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March 15, 1996 - Image 151

Resource type:
Text
Publication:
The Detroit Jewish News, 1996-03-15

Disclaimer: Computer generated plain text may have errors. Read more about this.

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Belt stand-ups to
Arthur Miller,
Woody Allen, Steven
Spielberg, the Coen
brothers and Seinfeld,
"I think what it comes
down to is that Jewish
people have an affinity for
storytelling," he says.
However, some contend that
these stories, and the characters
who enact them, are becoming less recog-
nizably Jewish. Writer Bonnie Garvin says
that Hollywood producers "want more
generic characters," scrubbed of any spe-
cific ethnic, class or ideological tint. In fact,
for most of their existence, American
movies have treated Jewishness more as
a metaphor than a spiritual condition, a
euphemism for boisterous wit, shameless
sentimentality and guilty consciences born
of overbearing mothers.
The universal appeal of these traits is
precisely what has made Jewish artists
and entertainers so successful.
"The Marx Brothers — they were Jew-
ish — but their comedy transcended that
and made everyone laugh," says Mintz.
"And Woody Allen, even though he defi-
nitely talked about Jewish stuff, the
themes of his movies are about love, com-
mitment, dealing with death — wider
themes. You can't make a movie
and hope it's going to be success-
ful unless you address some of
those wider themes."
Few industries have been as
closely associated with a particu-
lar ethnic group as the movies
have been with American Jews.
To a large extent, the story of the
American film business, from its
infancy up to the 1950s, is the sto-
ry of how a small group of immi-
grant Jewish men carved out a
fiefdom for themselves amid the
California palms.
Jewish film pioneers were
drawn to Hollywood because it
was one of the few social and fi-
nancial avenues that didn't ex-
clude them. Determined to
become fully assimilated U.S. cit-
izens — rather than the "hy-
phenated Americans" derided by
Teddy Roosevelt — the Hollywood
Jews used movies to reinvent
themselves as power brokers and
model patriots. Hollywood's ver-
sion of the American Dream can
be seen as a projection of their as-
pirations and ideals.

"What they were
making were films that
portrayed the America
they wanted to be a part
of, the American Dream
as they saw it, with fan-
cy dinner parties and quick
repartee and all that," says
U-M's Mintz.
Neal Gabler, a movie critic and
former U-M instructor, puts the mat-
ter succinctly in An Empire of Their Own:
How the Jews Invented Hollywood (Crown,
1988).
"If the Jews were proscribed from en-
tering the real corridors of gentility and
status in America, the movies offered an
ingenious option," Gabler writes. 'Within
the studios and on the screen, the Jews
could simply create a new country — one
where they would not only be admitted,
but would govern as well."
Indeed, the movies dramatized and
smoothed over the tensions that many
Hollywood Jews struggled to reconcile in
their private lives. The Jazz Singer, the
movie that introduced sound to motion pic-
tures, is the story of a Lower East Side
cantor's son who must choose between the
world of his fathers and the dazzle of
Broadway stardom.
The theme, Gabler demonstrates, was

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Above:
Neal Gabler, movie critic and former U-M
instructor, tells it like it is in his book.

ADOLPH ZUKOS

Below left:
Minnie Marx's (originally Minna Schoenberg)
parents operated a traveling theatrical troupe
in Germany; her brother was Al Shean of the
vaudeville comedy team Gallagher and
Shean. She was determined that her five sons
would carry on the family tradition.

a resonant one for moguls like Zukor,
Louis B. Mayer of M-G-M and Harry Cohn
of Columbia Pictures, who sought to play
down their Jewish roots, the better to gain
the approval of WASP-dominated high so-
ciety.
Yet despite the moguls' efforts at as-
similation, a backlash quickly set in that
has lasted to the present day. Throughout
Hollywood's history, outsiders have at-
tacked Jews as representatives of a cul-
tural elite. Charges that Hollywood was
"un-American" and "anti-Christian" re-
peatedly have been leveled by muckrak-
ing congressmen, crusading evangelists
and anti-Semitic demagogues.
During the heyday of the House Un-
American Activities Committee, the words
"Jewish" and "Communist" were
used synonymously to discredit an
industry long associated with Baby-
lonian excess. It could be argued
that the current uproar over the
lack of"family" (i.e. Christian) val-
ues in TV programming, and the
demand for a ratings system, re-
flects a continuing suspicion
and hostility toward a still
heavily Jewish Hollywood.
Those feelings flared anew
18 months ago, when an un-
flattering piece about Holly-
wood's Jewish executives
appeared in the British
magazine The Spectator. In
his piece, author William
Cash, a Los Angeles-based
reporter for London's Daily
Telegraph, reported on the
launching of the new Dream-
Works studio by Spielberg,
record mega-producer David
Geffen and former Disney presi-
dent Jeffrey Katzenberg.
At one point, Cash referred to
the trio's need to obtain a "rab-
binical blessing" for their new ven-
ture from MCA chairman Lew

Wasserman and described The New York
Times as the "official mouthpiece" of the
new Jewish "Establishment." The subse-
quent controversy was later reported in
the Times.
Such outbursts, though, are rare in
modern Hollywood. As the movie indus-
try prepares to enter its second decade,
new voices and visions have begun to clam-
or for attention. Some think that's all for
the best.
"I guess how I look at it is that every-
one has a point of view in his experience
that's gonna be different," says Mintz, "and
especially Hollywood seems to be opening
up its doors to different points of view.
There are certainly a lot more African-
American filmmakers and Latino film-
makers and lesbian filmmakers, which I
think is great." ❑

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