Las Vegas Sun

July 29, 2021

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Where I Stand: David Helfgott’s sister shines some light on ‘Shine’

DID YOU SEE the award-winning film "Shine"? I did, and came away singing praises of the film's star, Geoffrey Rush, who played the role of a brilliant young pianist, David Helfgott. The film took its audience from the depths of personal agony to the peak of artistic success. It's a great movie.

The story of Australian David Helfgott is of a talented pianist who, because of an overprotective and abusive father, Peter Helfgott, ended up in a mental institution rather than Carnegie Hall. The father, a Polish Jew, had lost his entire family during the Holocaust and pushed his son toward success, but then appeared to block his final achievements.

Last week, after reading a foreign newspaper, I learned that Oliver Stone isn't the only producer and director who plays with the truth when trying to make an award-winning film. Scott Hicks produced an exciting film but left the truth far behind in his movie "Shine." For this, he will probably get an Oscar but leave a damaged family wondering what happened to the reputation of their father and husband. His widow and children still live in Australia, and daughter Margaret teaches music in Beersheba, Israel.

Here are some of Margaret's comments about "Shine," who sees actor Rush doing an outstanding job in portraying her brother:

"How far can a director (Scott Hicks) go from the truth? Is it morally right?

"I had scores of newspaper clippings about the film and, in 99 percent of them, my father is called a brutal, tyrannical man." Articles that bother her most are those saying her father is "only slightly less lovable than Himmler" and another that refers to his "Fuhrer-knows-best voice."

"What a terrible irony for a man who lost his entire family to the Nazis. People believe what they see on the screen. That's the power of cinema."

David has visited her in Israel, where he was impressed by the Masada and gave a piano recital in Jerusalem in a private home. Margaret visits her family in Australia frequently.

Now to the gut of Margaret's comments.

"Throughout their childhood, Margaret says, their father 'was strict, even authoritarian, but not a tyrant.' A scene that particularly incenses her shows Peter beating David mercilessly in front of the other children when the 19-year-old boy announces he is accepting a scholarship to London's Royal College of Music. Margaret was present that night, and she says it didn't happen that way at all.

"'There were no physical beatings in our family,' she insists. 'Maybe an occasional disciplinary smack, but that's all. Nothing like in the movie. That was horrendous.' David was not pushed out of the house that night by his father, as the movie shows. His bags were already packed, she says, because he had decided to leave before he told his father of his decision.

"The next three years, while David was studying in London, were hard on father-son relations, but there was no total break in communication as the film suggests. David's letter were not returned to him unopened. 'We read and answered every one,' Margaret says. 'My brother Leslie still has them.'

"David did not collapse on stage in London in 1969 following a performance of the incredibly difficult Rachmaninoff Third Concerto. His descent into mental illness was slow, becoming apparent to his family in his letters home.

"One particularly wrenching scene shows David returning unannounced from London after his collapse and calling his father one rainy night from a phone booth. His father listens silently to his pleas, and hangs up without a word.

"The scene never happened. 'We didn't have a phone until years later,' Margaret points out. In fact, David returned home after his collapse and lived under his father's roof until he entered a mental institution two weeks later. He was living at home again in 1975 when his father died."

Today, David is making a tour in the United States and is drawing large crowds but little praise for his ability. Philip Taubman, writing in the New York Times, says, "Mr. Helfgott turns out not to be an especially accomplished pianist, at least not now. If anything, his tour is more about the powers of celebrity and empathy than about great musicianship."

"Shine" stirs human emotions and takes a viewer from Death Valley to the Rocky Mountains. Couldn't the same emotions have been around without an unnecessary and hateful portrayal of the father? Margaret Helfgott and her family wish Hicks had at least attempted to produce a film that was truthful and showered less hurt upon them. When the Oscars are handed out, will anything be done to repair the damage done to the Helfgott family? I doubt it.

It would be ironic if German actor Armin Mueller-Stahl, who portrayed Peter Helfgott in "Shine," receives an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.