to her son that, “with his mother, the country comes first.”  However, she did visit her sick daughter in a kibbutz, and Morris is shocked to hear about it, saying “a lot of people” would feel the same way.  “A lot of people I don’t care about,” she clucks, not at all convincing Morris or herself.

The months pass and the Arab threat looms.  The British are leaving, as they had promised, and it’s expected that the Arabs will invade immediately after that.  Ben-Gurion asks what the chances of beating them are, given the fact that they are outnumbered four to one.  Golda tells Ben-Gurion that King Abdullah of Transjordan (it’s name at the time) assured her he wouldn’t fight Israel, but new information has emerged saying he will.  Golda doesn’t hesitate to offer meeting him in Amman, a very dangerous thing to do.  “If it will save the life of one Jewish soldier, I’ll walk to Amman,” she snaps upon arrival, three hours away so that no one will see Abdullah with a Jew.  “Oh, I don’t speak Arabic,” she notes angrily, “what do I do about that?”  “The last thing that would ever occur to you: keep quiet.”

King Abdullah (British acting legend Nigel Hawthorne) greets Golda with a handshake and lights her cigarette.  “What can I do for you now?” he asks and she tells him just one word, “shalom…peace.”  Golda has no problem throwing Abdullah’s own words in his face, sledgehammer subtle, so Abdullah deflects the attack by howling about Israel sending a woman.  Unyielding, Golda is steely.  Abdullah makes threats too, such as the one about her daughter’s kibbutz being in the path of warring Egypt.  Not taking the bait, which would mean owing him a favor, she declines to remove her daughter, saying if she did, every parents would do the same and there would be no one left.  “Who would stop the Egyptians?” she says to wrap up that speech.  Abdullah’s plan to avoid war is that Israel not declare itself immediately.  “What’s the hurry,” he asks. Golda replies 2000 years is not a hurry.  His plan is that Palestine will become part of his kingdom and the Jews will be under his protection.  She declines that immediately.  “Whay are you so stubborn?” he roars in frustration.  “Because we must have our own state and the time is now!  And if the only way we can have it is to go to war, we’ll go to war and we’ll beat you,” she says with typical icy reserve.  As a last ditch attempt to win him over, Golda offers to have Ben-Gurion sent to negotiate.  Abdullah is far too wise.  He tells her if peace came from that, Ben-Gurion would be a hero and he would be killed.  Four years later, King Abdullah was assassinated.  “I failed.  There will be war,” Golda narrates as she puts on a burka that draw no suspicion at checkpoints.

The reason I note not only what Golda said at the end of the miniseries’ first evening, but also what she was doing, is because the two don’t fit.  She had just failed to convince the last Arab potentate even lukewarm to Jewish Israel and she is going home to report back her failure.  The burka is protection for check points, but also protection from the anger that may come her way, the scorn of her own people.  Or, most likely, herself: head to toe in black, everything disappearing, her untiring eyes last.

The neighboring Arab nations start attacking Israel even before the British leave.  According to Ben-Gurion, Israel needs $25 million to fight this war.  “There’s only one national in the world with so much money,” he tells his cabinet, as he announces he’s going to butter up the United States.  Golda, however, insists he stay, she’ll go.  Not only does she speak English (the only language we’ve heard so far in the movie), but she’s an American citizen by birth.  Ben-Gurion refuses, but Golda asks for a vote, which Ben-Gurion declines.  “We are the only democracy in the Middle East,” he is reminded with humorous sarcasm and Golda wins unanimously (Ben-Gurion does not vote).

Just a note, referring back to the beginning of this entry: I would not be at all surprised if these scenes in the cabinet room were some of the last to film.  Not only does Bergman look tired, but there is almost no light in the room except one aimed directly at her face, which is heavily powdered.  That’s a lighting scheme meant to wash out features.  Sick as she might have been, Bergman never falters in her performance.

The movie more than hints at a romantic relationship between Golda and Ariel (who, interestingly enough, does not have a last name).  He’s the only constant in her life and as she’s leaving for the US, he announces he’s parachuting into Czechoslovakia, infuriating her.  Well, actually frightening her, she admits, but only with a hug.

Golda flies to Chicago, where she’s initially told not to speak to at the United Welfare Fund, as they have pet projects at home that get their money, not international projects. Golda gives a masterful improvised speech full of what we know by now is Golda-speak: she tugs at heartstrings, but without emotion.  She is insistent, even pushy, with a healthy dose of guilt.  “There’s only one thing for you to decide: either we win…or we lose!” she says at the conclusion.  The speech is greeted by unbreakable silence, until one man dares to clap.  Everyone jumps to their feet, tears flowing everywhere and she receives an ovation that shocks even her.  And she raises $50 million.

