After the screening of “…And Justice For All,” directed by Norman
Jewison, Thane Rosenbaum discusses the film with Jeffrey Tambor and
Neal Gabler. Here is a summary of excerpts from their conversation.
Thane Rosenbaum: Jeffrey, this was your first film and you’ve told me
that you had a great relationship with Al Pacino.
Jeffrey Tambor: Yes, to prepare for the film, we went to law courts.
I wasn’t sure if this story was too much. One of the first cases we
went to was about a turtle. They were trying to figure out the value
of a turtle by counting the rings, and I thought “oh, we’re going to
TR: Neal, where does this film fit within the landscape of American film?
Neal Gabler: There are two great eras of American film. The first is
the 1930’s. Each studio was turning out fifty films per year. Now
they turn out twelve if they’re lucky. Then there was this other
period that begins with “Bonnie and Clyde.” It was the first American
movie that takes on French new wave qualities; a personalized kind of
cinema. 1967-1979 is one of the most fertile times in American film.
It’s the period of Scorcese, Jewison, and others. Jewison is
underestimated. His body of work is uneven, but his best work is up
there with the best. Many things fed this fertile time. Nothing
feeds success like failure. In the 1960’s, film was at a very low ebb
and no one could figure out what to do. when you’re not having
success, you’ll try anything. Studios brought in young, inventive
filmmakers who would try things. Audiences didn’t start coming back
until later – until Jaws and others which changed everything. These
filmmakers could take risks because there was nothing to lose. Also
values of film were changing. The value of Copland, and Scorcese
movies is very critical. At this time you got critical film, and this
is one of those. This is a revolutionary movie. Americans pride
themselves on our judicial system because we think it works. There
are other films that critique America around the time. But, this
movie takes on squarely the judicial system. Although the mechanics
creek sometimes, somehow American’s instinctively think it all works.
It doesn’t work in this film. This film was somewhat radical then,
even though now we know the judicial system doesn’t work. We’re
cynical now, but not so much then.
TR: This ere was not just about personal films, but something about
this era produced films with very strong social themes.
NG: We have a strong idea in America that there is order and we love
to disrupt it. It’s a powerful theme. When that theme conjoins with
deep seated American cynicism, you get something that is quadruply
powerful. What we’re seeing is a kind of cynicism and that the
American hero disrupts the order.
TR: Jeffrey, this was your first film. You’re character is a
linchpin. You play a defense attorney who feels something. Jay feels
something and actually does care.
JT: He has his ideals and it blows up in his face. His ideals go
astray and you have your world collapse. He had to join, so he shaved
his head, got as crazy as they were, and actually goes back in when
Pacino’s character is going out at the end of the film. They are
crying out and saying this baby is broken. If you have ideals and
truth, something has to change. As a young man, I could not see why
the scenes between Strasberg and Pacino were placed where they were.
There’s almost a Talmudic thing happening throughout the film in those
scenes. The last scene in the film, where Pacino changes his mind -
his life is over. The decision is buttressed against the scene in the
old age home.
NG: Did you watch the scene during filming?
JT: Yes, I watched it. It’s some of the most incredible acting I’ve
ever seen. Pacino acted as if his life depended on it. I was
thinking, that’s how it’s done, it was an amazing thing.
NG: One of the most remarkable things in the scene is the tear.
JT: Pacino is a smart actor. Put your father right there in front of
you. This actor doesn’t know how to do anything that’s not personal.
TR: Speaking of Sam Kirkland, Strasberg’s character. I love what you
said before about wisdom. Arthur Kirkland says he did everything to
make me a lawyer, because he said it was the finest thing one could
be. The movie is a mirror on that system.
JT: If Arthur cops out he will be successful.
TR: Here we have a lawyer truly self examining.
NG: And the system. The real who-dun nit here is will justice
prevail? This film is not a who-dun nit about finding the criminal.
