NEW YORK — Of all the anti-Semitic canards the one I’m least likely to push back on is “The Jews control Hollywood.” It’s undeniable that a century ago Jews used ingenuity and foresight to create an industry out of dreams and light when other occupational doors were slammed in their faces. Additionally, movies are great! Why should we try to camouflage our success in this field?
But this year Hollywood’s biggest victory lap, the Academy Awards, feels a little off. There is some Jewish representation in the running, but not nearly as much as we’ve grown accustomed to. For something our haters say we rule with a money-grimed fist, the Oscars of 2019 is practically Judenrein.
Of the performers or directors this year, only one, Rachel Weisz from “The Favourite,” is Jewish, and despite her movie’s name she’s a long shot. (“Vice” director Adam McKay’s wife is Jewish, plus he’s friends with Paul Rudd, so maybe he gets partial credit.) What’s weird, though, is that two of the performances are for characters whose Jewishness is core to their story, yet they are played by non-Jews.
Film historian Eric A. Goldman, who has literally written the book on this subject with “The American Jewish Story Through Cinema,” “Visions, Images & Dreams: Yiddish Film Past & Present” and a forthcoming work about Israeli film, says that movie makers and Jewish audiences are now, perhaps for the first time, “comfortable” with the portrayal of Jews in cinema.
“In classic Hollywood, Jews would avoid playing Jews for fear of being stereotyped. In the late 1970s and 1980s there was something of a coming out,” according to Goldman.
The issue of representation is a hot topic for other minorities. Steven Spielberg’s upcoming remake of “West Side Story” is currently finding its way through early dialogue with the Latino community. Less successful was a project announced by Scarlett Johansson called “Rub and Tug,” in which Johansson was to have played a transgender man. That project was effectively shut down by preemptive outrage.
“Today it’s a non-issue,” Goldman says about Jews and representation. “We don’t need to make that demand because we’re more in control of the parts. Other groups are saying, ‘It’s our turn, we want a piece of the action.’”
Of the eight films nominated for best picture (“Black Panther,” “BlacKkKlansman,” “Bohemian Rhapsody,” “The Favourite,” “Green Book,” “Roma,” “A Star Is Born” and “Vice”) only “BlacKkKlansman” deals in any Jewish subject matter. (That is, of course, if you aren’t counting Mike Meyers’s absurd cameo as a bonehead record exec in “Bohemian Rhapsody,” which would be a borderline anti-Semitic moment if it weren’t so ludicrous.)
“BlacKkKlansman” takes the kernel of true story from the 1970s and expands it into a quite enjoyable (but still serious) buddy cop yarn. The original script was written by Jewish screenwriters Charlie Wachtel and David Rabinowitz, who are nominated for Oscars, but, like Weisz, are very much long shots. (It was later expanded upon by Kevin Willmott and director Spike Lee, who are also nominated for the joint award.) The film creates a fictional character in Flip Zimmerman, a Jewish police officer, that works in tandem with African-American Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) in infiltrating the Ku Klux Klan.
Zimmerman is played quite well by the marvelous actor Adam Driver, who is not Jewish. This never raised an eyebrow with me (or Goldman), because Zimmerman’s assimilative qualities are very much part of the story. He doesn’t much identify with his Jewish heritage at the beginning of the film, but after having his eyes open to the racism and anti-Semitism around him, he changes his tune. Driver is nominated for best supporting actor, but is not likely to win against Mahershala Ali from “Green Book” or Richard E. Grant from “Can You Ever Forgive Me?”
The caper/biopic “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” is a far better film than many that are nominated for best picture this year, but got snubbed out of the top category. The movie is terrific because of Richard E. Grant and, especially for the outstanding lead performance by Melissa McCarthy, who is nominated for best actress. (She is sure to lose to either Glenn Close or Lady Gaga, however.)
McCarthy is heart-wrenching and funny and sincere and poignant in her portrayal of a rich and real character, the late biographer Lee Israel.
Yes, “Lee Israel” sure sounds like a Jewish name and “Melissa McCarthy” is very much not. The producers made a very specific choice in casting McCarthy. Here is a brilliant performer (and box office draw) and this is the role of a lifetime. She’s a smart-mouthed, gay woman living on the fringes of literary society in a dump of an apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. In life, extremely Jewish. But in this film, hardly at all.
Wisely, the film doesn’t put McCarthy in Jew-face. Other than one stray use of the term “schlep” (which all New Yorkers use regardless of their heritage) and her last name, McCarthy plays the role from her own toolkit, not as a caricature. If this film was made 25 years ago Barbra Streisand would have done wonders with it (assuming she’d be willing to appear unglamorous on screen) but instead we’ve got this version. And it’s a hell of a version.
McCarthy and director Marielle Heller deserve kudos for not forcing the issue. With the successful show “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” non-Jewish performers Rachel Brosnahan and Tony Shalhoub need to (for lack of a better term) “Jew it up” and, luckily, they can pass. But that’s a comedy. For this, which is a much more tender and sincere film, it’s best to just let the acting work au naturel. Besides, who can hear the name Lee Israel (an author struggling to finish a book about Fanny Brice) and not realize the real person was Jewish?!?
The Jewish people may not come home on Oscar night completely empty handed. The likely best picture winner is “Green Book,” a very creaky buddy road trip movie about an Italian-American mob associate who was the chauffeur/fixer to Dr. Don Shirley, an African-American pianist, as they toured the deep south in the 1960s. The movie, in my opinion, isn’t terrible, but sure as hell isn’t good. It’s predictable and phony and I’m surprised more Italian-Americans aren’t fuming about its lazy stereotypes.
They say that with age comes wisdom, and in many cases this is true, though not always when evaluating movies. This is my polite way of saying that the AARP set is losing their mind for “Green Book,” which is why the older-skewing Academy is likely to give it the top prize. Anyway, one of the film’s chief producers, Charles Wessler, is Jewish and he’s likely to say a few words at the podium should he win.
Other than Wessler, don’t bet on too many other Jewish champions this year. There’s a good chance that Lady Gaga’s “Shallow,” co-written by Mark Ronson, will win best original song for “A Star Is Born,” so we may see his smiling punim on Sunday. Also in the running is the Ruth Bader Ginsburg portrait “RBG” for best documentary, and there’s a chance we’ll see its co-director Julie Cohen pick up an award. Also, one of the documentary shorts, “A Night In The Garden,” about the Nazi rally that occurred at Madison Square Garden in 1939, has been getting a lot of attention.
It’s impossible to predict the short films, but for the narratives the one called “Skin” is by an Israeli named Guy Nattiv, and his wife is the actress Jamie Ray Newman. The Oscars are a popularity vote most of all, so since he’s something of a known entity, he may come away with a statue.
Israel never had a chance for the best foreign language category this year. Its submission, “The Cakemaker,” was good, but didn’t make it into the final five. The nominees from Japan (“Shoplifters”), Poland (“Cold War”) and Mexico (“Roma,” also nominated for general best picture, a rare double-nominee) are all incredible. The Lebanese pick “Capernaum” is only so-so and I’ve been meaning to watch the German one (“Never Look Away”) but it’s three hours long and I haven’t had the time. There are a lot of movies out there, folks!