Looking Back at “Lies”: Marilyn Lightstone Recalls a Pivotal Film Role

Marilyn Lightstone

Marilyn Lightstone in her art studio

For any actor, watching your first feature film honoured with a Golden Globe and an Academy Award nomination must provide an unparalleled thrill. Esteemed Canadian actor, broadcaster, author and multi-media artist Marilyn Lightstone was able to experience just that when Lies My Father Told Me was named Best Foreign Film at the 1976 Golden Globe Awards and was nominated for an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. Written by Ted Allan and based on his original short story, the widely acclaimed film also made it on to Variety’s list of the fifty top grossing films of 1976.

Set in the vibrant Jewish community of 1920s Montréal and directed by Academy Award-winner Ján Kadár, Lies My Father Told Me tells the poignant and heartwarming story of 7-year-old David Herman (Jeffrey Lynas), a boy caught between the traditional beliefs and values of his beloved Zaida (grandfather) (Yossi Yadin) and his get-rich-quick scheming father, Harry (Len Birman). Lightstone plays David’s nurturing and protective mother, Annie Herman, who is also in the middle of the conflicted relationship between her husband and her father. Annie is dutifully loyal to her husband but understands why her father refuses to financially support Harry’s crazy inventions.

In addition to the accolades the film received, Lightstone won Best Film Actress awards from both ACTRA and the pre-Genies Canadian Film Awards for playing Annie Herman. In the years since, Lightstone’s acting career has spanned numerous roles on stage and in film and television. Internationally known for playing Miss Stacey in Anne of Green Gables and Road To Avonlea, she has also appeared in television series such as Cheers, Cagney & Lacey, Street Legal and E.N.G.. Her stage roles include Leah in the Los Angeles Drama Critics Award-winning The Dybbuk and in the one-woman show Miss Margarida. Lightstone also won her second Canadian Film Award for her performance as Klari in the filmIn Praise of Older Women (1978). An accomplished voice actor, she can also currently be heard as host of the nightly radio program Nocturne on Toronto’s New Classical 96.3 FM and as the voice of Zoomer Television (VisionTV, ONE, Joytv10 and Joytv11).

As part of our celebration of Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year) on VisionTV, we’re presenting a highly-anticipated encore airing of the newly restored Lies My Father Told Me on Monday, Sept. 17 at Midnight ET/9pm PT and Tuesday, Sept. 18 at 9pm ET/6pm PT. To mark the occasion, we looked back with Marilyn Lightstone at her experience making the film and what it signifies for her now.

(L to R) Yossi Yadin as Zaida, Marilyn Lightstone as Annie Herman in "Lies My Father Told Me"

(L to R) Yossi Yadin as Zaida, Marilyn Lightstone as Annie Herman

(L to R) Len Birman as Harry Herman, Yossi Yadin as Zaida and Marilyn Lightstone as Annie Herman in "Lies My Father Told Me"

(L to R) Len Birman as Harry Herman, Yossi Yadin as Zaida and Marilyn Lightstone as Annie Herman

What do you remember most about making that transition from mostly stage work to acting in your first feature film?

ML – Well, the fact that I was thrilled that my first acting part should be such a juicy one, and one in which I could feel so comfortable because the milieu in which the film takes place is a neighborhood and a lifestyle, and a culture that I grew up in – if not during that period, but certainly the children and grandchildren of that period. As a matter of fact, some of the exterior locations were the next street over from where I lived as a child.

Did you find that the shoot was more relaxing because of that familiarity, or was it fairly hectic?

ML – It was a hectic shoot in that we worked fast. We don’t have the luxury in Canadian film to take the months and months they do in American, big budget films. This was a very small budget film. Money was a struggle. We had to get things done quickly. So, there wasn’t the luxury of endless takes. We couldn’t meander through it. We had to keep moving. Long days, but when you do work that you love as they say, “Find work that you love and you’ll never work a day in your life.” So, actors are pretty much in that category. As long as you’re working on a part that you like, you really don’t care how long the hours are or how hard you have to work.

What really attracted you to the role of Annie Herman and what did you admire about her?

ML – She reminded me frankly of my mother. A woman who had to endure a lot and a woman who also was caught between trying to please a husband and to please – in my mom’s case it was a mother. In the film’s case it’s her dad. In which case, the husband and the father didn’t get along. And in our case it was my dad and my grandmother (who) didn’t exactly see eye to eye on everything. So, she’s just kind of all mothers really. I think (she has) the kind of stresses and strains, the pull of family. The things that happen when there are conditions to deal with – lack of money. You know – problems. It was kind of the mother role of all mother roles and also a chance to have her fully fleshed out: moments of happiness, moments of sadness (and) moments of anger. So, it wasn’t a one note mother role.

If you could go back now and speak to Annie in person, what kind of advice would you give her about her life and what she was facing?

ML – None. I’m much older now than I was when I did that film and I’ve learned through experience that (you should) try not to give advice unless it’s asked for. Annie didn’t ask me for advice so I’m not going to give it to her. I think she did the best she could under the circumstances.