It’s finally time to announce statehood and Ben-Gurion has the honor.  Six Arab national invade, as promised, but the money from the US arrives to equip the army and they beat back the Arabs. Via the UN, the Arab nations agree to a cease fire, but the terms are not perfect, most notably a split Jerusalem, leaving Jews unable to visit the Wailing Wall.

As Minister of Labor in Prime Minister Ben-Gurion, Golda “needed an assistant.”  And that’s where Lou comes in.  She asks Lou why she wants the job.  “Madam Minister, I’m tired of being hungry all the time,” Lou replies (and a bit of cursing), impressing Golda.  Golda’s job entails finding work for the masses of Jews sweeping into Israel.  She’s so good at it and Lou narrates in the absolute worst and most out-of-place line in the movie.  “Peace meant she could have time for every day things, such as washing her hair…”  Golda also develops an obsession for polishing silver.

Hubert Humphrey arrives to see the marvels of a kibbutz, but his main concern is unmarried people having sex.  “To me, the main thing would be if people love each other,” Golda says, but Humphrey takes it a step further, what about their children?  “Are they bastards?”  “That’s not much of a problem for us.  Couples who are not married tend not to have children,” Golda says, maintaining her poise.”  “That’s even worse!  Your country needs to increase its population, doesn’t it?” he pushes.  Realizing he’s not wrong, Golda sets about goading happily unmarried couples into marriage.  “She went to many weddings, and also many funerals,” Lou narrates.  In 1951, Morris dies.  “In the end, whatever I was able to accomplish, he paid for,” Golda notes, admitting the failure of the marriage, despite great love, was all her fault.  Historically accurate?  Somewhat.

When Nasser comes to power in Egypt, he openly promises to wipe Israel off the map and a particularly dedicated adherent throws a grenade into the Knesset.  Golda leaps (!) to push Ben-Gurion out of the way, and with more of the scripts worst line, Lou tells us “Golda saved Ben-Gurion’s life that day and for the rest of her life, she carried shrapnel in her leg.”  On a visit to the hospital, Ben-Gurion urges her to take a Hebrew name and become the Foreign Minister.  A female?  “When people ask me how I could have a woman as a Foreign Minister, I tell them ‘Golda is the best man in my cabinet,'” he coos.  Naturally, she doesn’t disagree.  As for the name, he suggests Meir, “to illuminate.”  “Golda Meir, to shed light.”

It’s not a good time to be Foreign Minister.  Egypt, with the backing and weapons of the Soviets, attacks, but it takes Israel only 100 hours to grab Gaza and the Sinai peninsula.  Golda hightails it to the UN, where she presents Israel’s demands and asks the Arab nations to work with her.  As lovely as her speech is, she knew it wouldn’t work, and it didn’t.  After a montage of pictures of world leaders into with Bergman is stitched, Lou informs us that Golda feels she accomplished the most in Africa.  Even at an outdoor press conference, Golda is the very opposite of a model Foreign Minister, admitting that only France is willing to sell Israel arms and that “if DeGaulle himself were the devil,” Israel would buy from him because the threat from the Arabs is that strong.  This crack gets approval even from an Algerian reporter.

Ariel, in the middle of a rant by Golda about how special Idi Amin is (oops), proposes to her.  “I must wash my hair and think about it,” is the reply.  I’m beginning to think new writers are drowning Part 2 in a stupid sappiness that falls flat.  Indeed she does wash her hair, girlishly arrives at breakfast early, only to watch as his body taken away next door, Ariel’s.  Back to polishing silver she goes, and the violins make a melodramatic appearance.  Golda herself collapses a few times and is diagnosed with malignant lymphoma.  She only wants to know how long she has and how much suffering is involved, because we know our Golda, she’s not going to retire!  Much like the actress playing her.  “I don’t want to live one moment after my mind isn’t clear,” she demands, and the doctor assures her that her mind will never be impaired and there will be very little pain.  There are conditions: she refuses to lose her hair and the doctor is never allowed to tell anyone unless she allows him to do so.  She doesn’t even tell Lou the truth.

Two years later, Golda retires, but the bellicose Nasser make it mandatory that Golda return to politics to take over her party’s leadership.  “‘Our aim is to wipe Israel off the map.’ Today they told Dayan they would take out his other eye,” Golda reports of the Soviets in a telephone call to her daughter’s kibbutz.  So begins the Six Day War 10967, and Israel is so successful that they win back every piece of land back, including full control of Jerusalem.  Nothing in military history quite compares.  Golda retires again, giving us a goony scene where a bus driver insists on driving Golda to her door, with the “cabinet,” the rest of the bus, cheering wildly.  In typical American Miniseries fashion, such serenity is always followed by conflict.  In this instance, the death of the current Prime Minister thrusts her back into the spotlight, elected unanimously by the Knesset as Prime Minister.  “I’m a 70 year old grandmother,” she carps to Lou. That would be a constant refrain of Meir’s through her tenure, disarming any situation by playing the sweet old lady to the world, but unafraid to “bring about the true and enduring peace.”

