Almagor, Gila (1939–)

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Almagor, Gila

Gila Almagor is an Israeli film and theater actress, the first and only Israeli female film star. She has rendered a rich portrayal of women of diverse ethnicities and social classes in an acting career lasting for nearly fifty years. She is the author of two successful semiautobiographical novels, which she also adapted to the screen. She won the prestigious Israel Prize in 2004.


Almagor (born Alexanderovich) was born in Petah Tikva, mandatory Palestine, in 1939, just four months after her father, an officer in the British police, was killed by an Arab sniper. At the age of thirteen she was sent to Hadassim youth village, but left after two years, and moved, alone, to Tel Aviv to join the acting school of Habima, Israel's national theater. When she was seventeen she got her first stage role.

Her first screen appearance was in 1960 in Burning Sands, an action-adventure film about a group of young travelers on their risky way to the ancient city of Petra, across the Jordanian border. But her breakthrough performance came in 1966, when she played a Moroccan mother of five in a remote southern town in Menachem Golan's Fortuna. In 1963 Almagor left for New York, where she enrolled in the prestigious Actors Studio and took acting courses with Uta Hagen. In 1965 Almagor returned to Israel and joined the Cameri, the Tel Aviv city theater. She left a year later and became a much sought-after stage actress. Some of her well-known roles include the leads in Anne Frank, Jeanne d'Arc, The Crucible, The Bride and the Butterfly Hunter, and Medea.

But Almagor is best known as the Israeli cinema's leading lady. She has appeared in more than fifty films, and her on-screen persona expresses the multiple images of Israeli women. She played a soldier's young widow trying to get back to normal life in Siege (1969), made by the Italian director Gilberto Toffano, a part she once acknowledged as her favorite; a street prostitute in Menachem Golan's The Highway Queen (1971); and a demented Holocaust survivor in The Summer of Avia (1988). Mainly she played mothers or motherly figures, such as the struggling widowed mother in Moshe Mizrahi's The House on Chelouche Street (1973), which was nominated for an Academy Award as best foreign-language film, a Moroccan matriarch in Shmuel Has-fari's Sh'hur (1994), an over-protective Jewish mother in Joel Silberg's comedy My Mother the General (1979), based on a local stage hit, the pub owner in Assi Dayan's Life According to Agfa (1992), and even her own mother in Avia—a fact that positioned Almagor as the ultimate matron of Israeli cinema.

Her ability to convincingly portray all sorts of women—vulgar as well as elegant, North African as well as European and Arab (for example, in the Israeli-German 1973 coproduction, Stranger in Jericho), peripheral as well as bourgeois, and tragic as well as comic, the Israeli Jeanne Moreau—not only indicate Almagor's diversity as an actress, but also mark her as the screen image of the all-Israeli identity. The characters she has portrayed over her career manifest the various aspects of Israeli identity.

Between 1977 and 1986 Almagor's career declined, and she found herself forced to accept small and insignificant roles. During this period of professional crisis she even attended auditions, as if she were not one of Israel's veteran actresses. As personal and professional therapy, Almagor wrote her semiautobiographical novel The Summer of Avia. She then adapted it as a one-actress stage play, that turned into a surprisingly great success.

In 1988 Almagor adapted the play for a film version, directed by Eli Cohen, which she coproduced and starred in. She plays a Holocaust survivor in the 1950s, a character based on her own mother, who is mentally ill and has just been released from a mental institution. While her ten-year-old daughter tries to cope with her mother's illness, she becomes convinced that a new resident in their village is actually her lost father, whom she's never met. The film was very well received, both commercially and critically, and won the Silver Bear award at the 1989 Berlin Film Festival. It went on to be named best film at both the Belgrade and Valladolid film festivals.

In 1994 she co-wrote the script and starred in the sequel to The Summer of Avia, Under the Domim Tree, also directed by Cohen, which told the story of her growing up in the Hadassim youth village in the 1950s along with teenaged Holocaust survivors. Since then she has appeared constantly in the theater and in films. Among the latter are Shemi Zarhin's Passover Fever (1995), Assi Dayan's The Gospel According to God (2004), and Dan Wolman's Tied Hands (2006).


Name: Gila Almagor (born Alexanderovich)

Birth: 1939, Petah Tikva, mandatory Palestine

Family: Husband, Yaakov Agmon; one son; one daughter

Nationality: Israeli

Education: Actors Studio and HB Studio, New York, 1963–1965


  • 1954: Enters acting school of Habima (Israel's national theater)
  • 1956: First stage role
  • 1960: First screen appearance
  • 1985: Publishes first semiautobiographical novel, The Summer of Avia
  • 2004: Wins Israel prize for cinematic contributions


Throughout her acting career Almagor has won numerous prizes, among them the prestigious Israel Prize for her cinematic work (2004), an Israeli Academy of Film and Television honorary award (1997), and, several times, the best actress award for her performances in films and on stage. She spends much of her time doing volunteer activities for ailing children, was a member of the Tel Aviv-Yafo (Jaffa) City Council, and chairperson of the Culture Committee for the city. Almagor is also one of the founders of Ami, the Israeli Artists Association. In 1996, she received the President's Merit Award for Volunteers as recognition for her years of volunteer work.


Almagor has appeared in many international productions, most recently in Steven Spielberg's acclaimed political thriller, Munich (2005). She has been a jury member in many international film festivals, among them the Berlin Film Festival in 1996. She has been honored with a number of retrospectives, most notably by the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York. Her novels, The Summer of Avia (1985), Under the Domim Tree (1992) and Alex Lerner, Daphne and Me (2002), have been translated into English, German, Russian, Danish, and other languages.


Gila Almagor has proved in more than four decades of screen appearances a rare ability to stay at the center of Israeli cinema despite the changing context. She actually grew up with it, thus becoming one of its iconic figures. It is difficult to point to another Israeli screen actress who has achieved a similar status.


Almagor, Gila. Ha-Kayits shel Aviha. Tel Aviv: Am Oved, 1985.

――――――. Under the Domim Tree, translated by Hillel Schenker. New York: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 1995.

Kronish, Amy. World Cinema: Israel. Trowbridge, Wiltshire, U.K.: Flicks Books; Madison, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1996.

Loshitzky, Yosefa. Identity Politics on the Israeli Screen. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2001.

Schnitzer, Meir. The Israeli Cinema. Tel Aviv: Kinereth, 1994 (in Hebrew).

                                          Shmulik Duvdevani