"A Woman Called Golda" is rich in history, rich in drama, rich in humor and rich in characterization. It is rich in everything, and it represents a rejuvenating triumph for Ingrid Bergman, who obliterates all skepticism about her suitability for the role of Golda Meir with what is not so much a performance as a stunning transformation.
The new, four-hour film, beautifully photographed on location in Israel, will be shown in two parts by Channel 20: part one tonight at 8 (with a repeat broadcast Wednesday night at 8) and part two a week from tonight. The screenplay, by Harold Gast and Steven Gethers, avoids nearly all the cliche's and limitations one normally suffers through in docudramas about great persons of history; Mrs. Meir's public life as a tireless fighter for the establishment and survival of Israel, and her private life--as a failed wife and a not terribly attentive mother--are recounted in an episodic but immensely moving and almost agonizingly eventful narrative.
But the most noticeable achievement in making this a human drama and not stick-figure pop history is Bergman's. Heavy eyebrows and a variety of wigs are tiny incidentals to a portrayal that has a stunningly consistent spiritual center. You can sense the life of acting resources brought to bear on this performance, particularly in such details as the way Bergman uses a simple physical prop like a cigarette (Mrs. Meir was a devoted chain smoker), but you don't get that distancing sense of being acted at.
Bergman is given strong support. Actress Judy Davis, seen in "My Brilliant Career," plays the young Golda during the first hour of the film, which deals with Mrs. Meir's early life on a Palestinian kibbutz in 1921 and her unhappy years in Jerusalem soon after. With firmness and sensitivity, Davis lays the groundwork for the rest of the film; she has to play not only a young Golda Meir, but a young Ingrid Bergman, and manages to do both well.
Leonard Nimoy makes a touching figure of Morris Meyerson, who married Golda in 1917. The marriage is depicted as being doomed by Mrs. Meir's sense of public duty and uncompromising Zionism. Among those given the difficult task of playing illustrious historical personages are Robert Loggia (late in part two) as Anwar Sadat, David De Keyser as David Ben-Gurion, Yossi Graber as Moshe Dayan and, very briefly, Franklin Cover as Hubert Humphrey. Anne Jackson plays a longtime companion of the heroine, and, near the conclusion of part two, Ned Beatty plays an apparently fictitious (or composite) U.S. senator.
The usual style in these biographical docudramas is to have wooden actors march android-like through an equivocating version of history, showering accolades on the principal subject. One may have visions of a Golda film in which people take turns coming forward to say, "Golda, you are a remarkable woman!" This doesn't happen; her qualities are dramatized, not just stated. Nor is there any tendency--as one might justifiably have feared--to insult the memory of Mrs. Meir by turning her into a Jewish Mary Poppins (or a Jewish Mrs. Miniver). Never once does Bergman stoop to the cute.
As the film begins, Mrs. Meir is returning to Milwaukee, where she spent her childhood, and to an assembly at the 49th Street School she attended in her youth. Questions from the children trigger the inevitable flashbacks--first to Russia, where she was born under the dark cloud of pogrom. Later, when she and her husband arrive at the kibbutz they are told their application has been rejected, but they are allowed to spend the night and, eventually, are accepted into the community mainly because, as the bossy but big-hearted Mrs. Meir is told, "You are an absolute joy to have around."
Black-and-white newsreels of actual events are later mixed in with the dramatization; Jackson and Bergman take turns narrating. The Six-Day War and other crises in the crisis-wracked life of Israel are depicted, but always as they affected Mrs. Meir and as she affected them, so the March-of-Time syndrome is pretty much averted.
Of course Mrs. Meir is romanticized by the film, but Bergman and the writers let rough edges show--her stubbornness, which may not always have been in her own, or her beloved nation's, best interest; her zealousness; her neglect of her family. But in vignettes and small scenes, the portrait Bergman completes is one of a magnificently devoted and defiant individualist.
Much of her life is omitted, but the vignettes have been shrewdly chosen. In one, disguised as a Moslem wife so she can cross an Arab border for secret negotiations with King Abdullah in 1947, Mrs. Meir almost gives herself away when her American cigarettes spill out of her purse. In another, after the statehood of Israel is declared, she bribes a pair of cohabiting young Israelis into marriage, and parenthood, with the promise of an "electric fridge." Nearing 71, and having served in various official capacities, she is a private citizen again, boarding a bus with a bag of groceries, but reporters are waiting at home to tell her the prime minister has died. She soon has the job.
When Beatty arrives on the scene as a U.S. senator from whom Mrs. Meir hopes to get a pledge of increased arms shipments, he is lured into her famous kitchen, where she serves coffee and cakes. When he asks, "Can I help with the dishes?", Bergman turns to him sternly and says, "You can help me, senator--but not with the dishes." During the catastrophic Yom Kippur war, Mrs. Meir is on the phone in the middle of the night to the Israeli ambassador in Washington, urging him to wake the secretary of state with the urgent request for an airlift. "Tell Henry Kissinger he can sleep when the war is over," she says.
Scenes like these play as strikingly authentic--not, as so often happens in this genre, as wax museum make-believe. Perhaps the most moving occurs near the conclusion of part one tonight, when Mrs. Meir is visiting Jewish war refugees cruelly detained by the British on Cypress in 1945. She is presented with a bouquet of paper flowers made by children in the camp, and a little girl asks her, "Are these what flowers look like? I never saw a real one." Mrs. Meir holds the flowers in her hand and, near a high fence, begins, uncharacteristically, to weep.
"A Woman Called Golda" was produced for television by Harve Bennett and intelligently directed by Alan Gibson. It is the first triumph for the syndicated series of specials produced under the umbrella of "Operation Prime Time" (all the others have been junk), but it's Bergman's triumph and, thanks to her, also Mrs. Meir's. Few of this century's remarkable lives have received such remarkable treatments on the screen.