by director Richard J. Lewis
I have always been drawn to character pieces. At the center of any film or book I have ever loved has been a character I could not forget. The first of which may have been when I was eight years old and saw Rex Harrison play Dr. Doolittle at the now defunct Eglington Theater in Toronto. Then there was Peter O’Toole’s Lawrence, followed, a few years later, by Dustin’s Hoffman’s Jack Crabb in Little Big Man. Over the years my film preferences have found their way through many different genres but one thing has always remained consistentthere was a character at the center of the film that indelibly etched his or her existence in to my mind.
Upon reading Mordecai Richler’s book in 1999, I came upon Barney Panofsky, a character I could not shake. Barney is an outrageous malcontent, self-effacing, funny, loyal, and deeply flawedan epic character who can evoke difficult truths precisely because he is flawed, makes mistakes, some irreconcilable even, but is always guided by an internal compass of truth that he never doubts. He is a man whose essential quest is his dire need to demystify, reconcile and do battle with the past until the very end. To me, Barney Panofsky was tailor-made for the cinema.
My particular affection for Barney goes back to my Canadian-Jewish roots. A Toronto kid who grew up in Forest Hill, I saw many an older Jewish man, puffing on a fat cigar, spewing relentless rhetoric about this and that. Irreverence was a way of life for these guys. Bluntness a requisite. My grandfather, Mac Lewis, would often have me peek in on his gin-rummy games and I would hear not one, but four Barney Panofsky’s waxing poetic (if you could call it that) about topics ranging from the problems in the Middle East, to the temperature of the soup at the country club. No one ever hedged a bet or pulled a punch. They were all characters in their own right and like Barney Panofsky, they were garnished with their own particular set of foibles.
With Barney’s Version, I wanted to explore the route to the epicenter of a man’s self with all its flaws, absurdity, pathos and truth. Barney’s Version is a narrative that allows the audience to experience as much of a complete emotional life as possible. Because there are no single moments in time that define the entirety of a person. It is the collection of choices and accidents which help to create the engine that drives our internal selves.
In the end I can’t imagine any worthier cinematic entity than Barney Panofsky. To boot, I can’t imagine any actor other than Paul Giamatti contributing to that fact. Mr. Giamatti was never out of step with the character. He wore him as comfortably as a favorite winter sweater. As with any complex character born on the page and then resurrected onto the silver screen, there comes a lofty responsibility. Mr. Giamatti rose to that, and then some.