Last week was a sad time in our household, but the gloom had nothing to do with Tisha B’Av.
As anyone even moderately in tune with popular culture knows, a young actor, Cory Monteith, one of the stars of the hit Fox drama-comedy "Glee," was found dead in a Vancouver hotel room after overdosing on a lethal combination of alcohol and heroin. His was a classic and familiar tale of Hollywood and self-destruction and an icon dying young. We’ve heard it before – for one generation it was James Dean or Marilyn Monroe, for younger people: Kurt Cobain, River Phoenix, Heath Ledger or Amy Winehouse.
It is easy for adults to scoff at teenagers who are personally devastated by the death of a celebrity they’ve never met. We who have more real-life experience with mortality can forget how overwhelming it can be to the young when someone they admire self-destructs and disappears at a young age.
Monteith’s death rattled the “Gleeks” – the devoted fans of "Glee," of which there are many in Israel – mostly girls, including my teenage daughter – on a level that ran a bit deeper than the standard disillusionment that follows one of these tragic endings.
The difference was Rachel. Not since Barbra Streisand have young Jewish girls had a mainstream popular character as identifiably Jewish and Jewish-looking as that of Rachel Berry, played by the not-really-very-Jewish Lea Michele (born Lea Michele Sarfati, to a Sephardic Jewish father and a Catholic mother) In the Glee story, Rachel was Juliet to the Romeo of football star Finn Hudson, played by the late Monteith.
On the show, Rachel Berry lived out the Streisandian “Funny Girl” fantasy – the rejected and unpopular big-nosed nerdy Jewish girl, who feels funny-looking, awkward and ethnic next to the button-nosed blonde cheerleaders, ultimately, as a result of her hard work and determination and outsized talent, particularly her singing voice, is discovered as a diamond in the rough and finds success and acceptance in the school’s glee club.
The ultimate prize – the symbol that she has really made it, that the ugly duckling has become a swan – is the fact that the high school’s football star/sensitive singer, Finn, realizes how special she is, chooses her and they become a couple. Their romance was one of the notes in the show’s message of accepting of outsiders and finding unity through art and music.
Cory Monteith, a Canadian slacker/musician/actor turned star with a difficult family history and a troubled past that included substance abuse, was no Finn Hudson in real life. But the fact that the two actors pretending to be in love on the show, had been a real couple over the past year and a half meant that the girls who identified with Lea/Rachel felt twice as connected to Cory/Finn. And now, with his passing, they don’t just mourn the actor and identify with the actress girlfriend who lost him, they must grapple with the destruction of a storyline they were certain would end in Rachel and Finn living happily ever after.
In real life, Streisand is a role model and obsession of Michele, who has tread the Broadway boards since she was a child. Michele has said that Streisand was “the messiah for girls like me” and credits the icon with her decision not to get a nose job. She has said it is her professional dream – and the Glee writers incorporated it into her character on the show – to play Fanny Brice in “Funny Girl.”
Interestingly, Streisand’s most memorable roles were those of outrageously talented and highly successful Jewish women who fall in love with fatally flawed and self-destructive men. In the Broadway show and the film, “Funny Girl,” Brice marries Nicky Arnstein, a gambler, who gets involved in criminal business activity and ends up in prison. He leaves her so as not to drag her down. In the 1976 hit film “A Star Is Born,” Streisand played a talented singer on the rise as her lover is on the decline with drugs and his life ends tragically.
One of the reasons that the young Michele, despite her unbelievable voice, and certainly her acting, never quite hit the emotional notes that Streisand managed to. The problem was her youth, together with a certain superficiality. The road to stardom seemed to be too shiny and easy and perfect for Michele – she was far more conventionally pretty than Streisand. Also, as a successful child star, she didn’t seem to have earned her diva-hood with as many hard knocks, and her angelic voice didn’t always manage to convince us that she knew or understood real pain. Now, sadly, Michele won’t have to work very hard to convince us that she knows about heartbreak.
I am crossing my fingers the "Glee" writers, who have the unenviable task of revamping the show post-Monteith, manage to write a bright future for Rachel Berry, one that makes it clear that a talented Jewish girl can succeed with or without a handsome former football hero boyfriend at her side.
This is my hope. Not because I care particularly intensely about a fictional character, but for all the devastated young girls who see themselves in Rachel Berry and vicariously adored Finn Hudson. They’ve learned the hard way that in real life, idolizing a flawed celebrity can too easily end in disappointment and heartbreak. In their fantasy world, they deserve a happy – and empowering – future for their heroine.
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