A Man of Substance

The Substance of Fire lets Ron Rifkin show off his acting prowess

The Substance of Fire ought to be one of the major critical favorites of 1997. It won't be, but is worth seeking out while it lingers in town. It's an adaptation of the acclaimed drama by Jon Robin Baitz about Jewish guilt and familial war. Baitz was 26 when he wrote what seems like the work of a wise and subtle old man.

The tone may be in part because the central role, the hard-souled, middle-aged book publisher Isaac Geldhart, was written especially for a wise and subtle actor, Ron Rifkin.

Substance is a remarkable film in many respects--Baitz has been amazingly free and inventive in adapting his own text, for instance. But its happiest accomplishment is providing the too-little-known Rifkin with a part which allows him to demonstrate his startling prowess. Though long respected in theater circles for his work on the New York and L.A. stage, and though he sings with Peter Duchin's orchestra, Rifkin has spent most of his film career languishing in forgettable roles in movies like The Devil's Eight, Silent Running, The Sunshine Boys and The Sting II. He's fared a little better on TV--he had a good recurring role on ER last season, and Mel Brooks fans may remember him from the short-lived sitcom When Things Were Rotten. But "Ron who?" is still the usual response to dropping his name.

You're not likely to forget him after seeing Substance. Rifkin's performance as Isaac is a tour de force of virtuoso acting in the service of a role that warrants it--it's fire with substance. He gives a classical scale to the role of the loveless, laceratingly witty, scarily energetic Isaac, who runs a small New York publishing firm specializing in exquisitely bound, unaffordable editions of books that few people would buy anyway, like a six-volume history of the Nazi medical experiments. Unsurprisingly, he's on the verge of bankruptcy, and he clashes with his three children and fellow stockholders (Timothy Hutton, Tony Goldwyn and Sarah Jessica Parker) over his refusal to publish a commercial potboiler.

As the story progresses, we realize that Isaac's emotional inaccessibility comes from a lifelong agony of guilt over having avoided the death camps as a child in Europe ("I wasn't in the camps. I was happily eating smoked eel in the attic with my Alexander Dumas"). Rifkin's portrayal is a heartbreaking--though sometimes bleakly comic--depiction of the toll of a life spent trying to make up for having survived.

What makes the role an especially triumphant one for Rifkin is that it comes after a long, self-imposed exile from acting. "I stopped acting in '83 for seven years, only because I was playing the same role over and over again," Rifkin says. "I just got so bored, I was very melancholy, and I just said, 'Fuck it, I'm gonna do something else,' and I went into a totally other field, and in '90, I guess, [actor-director] Austin Pendleton was directing a production of The American Clock, Arthur Miller's play, at Williamstown, and he asked me to come up and do it. I said I had to go to Asia, to the factory--I was designing women's clothes. So he said, 'Okay, you can leave in September.'"

The lead in that production was played by Fisher Stevens, whose friends from the Naked Angels Theatre Company came to see him. Among them was Jon Robin Baitz. "He came up to me after the play and said, 'I'm gonna write a play for you someday,' and I said, 'Mm-hmm.' But he did."

In developing Isaac's sophisticated, quality-obsessed character, with his elusive accent, Rifkin, who came from an Orthodox family, drew on his childhood environment. "I grew up in a part of New York that was just like a little shtetl, in Brooklyn, in Williamsburg. It was just as the war was ending, and it might as well have been Europe. And the sounds around me were Eastern European sounds, not Isaac's sounds exactly, but all the sounds of those Jews. I had those sounds in my head, and I just sort of extended them and gave them some culture and elegance.

"I met guys like that. Some of my teachers in Yeshiva were very elegant men." The key to his interpretation of the role may have hit even closer to home. "I knew I didn't sound like myself, or walk like myself, or even look like myself, but I didn't know to what extent, because I'd never seen the play, obviously. Then my brother and I saw a rough cut of the film together. Somewhere in the middle, I could feel our bodies getting closer--we're very close--as if we needed to be as near as we could be. By the end, we were almost holding hands. And Arnold looked at me and said, 'It's Dad.'

"Now, my father was nothing like Isaac, except that I had taken over his mannerisms, his vocal inflections, his use of the letter 'S' when he'd get angry. I realized I'd become my father in some strange kind of way. Even physically, I had started to manifest his characteristics."

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