Lou’s obsession with Golda’s domestic activities actually serve a purpose when she tells us that Golda worked at home after full days, shuttling between rooms where cabinet members and others discussed international issues in the kitchen and internal ones in the living room.  How’s that for “shuttle diplomacy,” Mr. Kissinger?  Golda’s body isn’t a fan of this hectic schedule, so when Golda suffers, it means treatments in silent, her bodyguards dressed in white coats for complete secrecy, even from Lou.  The terms are the same: lie to the world and no hair loss!  Lou figures it out (standing by a door marked “Radiology” helps, but rather than say anything to Golda, she simply lights cigarettes for both and no one in the hospital minds).

Looking hale, Golda receives US Senator Durward (Ned Beatty) at her modest home, making the coffee herself.  Her food and coffee charm him into asking if he can help with the dishes.  “You can help me, Senator, but not wit the dishes,” she says, her features set in marble.  Late into the night, the two negotiate over armaments, Durward stunned that Golda knows every minute detail about US military hardware.  “Dear lady, how do you keep up on all of this?” he asks.  “Don’t you think I’d rather be up on schools, housing, farming, industry?  We have no choice,” she tells him, going into a story about Kennedy’s assurance of aid to Israel, to which she replied, “‘I just want to make sure that by the time you honor your commitment to us, we are still there.'”  Durward gives her everything she wants, though this movie was filmed long before the world knew Israel already had nuclear technology (making that public would mean a loss of US support for many reasons).

1973, three days before Yom Kippur, the military fully believes the Arabs will not attack, despite their overwhelming advantages of manpower and hardware.  Golda wants to “mobilize,” but the cost of it is prohibitive and the full government is against it.  Unable to sleep, Golda receives the call she expected: the Arab nations are attacking imminently.  The Yom Kippur War begins.  Golda insist on no pre-emptive attacks since Israel would be labeled as an aggressor.  Egypt and Syria overwhelm from opposite ends, but the US dithers about how to help.  “It has to be today.  Tomorrow is too late.  We may be completely overrun,” she bleats to her minister in the US.  Finally, Nixon lives up to his promise to help, but since no country would allow US planes to land, they were refueled in the air, arriving finally on the ninth day of the war.

In less than 20 days of war, Israel has the Sinai back, the Golan Heights back and the Soviets are the ones who urge the Arabs to agree to a cease fire.  “A kind of national trauma set in,” Lou says and there are active protests against Golda, not to mention angry mothers aplenty.  Demoralized and very ill, Golda offers her retirement once again.  She ponders having never been in politics, telling the doctor Israel would have been fine and “I would have been at peace with myself.”  “Somebody had to do it,” she admits frankly, agreeing with one of the students that she never really wanted to be Prime Minister.

When will there be peace?  “When the Arabs love their children more than they hate us.  That’s when peace will come,” she tells the students and departs the school.  As if the schmaltz factor isn’t high enough with the cutesy school kids and their precocious questions, Golda is a guest at all ceremonies when President Sadat of Egypt (and unrecognizable Robert Loggia) visits Israel.  She plays elder statesman in a folksy grandmotherly way, proud of her accomplishments, but not always buying what’s being dished out.  However, the private moments between the two are genuine and hopeful.

“I did what I thought was right, and that’s that,” we hear Golda say as she walks alone from the Knesset banquet for Sadat.

There is a chilling coda with the usual announcement of the character’s death (1978 at 80 years old) as further title cards say that during the filming of the movie, both Moshe Dayan and Anwar Sadat died, the latter assassinated.  The filmmakers no doubt intended that to be a bit scary, but it’s actually scarier 30 years as the leaders in the region continue to die, some of the devoted doves by age and assassination and some of the hardline hawks by age and assassination.

In 1982, the Israeli conflicts and Middle East turmoil were still big news.  The Camp David Accords are not mentioned here, but that symbolic step was as hopeful as any that have ever transpired.  Wars have come and go, borders change constantly, and we’re no closer to a permanent and livable Middle East peace than in 1948.  However, the movie is an intentional hug, not only downplaying anything military to concentrate on personality, but by celebrating the kindly grouchy old lady who is the easiest symbol of those early years to sell.

Add to that Ingrid Bergman, and it’s impossible to dismiss “A Woman Called Golda.”  As a miniseries, it’s at once beautiful and forgettable.  The history is convoluted and unclear, but that’s not the fault of the movie, that’s the state of the world in those years, and the confusion makes for an uncomfortable muddle of events.  However, beautiful is the towering performance of a Hollywood favorite, very obviously sick herself, who hurls herself into the role more fully than she had in decades.  Her Oscar-winning performance less than a decade earlier seems trifling compared to the marvel of watching on last Bergman classic.


Categories: Historical Miniseries

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