American Jews: The True Hollywood Story

Hollywood films capture the movement of Jewish actors and themes from the shadows to the spotlight.

Michael Lipiner
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Michael Lipiner

Marlon Brando once said on a talk show, “Hollywood is run by Jews,” and Charles Lindbergh once declared, “Their [Jews’] greatest danger to this country lies in their large ownership and influence in our motion pictures ... ”

With the 86th Academy Awards coming up on March 2, it’s as good a time as any to reflect on America’s “Jew view” and acknowledge those in Hollywood who cautiously — and later brazenly — embraced their Jewishness on screen. We may be well past the days when Betty Joan Perske became Lauren Bacall or Tony Curtis distanced himself from Bernard Schwartz, but the Jewish experience in America, as told by Hollywood films, is still a gripping one.

In its early decades, American cinema mostly hid American Jewry, with studio moguls, most of whom were Jewish, shying away from on-screen representations. Aside from Silent Era “ghetto films,” such as “Humoresque” (1920) and “The Cohens and the Kellys” (1926), which depicted Jewish families dealing with American assimilation, Hollywood avoided clearly identifiable Jewish characters, themes and issues.

D. W. Griffith is credited with having made the first Hollywood motion picture in 1910, but he’s more famous for his popular epic “Intolerance” (1916), which depicted unequivocal anti-Semitism. In response, Warner Bros.’ Jewish studio heads boldly released their own story of assimilation in the first “talkie,” “The Jazz Singer” (1927). In the movie, a rabbi’s son, played by Al Jolson, shames his family and falls in love with a gentile woman before the film’s climax shows Jews “davening,” or praying,” the Kol Nidre on Yom Kippur.

In the 1930s, Jews accounted for just 3 percent of the U.S. population, and the studios, looking for broad appeal, used The Production Code Administration’s forbiddance of offensive film depictions to avoiding putting Jews on screen. Moreover, when the Great Depression hit, Jews in the film industry were attacked by the political right for “adolescent entertainment” and “immoral practices.” Jewish Hollywood moguls feared “ethnic” stories would damage their Anglo integration, which explains why in two 1937 films, “The Life of Emile Zola,” about the Dreyfus affair, and “They Won’t Forget,” based on the Leo Frank lynching, the word “Jew” is left unsaid.

During World War II, Hollywood mostly refrained from depicting the Holocaust — with the exception of Charlie Chaplin’s brilliant “The Great Dictator” (1940) — since involvement in “Europe’s war” was unpopular with most Americans. However, in the postwar years, strong nationalism, Holocaust testimony and the creation of Israel led to an apparent change in American filmmakers’ attitude.

A still from 'Everything is Illuminated' (2005).
Charlie Chaplin in 'The Great Dictator' (1940).
A still from 'The Jolson Story' (1946).
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A still from 'Everything is Illuminated' (2005).Credit: Courtesy
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Charlie Chaplin in 'The Great Dictator' (1940).Credit: Courtesy
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A still from 'The Jolson Story' (1946).Credit: Courtesy

In 1946, Orson Welles’ “The Stranger” showed footage of concentration camps, and “The Jolson Story” told the triumphant “true” story of a Jolson’s assimilation. In 1947, the Motion Picture Project urged Hollywood to produce films depicting Jewish subjects. In “Body And Soul,” Mary Currier reads a loan application: “Race: White. Religion: Jewish. Nationality: American.”

When 20th Century Fox executive Darryl Zanuck was refused membership at a Los Angeles country club because he was (wrongly) assumed to be Jewish, he pushed Hollywood to produce the Academy Award-winning “Gentleman’s Agreement” (directed by Elia Kazan and starring Gregory Peck). As a conscientious study of anti-Semitism, the film was discouraged by Jewish studio heads who feared it would “stir up trouble.” Similarly, RKO Studios head, Dore Shary, ignored threats to shut down the production and screening of “Crossfire,” which scrutinized anti-Jewish sentiments.

Warming to the Jews

During the Cold War, the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and then-Senator Joseph McCarthy blacklisted liberal “anti-American” writers who raised controversial social issues, and the American government held hearings to blame the movie industry for being interventionist “because of Jewish influence.”

Half of the people subpoenaed by HUAC, including the Hollywood Ten — producers, directors and screenwriters who refused to answer HUAC’s questions regarding possible communist affiliations and spent time in prison for contempt of Congress — were Jewish. Thus, studios had to be subtle in picking premises that allowed them to attack anti-Semitism. In “The Juggler” (1953) Kirk Douglas played a German Jewish Holocaust survivor who debarks in Haifa after the war and experiences psychological trauma.

As the civil rights movement gained momentum, Jewish producers felt more comfortable depicting the plight of minorities. In 1958, “The Young Lions” starred Montgomery Clift as a Jewish officer who encounters anti-Semitism from his superior officers (including Marlon Brando), and in “Marjorie Morningstar,” a New York Jewish couple defies “suitable profession” stereotypes to follow unconventional artistic passions. A year later, “The Diary of Anne Frank” swept the Oscars and biblical epics stormed the box office, including Charlton Heston’s portrayals of Moses in “The Ten Commandments” (1956) and Judah in “Ben-Hur” (1959).

