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."
Yet the chance to play even this most personal, custom-fit role was almost denied Rifkin when the time came for a movie of The Substance of Fire. "When the play opened in New York, it was such an inordinate success, you could feel the Hollywood people moving in. You knew when the studio people were out in the audience. You just knew.
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"They did come to Robbie, early on, and said, 'Heyyyy . . . we're gonna make a biiiig movie.' But the condition was to use a big Hollywood star. Robbie and I really struggled with that. I said, 'How can I stop you from having a big movie made? That would be terrible of me. You're a young man; this is so exciting, so thrilling.' So we talked and wrestled with it, and there was a lot of anguish and some tears, and finally he said, 'Look. This is what I write about; these are the issues I deal with: commerce and art and commercialism and passion and excellence and loyalty and morality. How could I possibly do this?' And I said, 'What if it never gets made?' And he said, 'So it never gets made.'" But some three years later, it did.
Asked what "big Hollywood star" the studios wanted for his role in the film, Rifkin chuckles. "Those guys. You know? All those guys."
The Substance of Fire
Directed by Dan Sullivan; with Ron Rifkin, Timothy Hutton, Sarah Jessica Parker and Tony Goldwyn.