Here justice does not prevail. Why not? Movie gives all sort of
suggestions. Recall the opening. There are all empty halls with a
bunch of empty slogans. No people. People who practice law are either
empathists or rulists. When Obama was choosing a Supreme Court
justice he said he wanted someone with empathy. This choice was
widely criticized from the right. This movie is all about that. In
fact, Arthur did get the evidence in late. In our hearts, many of us
are saying when it’s three days, screw it when there’s justice
TR: Arthur broke client confidence. Even at the end, among the many
things he does, he breaks client confidence, he’s sitting on the
steps, and we know his career is over.
NG: This movie is about the law, the law is about the empathists and
justice will win out. But that’s not the way the law works.
TR: How was it to throw plates?
JT: I did practice and I demanded cafeteria plates. It’s an
interesting about Arthur leaving the law. It’s really sad when people
have a goal in life and they seem to have landed on this other road.
You ask how the hell did you get there and want to get back. We know
what happens to Jay, he goes back. But what happens to Arthur? How
does this resonate with your people? I was there at the scene when
Arthur smashes the car window and says “don’t you care, these are just
people?” And I think that is the bylaw of the film, ‘cause when you
lose that you lose everything.
TR: What are the consequences? We know there are consequences to
practicing law, but this is the only film where people are actually
NG: Here, people can’t comport their personal values with legal
values. Every law student either confronts it or ignores it. The
system tells you your personal values don’t matter. We watch the
movie not as lawyers, but as human beings.
TR: Did this movie do well at the box office?
JT: The script was nominated. I think it did well, and became a
holiday cult film. Critically, people had trouble with the tone. The
film was very brave because they make it a comedy instead of a
tragedy. The light in comedy is like a shaft. People have the idea
that if it’s the law, it has to have the tone of the verdict, and
can’t make fun of it.
NG: Some critics loved Al Pacino, but didn’t love the tone. This is
our world, it’s crazy, and you deal with it in your own terms.
JT: There’s also evil in this film. The only people who are going to
bring down evil are people with integrity.
NG: Notice the nature of Judge Fleming’s evil. He knows how to use
the law to perpetrate evil. He uses the law and shows that the law
protects evil and does not protect effort.
TR: This film is a real indictment on law. Arthur thinks this can’t
be what my grandfather worked for.
NG: This film highlights a theme in the 70s that the system doesn’t
work, so you have to work outside the system.
TR: Jeffrey, at the time did people recognize you as the attorney from
JT: I thought I was the coolest. I didn’t realize I had to work so
hard for other roles, because this role was handed to me. I noticed
another thing: the scenes were very long, and you don’t get that
anymore. Also, this was so deeply cast, just one actor after another
showing their stuff. We had two weeks around the table before anyone
stood up, which you also don’t get anymore.
TR: We’ve never heard this much laughter from an audience, until the
scene where the three of you were laughing.
JT: That’s how I got the part. They were very concerned about making
Pacino laugh. After the initial audition, I had to go back and read
with Pacino. I booted the first scene. Then we did the bathroom scene
and thank God Pacino laughed his ass off. It was brilliant that he
laughed again in Judge Fleming’s face. There’s something great about
that moment. Jewison was great director. I didn’t know anything and
he let me go and let me play, and let me discover. The first time we
had dailies, I didn’t like them. I didn’t know how to look at dailies
because I was so upset with my performance.
TR: Did this role help you with your future roles in the law?
JT: Yes, this face and hairline get me roles as judges. Us bald
people are either lawyers, judges, principals, or bosses.
NG: I think there is something peculiar about American sensitivities
about how it works. Americans think that our instincts overcome
everything else. You can look at different films, and see periods of
where the system works, and films where the system doesn’t work
because we’re cynical at that time. Deep in us is the notion that
it’s not systems that work in this country, but people.
TR: This film humanizes people within the machine. I’m not sure that
lawyers think this film repudiates the legal system because we
separate legal and moral right.
TR: Is an Arrested Development film in the works?
JT: Yes, this time next year, I think we’ll be making the film, or I’ll be here.
TR: Would you have imagined your career unfolding this way?
JT: About a month ago, I got a free subway ride. I went to the
teller, she shook her head, opened the gate, and I said “I’ve made
Fordham Law Film Festival: Jeffrey Tambor from Fordham Law School on Vimeo.