By the 1960s, American counterculture further broken down the ethnic barriers that had once kept Jewish identity covert in Hollywood. Progressive Jews led liberal and radical journals, and then-President John F. Kennedy’s support for Israel led to attractive, strong and heroic Jewish characters: Paul Newman in “Exodus” (1960), and Kirk Douglas as American David “Mickey” Marcus, the first Israeli general since biblical times, in “Cast A Giant Shadow” (1966).

In fact, modern Jewish references were suddenly being written into movies no matter the relevance. Yiddish was spoken by Native Americans in “Cat Ballou” (1965) and a black cabbie (Godfrey Cambridge) in “Bye Bye Braverman” (1968). Moreover, romantic bourgeois comedy-dramas displayed interfaith relationships amid political tension. In “A Majority of One” (1961), a Jewish widow (Rosalind Russell) whose son was killed by Japanese soldiers in World War II, falls in love with a wealthy Japanese man (Alec Guinness). In “Funny Girl” (1968) (released during the Six Day War), the Jewish entertainer, Fanny Brice (Barbra Streisand), shares an on-screen kiss with Egyptian actor Omar Sharif.

In 1979, Time Magazine estimated that 80 percent of professional comedians in America were Jewish. The once elusive Jewish cinematic undercurrents were now blatantly supported by the antiwar, rebellious American cultural revolutions, which attracted young Hollywood writers, directors, and performers who were not ashamed to embrace their Jewishness onscreen: Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner, Woody Allen, Gene Wilder and Neil Simon (among others).

Additionally, the U.S. government created a national Holocaust memorial, museum and annual day of remembrance. New doors were opened for a much more accepted generation of Jews, see: “The Heartbreak Kid” (1972) and “The Way We Were” (1973). Even the racy, animated film “Fritz the Cat” (1972) has a scene where the U.S. government pledges its support for Israel during the Six Day War.

In addition to the Hasidic community explored in “Fiddler on the Roof” (1971) and “The Frisco Kid” (1979), ostentatious, “Yiddishkeit” businessmen whose ingenuity relied on chutzpah and wits countered traditional Jewish stereotypes in “The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz” (1974) and “Hester Street” (1975). The leads are fearless, amoral and scheming while taking on high-risk ventures and aligning themselves with powerful men at any cost.

These pictures led to a resurgence of the organized crime genre, where Jews were overtly identified. Hyman Roth (Lee Strasberg) in “The Godfather, Part II (1974) — obviously based on real-life Mafioso Meyer Lansky — created an archetype for many later films: “Once Upon A Time In America” (1984), “The Plot Against Harry and Family Business,” “Goodfellas” (1990), “Casino” (1995), “The Wolf of Wall Street” (2013) and “American Hustle” (2014).

In the 1980s, CNN was born, the Iranian hostage crisis was televised and Reaganomics popularized conservatism, where politicians — while against movie industry sex and violence — refrained from anti-Semitism. A sharper, moralistic Jewish-consciousness extended across genres. In “Ordinary People” (1980), a Jewish psychiatrist (Judd Hirsch) helps a suicidal teen deal with his dysfunctional WASP family (which includes his anti-Semitic grandmother). In “Rocky III” (1982), Stallone wears a yarmulke and recites the Hebrew Kaddish prayer over his trainer (Burgess Meredith). Even in the X-Men films, Magneto wears a Jewish yellow star at Auschwitz (unlike in the Marvel comics).

A Mossad heartthrob

In recent years, large sociopolitical strides have resulted in gentile actors even portraying Jewish characters: Eddie Murphy’s transformation into a Yiddishkeit old man in “Coming To America” (1988); “Brendan Frasier suffering anti-Semitism at a private school in “School Ties” (1992); Robert Redford’s “Quiz Show” (1994), where an intelligent “shmuck” (John Turturro) takes the fall for NBC’s game show fraud; the Coen Brother’s “The Big Lebowski” (1998), where a wannabee Jew (John Goodman) is “Shomer Shabbas” although he’s “not even Jewish”; Eric Bana as a Mossad agent in Spielberg’s “Munich” (2005), and Robin Williams in both “The Birdcage” (1996) and “Jakob The Liar” (1999).

In the new millennium, due to advances in technology, more low-budget independent films have been made, including darker and edgier Jewish-themes: Todd Solondz’s “Welcome to the Dollhouse” (1995), “Life During Wartime” (2009) and “Dark Horse” (2011) and Noah Baumbach’s “Greenberg” (2010). Likewise, Jewish soul-searching is explored in “Everything is Illuminated” (2005), where a young American Jew (Elijah Wood) searches for a woman who saved his grandfather during the Holocaust, and “This Must Be The Place” (2011), were a retired Jewish rock star (Sean Penn) hunts down a Nazi guard who had once tormented his father.

In coming months, Darren Aranofsky’s “Noah” (starring Russell Crowe) and Ridley Scott’s “Exodus” (with Christian Bale as Moses) will be released, with two of the world’s biggest movie stars playing two of history’s favorite Jews. When Woody Allen plays Jesus, the Jews will have reached the cinematic Promised Land.

Michael Lipiner is a doctoral student in film studies at The Hebrew University and teaches cinema and English Language Arts. A native New Yorker, he lives in northern Israel, and is a published author/playwright and musician.

A still from 'American Hustle' (2013).Credit: Francois Duhamel

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