Looking back over the whole shoot and that period of time, what is your most vivid memory of the experience?

ML – I don’t know if it’s a memory or just something that I’ve come to experience as I’ve watched it later in life – so many years after the actual event – is the extraordinary performance of Jeffrey Lynas, the little boy. This was his first acting role. (As) grown ups, you learn your lines and you learn them well enough so that you can perform them. But, here’s a little boy who was seven, and yes, he was a bright little boy. He could read but, learning how to read and learning a lot of lines which you are then going to perform in a character which is not really you is something else again. The freshness, the candor and the sincerity in the way he played his role just takes me back. I’ve always been a fan of British child actors. I always find they bring a natural-ness to their roles that I do so admire. Whereas, with North American child actors – and they’re certainly not all like this – but so often they set my teeth on edge. They’re acting. They’re very busy acting and Jeffrey was very busy just being this little boy.

Also, I love the fact that, maybe it’s because it’s a period piece that makes it easier but, the film seems to be timeless. It doesn’t date. I think the values it presents – the issues, the struggles, the conflicts – you’ll find in any family now. Really, they’re timeless. (It’s) a little, timeless film and I’m thrilled that the fact that my very first film should’ve found a place like that in the history of Canadian film. And each time I see it now – I look at it again and I’m a tough nut really. I don’t excuse myself or the work that I do just because I’ve been involved in it. I’m a very harsh critic and I really want to do stuff that I feel shows the best of whatever it is and Lies doesn’t disappoint me. And I think for most people who get a chance to watch it, they agree with me. So that makes me so happy.

(L to R) Jeffrey Lynas as David Herman and Cleo Paskal as Cleo in "Lies My Father Told Me"

(L to R) Jeffrey Lynas as David Herman and Cleo Paskal as Cleo

(L to R) Jeffrey Lynas as David Herman and Yossi Yadin as Zaida in "Lies My Father Told Me"

(L to R) Jeffrey Lynas as David Herman and Yossi Yadin as Zaida

 

What do you think families can learn today from watching this family from the 1920s?

ML – That family is family. If you watch a film that’s set in the 1920s, or you read a book that’s set in the 1700s, it’s the same. Human evolution – if it’s happened at all within recorded history I don’t really know – moves very, very slowly. At the end, we’re primates in kind of a tight little nuclear unit, dependent on one another for survival, for warmth, for comfort, for propagation, for food, for everything. I don’t think anything has changed really.

Watching the film get such great accolades after it came out – the Academy Award nomination, the Golden Globe Award, as well as the awards that you won personally, that must’ve been such a thrill for you.

ML – Well, it’s always nice to be praised. It’s always nice to get awards. That’s the gravy. That’s the gravy on top of the roast beef sandwich.

Out of all the things you have your hand in, what gives you the most artistic fulfillment now?

ML – I love doing my radio show. I love being able to say whatever I want on the air. I love researching the musicians and the composers, and learning a lot of stuff I didn’t know before. I love being able to read poetry that I select on the air. That’s an awful lot of fun. Everything is kind of different you know, in terms of creative satisfaction. I love that for those reasons but I love taking photographs, which I usually do when I’m away from the city and away from the other things that I do. Exercising my eye and, you know, my sense of composition. Although, I hadn’t painted for several years from the time I picked up my first sort of serious camera. I was very involved in taking photographs and having exhibits of photography. Just a few weeks ago, I just had this impulse to paint again. I’ve just finished two big canvases and I’m looking forward to doing more of that. So, you never know, everything has its own joys and pleasures. I can’t say it’s one versus the other. It’s whatever I’m able to be doing at the time. And whatever it is, I just kind of throw myself into it without questioning very much, “Should I be doing this? Should I be doing something else?” If I really want to do it, I just do it. And the wonderful thing about painting and taking photographs is I don’t have to have anyone to hire me to do it. I can do it on my own.

Is there anything you haven’t tried yet that you have high on your list?

ML – I’d like to sing again. I’ve done it before but, I’ve done very little of it and I love it. I’ve written a lot of songs and I’ve performed them. I’d like to do that once more. There may be a possibility of that. I’m chatting with a well known musician, and we won’t jinx the project because we’re just beginning to chat. And one (other) thing I’ve never done. I’d like to make great big, scrap metal sculptures but I doubt that’s going to happen because of the idea of working with a blow torch. I can just see that as a disaster waiting to happen. You know – great big heavy pieces. Perhaps the time for that has passed but it’s something I would’ve liked to have done and I’ve never done.

Find out more about Marilyn Lightstone and her artistry at MarilynLightstone.com.

Watch Lies My Father Told Me as part of VisionTV’s special programming for Rosh Hashanah that also includes the enlightening documentary Rosh Hashanah: Day of Judgement and the blockbuster film, Sophie’s Choice, starring Academy Award-winner Meryl Streep.

- Henry Lees

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